In San Francisco, I lived in the ugliest building in the neighborhood, just outside of Sea Cliff, the home of Lord of the Rings film director Peter Jackson. Around my building, there were lavish apartments, and beautiful homes with rich woodwork that I could see on my early morning walks.
My building was mauve with white trim, stuccoed sometime in the early 80s, and boxy. Horribly boxy.
But from it, I could see the beautiful buildings and catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear morning.
I joked that at least I was lucky enough to live inside this building so I didn’t have to see it.
If I choose, I could live that way in my own white skin – looking beyond the own ugliness of the culture in which I abide and seeing only the beauty of that which in the distance, that which I choose to frame and see.
As a white person, I can choose to dismiss, ignore, downplay, or demean the experiences of people of color. Because those experiences are not my own, I can act as if the people speaking from them are misguided, overreacting, wrong. I can pretend that my own experience of the world is the ONLY experience, and I can build elaborate delusions that protect that way of seeing. I can act as if I am not a part of the problem.
I can choose to barricade myself inside whiteness.
I have made that choice far too many times before – defending my own actions or the actions of other white people and the systems we established because, well, because I didn’t want to see the ugliness that was my own house. To see it was to own it, and if I owned it, I was responsible for it.
I will not make that choice ever again.
In the powerful, hard, hopeful aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and in the ugly, broken, ragged aftermath of the grand juries decisions not to indict, I am listening long and hard to my brothers and sisters of color. I am letting their keens of sorrow and anger pierce me over and over. I am falling in step behind and beside them as they lead us into a new way. Lord, please let there be a new way.
I can change only me and speak out with only my voice, but I can use myself and my voice to amplify the voices of those people who speak of an experience that is hard and unfair in ways I cannot even imagine. I can be a microphone to share their anger and their fear and their hope. I can try my best to get out of the way and put the strength of my hands and voice behind change instead of using my whiteness to try and stop it.
From the bedroom window of my San Francisco apartment, I could see the Marin headlands and the lush, lavish apartments of our neighbors with the new baby across the street. I could gaze down Lake Street and see houses worth millions of dollars, and I could imagine that this was all there was in the world – this wealth and this beauty and this privilege.
As long as I stayed inside, tucked in with my own world, I could hold that illusion, believe myself not only a witness to it but part of it.
But from that place, I could not smell the sea air, I couldn’t twist a sprig of rosemary of the Sea Cliff landscaping and wear it on my fingers all the day, I couldn’t hear the voices of my Chinese and Russian neighbors, couldn’t let language I did not know float into me like so much bright sun.
When I stayed inside, I couldn’t see the ugliness in which I lived, but I also could not experience the rich beauty of all that was out there beyond my own security.
Looking at ourselves – if we do it honestly and with openness – is hard. Very hard. But there is beauty outside of our own barricades – richness, hope, and great deep grace. Grace that is always greater.
May you be able to see yourself for all that you are – beautiful and ugly, good and not – and know that you are loved no matter what. May you know that the same is true for every other person on this earth.
If you are interested in looking for ways to heal our nation, if you want to talk honestly about racism, if you just have questions, I invite you to visit Coming to the Table, an organization that is working to heal the wounds that we all carry because of the legacy of slavery. We have a Facebook group and welcome you to the table there.