World Trust

And Still We Rise

Posted by Shakti Butler on June 26, 2015
Tuesday evening of last week, June 15, my nephew called to ask my opinion on the Rachel Dolezal story. We had an interesting conversation. Everyone was talking about the phenomenon of a white woman passing for black. The gist of my nephew's particular question was this: what about all the good work she did? Do we have to throw that all out because she was pretending to be something she is not?  

My response to him was that we currently live in a binary world – we are taught that you are either good or bad; right or wrong. This doesn’t leave a lot of latitude for building capacities that acknowledge the relationship between both the light and shadow that expresses itself individually, collectively and structurally. Learning how to embrace paradox with parity – the fact that more than one thing is true at a time -- is a necessary 21st century skill set. And, of course, there are so many levels of analyses that have been offered about Rachel, but this conversation with my nephew wasn’t about any of that. It was about the value of being able to hold the both/and -- about being able to see multiple things at once.

Wednesday, June 16 (as the Charleston massacre was taking place in the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church), I was talking to a young man named Gary in preparation for our new film project about Restorative Justice and its potential for helping to interrupt the youth to prison pipeline. Gary had joined an L.A. gang at the age of 14. By 16, he’d committed a murder. I learned about his journey from being a highly traumatized youth to his search for belonging and protection within the sanctum of a gang, culminating in him receiving a life sentence.

While serving his sentence, he participated in a Restorative Justice process that included a victim offender program which turned Gary's life around. He learned how to feel the pain he caused and to place his actions within a larger structural context. 
Now Gary works with other youth and finds himself offering hope to others who need healing in order to function as contributive members of society. Our conversation sparkled with the power of potential restoration among young lives for others headed down a similar path of pain and suffering. I was so touched by Gary's transparency, accountability and authenticity--it stood in stark contrast to the immoral and elusive nature of Rachel’s response to the media.

As I drove home I thought about the difference between Rachel and Gary’s stories. They bothhave engaged in “good”  and “bad” behavior within a systemic context that is designed to churn out structural inequities. Certainly, understanding systems and structures, rather than only individualized actions, is required to analyze and address the racialized challenges we face as a nation.  At the end of the day though, moral values are critical since they inform our motivations and behavior.  Gary has a moral compass and is living a life of integrity while Rachel is not. Moral values mitigate and inform the choices that ultimately will give rise to building a society invested in a healthy and productive future for all.

Thursday, June 17, I woke up to the horror of the reports from Charleston, playing out the polarization of light and dark with a malevolence that consumed a sanctury, a place of faith and peace. The level of distress, sorrow, pain and anger has impacted so many.  We must allow ourselves to feel because escape into only intellectual processing or analysis is a form of paralysis that actually can perpetuate cycles of trauma.

Over the course of this past week I have been putting myself back together and quite frankly, like so many others, I am still feeling quite fragile.  Evil entered a house of worship with premeditated intentions to take innocent lives.  The deviousness of a killer, filled with so much hatred that he could sit in church with his intended victims for an hour before he enacted terror, is ugliness masquerading in human form. That hatred was visible in pictures of his contorted face and seemed to fill his entire being with a poison. 

The truth is that like so many others, the murderer could rationalize his perspective and actions because he is not alone, because hate-filled ideologies have been taught and drilled into him through a warped view of history, the stories he has been told, the communities he spent time in, perhaps even in his own place of worship. These ideas, and the people who support them, are his place of belonging.  Within the hatred of his views, his actions make twisted sense and inform his sense of morality. 

We at World Trust have spent decades trying to understand and educate others about the systemic structures that are in place, which spew and elevate hate and violence.  At the same time, the many lives that have been brutally snatched away, the nine church members pictured above, their memories represent centuries of wrong doing that are swimming in an ocean within us, full of pain, sorrow, and rage.   It’s been a hell of a week. And yet, we must continue to rise.

We support those who are grieving; we share the narratives and keep the memories and the struggle for justice alive so that we may remember the need to press forward. We honor and mourn the nine church members who died.  We gather in our collective communities to support one another in healing while we look deeply into the systems and structures that inoculate fear, hatred and violence.  We ask questions that challenge long-held concepts.

Since we are capable of both the best and the worst behaviors, thoughts and deeds - how can we hold accountability and compassion side by side?

How do we create belonging in this world?

What’s it going to take for us to live lives that are in alignment with our collective potential for greatness? 

How do we take care of ourselves and support one another as we work towards a world that is safe and equitable for everyone? 

How do we catch our breath?  

How do we rise? 

shakti_headshot2013This post was written by World Trust Founder and President, Dr. Shakti Butler.

World Trust is a nonprofit that uses film and dialogue to provide a catalyst for racial equity and social change. To learn more about our diversity workshops led by our dynamic facilitators or keynote speeches by Dr. Butler, contact World Trust.

Topics: System of Inequity, Shakti Butler, Responding to a Racist Incident