I did not see this coming, and frankly, I’m pretty embarrassed about it.

A while back, I wrote a column on the still-hypothetical “national conversation on race.” A dear colleague emailed me this week to point out, graciously and civilly, that the ideas in the column had “white as normal” written all over them.

She’s right.

Like many other white people, I tend to see myself as more or less normal. I don’t see how my ideas arise in part from my position in society: membership in the privileged race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. I think I think like an everyday person. I actually think—at least to some extent—like a white, middle-class, male, straight person.  (If you think this is a tempest in a teapot, check out the Witnessing Whiteness book and blog, or the ten misunderstandings white liberals have about race. Or enjoy Colbert’s take on the issue.)

My colleague’s comment horrified me. The last thing I ever want to do is exclude people, however unconsciously. Yet if it’s unconscious, how do I know I’m doing it?

Shelly Tochluk, the author of Witnessing Whiteness, provides an interesting way to think about this. In writing about her attempts to foster discussions around race at her college, she notes:

I’m not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I’m not as good I want to be is a powerful thing…and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.

After ruminating on this awhile, I’ve come out with four lessons for myself. I would love to hear what you think of them. 

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. That somewhere is usually with one’s own story, background, experience, etc. The ideas I have are inextricably bound up with who I am. You might say that the best I can offer to the world is who I am.
  2. Who I am is severely limited. Same with who you are, or the neighbor down the street, or Barack Obama. Each of us is exactly one person, with exactly one person’s perspective.
  3. To expand my perspective, I need you. Specifically, I need to listen to you. Verbal dialogue lies at the heart of that listening. But it could also mean reading the books you love, absorbing the music you enjoy, hanging out with the people you hang out with.
  4. This type of dialogue is hard work, and it leaves us extraordinarily vulnerable. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone. That’s one reason I believe people of faith are so well qualified for dialogue. They don’t need to muster the inner strength alone because they’re not alone. With the presence of the Divine to encourage them, they are emboldened to take the risks needed to reach out and be reached out to.

When I think about this last point, it brings to mind a prayer at the end of the Episcopal Mass: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Serving, loving, and listening take strength and courage. So when we screw up and get slapped down—as we inevitably will when pursuing dialogue—we acknowledge our blind spots and go to the Source of that courage. Then, refreshed, we return to the fray.