Afraid to Celebrate

It dawned on me today that the CEO of the non-profit that I work for is Black. Seriously. It’s like I hadn’t really noticed it before. I was discussing diversity and organizational culture with a co-worker this afternoon when she pointed out to me that our senior leadership team is comprised of a Black man, two White working moms, and one White man.

This realization was uncomfortable for me. It’s still uncomfortable actually. Just like the realization that my church is growing in diversity all the time in uncomfortable for me. Just like the realization that I, as a Black woman, am given authority and influence in majority white spaces in ways that are sincere and not tokenism.

These marks of racial progress stress me out a little bit. They make me uncomfortable.

I was confronted by this discomfort again just now as I finished watching an interview of Congressman John Lewis. He makes the point that things are much better now than they used to be. It used to be that there were signs hanging over water fountains designating which races could drink from which spouts. It used to be that a Black man could be hung from a tree for simply looking in the direction of a White woman. It used to be illegal for interracial marriage to happen. There used to be all sorts of public evils that kept Black and White people apart. They were ugly and more painful than I can conceivably imagine.

But even given all of the progress that we’ve experienced racially in America, I find that I’m afraid to celebrate that progress because I know that there is still much work to be done. I am acutely aware of the many systems at work in our nation that keep a racial hierarchy in full play. What’s so frustrating about it now is that a) the systems are harder to see, understand and describe and b) the systems are hard to change. It’s so much easier to indict systematic racism and oppression because our society has collectively decided, in some respects, that hating people for the color of their skin is wrong. But systemic racism, which is extremely prevalent, parades itself around in a mask that looks like reason, normalcy and due process.

So I have a hard time celebrating that I have Black CEO when I know that the people in the neighborhood our organization is serving, which is predominately Black, are expected to live 13 years less than their White counterparts who lives just a few miles north of their zip code. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a 13-year life-expectancy gap between the Black people who live in 30318, -14, -15, -10 than those who live in 30305. And the racial correlations, however they came to exist, are difficult to ignore.

Did you know that Black women have the highest rates of dying of breast cancer even though they receive screenings at the same rates as their White and Latina counterparts? Did you know that our nation, collectively, is incarcerating Black men at rates that are astronomically higher than the incarceration rates of any other racial/gender demographic in our country?

The details that have led to these statistics vary, but the facts don’t lie. Being Black in America may not mean that you can’t sit wherever you want on the bus anymore, but it may also mean that your shot at a quality life is substantially reduced. And of course this isn’t just racial. It’s also a class issue. Poverty is a beast of its own. Yes, Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, but did he mean that poor will always be people of color too? I’d like some clarification on that.

In any case, I just needed to express the fact that I’m having a hard time celebrating racial progress. I’m almost afraid to do so. Because if I start celebrating our progress, others might think that I’ve lost sight of the very real battle that we’re waging against the powers and principalities of racism, white supremacy and ethnocentrism. It’s hard to celebrate because I don’t want the celebration to be unto the myth of a post-racial society.

Conversely, however, I also feel that we need to celebrate how far we’ve come. Because if we don’t see how far we’ve actually come in this journey, then we’ll be ill-equipped to respond with wisdom to the unique challenges of our time. I frequently find myself tempted to just settle into the story of the Civil Rights movement as if its my own story because it saves me the time and energy required to do reconciliation and justice work well. What I mean is that if I just tell myself that we’re navigating the same exact waters that were traversed sixty years ago, then I will try to employ the exact same maps and guides that were used back then . But I think there is a greater, weightier invitation for us to discern the times that we’re in now. We need to learn from the past and discover what the best tools are for today’s work. What has gotten better? How so? What has gotten worse? Why? What has stayed the same? What do we do now - in this moment – to respond to the issues of our day? These are questions I’m asking, and they are coming to me by way of acknowledging and celebrating how far society has come.

Ultimately, my question is: what it would be like to truly and deeply celebrate the justice of God as its always breaking into our reality while continuing to exegete our present moment so that we can find the most appropriate disruptions to the broken systems of our day? Right now I feel an invitation to courageously acknowledge, with gratitude, the progress that we’ve made as humanity. I am trusting that if I give myself over the vulnerability of celebrating this progress then I will begin to see the next peak of this journey.