Returning from a two-day leadership conference a week ago, the words of one speaker – Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative – were ringing in my ears:
“Pay attention to your proximity and get close to the problem. People who are suffering need to know we are with them.”
When the heartbreaking news of hate, violence, and racist terror came out of Charlottesville the next day, I struggled with shock and disbelief at the images coming across my screen. And the puzzling messages that followed, words that seemed to condemn the violence while at the same time blame the victims, very nearly stunned me into silence. In fact, I’ve struggled for days with finding the words for this blog post.
But Stevenson’s message keeps coming back to me: “People who are suffering need to know we are with them. Get close to the problem. Pay attention to your proximity.”
And I’ve realized something. While San Diego is more than 2,000 miles away from Charlottesville, the problem of hate and hate-filled language can hit surprisingly close to home.
No matter where we live, our proximity to the problem of racism is closer than we think.
Perhaps like me, you’ve found yourself sitting across from someone – a co-worker, a friend, a family member – someone you care about and want to stay in relationship with – and you’re suddenly caught off guard by language or an opinion that you find offensive.
You’re struck silent and left searching for a response. Sometimes you wait too long and the moment passes. The conversation turns back to lightness and normalcy, but in your head, you’re re-playing these questions: “What just happened? Why didn’t I say something?”
Given the current events in our world, I’m feeling more and more like we need to be better prepared for moments like these. Moments when the door opens a crack to let some light shine on issues that we feel ill-equipped to talk about.
Staying silent feels wrong. But what to do instead?
I won’t pretend that there are any easy answers to this question. But what if we could figure out how to keep open a respectful dialogue that honors our relationships even when we disagree? Even when we vehemently disagree?
Here’s a scenario you might recognize.
You’re having dinner with a group. The conversation begins innocently enough but then veers into territory where worldviews clash, and some ugly language creeps in. The discomfort grows until someone manages to steer the group back toward a safe topic. Everyone silently agrees to politely let the remarks pass. After all, who wants to ruin the evening?
What on earth would you even say?
But you sense this might be an opportunity to discuss an issue that is troubling you with people you care about, admire, and respect.
So, instead of blithely following the lead and complimenting the cook about how well the pasta was prepared, try taking a deep breath and saying something like this:
“I’m trying to hear you, but I’m finding the angry language is distracting me from the point you’re making. Could I hear your point again?”
Or this: “I care about your feelings, and I want to hear you out, but I’m uncomfortable with the racially charged language. Could we begin again?”
If it’s anger, name it. If it’s racist language, name it. If it’s stereotypical or hateful speech about anyone or any group, name it.
Calmly. Gently. And with a clear invitation for this person you care about to share his or her thoughts and ideas again.
Hearing and trying to understand one another is worth the risk.
Will it be easy? Not for most of us. Will it work to defuse every situation? No.
Will we be able to have conversations about racism and other tough topics without offending one another? Highly unlikely.
But we’ve got to start somewhere.
We can’t continue letting our discomfort silence us or cause us to change the subject. If we want to find ways to talk about hard issues like hate and racism, sometimes our opening will come in the form of an offensive remark. Let’s seize the opportunity. Give one another grace. And be ready to lean in close with wise and gentle words that seek to understand.
Words that can change our proximity to the problem by opening the door to the kind of honest conversations we need to be having. Conversations that might spill over into our communities and bring healing and change to those who are suffering. Those who need to know we are with them.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)