Why You’re Part of the Problem with Racism Even Though You’re Nice

-a letter from one white woman to another-


Dear Friend,

I know that my recent comments on your Facebook posts have been annoying, and I need room to explain what I mean when I say that, when it comes to racism in America, you are part of the problem.

Whenever there is another peak of racial tension in our country as a result of some event—like the recent killings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Scott in Charlotte—you post things to Facebook about why the media is actually causing all the racial drama, escalating problems, making things seem way worse than they really are–and you’re tired of it. Stupid media. Or you share a post from a white store owner whose store was looted in the protests. This store owner says that he has always been nice to everyone who comes through the doors of his store, regardless of color, and he’s tired of all of this nonsense, too. You want everyone to live together and treat each other with kindness and just get along! Then I comment and tell you that you are part of the problem.

I can see where you might think I was being unkind and unfair. But I mean what I said with a vehemence that I have trouble articulating, and I’ve been trying to think of how to explain it to you. Here’s what I came up with. It’s an analogy, and analogies tend to be imperfect, but I actually think that this one gets perfectly to the heart of what I’m trying to tell you. It’s going to take a little time, but please bear with me.

First I need to back up a bit. Many years ago, I found out that the father of my two older daughters was sexually abusing one of them. The story of that discovery and all that ensued would fill a book, but for today’s purpose let’s suffice it to say that it was much more difficult than I ever would have guessed to get my daughters to a place where they could be safe and protected from their father. In the meantime, for a period of about nine months, I shared custody with my ex-husband—the child sexual molester–and I was forced to hand our daughters over to him for visitation every other week. The legal system had made it abundantly clear, in no uncertain terms, that if I withheld visitation from my ex-husband, I would lose custody of my daughters completely. So they would spend a week with me, and then I would hand them over to their father to spend a week with him. Knowing that he had sexually abused one of them.

This was the darkest time in my life. While I was doing everything I could on the legal front to fight the battle for my daughters’ safety, I also met weekly with a child psychologist—to get advice on how best to help my daughters in their current situation—and with an adult therapist, to help me cope with the situation. Both of these therapists told me, on several occasions, “At least your children know that you are fighting for them. Your daughter (the one who was abused) knows that you believe her, and that you are doing everything you can to fight for her. That will make a difference.” At the time I found their statements comforting, but rather odd. OF COURSE I was fighting for my children. Was there really any other option?

Now fast forward to a number of years ago when I took a position as women’s chaplain at a county jail. The vast majority of women I meet in jail are there on drug-related charges. The vast majority are addicts. And the vast majority of these women who have shared their life stories with me have been abused as children—physically, sexually, and/or emotionally. Perhaps that didn’t surprise me so much. What DID surprise me—and continues to gnaw at my soul every single time—is the number of women who tell me they were sexually abused as children, often raped from an early age—starting as early as 3, or 6, or 9 years old—by a father, or grandfather, or uncle, or mother’s boyfriend—and whose mothers, when they found out about the abuse, did nothing. Over and over again, that is a story I hear. Often I’m told that at first the mother didn’t know—even though it is suspected that she probably knew at some level, at the level of the soul where we know something that we haven’t admitted to ourselves consciously yet. Then, when the mother did find out—when her daughter told her, or when the mother saw it happen with her own two eyes—she still did nothing. Sometimes the daughter was blamed for it. More often, it was just ignored.

Part of me has compassion for these women—the mothers, I mean. I know what it’s like to not want to believe that a man whom you love could be a monster. I understand, better than most, maybe, the impulse to pretend that you don’t know what you know and to go on with life as though it’s not true, because you just desperately want everything to be OK and for everyone to get along. You feel helpless and you don’t know how you can ever possibly fix the situation. Maybe, the impulse tells us, if we ignore it, if we fail to acknowledge the horrible, ugly, nearly unfathomable horror, it won’t actually be true.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Racism is that sexually abused daughter. Maybe we can ignore it, pretend that we’re a happy family and everything is just fine, and maybe there won’t even be any more horrible “incidences” for a while. But the mother who does that is a huge part of the problem. Maybe, in a best case scenario, the mother is herself very kind to the daughter. And yet… her betrayal of her child is, in my eyes, every bit as damaging as the abuser’s betrayal.

What I’m saying is that you may, in truth, be perfectly kind to every black person you ever meet. But your refusal to acknowledge the problem of racism is a betrayal. Instead of saying, “I hear that you are being hurt. That matters to me because I love you and value your life. I will do everything in my power to stand up for you, to try to change the situation so that you aren’t hurt like this anymore,” you are saying, “I hear you saying that you are hurting. Stop making such a big deal out of it. We need to just all try to get along.” Would you say these words to an abused daughter? I guess we don’t know, since that is, in fact, what many women say. But for me, there really isn’t a choice.

