Saturday, March 10, 2018


A colleague, whom I consider a front-line soldier in the fight for racial justice, asked a question on Facebook and tagged me. I needed a minute to contemplate her important question. Here it is:

"Looking for helpful, compelling descriptions of what it means to "do the work" of dismantling racism. Who's got one?"

Dear Barbara,

This may be neither helpful nor compelling! 

  I live in a very rural, agrarian, poor county in Kentucky. The county seat, however, is almost one-quarter people of color (primarily Black, descendants of the original slaves). What makes this place unusual is that, because of its isolation, virtually every Black family could trace its ancestry (if there were resources to do so) back to slaves owned by almost every White family.

I've written, with the community, a book/project about this, and invite you to read the original draft. It will change considerably over the coming years, as we add more photos, and incorporate more interviews, including audio from those folks we've talked with.

(I don't have a space for comments on the blog. If you read the book, you may contact me at

The phrase "work" troubles me a bit. I've asked myself why. I know we talk about doing "dreamwork" or "spiritual work" or "working on ourselves." For me, this process of confronting and addressing, of acknowledging racism within ourselves as well as within nearly every system and organization in this society is demanding, yes; it is painful, yes; it can be overwhelming. But is more than work. Calling it "doing the Work" somehow implies that we know the steps, how to do them, what comes, next, what succeeds. I submit that Anti-racism is a life-long calling for which some are summoned, and we may never know why. It is a passion, a heartbreak, an art, and a joy. This has never been more clear to me than when, after being employed to do social justice, including anti-racism, as well as pastoral ministry, I continued to do everything I had before, write, read, pray, listen, speak,  dream, contemplate, and much more with no salary at all after I left the church. 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journeyWendell Berry, Kentucky Farmer

The word dismantling has some important connotations, and I can see why it has been widely employed by white folks who endeavor to systematically end racism. It implies that something will be taken apart step-by-step, with a methodical coolness. Certainly racism is structural, so there is something to be said for an analysis that acknowledges looking at the deep underlying pillars and beams that uphold it. A thorough understanding of the history of racism, the ways it has been woven into the cultural and institutional as well as the psychological fabric of our society, is crucial. 

But racism, as pernicious and pervasive as it has proven to be, will not last forever. As much as (some) millennial and Gen X folk would like to kick us Boomers to the side (I've experienced this!) and get on with their own wisdom, we may know a thing or two. It was, after all, we who birthed and raised them to be as accepting, open-minded, and in many cases, anti-racist as they are. No, we didn't fix racism (or much of anything else). But we have some good ideas, and some of us have money, connections, and other assets and talents that we could share if you'd welcome us to the work/joy.

I disagree with the gentleman who said you can't do this alone. This spiritual battle for the souls of the world is being fought in many places: the arts, small, isolated communities where a group of liberal white people would be shunned and get nowhere, one-on-one in Bible studies, coffee houses, construction sites, the streets of Baltimore, in Congress, and even in classrooms. It's not likely to be systematic. It can best be understood by reading about chaos theory and also Joanna Macy's Coming Back to Life:   read her rendering of the shambhala warrior prophecy

I also recommend the work (there's that word!) of Michael Eric Dyson, especially Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, who writes about "individual reparations." This has been a powerful incentive for me of recent years. Dyson on individual reparations

More important, to me, than whether one acts alone or with a group is whether one has a spiritual practice. As in Buddhism it is expected that the adherent have a sangha and a teacher, and in recovery a sponsor, one ought in anti-racist activities, have a church, spiritual director, and/devotional practice.  Especially for white people, to whom I am speaking here, always de-centering one self and one's ego and motivations are extremely important.

What I see most challenging today, Barbara, is that good people are afraid. I learned a long time ago that everything we do comes either from fear or from love.  Once you get straight on that, and you come to know people of color well, and love them, not just the idea of them, you will act from love, and it will require enormous courage. You will make enemies. You will have to do and say things that will shock and offend all sorts of people. You will speak truth to power. 

Some of us will, as Cornell West predicted in that great Ware Lecture, "go down swinging like Muhammad Ali." I count you and me in that bunch.

I think the barn I've been using as an illustration works well. It was once a tobacco barn; we don't need those barns, and we don't need tobacco. Much of the wood, however, is salvageable, and they've withstood the strongest tornadoes. Still, not all are dismantled. Some are brought down by acts of God: wind and weather; some burn; some are demolished. Some rot away slowly, dissolving into earth from which they came. 

Frederick Douglass:

Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. 

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Frederick Douglass
​in a letter to an abolitionist associate, 1948