Living with Racism: A White Man’s Perspective

It happened again.  Each time it happens, I am annoyed and not sure what to do.  I’ve learned that drawing attention to it doesn’t help. It just makes an awkward situation more awkward.  But I can’t ignore it.  Let me explain.

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A couple Sunday’s ago, my partner and I decided to take a little road trip.  We wanted to do something different, to change things up for the day.  We decided to visit a small city a couple hours from our home in Atlanta.  As small cities go, we knew it had some companies near it which brought some international people to the region and helped to spur the local economy.  We thought we’d check out the town, walk around and see what we found, have a couple of meals and maybe sample some craft beer.  It would just be a nice day trip.

Yes, in many ways it was a great day.  Near the city center, we found street musicians and artists and people enjoying a warm summer afternoon.  It was really relaxing.  But when we went to restaurants, shops, and pubs, something all too familiar happened:  the staff acknowledged me but it seemed as though my partner was invisible to them.  In these venues, the staff made eye contact with me, checked with me about ordering, and inquired whether I was satisfied.  I’m not sure how much he was aware of it as it happened, but I sure was.  Not being the quiet type, if he had something to say, he’d jump in the conversation.  But a couple of times I wanted to say, “Hey, why don’t you ask the Asian guy?  He’s the one paying for this.  Do you want a good tip from him or not?”

If you didn’t know, my partner is Chinese.  We’ve been together fourteen years.  Our time together has taught me lots about racism.

I want to be clear about some things.  I’ve had friends who were not white like me throughout my adult life.  My friends have helped me to understand some of the limits of my whiteness.  Without them, I probably wouldn’t have insight into some of the ways that being white creates privilege for me.  It’s not because they told me about this thing called “white privilege.”  Instead, I’ve often seen that I get treated differently than my friends who aren’t white.

I’m a good liberal.  I’ve always believed that people shouldn’t be treated based on their race and that all people have dignity because they are human.  But I also tended to think that it was “white supremacists” or members of the Klan who were racist.  When I was younger, I didn’t understand that simply by being white I participate in racism.  But I do.

When a waiter, a clerk in a shop, or anyone else acknowledges me and ignores my partner, I recognize that it’s a subtle form of racism.  To be sure, it stupefies me when my partner is the one buying something and I’m standing in the background and I’m still the person spoken to first by a clerk.  I’ve spoken to my partner about it and, to be honest, he often isn’t aware of it.  I’ve learned not to point it out to him.  Why bother him with it?

Yet, I think it’s worth talking about and writing about because most people don’t recognize or understand how far reaching racism actually is.  Racism isn’t limited to the ways groups of people who are not white are more likely to be stopped, arrested, or shot by a police man. Yes, non-whites are more frequently reported for suspicious behavior and find it more difficult to obtain a loan.  People who aren’t white are relegated to poor housing or less than adequate health care.  Yes, all those things are forms of racism, but racism also includes our day to day treatment of others and works its way to the level of whether or not we acknowledge the presence of a person.

While laws changed because of the Civil Rights Movement, racism remains and holds a firm grip on our consciousness.  It’s real and I frequently see it at work and experience some of how I benefit by being white in a racist culture.

Racism permeates all of our interactions.  It isn’t always direct, like a racial slur or a discriminatory action.  More often, it’s showing someone who looks like me preferential treatment because of skin color while those of other skin colors get poorer service or are simply ignored.

While it’s very tempting for me to be moralistic about racism and address racism as a sin against God and God’s creation, I’ll refrain from that.  Instead, I think it’s more important to consider the way that racism permeates our daily lives. To that end, I ask:  what do your day to day actions convey about your beliefs regarding people who are different from you?  If you truly believe that each person is fundamentally good, has self-worth, and as much of a right to life as you do, then you’ll treat each person with respect and work to overcome racism in society.  When enough of us understand this, racism and white privilege will begin to crumble.

 

Photo credit: art around via Foter.com / CC BY

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Gift that is Present

Stories have a certain kind of potency to them.  Stories convey life lessons that often make rote learning seem shallow.  Long after they are told, stories can continue to inspire the hearer who in turn can draw multiple layers of meaning while ruminating on the parable.  This is the case with a story I first heard about forty years ago.  While I’ve heard a few versions of it since, I remember the day I heard it for the first time.  It was 1978 in Clarksburg, West Virginia.  The story-teller was a now deceased spiritual teacher:  Brennan Manning.  (I know some of my readers will remember him.)

As the story goes, a person was chased through the jungle by a hungry lion.  Running and running, just staying ahead of the lion, our friend moves quickly through the jungle.  Coming out of the jungle, into a clearing, our unfortunate friend finds there’s nothing ahead but a cliff.  Looking over the cliff, our friend finds a very long drop and nothing but jagged rocks below.  What will our friend do?  It seems that the choices are to be eaten by the lion or to fall to a death on the rocks below.  The lion is quickly approaching.  In that moment, our friend sees a vine hanging over the cliff and quickly climbs down the vine.  A moment of safety!  Gazing upward, there is the lion looking over the cliff with its mouth watering anticipating a fresh meal. Looking below, there’s nothing but those jagged rocks.  Wondering what to do, our friend looks around and sees a large, red ripe strawberry growing out of a cleft in the rocks.  Reaching out, our friends plucks the strawberry and eats it and thinks, “That’s the sweetest, juiciest strawberry I’ve ever eaten!”  And so the story ends.

