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Rick Deines is a conversation facilitator with the Zeidler Group.
“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country and change the history the world.” James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time.”
Hearing Maya Angelou read James Baldwin’s words is both inspiring and instructive. Inspiring because of the beautiful language. Instructive because of its analysis and proposal.
Baldwin’s words confronted me first in the disruptive mid-1960s in my neighborhood in Chicago. As relatively conscious whites, we committed ourselves to rid our nation of the racial nightmare. My family and I became enmeshed in the “movement” and were fundamentally changed by a church and city of relatively conscious Black people.
However, over 50 years later, the “racial nightmare” is too much with us. George Floyd’s death is a stark reminder of its presence.
We have lived in Milwaukee for nearly 30 years. We’ve graduated from and taught in its schools. We have worked in many of its neighborhoods. Relatively conscious Blacks have been the key in our own growth, inadequate as that seems at times.
Current marches and rallies in Milwaukee are evidence that relatively conscious young people are leading the various expressions of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ as the poster that says, “When Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter” suggests.
They seem to know that when Baldwin speaks of “we,” he means both “relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks.” He sees increased consciousness creating the force that is needed. Yet, he does not equate the experience of Blacks and whites. Nor does he limit a consciousness that stops short of change. His plea for consciousness is more than awareness. Rather he sees that increased consciousness of Blacks, whites and others as necessary for forward movement.
“Relative consciousness” differs for those of us who reflect on our whiteness from those who see through the prism of blackness. We have different ways of perceiving and understanding. Yet, by each focusing on our own “relative consciousness” about race, we can come together.
Baldwin calls the white me to be a “lover.” A lover is vulnerable. A lover is open to criticism. A lover looks to change. A lover listens. A lover does not seek control.
We learn from one another as we “love” one another, not a sloppy sentimentalism or romantic love, but a relationship of mutual respect and a celebration of the dignity of every person.
At wedding rituals, a common reading is from the writer Paul:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; [It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13—Revised New Testament
To be relatively conscious as a white person means to choose to be a lover. Blacks, too, are called to be relatively conscious and lovers. But love will likely be expressed differently from a person who is Black. It is not a level playing field.
W.E.B Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, sociologist and social activist in “The Souls of Black Folk,” introduces the concept of “double consciousness” as the struggle African Americans face to remain true to Black culture while at the same time conforming to the dominant white society. Those who are Black play in a game with rules created by whites. And we who are white have never had to learn “Black” ways or play by rules they created. As they say, the game is rigged.
Baldwin asks me “to insist on or create the consciousness of others.” But how? We are all part of systems — family, neighborhood, schools, churches, etc. Can we not immediately point out ways we can change the behavior of those structures? Can we learn from the behavior of others? Can we fashion and propose new rules that better reflect who we are as a neighbor and community?
There are examples within our reach. We who are white, too, can “have the talk” — about the realities of race — with our children about how the game is played. Then it is not as hard for our kids to see the advantages we have had.
We can learn from people like Greg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs pro basketball team who is a “relatively conscious” white person. He invites Black players to shape and re-shape how “Pop” behaves. He reciprocates with books, films and experiences that build mutuality and trust within the team and beyond through dialogue in a non-threatening space. (New York Times article by Maureen Dowd, 06/14/20.)
Doreen Oliver is a Black person who is “relatively conscious.” By going up the chain of command, she asked questions of accountability from the Target CEO for the mistreatment of her 18-year-old autistic son. (New York Times article by Doreen Oliver, 06/14/2020) She chose to move from being only a “nurturer” of her family to an “advocate” for justice. In doing that, she confronted Target and directed these questions at its CEO:
1. How could Target allow a situation to escalate after the store knows the customer is a child, particularly one with autism.
2. What systems can Target put in place to avoid having the police being involved in the future?
3. Does Target train its employees to know how to work with developmentally disabled customers (or others who are persons of color or different)?
As relatively conscious Blacks and whites, we become advocates and ask questions. We all have situations of responsibility within that we can choose to act for the good. We can devise the needed questions and go to those who need to account for their actions—businesses, law enforcement, politicians, educators, health officials. All systems can be altered, fixed, re-imagined and re-created to serve the common good more fairly.
It’s a long-term march, but more immediate results seem to be possible. A new energy is being released daily. Now is the time to capitalize. Who will lead? Yes, we need to vote. But do we have to wait?
We each have a role to play. Preaching to the choir or pretending to be on the moral high ground are not the only alternatives. Rather, embracing the “lovers” stance and attitude invites a more trusting relationships both with those with whom we agree and with others who disagree.
Care for others results in caring for ourselves. In that way we may “achieve our country and change the world.”