by Charlotte Manning
Think about the first time you experienced the feeling of sympathy. Undoubtedly, this feeling was for someone whose life came with a difficulty, and it was a difficulty that you probably hadn’t ever experienced. I remember my understanding of sympathy completely shifted as I read “The Diary of Anne Frank” in my 6th grade Language Arts class. I felt sadness and guilt in new and uncomfortable ways, and it shattered me to my bones. Although as a middle schooler one’s faith is but a memory verse, I remember being so perplexed that something as horrid as the Holocaust could take place in a world I knew as God’s kingdom. My outward response was, “Mommy, why are their bad people?” during the drive home from school that day, but I pointed my finger at God for the existence of intentional, wrongful suffering placed upon people over and over again in history.
What it took years for me to learn was that the kingdom and the God that I learned about in Sunday school had no role in the Holocaust story. Nor in the story of Western Europeans arriving in what we now call America and deciding to call it their home, while completely ignoring the mothers and fathers who birthed our nation: the Native American people. Nor even the stories that we don’t read in our history books about how somewhere in that colonization process, America became a place by and for people with ivory skin, and only by and for people with ivory skin.
Now, I have no problem arguing with anyone about why America was never “great”, because I am thoroughly educated on the subject and can back it up with cold, hard facts. However, a conversation on politics and a conversation on compassion are seemingly two very different things these days. My heart quite honestly can’t take very much more of today’s political dialogue without feeling wounded, offended, and hopeless, so speaking on compassion and solely compassion is something I would like to try … and even that is a struggle for me. But as God would have it, I have been shaken and moved to talk about what being compassionate looks like, specifically in the conversation of race in America- a country that does not know how to listen to their marginalized people.
My latest run-in with that same gut-wrenching sympathy I experienced when reading Anne Frank’s story was during a recent three-day bus ride through the South, amidst an experience called Sankofa. Sankofa is a racial-reconciliation intensive journey that brings together students and faculty on a bus, to get real about race. The trip is designed with such intention that a partner of a different race is assigned to each individual, meanwhile groups spanning a variety of ages and experiences are quite naturally formed. No matter how uncomfortable we may have felt amongst our peers, we could not escape the conversation of race. And trust me, I know the mere thought of that makes people want to run for the nearest hills. Although that fearful feeling is valid, discomfort is the whole point. I am a half-black, half-white, Swedish-American, and even I cringed at the thought of mourning my own history and race. My whole life I have preferred to disconnect the past from my own personal experience as a middle-class, privileged, millennial woman of color, but Sankofa changed that. We all felt the heavy burden of ignorance in some way in those three days, but the beauty of our group’s dialogue came from those realizations.
As badly as we all wanted to get off that bus and vow to forever say that “we don’t see color,” because it would have been easier that way, we quickly learned that the ignorance we had always heard of and shrugged our shoulders to was inside us. It was in the ways we all had chosen to ignore the painful part of the conversation, those times we did not speak up when we should have, the times we denied our privilege, and the times when we swore that we had a black friend who swore we weren’t racist. We’ve heard it all, we’ve done it all, and yet our lack of presence in the conversation has only been the water to the roots that have perpetuated racism and furthered the evolution of slavery and oppression, unending.
This is exactly why it is hard to compartmentalize Sankofa into one sort of thing. It is so much more than an educational field trip or a simple act of social justice. Rather, the experience and purpose of Sankofa is about as complex as the word “race”. The awkward feelings that rise in us when we hear it being talked about, the way we mean to use it versus the way we say it and, most commonly, the way we subconsciously disassociate ourselves with everything we’ve ever known to be true about the way that racism is still alive, well, and systematically in control of our “great” nation.
We learned that privilege is being white. We learned that slavery hasn’t ended; rather it has evolved into what we now know as the criminal justice system. We learned that socioeconomic discrepancies are the way they are because of the blueprint that our forefathers used to build our cities- with the intention to divide and segregate. We learned that tolerance is not the same thing as love and acceptance. We learned that even once we recognize our ignorance, our privilege, and our individual role in being an advocate for people of color, the conversation of race is never easy and never get’s easier. But that does not mean it has to be a conversation of hopelessness. Racism is not dead and we deeply internalized that on Sankofa, because we willingly chose to. We witnessed it in Selma, Alabama, where the streets were once covered with Civil Rights protestors. We heard it in the preserved voices of Martin Luther King and Angela Davis who refused to be quiet. We felt it with the old slave shackles we wrapped around our ankles. We felt it in the conviction and sympathy of God’s words, over ours, every time.
The choice to stay out of the race conversation is ignorance in its most murderous form. I think back to the way I wanted to hold Anne Frank in my arms and take away her pain. I knew full-well that I myself would never understand the extent of her pain, but I owed it to her suffering to acknowledge it and talk about it. I encourage everyone with a beating heart, especially those with ivory skin, to try and do the same thing in the conversation of race. Whether or not you believe in the kingdom of God, compassion is a universal notion that we all hope to be on the receiving end of at one point or another. I believe that true compassion is a selfless act and an effective weapon against injustice. Enter into it, feel the discomfort in others’ experiences, and open up your eyes to the possibility that human suffering does not have to directly affect you in order to move you.