Why I Wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person

I did go see 12 Years a Slave, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, alone. I sat in the sparsely occupied theater with seven other people: four white men, two white women, and one black man. And for the duration of the ads and the movie previews I tried to brace myself for the experience. I kept whispering to myself, “It’s a movie. It doesn't happen anymore. It's a movie. It doesn't happen anymore.” I could not remember the last time I felt so physically tense and uncomfortable at the beginning of a film. Scene after scene, my body did not relax once. And when it was over, I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak. I needed space to process the images I had seen, the dark silences I had heard, and the slow leaking of my own raw emotion I did not even know I had been holding on to for the previous two and a half hours. I have always been awed by how humans can experience both a deep numbness and extreme pain at the same time.

Seeing the movie was hard. But the truth is I had developed my own race problem before the film was even released. And when I look back I see that it has largely come from the slow and painfully growing suspicion that I’m primarily a check-mark in the lives of so many well-meaning, educated white people. Black educated friend: check. African conversation partner: check. Black woman of safe but uncommitted romantic exploration: check. Black articulate friend I can introduce to my family: check. Black internationally reared cultural elite I can relate to without leaving my comfort zone: check. Black emotionally safe friend with whom I can make "black jokes" in the name of familiarity: check. The list could go on.

I am saddened at the undeniable reality of my problem. I mourn my seeming inability to fully trust those pink-skinned children of God.

The most unsettling thing about my race problem is that I’m not sorry for it, though. Confession may be the first step, but I have failed to reach the second one: repentance. I know I cannot stay in this place of distrust, of increasing disdain and anger. But I am not ready to dismiss these feelings, either. I am not ready to work toward the unity I believe we are all called to move toward. Because these feelings, difficult and tragic as they are, seem to be teaching me some valuable lessons.

Now more than ever I will engage in cross-racial relationships with an unapologetic and hopefully compassionate commitment to calling out the ways that people fail to see the complexity and reality of being black in America.

Now more than ever I will write and speak in ways that seek to reclaim what is “normal” from whiteness.

Now more than ever, I will struggle in public dialogue with the ongoing repercussions of being a Christian living in a country that since its beginning has woven together religion and race to sanctify human bondage and to help maintain injustice.

Now more than ever I will pour my creative energy into supporting and building safe spaces in which all shades of brown and mahogany boys and girls can live the fullness of life as boys and girls created in the image of God.

I have given myself permission to dwell in this malaise. I do trust that eventually it will be redeemed. I hope my white friends can bear with me however long it takes. Even if it’s something as crazy as a dozen years.

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