Like many people in the United States, my heart has been hurting a lot lately. There have been so many senseless deaths and divisive responses. We seem to keep talking past each other. The divisions, oppression, hatred, and disdain feel so overwhelming.
The events of this past month in Charlottesville only dramatized an often-overlooked or ignored aspect of our nation. A woman who sounds very similar to me was killed in an act of terrorism. And it would be so easy to hate the white supremacists that did this or called for it beforehand or celebrated it afterward. It would be so easy to hate the people who refuse to denounce white supremacy. It would be so easy to think that this is all about the statues and flags that celebrate those who fought to maintain oppression.
But life isn’t that easy.
The strain of racism that comes out as vile hatred in the actions of these white supremacists also runs through my own heart and through the structures that build my world. I can’t separate the white supremacists from the less-overt ways white supremacy is built into our self-perpetuating cultural, economic, and governmental systems. It’s not just out there in someone else; it’s all around and in me.
When I engage in conversation with family members who don’t see it, I have to remind myself of when I didn’t see it either: when I wrote in eighth grade how I understood slavery as important for the establishment of our U.S. economy, justifying this horrible system for the sake of a system of wealth and privilege. I have to remind myself of the ways it still sneaks its way into my thought patterns: when I worked with middle-school students of color and took them to a public place and worried about how people would perceive their normal pre-teen exuberance as connected to their race.
As I’ve observed what’s going on in our world through the lens of a postulant with the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods this past year, one of my sisters shared with me the words of civil rights activist Ruby Sales from her On Being interview with Krista Tippett: “It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.” As I reflected on my own conversations in light of those words, they hurt because they forced me to question whether I’d been willing to offer redemption to those I encountered. They soothed because they offered redemption, reminding me that we are all the beloved of God and worthy of redemption. Sales watched a man take a bullet intended for her, and still she could offer forgiveness and redemption to those who attempted to take her life. She could offer love and compassion.
As we seek healing and a path forward as individuals, families, and a nation, how do we have the hard conversations from a place of love?
I know that as a white woman I have a special responsibility to engage in these conversations and that they will go nowhere if they’re not compassionate and loving. Right before the above-quoted line, Ruby Sales also says, “What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted? I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia who feels like they’ve been eradicated, because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European-American; that’s not the problem.”
If I’ve learned one thing in the past twelve months, it has been that it is possible to hold two seemingly-contradictory ideas or perspectives in love. We are neither all-good nor all-bad. As I seek to eradicate injustice, may I also seek to offer love and compassion to each person I meet and trust that all are worthy of redemption.
Sister Emily TeKolste is a novice with the Sisters of Providence (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods). She is a native of Indianapolis and has a degree in sociology from Xavier University in Cincinnati. Emily is passionate about justice with special interest in environmentalism and sustainability. You can follow her blog at solongstatusquoblog.wordpress.com.