What if the abused daughter were to begin to act out? What if she were to start doing drugs at an early age in an attempt to stop feeling her pain? And what if, in her drug addicted state, she did something like steal from you? Because I’ve heard those stories, too. The daughter who has been sexually abused for years, whose pain has been ignored or invalidated by her mother, grows up and does something like steal from her mother. That hurts the mother. You know, kind of like how the folks who looted that white man’s store hurt him. Does the abuse, or the hurt caused by racism, underlying the sequence of events leading up to this scenario mean that the act is justified? Is it OK to steal or to loot? Of course not. But can you see why I believe that it’s a betrayal for you to focus on the white store owner’s pain over the looting while ignoring all of the underlying hurt that led up to that event?

Yes, I, too, wish that we could all just love each other and get along. But I hear my black brothers and sisters telling me that they are being hurt. I won’t betray them by ignoring them. I will listen. I will tell them that they matter, that their lives are valuable to me, that I care about the things that have happened to them and I care about their pain. I don’t know how to fix it and I know that it won’t be fixed overnight, but I will not be complicit by ignoring it.  I will do whatever is in my power to fight to make our country one in which everyone feels safe and valued. I hope that you, my friend, will join me.

I am SUCH a nice person!

“Mom, that man is talking to us,” my ten year-old daughter said. It was one of several times in the space of a couple of days that she had pointed out that someone was talking to us, pointed it out because we weren’t responding, pointed it out because we were acting like we didn’t see.

I saw.

“I know, honey,” I said. I was flustered. We were  in the process of squeezing luggage and people into a Lyft driver’s car to head to the airport so we could fly home to our small town, the town my youngest daughter has lived in her whole life, the town where we never see people living on the street, asking for money. The man had wedged himself between us and the car as we moved around, grabbing suitcases and trying to work out where and how everything and everyone would fit. “Can you give me some money so I can eat?” he asked. He was stumbling and bleary-eyed and barely coherent.

“Mom, that man is talking to us.”

“I know honey, but… he is very high right now.”

I’ve been thinking about that response. Other than the fact that it was true, I have no idea why I said it. What did the man being high have to do with anything? Did it make him less hungry? One could argue that he would just take any money that we would have given him and applied it toward his next high, and maybe that would have been true, maybe not.

“He’s very high right now,” I said, as though that explained something, as though it gave me an excuse not to really see him, not to respond to him in some way, not to treat him as the beloved child of God that I believe that he is. That’s what gnaws at my soul. I believe that Jesus loves this man, just like he loves everyone else we saw during our two days in the big city who asked us for money.

Every time I walk by someone on the street asking for money, my soul hurts–whether I actually give them money or not. It bothers me, seeing these broken, hurting people and not doing more.  I can volunteer at a soup kitchen, or hand out blankets and pack care packages, etc… and I have done all of these things, although not on a regular basis and I could certainly do much more.  What I’ve realized about human nature  myself, though, is that I tend to end up feeling righteous because I care–even when I don’t act on it. Louis C.K. does a fabulous bit on this. He’s talking about how he flies first class and sees soldiers who always fly coach, and how many times he has thought that he should give up his seat to one of the soldiers.  It’s worth a watch:

I love Louis C.K. He so often gets to the very heart of what is both ugly and beautiful about being human.

I don’t want to walk by people and pretend that I don’t see them or hear them. I don’t want my little daughter to see me do this. And I don’t want to just enjoy thinking I’m a nice person because I feel bad about it. How do we handle these things, though? It isn’t easy. What do you do?






This is not a post about Mother’s Day

This year I found myself really hating Mother’s Day. Many people have written beautifully about the pain they feel on Mother’s Day, for many and various reasons: infertility, child loss, painful relationships with their own mothers, estrangements from older children… the list goes on. I am so ridiculously lucky that none of those situations apply to me. And yet… as Mother’s Day approached, I found myself stewing over how much I hate it, my heart growing heavier and heavier with dread. This is not the first time I have felt this way on Mother’s Day, but, for whatever reason, it seemed worse this year.

I looked for places to place the blame. Mother’s Day is a stupid holiday, I thought. It just makes everyone feel bad. It’s nothing but commercialism. It’s just pressure on husbands and kids to buy stupid stuff for the wife/mother who really just wants someone to clean the house, cook the food, and take care of the kids while she has a day off. Those things are (mainly) true, but that wasn’t really it.

