Reading and Waking Up: Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Piecing Me Together

Goodreads

Let me begin the second entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

It’s often said fiction is the best way to understand difficult issues. I especially agree with this sentiment in regards to Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, a young adult novel about Jade, a young woman who “believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed.” As such, her mother pushes her to take up every single “opportunity” possible: attending a mostly white private school far from her friends, tutoring students in Spanish after school, and the Woman to Woman mentor program.

This last one is quite unwelcome, and a major theme of the book is the relationship she develops with her mentor Maxine, who is black and went to the same private school Jade attends, but seems to have trouble understanding Jade’s own reality. Jade also navigates a friendship with her white classmate Sam, while also managing her relationships with her hard-working mother, her loving father, her best friend Lee Lee, and others. She is also a budding collage artist, and she is most expressive in the act of taking ordinary items and piecing them into something beautiful and whole.

The book touches on a lot of important themes: police brutality, sexism, body image, subtle racism and classism, and family and friend relationships, but it struck me most in the honesty with which it addressed mentor programs catered to “at-risk youth.”

I coordinated a mentoring program, Sister2Sister, for 2 years after I graduated from college, which worked with girls from predominantly Latino and African American communities. I have also been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2008, and my Little is Latina. My experience has given me the privilege to be in relationship with girls from different ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds from my own, and in the midst of joy and connection, many accidental faux-pas occurred due to my own white privilege and bias. I received a lot of grace from other mentors, leaders, professors, and the girls themselves in acknowledging and properly dealing with my privilege and biases, but I still have a lot to learn, as I did then.

Jade’s interactions with her mentor Maxine, and her white friend Sam, taught me a lot about the flaws in my own good intentions and how those aren’t always enough. I also learned forgiveness and repentance are possible when allies and mentors alike are willing to acknowledge their own complicity, accidental or otherwise, in a white supremacist system.

Most of all, I heard a young woman’s passion, one which broke through despite the world attempting to break and silence her, through overt and hidden racism, through savior complexes, through flat-out ignorance, and through her own conditions.

Through Jade’s story, Renee Watson reminded me of the power of truly hearing someone’s story as told by them.

So if you’re looking to understand a piece of the contemporary black narrative, please read this story of a strong, intelligent, articulate, creative black young woman coming to terms with the world around her and how she will live into it.

It changed me. I’m sure it will change you, too.

Sorry I’m Late: Showing Up for Justice after Ignoring the Invitations

rsvp

Broomwithaview.com

I read recently how protesting and resisting systemic evil in Trump’s America is like finally showing up to a party after numerous invitations and delays.

Organizations like Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the International Rescue Committee, and other activist groups have known of this corruption for a much longer time than most of us privileged people. Some were born into this system and have been pushing back from an early age. Others “got woke” and caught the memo as early as they could and jumped right into action.

I, on the other hand, showed up to this “party” beyond fashionably late.

I made plenty of excuses in the process, too.

I didn’t know if anyone I knew would be there. I didn’t know what to say when I showed up, because I didn’t know if I would understand what everyone was saying and didn’t want to make any more social faux pas than I already do.

I also didn’t know what to bring. Should I keep it cheap and bring a bag of chips or actually go through the effort of preparing a tasty entree? Should I buy a little gift on the way or make something crafty and impressive so everyone there would know my presence was legitimate?

I didn’t know how to deal with my own power and privilege in these contexts, either. I didn’t know if I could voice my insights or if I should let everyone else do the talking. Would I be too “white,” too “hetero,” or too privileged to even have a reason to be there? Would people think I was there to fulfill my Messiah-complex? Would I know if that was my reason?

More than being uncomfortable with messing up, though, I didn’t want to arrive needing to learn anything. I wanted to arrive fully prepared and ready to do everything just right, as if I were the host and the leader, not the one invited to be led.

So instead of being with and learning from those who are most oppressed, I read articles and posted tweets. I wrote about social justice from my perspective, and while I mentioned the marginalized, I didn’t learn too much about their own perspectives. When I did read their words, I let my own guilt and shame push me away from their pain instead of deeper into it.

Finally, after the election, I began to realize I no longer cared (as much) if I said or did the wrong things as long as I said and did something. I began to honestly acknowledge my role, not to lead and take over, but to follow and learn from those affected most by these evils.

I finally showed up to the party, and I felt a little awkward.

I arrived with my bag of chips in hand and a sheepish grin on my face, all apologetic for my tardiness, and tried to figure out how to take part in the festivities.

I know I don’t get the head seat, which as a natural leader bothers me. I don’t get to call all the shots, which as an outspoken person discomforts me. I have to listen and learn more than I interject and teach, and my desire to control and be “right” are going to make this so difficult and so necessary.

I am so terribly late, and it will take me a while to feel comfortable with the crowd. It’s going to take some time for me to stop berating myself for showing up as late as I did, and to own my lateness without letting it own me.

In that time, though, I will listen to, learn from, and live with those on the front lines as a no-longer absent ally.

So to those with whom I am marching, protesting, and resisting, who have been doing this work a lot longer than I: Thank you for the invitation and for still opening the door and welcoming me in when you had every right to tell me to hit the road. Thank you for giving me the grace to learn and be here with you.

I’m sorry ahead of time for the things I will say that will show how much learning about I still have to do. I’m sorry for the times I will unintentionally step on your toes and try to be the leader when I am called to be the follower. I can only hope you will forgive me and extend grace my way, even when I don’t deserve it, in your own way and time.

Above all, know I am here with you because you are made in the sacred image of God, and I want to honor the divinity within you as well as I can.

Thank you for letting me join with you as an ally.

To those in my shoes, all tied up in power and privilege, wanting to be part of this but unsure exactly how, get involved anyway you can. March, protest, talk to your representatives.

Most of all, talk with and be among those whom these policies most affect, because they will be the ones to lead these movements and make change happen, because their lives and livelihoods are on the line.

Listen to and learn from them. Don’t try to lead. Instead, follow. Let them be the leaders of their own movements. Be allies instead of saviors.

You’re going to make mistakes. Of course you are. We all do. Be quick to apologize, quick to learn, and quick to move forward.

May God be with us, and may we be with each other, in the victories and pitfalls.

*****

To learn more about being involved in social change as a privileged person, check out Christena Cleveland’s upcoming series, How to be last:  A practical theology for privileged people.