When we were in Mexico in January, I accidentally bought a racist mug.
It was the last day of our trip. The cab was waiting to take us to the airport. All week, I’d noticed through the gift shop window a particular deep red mug with an etched, Aztec-inspired circular print, cactus in the middle. Cozumel, Mexico, it said.
I bought it that morning from the hotel gift shop in a rush, counting out the pesos, waiting for the gift shop clerk to wrap it and stick it in the bag, knowing that Andrew was likely getting impatient, holding the cab, pacifying the kids, waiting for me because I’d said, “We need a souvenir! I know just the thing! I’ll just be a sec!”
Only when we got back home and I unwrapped the mug did I notice the caricature – a drunken Mexican man, passed out against that cactus, sombrero covering his face, tequila bottle lying next to him on the ground.
I gaped at it in my kitchen, shocked by what I now held in my hands. How had I missed it? How had I bought that mug without ever noticing what was dead center?
And I suppose the answer is as simple and as complicated as this:
I wasn’t really looking.
Over the last month, terrible things have happened in our country. I am thinking about the Orlando shooting that targeted, so tragically and specifically, the LGBTQ community. I am thinking about those iPhone videos of police shootings of black men – stark evidence of a system that is broken. The one taken in here in Minnesota, just a few suburbs away, cycles through my head again and again – the shell-shocked woman, the dying man, the cop outside the window panicked, electric with fear.
I am thinking about the violent anger of the sniper in Dallas who targeted white policemen and shot them one by one. I am thinking about their wives, their children. I’m in church, sneaking peeks at our own county sheriff – a kind man whose daughter has babysat my children for years. I wonder what he is thinking as he closes his eyes during a song.
I am thinking all of these things, and yet, my voice has been absent in the Internet sphere in which I often write and blog, where so many conversations take place.
Silence is violence, people are tweeting.
To say nothing is to take the side of the oppressor.
And yet I can no more bring myself to jump into the social media fray of it all than I could add my voice to the cacophony of class discussion in school – even though my “lack of participation” meant I didn’t get an A. My finger hovers over the empty status box, but I can’t think of what to say.
Does not adding my thoughts to that pulsing, twitching thing called Twitter mean I’ve taken the side of the oppressor? Social media interactions have always been an ill-fitting suit for my soul, like Saul’s armor on that boy-child David. I never got the hang of it, and I’ve never been very good at protest. My work has always been more about writing about my journey to make peace with God, with the Bible, with faith – so that God can make peace in and through me.
So I did not add a French flag filter to my profile after the Paris shooting or a rainbow filter after Orlando, though I read the names, read the names, read the names over and over like a liturgy of loss, like a prayer of confession.
And I have to believe that, contrary to what the teachers always said, “participation” does not necessarily always have to be about entering the relentless, volleying classroom discussion – or the social media one. Sometimes it looks like something else entirely.
In an essay in the New Yorker called “Memoir is Not a Status Update,” author Dani Shapiro quotes Adrienne Rich, who said “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment – that explodes poetry.”
Shapiro goes on to talk about the difference between writing a memoir and sharing a Facebook status. “In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.”
And what I want you to know about my social media silence around these giant, important cultural issues is that it is not a passive silence. It’s a soul-searching, heart-rending one. The buzzing quiet you hear when you turn to my social media feed is the sound of me, listening.
I have written two memoirs, and I am used to the quiet it takes for me to cobble meaning from madness. So I’m not writing Facebook updates or tweeting and retweeting the news, but I am sitting inside that swirling vortex of our complicated national history of race and injustice, of hope and despair. I am sitting with my own oblivious past, with the stories of others, with the wise words of those who do wear the armor of the social media protester well. I am letting it all gather pressure inside of me.
After all, it is only over the past few years that I’ve begun to understand that my faith does not inoculate me against racism. I grew up singing, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, but I’m just now learning that those worlds sang in a Sunday school classroom of predominantly white children is no match for the systems that reinforce a hierarchy of worth, for that thing Jesse Williams named in his BET speech an “invention called whiteness.”
I have been a Christian – albeit a wobbly one at times – all of my life. But still, when I dare to look deeply into the deep places of my own heart, I find that there are trace amounts of fear and judgment towards those who are different from me. Though I am desperate to live in the Kingdom of God, there is a part of me that has been formed by the systems of this society. I have to admit that I am prone, however unintentionally, to strip the humanity from those whom God loves, accepting the cultural caricatures embossed onto the mug, simply because I’m not really looking.
I am learning to look, to finally notice the planters’ warts of fear and indifference and naiveté that have grown inward and are keeping me from truly walking in the shoes of my brothers and sisters. I am asking God to burn, burn, burn them away.
Still, the teachers were right in their way; we must participate.
To be a Christian is to choose, as Jesus did, to engage with a world that is so often broken and messy and fear-filled.
But I guess what I want you to know about my “silence” is that it’s not really silence at all.
What I want to say is that there are a thousand ways to use your voice, and it doesn’t have to look like Facebook, like Twitter, like a protest in the street, like a viral video.
It can be as small as a conversation with a friend, as simple as reading a book to your child. An email, a phone call, a hand stretched out into the darkness. It can be the gathering pressure of all the heaviness, slowing forming into poetry or prose in your soul.
Listen. Do you hear it?
There is a choir of voices singing a song of lament and protest and hope and justice. It is diverse and wide and beautiful, and you don’t have to have a solo to be part of it
All that is required of you is to show up. Let the music move you. Find your voice.