I tried to place the blame on my husband. Gift-giving is not his love language, let’s just say, and I knew he would wait until afternoon on Mother’s Day to take the kids out shopping for my flowers and chocolate–which he did, and which IS totally lame. My husband is wonderful, but he could definitely step up his game a bit when it comes to days like Mother’s Day, my birthday, and Christmas. Still, in the end, I knew that that wasn’t it.

Here’s what it was.

My first marriage was emotionally abusive. It took me many years to figure that out. It’s still, even now, so hard to explain. But my first ever Mother’s Day as a mother is a good example. It was 22 years ago and my first child was about 6 weeks old. She was healthy and amazing and being a mother was hard but also wonderful and I loved it.

My first husband did could do special days really well. When I was depressed about spending my first Christmas in Sweden, away from my family, he–who grew up in Iran and therefore had no Christmas tradition of his own–went out and bought a Christmas tree for me, carrying it home on the city bus. He bought a box of decorations for the tree and cajoled me out of my funk and into making Christmas cookies. For many special birthdays (my 25th, my 30th) he planned whole days full of surprises for me, from breakfast in bed to exciting activities and special dinners with friends.

It wasn’t always like this, mind you. There was the year when he put exactly two identical boxes under the Christmas tree, which, as it turned out, each held a pair of long underwear. One for me, and one, believe it or not, for him. So there was that…

And then there was my first Mother’s Day. Did I mention that it was my first one as a mom? How exciting and special that felt for me? So, knowing this, my ex chose not to acknowledge the day in any way. If I thought he had forgotten or hadn’t known that it was Mother’s Day, there were several people with whom we interacted that day who mentioned to us both that it was Mother’s Day, so I knew he knew, and still he didn’t acknowledge it. By the end of the day, I was done. Sad, angry… confused, mostly. Why would he do that? Why would he refuse to acknowledge my first Mother’s Day as a mother with so much as a “Happy Mother’s Day”? When I finally broke down and told him how bad it made me feel, he said that it had indeed been an intentional lack of acknowledgment on his part. I’m sure he had some stupid, quasi-psychological explanation for this, but whatever it was, I remember this: it was intentionally done to hurt me and throw me off balance.

A couple of days later, my ex brought home a flowering plant for our balcony. It was not a Mother’s Day present, he said… just a present. It was beautiful and it bloomed all summer and I acted grateful and pretended that everything was fine, but what that beautiful flowering plant really did was serve as a painful reminder to me all summer long that I could never expect anything, never count on anything, that I could certainly never count on being allowed to think that I was worth anything special.

Sometimes emotional abuse is that subtle. It might be hard to understand this example as abuse without knowing the context of the rest of the relationship; I get that.  Don’t get me wrong, the abuse was often not even a little bit subtle, but sometimes it was, which, in a strange way, made it almost more insidious.

Who would have guessed that, of all the horrible things my abusive ex did and said to me in the years we spent together, it would be this relatively small and seemingly insignificant thing that was wreaking havoc on my heart and soul all these years later? This  year I felt, as I said, an increasing sense of dread as the day approached, and what I can only describe as profound sadness that seemed to sit like a weight in my bones as Mother’s Day dawned.

The good news is that the day got better. I was able to pinpoint the source of my sadness and that, along with love and hugs and reassurance from my husband and kids that I am special and important to them, was all I needed to reorient me in my present and make me feel OK again.

Which is all to say, if you have been emotionally abused, those old hurts might sometimes reverberate in your heart and soul for a very long time. You can think you’re so far past it all that it will never hurt again… and then it does. For me what helped was acknowledging that what happened to me, how I was treated all those years ago, was not OK. It was just one example of a whole lot of things that were not OK, but none of it was OK. And then I reminded myself–and my family reminded me–that the person my ex-husband tried to make me think I was, the unworthy, unlovable one, is NOT who I am. It never was.

If you are dealing with emotional abuse or have dealt with it in the past and it is still hurting today, you can reach out. Reach out to the people who you know love you and tell them that you need to be reminded of your worth. You can reach out to me. But reach out. Let people remind you that YOU are valuable and worthy. Because THAT is what is true.

Just the truth, ma’am

When I was a little, I used to sometimes watch Dragnet. I was much too young to be watching it, but it was the 70’s and parents were far less interested in worrying about what their kids watched on TV than they are today… which has nothing to do with this post at all, except that what came to mind when I sat down to write was Joe Friday’s iconic line, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Only I’m much less concerned with facts at the moment; I’m just trying to stick to what is honest, which, I believe, is as close as we can get to the truth.

