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Liberation – One Heart at a Time

[caption id="attachment_6661" align="alignright" width="176"] Blog by Associate Mary T. O’Connor[/caption] A close friend I will call Claire once confided something she had never told anyone. Claire is white, and grew up in a beautiful loving, supportive family. I had the good fortune to know her parents. Claire enjoyed a very close bond with her maternal grandmother, who had always lived with them in the house on Maplewood Lane. He grandmother was her biggest support and celebrated every success. They were eating lunch together at home on the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Like many middle class white families in the sixties, north or south, they had a ‘domestic servant’ I’ll call Althea. My friend heard her grandmother say to Althea, “It’s a shame that Dr. King was killed.  But perhaps it’s for the best. Things were getting out of hand. Don’t you think so, Althea?’ Althea responded “Yes, ma’am”. My friend was bereft at the memory. She passed through the gate out of innocence in that moment with the horrible and irreversible revelation of genuine evil – in her own grandmother. She needed to cry it out, and I was happy to be a sympathetic witness and loving friend. I received her sorrow and gratitude that she could expose the pain to me. Mixed in the sorrow was her own guilt for remaining silent at the table and for burying the memory of that day until now. She wept deeply. I guided her to the couch after she was spent and went to get us some water. Though this conversation happened thirty years ago, it is as clear as the water I carried back to her. Though I did not have the language or the understanding of what I was praying about as I sat down, I see now it was the Holy Spirit showing up in my lived experience that gave me the grace to speak that day. I did not know Althea and would not presume to understand her life.  But I knew quite a bit about accommodation. I knew what it was to nod in accord with the ignorance and projected fears of majority culture. “Claire, how long did you know Althea by then?” “My whole life”, she said in a fresh burst of tears. “So she knew your grandmother probably since before you were born?   “Yes.” “Think about that.   It was completely awful, what your Grandmother said – and then to put  Althea on the spot. But put yourself in Althea’s shoes.   Althea was used to your grandmother’s opinions.  Those terrible words did not have the power over her that  it had on you.  Who knows, maybe she was not even listening?  Maybe all she heard was “Don’t you think so. Althea?” and of course Althea would say “Yes Ma’am”’  But even if she did hear your grandmother's whole comment, she was used to it. She would not have expected anything other than that.” What does all that mean, thirty years later I am no psychologist, but if we live long enough and stay curious and willing, some wisdom will stick.  Claire’s pain was profound and completely legitimate. Honoring that pain with love and compassion was a gift.  But her guilt for remaining silent as an eleven-year-old in shock was false. Her suffering for what Althea felt was fiction. I am not saying that she did not feel the guilt and suffering, but it was completely misplaced, and not because she was a child when it happened. We white American adults do it all the time.  She was doing something we (white Americans, of which I am definitely one) do within the context of unconscious bias. She was “taking care” of Althea. She was assuming something about Althea that was not true. For over thirty years, she was living under the shadow of a false narrative. Liberation of our hearts and souls is truly an inside job, and it’s a necessary step to recognize and speak those false narratives.  But that is our work – meaning White Christian Americans.  And it’s just the first step. We are so used to running the show, controlling the story, steering the ship, whatever you want to call it - that we cannot see how tightly we grip the wheel.  Yes, telling the stories of our recognition of personal racism, bias, stereotyping is completely necessary - but don’t ask the oppressed group for their time and energy to absorb your mea culpa. We have asked enough already.  We have to let go of the control, to recognize that just because we are on the long global winning streak of the most goodies, we are not writing the story. If you have recognized the darkness in you, help your Aunt Millie see it, your beloved grandmother see it, help anyone who looks like you  – with love and kindness.  Think about praying for the President instead of denying he is your president in order to look good. The work of liberation is one heart at a time, starting with our own.  

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