I’ve had one recurring nightmare since I was a child. It’s the kind of nightmare that startles me awake. And every few years it comes back to remind me of my deepest, unspoken fears.
In my dreamworld, we have returned to a segregated American society with signs all around that say ‘Whites Only.’ In the dream I am helping my parents navigate through this reality, but I wake up the moment I fail and we bear the consequences.
For most of my life I could comfort myself by saying ‘Its just a dream. That would never happen again.’ And even if it did happen maybe I could hide behind the disturbing hope that Asians might not be included. It grieves and shames me that I could even think that. Over the last few years that nightmare has felt closer and closer to possibility. And over the last couple weeks my fears have spiked. The message constantly communicated through the images on the news is that if it came down to it, this nation would not recognize my humanity nor those of my BIPOC friends. And that horrific message is constantly covered over by the church, by nice white people and nice Christians with good intentions.
Race and racism is a spiritual issue, because it has distorted our collective soul and our collective identity as imago dei. Just as it has distorted my own self-image, I believe it equally distorts the souls of the perpetrators as well as those that remain silent. Race is a frequent topic in my spiritual direction spaces both as a director and as a directee. All of our souls are heavy with layers of distortions and trauma that we have stuffed down because we needed to survive and move on. There is deep collective soul work that we all need to do together in order for there to be any chance that we could be a different people.
I recognize and repent that as an Asian-American I can hide behind the lives of my Black and Brown sisters and brothers. I have depended on them to lead the liberating work in which I can silently benefit. Asians have survived in this country by smiling along and laughing it off. I’ve watched my parents do this, and I learned to do the same.
I write all this to say, let’s not stuff it down and move on anymore. Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls this time a kairos moment.1 Let’s not lose the opportunity. Let’s not be so quick to reconcile and unite. Let’s actually choose to do the hard work, the soul work, the liberating work. Let’s ask the hard questions. What happened to us that we nurture human beings who can dehumanize another human being? Why is our first instinct self-preservation instead of community preservation? What has blinded us so that we can constantly be so quick to ‘move on’ and ‘have hope’ without ever facing ourselves?
There is systemic work to do, there is protest work to do, there is legislation work to do. But I believe deep lasting change happens when all of that necessary work is partnered with the inner work that each of us has to do, otherwise we will keep making the same mistakes. Part of the inner work is continually educating ourselves and learning from others not like ourselves, but even that is not enough. Education brings awareness. The step beyond that is the courage to then confront the distortions within us. Those built up layers come from other voices, from biased education systems, from the biases we learned from our parents. They come from each time we’ve benefited when the system is for us, and each time we ignored when the system is against others. For the marginalized, those layers are also built from years of learned defense mechanisms. All of those layers dehumanize us.
Look at all of it. Ask yourself the hard questions. Confront the ugly lies you find within you. Speak out your truths. Listen for the sacred humanity in others. Teach your children to do the same. Then repeat this cycle again and again and again.
1 Douglas, Kelly Brown. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015.