When I was around eight or nine years old, I was leaving my apartment building in New York City with my mother. As we hit the sidewalk, I became overwhelmed by a huge group of people on our usually quiet block, and we got briefly separated. I felt frustrated and a bit scared. It turned out the crowd was a Japanese tour group. After we found our way back to each other, I said something like, “those Japanese people should just go home!”
My mom, who is a truly gentle soul, uncharacteristically grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the side. I remember the feeling of my back rubbing against the bushes that surrounded the building. “Don’t you ever, EVER say that,” she said. “About anyone.” There was more to her lecture that made clear she was not referring to tourists only, but also anyone who comes here — to this city or this country — for any reason. But I remember most clearly my own tears and the fear in her face. And I still feel shame and knots in my stomach when I think about that memory. And you know what? I think that’s okay. My mother didn’t remove the racism and xenophobia that exists inside me — but she named it and made me aware of it.
As one of my oldest friends noted recently, there were only a few times my mom got angry when we were growing up, “and they literally all happened because she felt that someone was being treated unfairly or unjustly.” In this way, my mother helped me come to understand anger as an appropriate response to injustice. This value was reinforced at church, where I learned about the table-turning Jesus of Nazareth and heard the biting words of the Prophet Isaiah.
As a white parent raising a white child in a country built on a system of white supremacy, my mother also helped me recognize an ugliness that lives inside of me. She did not do this in a way that made me feel less loved or worthy of love, but in a way that taught me to be aware of these things operating inside me — these things that prevent me from living out my life with the value she so deeply wanted to instill in us: the belovedness of all human beings. That morning in New York City, my mother named that ugliness and allowed me to feel that shame as tears streamed down my face. I am not a parent, but I suspect allowing your child to feel pain of any kind cannot be easy. But in making this space for me to experience discomfort, my mother inspired me to do better.
This week, I find myself thinking how tempting it is to hear President Trump’s racist words about Representative Ilhan Omar accompanied by the chilling chants of “send her back,” and respond by pointing my finger and saying, “How shameful. How terrible. The horror!” As though I am not the same person who said all those years ago, “those Japanese people should just go home!” As though the ugliness displayed at that rally is not intrinsically linked to the ugliness that exists inside me as a white woman in this country.
I believe it is more productive for me to respond by acknowledging and allowing myself to feel that shame and discomfort. And then to respond to that feeling with urgency and energy to meet injustice with love and, yes, holy anger. For those out there who feel scared right now in a way I cannot know — for your very lives and personal safety: know that I am ashamed and I acknowledge my piece in this. And I am here. And I will continue to try (and surely fail), over and over, to do better.
[Image Credit: Janko Ferlič via Unsplash]