Beloved Community is Made and Broken in Relationship.
“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma, 1957
My mother taught me the values of the beloved community, describing it as a future place where people of all walks of life treat each other with respect and dignity. I now know that it is not a mythical place, but the truth of our shared humanity. An illusive, violently attacked and yet always present relationship between all people, really all of life. Racism breaks that connection, divides us and seeks to conquer people of color to this day. And while systemic change is the path to living into this wholeness of being, each of us can deny, harm, witness, heal, or fortify that connection in any given moment of our journey. I learned that from my mother, too.
“It is not about race. It’s just easier to seat all the kids getting school lunch together,” said my Kindergarten teacher. Deny.
When I heard my beloved teacher, an older white woman working in the neighborhood public school I attended in the city of Buffalo say this to my mother, I was confused. At this young age, we did not yet choose to sit together by race, but were segregated. It was 1984. Hearing my teacher’s explanation, I knew the truth was that a number of the Black children, my friends, that she assigned to sit together in fact brought lunch from home, and a number of the white children, also friends, not seated there, got a school lunch. Harm.
My mother, a “nice white lady,” visited our classroom for the first time over lunch and was shocked to see all the white kids seated at one table while all the Black kids were seated at another. Witness.
This was the impetus for my mother to take action by also talking to me, her five year old, about race, racism and privilege from that moment on. She knew that teacher broke our connection and she did not want me, her white daughter, to internalize or perpetuate that harm. Heal.
Much of what I know about racism I learned in Kindergarten. Developmentally, it turns out, it’s when we all begin to learn about the social construct of race. My mother’s early interventions taught me that dismantling racism — and overcoming our own biases — is a lifelong practice. And I had a long journey ahead. Fortify.
When I was nine and complained about standing in the rain waiting to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak (Apartheid was still law in South Africa), my mom told me:
“People are fighting for their lives all over the world. It is our human duty to show up for their human rights.”
After I threw a teenage tantrum about being rejected from Cornell University when a Latinx friend was accepted, who I assumed to be less worthy, with little evidence and a whole lot of entitlement, she said:
“You are going to have countless opportunities afforded to you because of your race and class privilege, now and in this lifetime, Sarah. Have grace beyond your fear in this moment.”
She and my father made the decision to live in a multiracial neighborhood and send their children to a public school with a legal mandate for 50/50 students of color/white students. She celebrated diversity and actively encouraged our understanding of racism — like taking us to hear Cornel West on his Race Matters book tour when I was 13 years old and my brother was 11.
She also, unknowingly, taught me something much deeper, being an anti-racist white person. We can work the lists of books and actions to be an ally — or at least not an overt racist. But beyond this work — this incredibly important work — there is one major lesson I learned that I am building into the foundation for my daughters to grow upon: we make or break our connection to the beloved community through our relationships.
I have memories in which my mom introduced me to colleagues or thought leaders of color, but I don’t have a single memory of a Black family coming over for dinner.
Those deeper relationships with people of color was the wall at which my mom disconnected from our shared humanity. And connection is what we are here on this earth for — whether by god, for our survival, or for the joy of life.
My mother, and so many other loving, anti-racist white people, witness, heal and fortify that love at a distance, but until we commit to staying connected in our relationships, we are stuck. Or worse yet, we find that the world we thought we were building is not only imagined, it’s decaying before our eyes.
Our country is moving away from this ideal of cross-racial community that most of people actually share, following nascent progress made through social integration policies fought for and won decades ago. Research from the last five years, and in particular in the current political and cultural context of Donald Trump’s white supremacist leadership (also this link), shows white America is “quietly self-segregating.” A 2017 memo released by the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty states, “a typical white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and 8 percent African American, while a typical African American person lives in a neighborhood that is only 35 percent white and 45 percent African American.” The tech industry, social media, and recent self-reporting in the environmental movement and philanthropy, the fields in which I work, shows even more dismal segregation.
We are at once outraged by the overt racism of Donald Trump’s border wall and at the same time subconsciously building, ignoring or simply accepting a racial division in our relationships.
White supremacy is rooted in the man-made idea that people of different races, do not belong together. The very concept of race is an idea born to sever our connection to each other, and therefore, with the beloved community. And this racist system is responsible for the devastation that most Americans experience — from our broken public infrastructure to our vulture economy to our climate crisis — because if we actually connected to our shared humanity on a daily basis, we could not tolerate the violence and harm experienced by most people only to enrich the few.
Over time, I realized that if I didn’t do the much more complex and sustained work of cultivating relationships, I would continue to uphold the very system of white supremacy I so desperately wanted to end.
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963
My wake up call happened when I was 27 and getting married (to a white male). Looking around the overwhelmingly white room I noticed both the absence of friendships formed but not yet bonded and those made but not maintained. I could not deny that I had some relational work to do if I was truly committed to the beloved community.
To my fellow white people already “woke” or aware of racial injustice, here is what I’ve learned: To move from statements of solidarity into the beloved community, the most important question is not, “What can I do?” (Though please keep asking yourself this question). The most important question is, “Who am I in relationship with?”
