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Too often black folk are asked to carry, not only the weight of the historical and social consequences of racism but also the secondary burden of preserving “peace.”  The result is a negotiation predicated on silence, an agreement between people that seeks intimacy without honesty, trust without transparency, and fidelity without devotion to the truth.  

Several years ago, I attended a conference where the issue of race was a central focus of the program. During one of the breakout sessions, the facilitator made the point that the road towards oneness will not be comfortable or easy — that a sincere approach to building unity must accommodate the awkwardness of developing sincere friendships across cultural lines where the customs and ways of the “other” may initially prove challenging to mutual understanding and respect.  

One of the attendees asked why the process had to be “awkward and uncomfortable?” On the surface, the question was simple enough, one that tacitly implied that the work of building a diverse pool of friendships and meaningful associations need not include struggle. In essence, it need not be work. One can hear echoes of Rodney King’s painful plea while being savagely beaten by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991: “Why can’t we all just get along?” — King’s words were an urgent lament — beautiful in their deceptive simplicity and tragic in their lack of complexity.  

A jury in Simi Valley acquitted four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King in March 1991 after a police pursuit in the San Fernando Valley. The acquittal ignited the Los Angeles Riots.
A jury in Simi Valley acquitted four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King in March 1991 after a police pursuit in the San Fernando Valley. The acquittal ignited the Los Angeles Riots.

I’ve heard similar statements before, more often than not, from white brothers and sisters seeking to evade the “stress and anxiety” associated with a meaningful conversation about racism. For these individuals, social interactions with black and brown folk can be a painful reminder of the legacy of systemic injustice and the reality of white privilege. These reminders become-something to be avoided.  As a result, a fear-based approach to relationships along the black/white divide develops, and people who bring up racism are silenced — or neutered by disingenuous professions of oneness intended to mute the discussion before it really begins.  

Comments such as, “Why do you keep bringing up the issue of race? Aren’t we all one human family anyway?” are an example of this.  It is a clever justification, that ironically is based on a fundamental spiritual truth. But people saying such things are manipulating a spiritual truth in order to discourage meaningful conversations about difficult realities.  

“We may assume a shallow affectation of oneness without ever really knowing each other”

This method of avoidance attempts to protect one’s comfort at all costs, even at the expense of the humanity of people of color for whom the issue of race, though fundamentally a social construct at odds with the spiritual reality of the oneness of humanity, is a matter of life and death. The irony is that in our misguided attempts to regulate our social interactions with the objectified “other,” we are willingly, if not knowingly, participating in an assault on the spiritual and psychological wellbeing of the marginalized amongst us.  

Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote that “trustworthiness is the sun of the heaven of My commandments, truthfulness is its moon, and praiseworthy attributes are its stars. Yet the people, for the most part, understand not.”

Without truth, especially as it pertains to the issue of race, we may have the form of a friendship but not its substance. We may assume a shallow affectation of oneness without ever really knowing each other. We cannot proclaim ourselves soldiers for the principle of unity while we lack the courage to wage war on evasion and dishonesty. This is work that requires commitment, perseverance, and love for deepened connections built on an uncompromising allegiance to truth. 

Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah wrote about telling the truth: “If only ye exert the effort, it is certain that these splendours will shine out, these clouds of mercy will shed down their rain, these life-giving winds will rise and blow, this sweet-smelling musk will be scattered far and wide.” 

Another common way of coping with the discomfort of difference is to create a circle of sameness where the choice of where to live, who to invite over for dinner, and whom to marry are framed by one’s culture of origin. “It’s just easier,” is a common explanation used as a justification to regulate proximity to diversity.

This seemingly benign expression often uttered as sage wisdom, actually reinforces social fragmentation, stratification, and alienation. If I am governed by what’s easiest as I strive to build sincere relationships across cultural lines, then I will never develop the fortitude necessary to face the difficulties such work requires. 