What I’ve realized is that, if I’m going to try to write a good blog, I will never write. Or, rather, I’ll write a post once or twice a year. And even then, it probably won’t be very good. The thing is, I know what good writing is. So I know when my own writing falls short. And therefore… I don’t write.

But I believe that there is value in writing, because writing helps us search our souls, to figure out what we believe, to connect with ourselves and with the greater Truth, which, I believe, is God. So I’ve decided to write. Every day. Knowing that it won’t be good writing, but what it will be is honest. Because I need a place to be honest. Honestly searching, honestly seeking, honestly hurting and loving, joyful and sad, hopeful and impatient, and mostly just fumbling about… honestly just a messy human but also beloved by God.

I spent most of the first half of  my life (so far) trying to make people think I was perfect, because I thought that was what I had to be. Now I know what freedom there is in being imperfect. Now I no longer think that being perfect is important, or even valuable… because it’s not possible. There is just being honest, and the freedom that comes with that: the freedom to love ourselves and to let ourselves be loved.

I hope that by being my messy, honest self, I can inspire someone else to be messy and honest, and in that to be more able to be loving and to be loved.

Thanks for stopping by. You matter.




The Heart of Things: The Other Side of the Gun Debate

The 22 year-old Deaf woman probably didn’t hear the commotion, probably didn’t have time to react. That’s what we said in the aftermath of Daniella Josberg’s death at the hands of a gunman at a nightclub in Stockholm in the early hours of the morning on December 4, 1994. Daniella and three others were killed, and over 20 people were injured in the attack.

Yesterday President Obama talked about how other countries also have people with some sort of sickness in their minds, people who wish to cause others harm, but other countries don’t have these kinds of mass shootings over and over and over again. When he spoke I thought of Daniella and tried to remember.

When Daniella Josberg was killed, I was living in Stockholm, where I was employed as a teacher at the Manilla School for the Deaf. Some of my colleagues there had taught Daniella when she was a student at Manilla; others had known her from their own time in school. Whether or not they knew her personally, everyone in the Deaf community knew OF Daniella. She had worked for the Deaf news broadcast “Sign News,” and had just the previous year published a book about her life and finding her way in the world as a Deaf person. This was a tragedy that hit close to home and made many of my Deaf colleagues and students feel especially vulnerable. And yet, my memory is that the feeling was completely different from what we are feeling in America now in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting.

When this mass shooting happened in Sweden, it felt like a freak occurrence. We were shocked and grieving, yes, but we weren’t reliving the numerous similar shootings that had taken place in recent history and we weren’t already bracing ourselves for the next one.

I wonder if that’s not the worst of it for us now as Americans, at least for those of us who are fortunate enough not to be living or re-living our own tragedies this time: the bracing ourselves.

It’s hard in a time like this when emotions are so raw to begin sorting them out. We are angry. We are grieving. We are tired. We are remembering Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook and others… Some of us are trotting out our old arguments for or against gun control and once again getting mad at each other as we face down the other side on Facebook, but… we’re just so tired of this, aren’t we? And it’s the knowing that this isn’t a one time freak occurrence, the knowing that we have every reason to believe that this will happen again, that gets us.

As someone who loves and tries to follow Jesus, I am against all forms of violence. If that’s not an obvious statement to you, don’t worry, I’ll come back to that one day, but for now I’ll just leave it as the obvious stance for me, even though on some days it’s an easier stance than on others.  (I’m usually really good at loving my enemies in the abstract. Pray for Osama bin Laden? No problem. And sometimes I’m even really good at doing the hard work of being up close and personal and loving people who have done bad or even horrible things. When I sit down and I talk to inmates one-on-one and I hear their stories, I know that they are hurt and broken people, like me, and I don’t want them to be hurt in retaliation for the things they’ve done. But then at other times I want to take the 17 year-old boy who broke my daughter’s heart and somehow do something to cause him to suffer debilitating shame and humiliation, or else I’d like to just see him strung up by his balls. Literally. But I digress… Where were we? Oh, right. Nonviolence. Loving our enemies. It can be really, really hard.)

I think my point is that when I see the arguments flying around–and I have seen them again since yesterday’s events–that we need MORE guns, that if only more people open carried, these things wouldn’t happen, I’m tempted to get frustrated and angry and call people idiots and bang my head against the wall. I hate feeling that way, and I hate knowing that these arguments are going nowhere. So today I stopped to really think about it, and to think about my friends who truly believe that we need more guns. I decided to try to figure out what they are thinking and feeling. Part of me can understand the instinct to want to carry a gun around at all times in the hopes of being able to fend off anything and anyone who might want to hurt the ones I love.

