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I Dare You to Love

James Warren June 21, 2020
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My family didn’t have generational wealth – at least the financial kind. My mother didn’t have any retirement to speak of. When we moved her to Richmond after her quadruple career as a professional singer, full-time homemaker, educator and minister, she had nothing but her social security. We knew we couldn’t afford to put her in an assisted living facility, but we did so anyway. Then she had her stroke. First, we worried about her living. Then we worried about her and us surviving financially. My sister spent so much time getting her Medicaid and Medicare approvals, it was a full-time job. My wife took so much time off work to help with doctor’s appointments, it cost her professionally.

Many doctors were good to us. But some ignored us, transactional healthcare at its worst, especially for people of color, women and the elderly. Mom was all three.

She had surgeries and procedures. Resources were limited so we leaned on the goodness of others – family, friends and the hospitals’ charity. My sister once again put her life on pause to do the hard work of managing multiple chronic health issues. My sister bandaged her wounds, and so did my wife. I could not bring myself to face that, to see my mother at her most vulnerable. I failed her. My sister and my wife did not. Thanks to them, we finally got to a level of stability. My sister, my wife and I got a handle on the day to day.

We thought we were going to make it through. But she didn’t.

One day, a few weeks before my mother got sick and passed away, I took the afternoon off from work and we drove around Richmond, spending time together. While I was already in my forties, it felt very much like a “Mommy and Me” day. And she loved it. We listened to music. We chatted. We had lunch. She gave me her usual encouragement and admonition on being a better man, father and husband. We talked about the world. She smiled so much. She smiled a smile of love, a mother’s love, that all of you know what I mean. When Mom smiled at me, I felt loved.

Not long after, we were in the hospital having hospice conversations. With her last moments of consciousness, she once again admonished me to “be good, Jimmy.” She was always exhorting me to be good, to be my best self.

She passed away in her nursing home. I was late to her death. I stood there hugging my sister and my wife, hugging my sons as they bore witness to their grandmother’s passing. At the time, only my wife and I knew that she carried our first child together, my third son. When I miss my mother, I think back to that day, and I feel her love again. That’s because love never dies.

When this happened, we mourned her. I felt guilty for not having more resources so we could do more for her — before, during and after the stroke. We used our privilege, limited as it was, and when that was insufficient, we made massive sacrifices, gladly, because that is what she had done for us our whole lives. My wife, who came into my life with privilege, shared her life with me and co-sacrificed with my sister and me, so we could care for my mother as best as we could, even though it was not enough. Even though it was not enough.

Writing this has brought me to tears.

I wondered if talking about love was too weak in these moments when righteous indignation is certainly called for. While we just celebrated Juneteenth, we did so with the mixed emotional burden of knowing we’re still fighting for our lives, our liberty and the pursuit of our happiness today.

Three or four nights ago, I was super angry. I saw some White people immediately retreating to their places of comfort, because they just couldn’t get their arms around this whole injustice thing. They couldn’t see past “us” and “them” and all their “whatabouts” and false equivalencies — “but when it comes to the looting and the rioting and just erasing history, well, I can’t abide by all that.” All of that misses the point. But it keeps happening, because, well, racism.

I mean, we’ve got some police walking off the job because they are mad that police who shoot people in the back are being held accountable. They want due process. Huh. So let me get this straight: we have some police protesting police accountability for police brutality in the midst of protests in response to police killings of unarmed black people. White privilege is no joke.

One of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses is that I’m an eternal optimist. I’ll keep believing there is a way through this. Because the day I stop believing that, is the day my soul cries. And I don’t want to see that day. So I’ve been wondering if there are other framings that will help White people see us, help you hear us, and help you change. I know I don’t have to do this, and that in fact, if you don’t do it on your own, it won’t stick. But I choose to do this because my faith and my hope suggest that if I can give you a framework to get yourselves uncorked, maybe it can change a few minds, and then maybe it’s a start.

But for us to get there, it’s gonna take you, White people, leaning into this effort. As we continue to say, and we’re turning up the volume on this, Black people didn’t create racism. So we can’t dismantle it. That’s your job. Oh trust me, we’re at the table because it’s our lives and our futures that are on the line. But this is about accountability meeting face to face with intention, both in the corridors of your power, and the living rooms of your privilege.

If you really want to fix this problem, you need to know it’s going to be hard. And it will be tough.

I believe much of racism is rooted in self-interest (particularly economic). It is sustained by systems that reinforce power, privilege and prejudice, justify superiority and maintain the status quo.

So if racism is rooted in self-interest, then might it stand to reason that anti-racism might require at least a level of collective interest that leads to equity-based system change? But we can’t get to collective interest if White people continue to see Black people as other, can we?

