Racism and White Privilege: The Hard Look

Photograph © 2020 Peggy Kornegger
It’s hard to look unflinchingly at the full extent of racism in the U.S.; it’s ugly, brutal, inhuman. The knee on the neck that chokes the breath out of a living person, the lynching rope that has choked the life out of generations of African Americans. White people have looked away, not wanting to see that cold-blooded brutality or the systemic racism built into American institutions created by white men and slave-owners. Black people don’t have that choice, that privilege; they face racist reality full-force every second of their lives. Parents have to instruct their children how to behave when they encounter a police officer (“hands up”). The adults carry fear in their hearts just living an ordinary life because they know they could be killed no matter what they do or don’t do (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor). Black lives have never mattered in the history of this country; the inability or refusal to see that is white privilege. This is the harsh reality of racism in America.

The other day, a friend of mine, a lifelong activist, asked me how one can be a supportive loving presence at protests in solidarity with angry participants, both black and white. Where does love figure in unity and demanding justice? Can love and anger coexist? Difficult questions. If we believe in the power of love, how do we live it, especially now? The first thought that occurred to me was to listen (which is an act of love), to pay attention to the voices of African Americans who are speaking the truths of their lives.* Voices that have been suppressed and silenced for hundreds of years. Outrage at injustice and murder is part of those truths. White people have to remain open to hearing that anger without filtering or deflecting it.

I am a white lesbian; I know sexual discrimination and homophobic hatred from the inside of my life experience. But I do not know racism from the inside. No white person does; that too is white privilege. We have to listen, and we have to look inside ourselves for the racism we carry within, the preconceptions and privileges. This is the hard uncomfortable look. It’s not up to black people to instruct white people about racism; it’s up to white people to learn by listening, to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and then to act in order to be the change. Can we do this with love and compassion in our hearts? I believe we can.

It’s a practice. It’s coming back to the perspective that together as a people, we are all mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children and parents, single and married, young and old, black and white, gay, straight, and trans. Yet, within that, there are actions we need to take as individuals and collectively to change a system that was built on inequality and exclusion of people of color. It’s not a broken system; it works perfectly to support those in power and keep others from knowing their own power. It’s time to recognize that much of the story of American freedom and democracy is a myth that excludes a large part of the population. It’s time to create something new, out of outrage and out of love. Both can live side by side, if we are willing to truly listen to each other and work together.

The hard look for white people often involves discomfort, defensiveness, guilt, and fear of saying the wrong thing, of being thought insensitive and racist. But if we face the fact that we, as white people, are racist, shaped by a racist power structure (from which we have benefited just because of the color of our skin), then we have a place to begin. There is embarrassment and vulnerability in acknowledging that truth, but perhaps that is the opening we need. To be willing to say the “wrong thing,” to learn from our mistakes, from what we don’t know but can learn. Out of open conversation comes the opportunity for transformation in a world that desperately needs it. The global and national crises of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder have placed this country, and the world, at an historical tipping point. It’s up to us to redream humanity’s future, from division into unity, from separation into oneness, from fear into love. It’s time…
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*Listen to the deeply honest participants in Oprah’s two-part program Where Do We Go From Here?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09ysfL2SlHo

Learning to Listen

Copyright © 2013 Peggy Kornegger
Copyright © 2013 Peggy Kornegger
We learn to talk when we are babies, expressing ourselves in sounds and eventually words that make sense to those around us. Speech and verbal communication are encouraged and celebrated. What an achievement that first word is—a rite of passage in the human journey! Listening, however, is not given quite the same emphasis or encouragement. In school, we take classes in speech but not in listening. Within the context of polite behavior, we are told to listen and not interrupt, but learning to be silently present with focused attention in a variety of situations is not part of the curriculum. Neither is quiet time spent in meditation or contemplation. Western society is noisy and wordy and very distracting, and we learn to live with it in whatever way we can, often to the detriment of our inner spirit.

As an only child, I played quietly by myself as much as with friends, but I didn’t begin to learn the true value of silence and of listening until I was well into adulthood. Although from a rural background, I acclimated easily to the novelty of living in cities and thought little of urban noise for years. At some point, however, I began to notice, and then couldn’t stop noticing, the lack of quiet everywhere. I sought out silence—in meditation classes, in parks, on vacations to natural settings away from the city. I took up bird watching as a way of immersing myself in nature, and it was then that I really began to learn how to listen.

In order to observe birds closely, you have to be willing to stand or walk in absolute silence, your senses of sight and hearing keenly attuned. When you are silent and motionless, the natural world gradually resumes its normal activity, which it had ceased at the appearance of a noisy human. What a miracle this was to me when I first experienced it. The more I listened, the more I heard: birdsong, bees buzzing, squirrels chattering, chipmunks scampering through the bushes, the wind rustling tree leaves and creaking branches. My soul was in silent communion with everything around me. Over the years, my listening deepened to the point where I felt I could actually hear flowers growing in my garden in the early morning stillness. Sounds fantastic, I know, but when you quiet yourself enough and truly listen, the world opens up its secrets to you.

Birds and flowers weren’t the only ones to teach me about listening. The elder parents in my life also taught me this sacred life lesson. Both my father and my partner’s mother experienced memory loss and related dementia in their later years. What you learn first in that situation is not to rush or finish the other person’s sentences, but to allow them time/space/silence to find the words they want to say. And if they don’t find the words, so what? Really the words themselves are unimportant. You learn to listen to the spaces between the words to hear what is really being communicated. I listened with my heart, with my soul. The last time I saw him, my father and I shared a lifetime of love just by looking in each other’s eyes. When he spoke, I heard his heart’s voice beneath the words. And during the afternoons when my partner and I sat quietly with her mother listening to 1940s tunes, we experienced together the beauty of the songs as well as the silence between the songs. Our spirits were connected in that peaceful space.

Perhaps what I am describing can’t really be taught in school, but only in life. We learn to listen as we learn that there is more to this world than the physical dimension. The longer we live, the wider our perception and awareness grows (if we are fortunate), and the closer we come to the essential stillness that is at the core of being and at the center of the cosmos. Out of silence, sound is born, life is born. When we listen deeply enough, we hear the sound of silence itself. And that is the place where our souls speak to one another, without words.

“For being still enough, long enough, next to anything living, we find a way to sing the one voiceless song.”—Mark Nepo