Response: February 2017 Issue

Sustained Discomfort

Being antiracist white allies is an ongoing practice of discomfort that values true peace over silence.

Sustained Discomfort

Six communion services were held in front of the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas, during a span of 64 hours in July 2016. The first service was held the evening of Sunday, July 10, at the same time a young African-American woman named Sandra Bland had been brought into the jail a year before in 2015. The last service was held on the morning of Wednesday, July 13, when the news had broken of her death.

It was a way of marking time. It was a way of staying focused. It was a way of telling ourselves and others why those of us who were there, were there. Four of us stayed the full 64 hours: Jeremy, Mirissa, Randy and I. Between services we chatted, prayed, read, ate or slept. Every 12 hours, we poured the grape juice, took our place in front of the doors to the jail, and broke the bread and shared it. Jeremy wrote a poem and performed it at the third service. Mirissa preached her first sermon at the fourth, and Corinna received her first communion at the fifth.

In the 12 hours between each communion service we played videos of Sandra Bland, blaring her voice from a loudspeaker across the jail parking lot. When it was dark enough, we projected her videos and photos on the wall of the jail where she had died. We were able to do this because in 2015 our Shout community and its friends had endured 80 days of blistering Texas heat, threats and intimidation to stand our ground and pray and ask the question: What happened to Sandra Bland?

Say her name

In July 2015, Sandra Bland, 28, was brought into custody after being pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for, according to ex-Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, failing to signal a lane change. Camera footage from the ex-trooper’s car showed Bland refusing, within her rights, to leave her car and Encinia forcibly removing her and placing her under arrest. Encinia described Bland as combative and needing to be removed from her car so he could conduct a safer traffic investigation, a claim for which a grand jury would indict him for perjury and for which he was later fired.

In the custody of Waller County, Bland was found dead in her cell three days later, a death that authorities ruled a suicide, a death for which her family won a wrongful death lawsuit.

It wouldn’t happen to us

Neither the 80 days of the vigil in 2015 nor the 64 consecutive hours in 2016 outside the Waller County Jail was physically, emotionally or spiritually comfortable. Which is why in February 2016 I stood before a roomful of United Methodist Women members in Alvarado, Texas, and implored them to join us in committing to a lifestyle of sustained discomfort. I told them a small part of Bland’s story, of the Methodist evangelist and Black Lives Matter activist who made 32 videos about her faith and activism in the 6 months before her death, of how she was pulled over for failure to use a turn signal, removed from her vehicle without just cause, and locked up by an officer who would later be terminated from his job for escalating the situation.

I asked the women gathered, a gathering comprising predominantly white women who were more senior, whether they could imagine themselves ever being put in such a situation. I asked them if they could imagine a police officer demanding they put out a cigarette in their own car. I asked them to imagine the officer holding them hostage by refusing to give them their warning and letting them drive away. I asked if they could imagine their car door being opened and an officer attempting to forcibly remove them without warning. I asked if they could imagine an officer pointing a taser at them and yelling, “I will light you up!” before leading them out of the line of sight of cameras and throwing them to the ground. I asked if they could imagine being arrested and put in jail over failing to use a turn signal—and winding up dead in custody.

It was clear that not a white woman in the room could imagine the scenario happening to themselves. This saved us a good amount of time, for we did not need to debate whether racism was behind Sandra Bland’s arrest; we knew in our hearts as white women that it wouldn’t have happened to us.

Yet, it did happen to Sandra Bland. It does happen to people of color in our country every day, and time after time they fail to see anyone held accountable. Many people of color wake up and go to sleep knowing that it could happen to them; we wake up and go to sleep without it ever crossing our minds that it could happen to us. They train their children how not to get pulled from their cars during a traffic stop; we train our white children how to talk their way out of a ticket.

This difference in treatment is permitted to continue, in part, because when people of color tell us about what they are experiencing we do not believe them. We downplay and minimize and tell people blatantly through our words or subtly through our actions that the situation they are experiencing does not cause us alarm.

Lately, this reality is catching up with us. We need to commit to sustained discomfort more than ever.

Sustained discomfort

Sustained discomfort means being the person who ruins the party when somebody says something racist at a social function and you refuse to laugh it off and tolerate it.

Sustained discomfort means understanding that if your children and grandchildren are living with more safety, possessions or opportunities than other people’s children, then you may need to be working to change unjust systems in a way that will result in them having less.

Sustained discomfort means engaging in conversations and actions of solidarity with the knowledge that you will mess up at some point, and you will be corrected, but you will not give up, because that is how you will learn to do better.

Sustained discomfort means committing to resist our culture’s centering of white people and submit to the leadership of people of color, seeking to listen before we speak.

Sustained discomfort means not expecting to be congratulated or affirmed when we do any of the above but rather engaging in it without expectation of reward because it is the right thing to do.

This is all necessary because for hundreds of years in our nation the comfort of white people has been prioritized over the freedom, lives, rights, safety and joy of everyone else.

At moments like this in our history, we want to be comforted, to be told everything will be alright. To be told this too shall pass. Yet our reality is that there are those for whom the current reality is not all right, and for whom it will not be all right. There are people who will be deported. There are people who will receive racism as a personal attack and not merely observe it as a moral wrong.

This is why we must resist the urge to be comforted in our discomfort. This is why we must resist the call for peace when it means obedience and remember the words of Jeremiah, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. Peace, peace, they say, when there is no peace.”

Justice over “order”

The Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate ... who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

So here we stand, all these decades later, and we must ask ourselves: are we willing to listen yet? Are we willing to prioritize justice for our family in Christ over our own comfort, our own stability, our own friendships? Do we want true peace or do we just want silence?

On July 10, 2015, there was a young woman named Sandra Bland who loved herself enough to speak her truth. She lived in a nation that had not always treated her as if she had rights that must be respected. Yet she attended DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she learned about a God that loved her. Out of that love came the conviction, as she put it in her first “Sandy Speaks” video, that “God has opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.” When her moment to decide came, she chose to live into that love and assert her rights, because it has to start somewhere. Her arresting officer, uncomfortable with her confidence and assertiveness, sought with all the power that he had to silence her: first through his words, then through his hands, then through his taser, then through his cuffs.

He failed. Now people all around the world have heard her voice.

Let us not make the same mistake he did. Let us not call for reconciliation when what we really mean is that we want people who are in pain to silence their cry for justice so that we can return to being comfortable.

I do believe that women standing together is the key to changing things. The thing that has always prevented this from being effective is when white women have chosen to put themselves first and have minimized the pain of others, destroying any hope of true solidarity.

Still, there are few things that I am more sure of than this: one of the most powerful resources that we have in this battle against racism is United Methodist Women. If they committed in local chapters all throughout the urban, suburban and rural counties of this land to raise their voices in uncompromising rejection of racism, they would strike at its very root. Racism in this nation has always thrived off of the myth that it is in place in order to protect white women. If, therefore, white women stood shoulder to shoulder with women of color, believed their experiences without minimizing, and submitted to their leadership, it would shake the very foundations of racism in this nation. If they began to move forward together and refused to leave a single woman behind, refused to compromise a single inch, they could not possibly be stopped.

I believe in you, I do. Please prove me right.

The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner is the curator of The Shout and author of the curriculum The Shout: Finding the Prophetic Voice in Unexpected Places. She is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and has been working on the ground in Waller County, Texas, to amplify the voice of Sandra Bland.

Posted or updated: 2/7/2017 12:00:00 AM

February 2017 cover of response

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