To get past “other,” the system change must also be accompanied by emotional change. This is inner work, to accompany the outer work, and to be honest, some folks still need to do more of it, and help their families and friends do it, too. There needs to be as much commitment to the personal emotional change as to the system change. Quite literally, we need White people to change their hearts and their minds about racism.

So let’s talk about the emotional change that we need to see: let’s talk about love.

This is hard my friends. I know, it sounds super soft and squishy, but in this context, it’s as hard as a rock. I’m not talking about the way you feel about your furry friend, or your job, or your favorite show. No, I’m talking about love like you love your life, your kids, your partner.

This will be hard for some White people because it requires them to see Black people as they see themselves. When you see us as you see yourselves, then you can begin to imagine loving us as you love yourselves.

It’s the whole treat people as you want to be treated thing, right? Love one another as you love yourself. Right?

So, are you doing that now? Could you do more of it tomorrow?

Look, we know this to be true in our personal relationships. We look at our spouses, our siblings and our kids, and we profess love for them. And we know we do love them. And we know it is also hard. Because love requires sacrifice. Love requires seeing things from someone else’s point of view — not as a single episode, but as a matter of living life with them.

If that’s what love means, and love is at least part of what it will take to fix this, then I have one question for you: are you ready to love Black people? 

Are we ready for more love in business? In government? In philanthropy? In academia? In community? In politics? In our systems of healthcare, housing, employment, environment, education and justice?

Before you say, “Absolutely, I’m ready to love Black people,” let’s go a little deeper.

What does it mean to love the way anti-racism requires? To love enough for Black lives to matter to White people the way their own lives matter to them? To love enough to willingly dismantle the systems that reinforce White privilege and power, in favor of ones that share it equitably? To love greatly?

Well, as some of you know and believe, there is no greater love than this, than for a person to lay down their life for a friend.

So if you want to love greatly, you have to lay down your life for a friend.

Am I your friend? Are we your friends? That might sound a little radical to you, but really it’s not. Let’s break it down further, and a few definitions, according to Webster’s, are helpful:

Love: strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another…

To lay down: To give up, to surrender…

Life: the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual; a way or manner of living…

And, friend: a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection; a person who acts as a supporter of a cause, organization, or country by giving financial or other help…

Well.

Obviously, I am not asking you to give up your physical life to save me. But do I want you to change your way of life for the good of others? Yes, I do.

I absolutely want you to acknowledge and then use your privilege not just for your own interest, but for our collective interest and well-being. I want you to use you privilege for good. For some of you, this is so hard-wired into your existence that you struggle to see it, but it is there.

And repurposing it will be a sacrifice.

And if you want to end racism, that is the sacrifice you have to make.

I realize all of you won’t make it, but some of you already have, and more of you will. And that’s what I’m counting on. That some of you will love greatly. Greatly enough to “lay down your life” for a friend.

Again, I’m not speaking to those who will never get there either because of their hatred for Black people or their willful ignorance of their own privilege and prejudice. I am speaking to the White people who might get there — and especially to those White allies who can influence them. Some of you are starting to wake up to racism. And that wake up is no joke. You’re going through all the feels (and sharing them with all of us, which is an experience in and of itself, when your feels meet up with our feels). And I’m asking you, White person of privilege and power, to be vulnerable. To take a little reputational risk.

I want you to stay with your discomfort – way past the first reflex to return to normal – and to start seeing us the way you see yourselves, to hear and see us and our experiences, to recognize the immorality, inequality and injustice of 400 years, 400 days, 400 hours, 400 minutes of racism… and to do something about it.

Do the hard thing, do the tough thing.

Love.

If you’re struggling to practice anti-racism, it means you’re struggling to love Black people the way you love yourself.

So ending racism means loving Black people. That’s it. You’ve gotta love us through your actions if you really want this to change. Everything else is lip service.

I was going to give you another list of what to do, but you don’t need it. You know what to do.

Look, Black people are tired. Fighting with some of you for our freedom is some kind of work. And some of us are almost done with it. But deep down inside, the overcomer in me rises up, the hotness of my anger is fused with my love for humanity, and I wake up again, weary, teary, confused, and yet determined. Determined to do what I can to make this better and participate with White people who are committed to ending racism, injustice and inequality.

In these moments when I feel the struggle between hopelessness and hope, I pray. I write. And I remember the things my mother taught me, that she is still teaching me. I remember how much I learned about love and sacrifice as my mother transitioned from this life – from her, my sister and my wife. And so in the end, I went with it, because that is what my mother taught me, and I think there might be some lessons in this for some of you, too.

Ending racism is hard, and I dare you to do it.

Better yet, I love you to do it.

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