Intense is the hatred, in America, between black and white, but my hope is that the power of the Kingdom will bind these two in friendship, and serve them as a healing balm.
Let them look not upon a man’s colour but upon his heart. If the heart be filled with light, that man is nigh unto the threshold of his Lord; but if not, that man is careless of his Lord, be he white or be he black. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 113.
If you’re a white male, like I am, you’ve likely been groomed your whole life to think you are the default example of the human species. As a kid, the Crayola color for ‘flesh’ looked like your arm. Someone says ‘guy’ and you probably picture a white guy; if he was black, you would be specific and say “black guy.”
So basically, without realizing it, you have been cast as the protagonist, the central character in the drama of life on Earth. This is not your fault; it was designed to serve certain major societal interests in the past, and still does. It just is what it is: in the big narrative, the other characters are all coming and going, and our hero remains… you. Movies and just about every other cultural messenger all give us the same message: the white guy usually plays the hero, and everybody else plays supporting roles or extras.
This, of course, gets reinforced by the images of white leadership in almost every sphere of life: business, politics, etc. It just never ends. Sure, visible heroes and high achievers of color do exist, but society still tends to see them as exceptions, even in this day and age.
Now, as a well-meaning person who doesn’t harbor ill will towards other humans based on something as dumb as skin color, you endeavor to do what you can to live in harmony with other folks. If you are somewhat self-aware, you may even try to spot remnants of prejudice or entitlement within yourself and consciously think about them and try to work them out. You fight the good fight.
But then something ups the ante.
An inciting incident—a murder at the hands of law enforcement or some other tragedy that catches the public’s attention—causes a huge stir, especially among those whose life experience reflects that of the incident’s victim. Emotions flare up, voices are raised, indignation and outrage fill the air. Words, bottles and rubber bullets fly. Sometimes, streets burn through the night.
You may feel a lot of things yourself, some of which don’t make you proud: guilt by association for being on the white side of the fence, utter hopelessness in the face of such persistent and seemingly insoluble social problems, maybe even some ‘tsk-tsk’ judgement toward those who get loud or “act out,” especially in destructive ways.
But in the midst of all this you recognize one thing for sure: you are not the center of this moment. You have a walk-on role, as a witness, an observer. This role may prove vital before the end, but only in service to the ones experiencing the worst oppression. It is just… not… about… you.
“Black Lives Matter.” Well of course they do, you may think. Don’t all lives matter?
It is only human to react. Annoyance or resentment at feeling excluded, all the way to waves of real fear, panic or contempt, may cause us to think or say things that only make the situation worse. Just in case we need help articulating our confusion, we are fed a script by the voices of outrage in the media: YOUR life matters! White people are people too!!
Some call this myopic view white privilege, some call it white fragility. It is all of that and more: it is a sort of culturally-instilled narcissism that says: you are supposed to be Number One, the protagonist, the hero. It is your God-given right; your manifest destiny.
Or… and there is always an ‘or’…
We can accept the complexity of the situation. We can be compassionate with the part of ourselves that has been taught a thousand different ways that our comfort should have the highest importance. We can practice empathy and understanding. We can see the crucial opportunity here to grow, to expand, to invite the intercession of the Divine.
We can turn to our brothers and sisters of color, try our best to look into their hearts, and say, “I do not and will not know your pain, but I am part of your human family and I will stand with you. If I haven’t broken bread or prayed or laughed or cried with you, I am sorry, but I’m here today. I do not need acknowledgement right now, I do not need to be important. I am here in silence, or with my voice, or simply in spirit. Because we are evolving into a future together, one where our kids will be better than we are; closer, more united, more human.”