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The antidote to white fragility? Humility.
As if the invasion of Ukraine wasn’t horrifying enough, what has brought me unique pain as I observe the terror there, is that it wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was invading sovereign territories as well. Condi Rice took to the screen to tell us that invading a sovereign country is a violation of international law and order, not noting the hypocrisy of her statement as the administrations she served in invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that the prevailing rationale for justifying an invasion of a country like Iraq and condemning an invasion of a country like Ukraine is that one country is brown and the other white. What’s more, Russia is an enemy of the West, and the U.S. is a protector of the West. The hypocrisy here is very personal to me. I feel the lack of care, the lack of love, the lack of empathy. I feel unseen and hurt when the lives and sovereignty of people that look like me are disregarded, not acknowledged, or cared for. The hypocrisy dehumanizes me.
Frustrated with how people were reacting, I wrote to my followers on Twitter that if you did not oppose the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan but did the invasion of Ukraine, you have no moral ground to stand on. It is racist and nationalistic to support one and oppose the other. The hypocrisy is plain.
Some of my friends and mutuals retorted that I was not being graceful or didn’t allow for opportunities for growth in my message. I responded defensively, but I did wonder what was so hard about acknowledging our moral failings. Conviction isn’t condemnation. Naming where we’ve fallen and messed up affords us an opportunity for forgiveness and grace. Too often, we want to skip over repentance because it makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to acknowledge where we need to grow. We already think we’ve arrived, or we reject the accusation of the harm we’ve caused altogether.
What informs our defensiveness? Maybe it is just our human or carnal nature, but I think other forces exacerbate it, like our social position. White people, in particular, want to center their feelings and experiences and expect to be coddled and courted, even by people they have harmed. This is a form of white fragility. Further, it’s not surprising that Americans are defensive of what they’ve justified in the past and can’t acknowledge their moral failings.
Nationalism and whiteness increase our pride, arrogance, and hubris, and stand in the way of our growth. If we think we are exceptional, we can’t repent. If we think we’re “good,” we can’t move into a space of being better. I think that fundamental to accepting that we’ve been wrong or caused harm is humility. Jesus demonstrates this very way of being when he self-empties, when he becomes lesser, when he humbles himself.
Sometimes conviction is what it takes to humble us, sometimes that comes from listening to those we have harmed. But it is essential that if we want to grow, we assume a humble posture, ready to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and grow in the ways we need to. We allow ourselves an avenue for grace and forgiveness with that posture.
Allies of those who are harmed can offer solidarity and comfort to victims, making sure that their experience is heard, centered, and valued. There is no unity without the liberation of the oppressed. It’s essential that in our work we pay attention to those harmed and what they are telling us. That centering will certainly disrupt centers of power and cause some discomfort or even pain. But without that pain and discomfort, I do not think we can make progress. And the less humble we are, the more it will hurt. The more defensive we are, the more likely we are to oppress further, gaslight oppressed people, or even center ourselves as the oppressed ones.
When we are faced with the people we’ve harmed, it is essential that we hold a posture of humility – even when we’ve also been harmed! I remember some horrible advice I received from a narcissistic leader who encouraged me not to apologize to a congregation that I was helping to merge with another one a few years ago (it’s currently where I pastor). The congregation was confused about the circumstances, why their pastor was resigning, and suspected the church of acting in secretive ways. Faced with their pain and my own pain, I couldn’t grasp how I couldn’t hold a posture of humility and take as much responsibility as I could for how they felt and how I contributed to it. I was astonished that anyone would advise not being apologetic. The way to build trust is through our humility. It is wrong to assume those we have harmed need to pave the way for us to repent – we have to own what we’ve done and ask for their forgiveness. How these tables get turned is a product of white supremacy culture.
It is a shame that when the oppressed cry out, when they make their voices known, when they share their experience, they are often told they are too much, too loud, too unkind. It is sad when they are called unloving. It is even worse when the people that cause them harm, should they ever face convictions or consequences, feel like they’ve been cancelled. When I hear the discomfort of oppressors, I think we are actually making the world a better place. The demons that infect our society – racism, ableism, homophobia, patriarchy – cling on to dear life on their way out. We can expect hardship and pain as a result of that. But humility will make it easier for us to repent and turn around.