I know better than to slide over to the neighborhood Facebook group, but one day I did. It is just a different version of the newspaper comment section, except on Facebook, there are tiny circles with a profile pictures. The day I popped over to the neighborhood Facebook group was Indigenous Peoples’ Day. One of the Facebook posts that had a ton of comments on it documented vandalism at a local Catholic church. The vandalism was directed at the church for its abuses and lack of holding themselves accountable.
The comments went back and forth between “that’s horrible,” to “vandalism is never right,” to “yup the church deserved it.” There was also a vein of comments saying because the church serves a majority POC population they didn’t deserve the vandalism. This got me thinking about how hard it is to think about the whole and make sense of things through what we know as personal experience.
Often our brains want to make sense of a situation through the knowledge it already has. In this case, people know the local church and the people affiliated with it. They may not know the larger problem of historical church abuses, especially against Native and Indigenous people (i.e. cultural genocide through boarding schools) – this was important to note because the vandalism happened on Indigenous Peoples Day. We naturally want to make exceptions, “the church didn’t deserve the vandalism because they serve POCs, they didn’t cause harm,” versus understanding the larger context of how the church system overall allowed abuses to happen and still happen.
This happens in other situations too. I’ve sat through many conversations where someone will say “but…
- My best friend is Black
- I’m married to an Asian
- My cousin is disabled so I understand (I’ve said this. I cringe thinking about the poor person on the other side of that conversation.)
- I went to a ‘poor’ school
- I was a Peace Corps volunteer
All of these are trying to carve out an exception, trying to position either yourself or the situation as being the exception and therefore exempt from being racist, ablest, wrong, or to create distance and isolate the problem.
The problem is when we do this we’re not recognizing the overall systemic problem at hand. It can be true that a church can serve a majority POC population and still be wrong for the historical harms they perpetuated and have yet to heal from. A person can be racist and have a Black friend. It can be true a white man can be married to an Asian and not be woke. It is true, I can strive to be an ally to people with disabilities and still figuratively put my foot in my mouth and say dumb things.
Accepting the dissonance between the two is part of the growth process. This allows us the mental space to recognize there are systems—rules/policies, practices, historical tendencies, biases, etc.—that hold back many marginalized groups AND there are always exceptions to those groups. Racial equity and other forms of equity work recognize that exceptions are just that, exceptions, and we need to work to change the system to allow more people to be whole.
If you’re in a conversation and you feel the urge to say “but, [exception]” stop and stay quiet – let the moment pass. The conversation will be better if you don’t try to defend your thinking by pointing out the exception. The other person doesn’t need to know you were in the Peace Corps and that is where you think you learned about racial equity. Instead, use the time to listen to others, especially people who are impacted by inequities — they probably can teach you more about how to undo wrongs than your exceptional life.
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice based relations.