I guess I just wish we could admit that we’re all really sad and we’re all really scared, and, more than anything, we desperately don’t want the ones we love to be the victims of the next horrific event. Isn’t that really why we’re all so passionate? Because we love people and we want them to be safe? I wish that we could begin by agreeing to recognize that that is the place we’re all coming from. Maybe then we could be a little kinder to each other and gentler with each other and actually get down to the hard work of finding some real solutions. I believe that real solutions exist, but to find them we’re going to have to stop seeing the other side of the gun debate–whichever side we’re on–as our enemy.


I went to bed Wednesday night, having heard the news of the terrorist attack against the black church in South Carolina. I couldn’t process the news, did not want to process it. “How?” I asked my husband as I climbed into bed, “How can it be 2015 and this is still happening?” But the news did not sink into my heart yet. It wouldn’t process… I did not want to process it.

Thursday morning my husband and I drive to a nearby park to do the next installment of our couch-to-5K run. I run my first lap, and worry. Where is the black lady this morning? I wonder. THE black lady. The ONE. Because that’s the demographic of our town:  89% white. And on our early morning jog? There’s the one black woman. I don’t know her name. I’ve never talked to her. Where is she today, I wonder? Has she heard the news? On my second lap around I meet her. She’s walking with an older white lady. When we meet, she looks at me and smiles a big, beautiful smile—like she always does—and I smile back—like I always do. My heart hurts. I want to tell her I’m sorry, but where would I begin? We smile. She walks with her white friend. I keep running.

I go to my work. I’m the women’s chaplain at a county jail. The majority of our inmates are white, I tell people, and they are always surprised. The county is less than 13% black, but people are still surprised when I say that the majority of our inmates are white. My inmates get the newspaper a day late, so they don’t know about Charleston yet.

What do I do at my job? Mostly I listen. These women sit across from me and tell me their stories. Today is a particularly tough day, but then again, it’s not different than other days. These women who sit across for me today in their striped outfits were once little girls who were raped by people who should have loved them and protected them. For the “lucky” one it was a one-time occurrence; for most it was ongoing, for years. These women have grown up and they have lost babies of their own. They cry tears over their lost babies. They’ve lost babies to miscarriage—brought on by the punches, the kicks, the fury of their husbands… multiple babies beat out of their bodies. They’ve lost babies to miscarriage brought on by the damage done to their bodies when they were but babies themselves. They’ve lost babies due to birth defects not caused by any human. They’ve lost babies, had their babies taken away from them because of their addictions and incarceration. These women are addicted, broken, and scared.  They have turned to drugs because they are afraid to feel their feelings, because the pain is too consuming. They are afraid of losing the battle with their addictions. They are afraid that no one will ever truly love them. They are afraid that they are not lovable.

I can’t fix any of it, but I can listen. There is nothing I can say that will make any of it better. I believe in Jesus and I know His love and the power of His love to heal, to redeem, to transform… And I refuse to offer formulaic religious answers that mean nothing, even when they are true. I listen. I’m so sorry, I say. I’m here. I’m listening. I love you.

On the way home I listen to the radio. I learn the names of the people who were killed in Charleston, and a little bit about each one. I think of the devastation of their families. I think of their communities. I think about my black friends and I wonder what I should say to them, knowing that words, even well-meaning words, often hurt more than they help.

Last week I commented on a friend’s Facebook post about the incident at the pool party in Texas. I watched the video of the cop pushing the young black girl to the ground, grabbing her hair and pushing her head to the ground, putting his knees on her, holding her down despite her lack of struggle, despite her clear lack of threat to him. I watched a skinny young girl in a bikini, calling to her mama and being pushed to the ground… Don’t be blind to the campaign to divide this country along racial lines, my friend said to me. My friend is a good man, and I know he does not have a racist or hateful heart, but he thinks the racial divide in our country is a lie trumped up by the media. I know that I cannot convince him otherwise with my words. I watched the video again and I cried.

When I get home from work I hug my kids and eat dinner and it is good to have a family and a safe home and food. Then I read this post by my friend Osheta, and the tears roll down my face. I go to my bathroom and I sob for a little while, then I pull myself together and go for a walk around my peaceful neighborhood with my husband and our youngest daughter. I am thankful. I am ridiculously lucky. My heart still hurts.

There is so much pain and so much violence and it is 2015 and black people are being killed in their churches in my country and I can’t fix any of it.

But I am listening. I will enter in and listen to your story and let you feel your pain. I will not judge you and I will not try to say some magic formula of words in an attempt to make your pain go away, as though it is not real, as though you don’t have a right to feel it. I am listening and I am so sorry and I am listening and I know I need to listen more and I am listening and I love you.