Reflection on "Black History / White Memory"
Last week I attended "Black History / White Memory," a webinar and dialogue hosted by the CRCNA (Christian Reformed Church in North America) Office of Race Relations in partnership with Calvin University and the Antioch podcast. The panelists featured were Rev. Reggie Smith (CRCNA Director of Race Relations and Social Justice), Dr. Eric Washington (Associate Professor of History and Director of African & African Diaspora Studies Program at Calvin University), and Eric Nykamp (artist, musician, and host/producer of the Antioch Worship Leadership Podcast). Now, I am not particularly religious. But I was drawn to this seminar because I am interested in learning more about the intersection of issues of race/racism/social justice and the institution of the church. This hour-long webinar was absolutely fascinating, and I feel that I left with both a deeper understanding of that intersection and a curiosity to explore it further. But it also wasn't all about religion! It spoke to history and memory on the personal, societal, and theological level. I've linked the full webinar below (and I highly recommend watching it), but I'd like to write out a few of the most eye-opening moments from the discussion. Please note that these are paraphrased. The overarching question this webinar sought to address was: why do white people and Black people remember the history of racial injustice so differently? The panelists began by agreeing that an understanding of history is based on the stories we're told; and those stories will be different if we are Black or white. They referenced the "lost cause" of the Civil War and the "lost cause" of the insurrection at the Capitol this year. Their point? The events of Jan. 6th and the discussion of them afterward are part of a continuum. Americans have always (and continue to) spin narratives in the moment that things "aren't what they look like." We actually change the pathways in our brains to make us feel better. Rev. Smith made the point that (white) Americans have always distanced ourselves from our own history in order to quiet our cognitive dissonance. We mythologize narratives until it works, until the narratives become "facts."That is why so many people remember the Civil War as being about "state's rights" and have changed "the lost cause" to "the noble cause." And that is why so many people will remember the insurrection this year as a justified protest. Instead of focusing on healing, we focus on winning the narrative. And because of this, we cause more harm. The panelists also spoke about the harm caused by the people in power; as Dr. Washington said, there has never been a moment in history when that group has admitted the system is wrong. Rev. Smith replied to this (condensed and paraphrased): Every so often, there's a small group that gets together around a table in a boardroom and makes decisions about a lot of people outside the boardroom. Most of the people in this boardroom look like each other, and they look like most of the people in other boardrooms. Some people aren't even at the table. This begs the question: should we be building new tables? Throughout history, leadership within the Church has been no different. The amount of pastors who feel comfortable talking about issues of race has dropped by 17% since the 2016 election. Even when they do, they speak of racism as a problem within the heart instead of within the system- it's individualized not only because it's more comfortable, but because pastors want to keep their congregation coming to church. The way to change this pattern, both within and outside of church? Humility in leadership. Dr. Washington defined humility as "listening and taking what you hear seriously." He emphasized the need for making your space safe, for practicing intentional anti-racism: "I don't want to be traumatized in the house of God." Dr. Smith added: "Don't make me carry your lost cause. Do your own work. Learn your own biases. Learn your own history." Check out the full webinar below!
- Adelaide Fuller