Of course, we are left wondering, “What will our friend do?  Does our friend live or die?  What happens next?”  But that’s not important for our story.  Instead, the story is a reminder of how to live life.

Many of us live our lives worried about the things we’ve done.  We have regrets about the decisions we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve missed, the things we did that may not have been the right thing.  We lose sleep thinking, “If only I had done this or that! I should have…. or I would have….or I could have….”  Over time, we feel worse and worse about our lives.  That’s the lion chasing us, wanting to eat us alive!

Others are afraid of the future and the choices we make.  “What if it doesn’t work!”  Or worse, “What if it does work out and I don’t like it!”  We aren’t sure what we should do, what our correct path may be, or whether we’ve decided wisely.  So, we do nothing but allow our anxieties to immobilize us.  These fears and anxieties are the jagged rocks below the cliff.  We know we need to be very careful so that we don’t fall to the jagged rocks below.

Rather than focusing on the lion or anticipating a crash landing on the rocks, our friend focuses neither on the past nor the future.  Rooted in the present moment, our friend simply enjoys the strawberry that was just found and is thankful for the moment.  Our friend’s action reminds us that the real gift of living is in the present moment.  It’s the present moment which is the ripe, red, sweet, juicy strawberry growing out of the cleft of the rock.

Forty years later, I continue to think about the story.  When I do, I remember to pause and simply be present where I am.  The amazing thing is that I always find a strawberry, a gift in the present moment, waiting for me to savor.  No matter how stressed and busy my days may be, there’s always something refreshing to enjoy by just being in the present moment.

Photo credit: GGourdé via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Uniqueness of Christian Contemplative Prayer

Finding information on meditation and techniques is quite easy today.  Classes are taught at Buddist sanghas, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, yoga studios, health clubs, gyms…just about any place where people can gather.  In metropolitan areas, there are often large outdoor meditation sittings where people of various traditions gather.  From the outside, it looks as though everyone is doing the same thing: people sitting on their thighs in silence, hands up-raised, and breathing slowly. The techniques are very similar across the traditions:  following one’s breath or keeping focused on a point, which could be a word, a candle, or an image.  What sets Christian contemplative prayer apart from other traditions is the intention and belief associated with it.

To be clear on vocabulary, in the Christian tradition, contemplative prayer is what members of Eastern religions call meditation.  Technically, meditation in the Christian tradition is a mental activity that is more rationale and active.  In Christian history, meditation was primarily described as a discursive process.  But today, most people just use the word meditation when meaning either contemplative prayer or Buddhist meditation.

The contemplative tradition within Christianity can be traced to the earliest centuries of the tradition.  Believing that each person is, at heart, a unique image of God, the purpose of contemplative prayer is to let go of everything that prevents us from being that image of God.

On the whole, people don’t live from their center, their heart, or their soul.  Instead, many things cloud over who we are most deeply:  social roles, pride, insecurities, ambitions, trying to be who we think we should be, as well as those deliberate things we do that hurt ourselves and others.  All these things are understood as sins.  Yes, sin is anything that pulls us away from being the image of God we are created to be.

Contemplative prayer is the process of letting go of all the things that distort or hide the Divine Light inside of us.  The Divine Light is our true self.  Over time, contemplative prayers move toward greater union between their inner self and the Divine Light.

When reading the mystics of the Christian tradition, it’s difficult not to be overcome by the sense of intimacy they experience with God.  Augustine wrote, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Augustine captures this intimacy which seems foreign to most Christians today who have been taught a very dualistic approach to prayer:  that God is in heaven above and we are on Earth below interceding for goodness and grace.  Contemplative prayer steps out of that dualism and understands that just as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean is in the fish, so we are immersed in the Divine presence which is also within us.

Having practiced contemplative prayer for most of my life, I continue to find it difficult to convey the experience.  While there isn’t a set routine or formula that enables me to sit in silence and be present to the Divine, I know that at times I am able to shut off my awareness of what’s around me and allow the chatter in my brain to be silent. On these occasions, it’s as if I pass some sort of threshold and my inner experience becomes vast, wide, and deep.  I experience a physical sensation of fullness that begins in my chest and continues to spread through my core.  Being in that place is profoundly peaceful and feels as though it is beyond time and space.  For the moments I experience this, I feel very much at home.

My practice of Christian meditation is focused on letting go of everything that prevents me from union with my deepest center, core, or soul.  At my deepest center is something of the life of God, a Divine spark.  The practice leads me to greater wholeness and abiding joy.  I have deep gratitude for the wisdom of the Christian tradition which has given me an understanding of this spiritual path.

 

Photo credit: Foter.com

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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