Confessions of a White Ally


leslie verner -confessions of a white ally-2

A good writer zips the reader into their skin, according to Memoirist Mary Karr. A good Christian zips herself into the skin of others.

As a white woman researching race, ethnicity and white privilege in the United States, I thought I was doing this—learning empathy, increasing compassion. I read the books, listened to podcasts, shared articles, followed the “right” people on social media, and pointed out the places in myself that still needed improvement. I thought I was doing the work.

Then I attended five out of the six sessions on race at the Festival of Faith and Writing and I knew I hadn’t zipped myself into anyone. The women of color who spoke unzipped themselves, their clothes flapping open to reveal their wounds and blood, scars and burns. And they invited me to enter their pain.

Some lamented the audience of mainly white people who represented an evangelical church that betrayed people of color at the 2016 election when 81 percent of evangelical voters in the United States elected Donald Trump. I took it all personally, ingesting it, absorbing their trauma—on the basis of being a white evangelical, I felt like I was no longer trusted.

The flaming words felt like daggers. What was I expecting? Did I expect to be thanked for being an ally? For speaking up when others stayed silent? For being one of the 19 percent? For advocating for others? For being a woke white woman? Ha.

As a white faith writer, I felt the hot shame of not being the first to acknowledge injustice—when I had spoken, it had been too little too late. My silence had perpetuated oppressive and unjust systems, and yet my incessant talking and trying to “help” drowned out vital voices.

Alone, writing about race on my computer, it had been easy to arrive at trite answers for complex problems. But watching mascara stream down the face of a Korean American woman as she drew offenses out of her well of despair and named me traitor, reminded me there are no easy answers.

I confess my first impulse was to run away, lock myself in my safe house, and stop poking my nose in places where I don’t belong.

But I keep getting this vision of a vessel.

Transparent and thin, fragile and wide, it holds all of us. Our brown, black, blond, red, curly, straight and wavy hairs intertwine. Our sweaty, oily, perfumed, shaven and unshaven skin rubs together. Our languages comingle into a chorus. It’s uncomfortable in here all smashed together. I can’t shift as I’d like, without touching you, feeling your movement, accidently putting my finger into your scars or noticing your hot tears trickle down my spine. You, too, know my knees in your back, kicks, hiccups, and sharp toenails on your skin. We’re snug as the womb.

We can’t escape, but must learn to breathe and move as one. Zipped into the skin of Rabbi Jesus, we are zipped up together into his busted body. It’s a bloody business, this entering into your blood vessels, heart palpitations and tumors. But Love looks like burial and being on the other end of eulogies. Love holds stakes in suffering without defense or solution, melding us together as we sit in sacred sorrow. Sometimes—often—love looks like death.

On runs this winter, I passed a tree next to a nearly empty reservoir. Lying on its side, most of its roots splayed upward into the air. By all appearances, it was dead. But I saw it again yesterday and bright green shoots sprouted from wretched branches. Soon the reservoir will fill up and the lifeless tree will burst with fat leaves and sweet song birds.

I’m not sure how to conclude because I have no conclusion, except that I keep hoping for our resurrection.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll rest at that tree, silently celebrating every small shock of death-defying green. Truly there are resurrection signs everywhere. And I’ll think about us and beg for the courage we need to keep swimming in each other’s bloody rivers, trusting Life to win.