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Context Shapes Our View


Context is everything. I often forget that who my parents are, where I’ve lived, the color of my skin, my gender, my sexual orientation, my education, my family, and my job often define what I notice in the world around me and how I’m treated.

Sometimes when I’m engaged in a transaction that seems relatively simple to me, such as returning merchandise without a receipt, I remind myself that one of the reasons it may be easy is because of my color and class. I imagine the complexity of returning merchandise without a receipt might depend on the store clerk’s construct of who you are based on their perception of how you look. "White privilege" is something that needs to be discussed as much as our country’s racism. All too often, I hear one talked about without taking into account those folks discussing the other, each view based on individual contexts and truths.

I recently heard Sue Monk Kidd speak about her new book The Invention of Wings. At the end of the reading, she answered questions from the audience. A white middle-aged man from Seattle asked a question that really stuck with me: "How can we help to end discrimination?" When Mark, my husband, and I talk about ways to resolve this enormous issue, I normally say he needs to speak about it with his "tribe," other white middle-aged men. If, as whites, we started discussions about each other's context and what whiteness has afforded us, we might engage in more-full spectrum conversations. In discussions where everyone is aware of the context for their perceptions, I find that more questions are asked and perceptions adjusted as we move forward together toward understanding.

When I got home after hearing Sue Monk Kidd speak, I started to read her historical fiction novel. I couldn’t stop reading, partly because (a) I didn't grow up in the South, (b) my stepfather had no tolerance for racism, and (c) as a 1960's kid from the West Coast, including my experience living abroad, I had no understanding of Southern racism.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s book, she explored slavery in the early 1800's. I’m always taken back when I see or hear about the underbelly and cruelty of some human experiences. And I often can't understand or reconcile the how or why of it. The day after I finished The Invention of Wings was the day of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. It’s impossible for me to understand the hatred and violence that one person can inflict on so many. At the same time, it was stunning to see the forgiveness given by many to the young man who inflicted such a violent act on their loving community.

If we change the conversation about racism to a wider, more full-spectrum conversation that includes white privilege, can we abolish racism?

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