I believe we are living in a crucial, historic time. The opportunity is in front of us to, at long last, address racism in a substantial way. It will require deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and a whole lot of deciding to let the little stuff go.
One thing about language that makes it alive and interesting is that it evolves very quickly. If you don’t believe that, listen to someone forty years older or younger than you are and notice how usage has changed. Notice how the trendy words or phrases they are using are different from the ones you are used to. If they are forty years older than you there is a good chance they seem silly and dated to you. If they are forty years younger than you there is a good chance you aren’t exactly sure what they are saying. Consider things your parents or grandparents say such as “cool” and how uncool it sounds to you. Consider that your children or grandchildren might say “sick” even when they aren’t. A few weeks ago I heard someone criticizing someone they heard using the term “woke.” They said, “nobody says woke any more!” Well, somebody just did and you just did. As that critic ages they will likely learn that it gets harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge of language.
Ellen DeGeneres was recently harshly criticized for using the expression “people of color,” which is apparently no longer acceptable. George Floyd was Black, so only Black people are the victims of racism? News to me. I must not be on the appropriate email list. I guess Ellen isn’t either, so I don’t feel quite so left out. How many times has the preferred term changed from Black, to African American and back again? On what date, precisely, did those changes occur? Why was I not informed? Where do I write to get the updates? What are we supposed to call people who are not White? Under what circumstances, when talking about racism, can we include everyone who is a victim of racism?
Most of us are well intended and want to say the right thing. I believe that a substantial number of White people want to change racism. If, however, we are going to get bogged down in eviscerating everyone who uses terminology we don’t agree with then we aren’t going to get anywhere. If we can’t say anything for fear we are going to say the wrong thing, then dialogue can’t happen. White people need to engage in deep listening and all people need to cut others a bit of slack. That’s how learning happens.
As a people, we love looking back, but looking back is a mixed bag. The elderly love to reminisce, as I learned when I worked in long-term care. You cannot turn around in a long-term care facility without seeing a copy of a magazine dedicated to reminiscing! I have wondered if there is a hidden, archetypal truth in that folks with dementia tend to forget in reverse – the newer things first and the oldest things last.
As a trauma survivor, I have a problem in that trauma impacts memory. In layman’s terms, trauma is a terrible file clerk. Our trauma impacted brain essentially misfiles memories to make room for coping with the crisis at hand. Unless and until we address the impact of our trauma, it will seem to us that we don’t remember much about our past because our memories are hidden in the wrong file cabinet. As we go through the work of therapy, our memories gradually return because we have hired a new file clerk to sort through the tangled mess left by the trauma clerk. I know this to be true because I have experienced it.
For some of us, however, our memories and the past they represent become a prison. The door to our cell is unlocked and we are free to walk out, but we keep pulling it closed. I believe this happens because it is much easier to see ourselves as the enraged, offended party whose life circumstances are outside our control. The problem is that perspective, while perhaps necessary for a time as we come to understand how we got in the situation in which we find ourselves, becomes a self-imposed prison that limits and eventually destroys us. Many of us have seen the angry, red-faced protester screaming for peace, unable to move past their anger at past injustices to effectively work for the peace they deeply desire.
If we are going to be the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi suggested, we are going to have to surrender our obsession with the past. To do that, we have to give up all hope of the past ever being different than it was. We can, and should, clearly state what was wrong about the past so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past in the future, but we cannot continue to dwell in the past if we are going to have a future. To do so is to leave that ineffective file clerk in charge of the office and continue to repeat the same mistakes, all the while mystified as to why nothing changes! There is a word for that letting go of the past, that choosing not to spend all of our time seeking to change what cannot be changed and demanding reparations that will never be paid. That word is forgiveness.