Sunday, December 8, 2019

Coffee and a Sermon

I had coffee with some friends at Sidamo in Maple Lawn yesterday morning. Every time I go there I am reminded of how their placement means that the morning sun floods the place with light. I never seem to be there at other time of day, but, should you go in the morning, you may need shades if you sit in a window seat.

My daily life doesn’t ever take me out that way. I’m embarrassed to admit I still set my GPS to get there. Just to be sure. Sidamo is absolutely worth the trip. Their coffee is excellent, the service is wonderful, and the experience of fresh coffee in a real-live ceramic cup may be a small joy, but it’s a real one.


I have a bit of a Sunday sermon for you today, drawn largely from my teaching experiences of late. I have noticed that young children tend to think that they are not obligated to deal with the consequences of their actions if what occurred was an accident. We teach them to reach out to a friend they have hurt and ask, “are you okay?” “What can I do to help you feel better?” But often they think that they must do this only if they meant to do harm, if it was “on purpose.”

It takes a lot of practice and a lot of growth for them to realize that their actions may have caused hurt even if they didn’t mean it, and that engaging with the other child in the moment is a sign of caring, not an admission of guilt.

I raise this issue now because I continue to see instances both locally and in the world at large where white people are convinced that their actions cannot be racist because they themselves “didn’t have racist intent.” This is not how racism works. It is possible to perform a racist action without thinking of oneself as a practicing, card-carrying racist. And the person who is the best judge of this is the person (or persons) we have harmed.

Whites (as always, myself included) are always moving through a world that favors us and does not see the oppression of those who are different than we are. And we make daily choices in our lives that may very well hurt, or demean, undercut, or isolate people of color.

“I didn’t know,”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“That’s not what this was about.”

Like our friends the preschoolers, we are reluctant to engage our victims and take responsibility for our actions because we think that means admitting “guilt.” It takes a lot of practice and a lot of growth for us to realize that our actions have caused hurt and that our responsibility is to listen, to care, to look for a way to repair what we have damaged.

At school, the person who gets to decide if they are hurting is the child who got bumped with the big block. When it comes to racism, the person who gets to decide if an action was racist is the person of color. Period.

Just like my students, we’re here to learn. This is not easy stuff for those of us used to being unaware of our unearned and unfair advantages. It can be uncomfortable and we are good at inventing a million ways to avoid it.

We still need to do the work.


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