I believe that this is our generation’s call, and we have a lot of catching up to do, on this long road to freedom.
After my wedding showed how far I still had to go in the quality of my own relationships, I sought to move differently in the world. To push through the wall of my own discomfort, I had to come to terms with the fact that with relationships come mistakes. Humans hurt each other. All the time. The point is to have the humility to feel the impact of your mistakes on those you care about and the dignity to keep listening, showing up as your loving, authentic self. The point is to stay connected.
As I deepened existing relationships and formed new ones, I found that letting go of any need to be the “perfect ally” helped me stay connected to my own humanity, not to mention with other people, and this was critical for real relationships to develop. And good thing, because wow, did I fuck up. But now, after years of trust-building, I get honest feedback from friends — both people of color and white people — willing to risk giving me tough love despite the defensiveness that characterizes most conversations with white people about race. Like all great friendships, we are invested in each other’s success, naming when we let each other down, need time to process, or want the other person to show up differently.
I started to let go of my “either/or” mentality (a characteristic of a white supremacist culture, FYI) to see the complexity of human behavior. I was ok knowing that I am both full of racist behaviors I want to change (like implicit biases) and those positive behaviors that I can model for others (like co-navigating power). I was ok knowing not every person of color would want to be in relationship with me and some spaces were sanctuaries for people of color away from white people. Overtime, I could hold multiple realities without shame or pride, or a need to be in every picture of life I was seeing. I could just walk the path knowing the fullness of relationships.
I’ve taken professional and social risks to name when people of color are being excluded from opportunities and to redesign processes or systems in organizations to improve racial equity. Our programs at the Solutions Project are designed to intervene in the undeniable racism of the nonprofit sector, including the climate movement. To increase connection across our field, we move money, media and momentum behind leaders at the frontlines of the problem and forefront of the solutions our mission serves. Fortify.
I’ve also dehumanized friends and coworkers with biases I would have never seen if they didn’t value our relationship enough to give me feedback. Railroading partners who I assumed couldn’t keep up with the pressures of a project deadline, despite all the evidence that diverse teams outperform in any context. Prioritizing the comfort or needs of white people in cross-racial teams under the pretext of keeping the peace, inadvertently accommodating bad behaviors that weakened our culture. Harm.
I continue to step up, walk alongside and step back — and mess up, and clean up — and learn, and learn, and learn.
And my leadership has grown as a result.
“You have to be in accountable relationships across race. Accountable means that they’re authentic, they’re sustained, and that you do talk about racism, and you are able to be given feedback. I could not articulate what I can articulate today — and my learning will never be finished — but I could not begin to articulate it if I had not had years of being mentored by people of color. In a way you have to center whiteness in order to de-center whiteness. But you have to center whiteness differently than it remains centered now. You have to shine a light on it and expose it. It’s ongoing and it’s lifelong and we’re not going to get there with easy answers. And there’s nothing that I’ve found more transformative and liberating than this work.” — Robin DiAngelo, interview on White Fragility in Elle magazine
In the nearly 40 years of my life, I have been sustained, nourished and strengthened by the grace I’ve found as part of an ever-more beloved community. I expand my horizons and heart when our family, including my mom and dad, sits around the Christmas table with friends, celebrating life year after year. But make no mistake, this is not a feel good moment. The stakes are increasing as racism determines whose children thrive, are kept safe, or die. White supremacists are in the highest political offices and in the streets violently attacking people they deem disposable. I know that white progressives and liberals feel urgency to change the lived conditions for our brothers and sisters of color. Yet whether it be in private conversations or on panels, in coalition meetings or in everyday experiences in our neighborhoods, we are disconnected, and disconnecting.
When we have greater intimacy, listen to and share experiences with our co-workers, family and friends of color, we can better understand the harm done to those we care about by society and yes, even by us. We can develop the strength and stamina to move in right relationship and support leaders of color — especially those with the closest proximity to the problems and solutions our missions or passions serve.
Without that relationship, curiosity, and knowledge, we keep ourselves segregated in day to day actions of subconscious white solidarity, and lose ground for our collective wins and liberation.
So how to make change in your life so you can move in deeper relationship? Well, that’s something you need to honestly assess for yourself, with your neighbors, friends, coworkers, and family members of color. But you can come to those first awkward conversations prepared. Share your fears and mistakes with your anti-racist white friends. Read (Robin DiAngelos’ book White Fragility is a must and there are other resources linked above curated from an expert I look to in the field, Keecha Harris). Do something that inspires you to get centered. Find support. Pay attention to those signs that you’re on the right path, like when I heard Claudia Rankine’s interview for On Being just after I finished writing what I thought was the final draft of this piece. Weep when you listen to it, too, as you recognize yourself and accept how quickly “the space between us gets violated in these moments” when in others, that space can be filled with joy. And open your heart to the beloved community, which is here and now.
“I feel our nation’s turning away from love…moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love.” — bell hooks, All About Love, 2000