“We must learn to question the ease that comes at the expense of authenticity”

If I cannot be a supportive witness for the many narratives that comprise the human story, then true empathy will forever elude me. If I cannot experience my own humanity in the presence of others who are different from me, then I will never fully know myself. If I cannot endure the pain of a difficult conversation about the issue of race when the most marginalized amongst us suffer under the persistent evils of systemic racism on a daily basis, then I can never claim to be a true advocate for justice and equality. 

We must learn to question the ease that comes at the expense of authenticity — a comfort that quietly endures the discomfort of others — and a silence that supports a lie. This is the work of a maturing humanity — one that’s moving away from its collective adolescence. This is the labor of courageous people willing to confront their fears to build genuine friendships and authentic communities. This is the endeavor of the consecrated heart living the principle of unity, not merely professing it. 

As Baha’u’llah wrote: “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self. The Evil One is he that hindereth the rise and obstructeth the spiritual progress of the children of men.”

We must rise to meet the challenge of racism in spite of our fears. We must stand in the gale-force winds of discomfort and dis-ease and push through to the center. Once there, we will arrive at long last, to an enduring peace at the center of the storm, strengthened by the knowledge that we made the journey together.    

16 Comments

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  • Carol Campbell
    Jul 29, 2020
    Thank you for speaking the truth. Intimacy is hard for quite a few white people.
  • Donna Denize
    Jul 28, 2020
    A really needed analysis that reveals how damaging it is to deny truth and honesty in race relations for both blacks and whites--to do so is to deny ones own humanity even as it ignores or avoids the minority's humanity. We must give witness to this reality or we are assaulting our spiritual reality and never growing to a deeper understanding or a real, as stated here, authentic identity.
  • Anne Stanton
    Jun 13, 2020
    Thank you for the depth and eloquence of this article. With all the noise lately it seems easy for me to forget that changing situations (laws, gov't policies, etc.) without authentically living with and loving other hearts will never be enough. Clarity and brevity-thank you.
  • Eric Mondschein
    Jun 09, 2020
    Thank you. You addressed the most pressing problem our society faces today and you did it in ways that encourage, support and motivate people to action. At the same time identifying the discomfort that prevents us from moving forward, and doing it together. And you have done it without diminishing the horrible pain and suffering that so many have had to deal with in this country, and will continue to until we can eliminate this evil, that like a cancer, will consume us if we do not.
  • Chris Badostain
    Jun 09, 2020
    So well said---thank you for taking it to the "next" level---let's embrace discomfort for this is the only way to grow in any area of life
  • Jun 09, 2020
    ..... Have you ever thought that those that advocate marching in the streets are literally sending men women and children into harms way .....
  • Jun 09, 2020
    What exactly is the cure for tyranny ???? .... What is the most famous quote you can think of that mentions tyrant ...... Is racism a spiritual disease of a tyrant
    • Jun 09, 2020
      In any event, if there was anything I could choose for myself in this world it would be to be your friend, your co-worker, your spiritual brother and faithful one of Bahá. If it is God's Will perhaps we shall meet and enjoy some forms of conversation about the happiness and joy of living the life. Peace
  • Jon Michael Cavitt
    Jun 08, 2020
    Thank you. I enjoyed your thoughtful comments. We white folk need to understand that this is primarily our problem. Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility has helped me better understand this. It is giving me a better perspective on my part in easing America's most challenging issue.
  • Bud Revet
    Jun 08, 2020
    I liked your essay very much. One of my closest friends is Afro/Indian/+ and we have been close friends for over 40 years, while I am a mixture of Caucasian, at least 7. There is nothing we can't talk about and the current killing by a policeman of George looks like a chance for people to join together. Thank you very much.
    • Olin Williams
      Jul 29, 2020
      Thanks for this Timely Informationl....
  • Joe Keehner Jr.
    Jun 08, 2020
    This eloquent essay of truth reminded me of M. Scott Peck's model (in his book, "The Different Drum," where in order to get to the next level of community, you have to go through the chaos of acknowledging diversity and overcoming the barriers to communication, otherwise folks will drop out of the circle, or everyone will just be polite and never get to the next level of unity...