The Courage to Show Up: A Response from Nkosi Anderson, Isaac Sharp, Stanley Talbert, and Andrea C. White

The Riverside Church carries an enduring legacy of hosting critical dialogue events that address pressing issues of the day.  As senior minister Rev. Dr. Amy Butler framed the event in her introductory remarks, “The Courage to Show Up” took place in the same space that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his prophetic speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1967.  In their exchange, Brené Brown and DeRay McKesson were jointly critical of pessimism, shame and white privilege and jointly resounding on joy, hope and empathy.

Brown and McKesson took us on a whirlwind tour of topics ranging from partisanship to racism, from ideological polarization to sexism, from awareness raising to activist burnout—to name only a few!  During their relatively short dialogue, these two dynamic public figures touched on so many of the most pressing and insuperable social and cultural problems of the contemporary United States that it would be fitting to write a full length essay reflecting on just one aspect of one snippet of their conversation.  But from our perspective, as students of social ethics and scholars of black and womanist theology, the single most significant benefit of the Brown-McKesson conversation lies in its potential to serve as a model.  Take race for example: conversations about race are never unnecessary and U.S. Americans are sorely in need of as much dialogue as they can possibly get about the ways in which the category called “race” has shaped our collective history.  To the participants’ credit, their conversation dealt with race as directly as possible given the parameters.  It is good for people to see other people talk about race without the conversation devolving to ad hominen attacks and sloganeering.  This much is true.

But in addition to the laudatory fact that people can discuss difficult topics without berating each other, we left the event with an equally striking impression that we could not shake, namely: that when it comes to the question of precisely how those who are interested in working toward a more just society might do so given our present social realities, conversation is an important but profoundly limited tool.  Without devaluing either of the speakers’ admittedly helpful perspectives, consider for instance the kinds of voices that were not heard on Thursday night.  Who did we not hear from?  There is no doubt about the sincerity of either of the speakers’ commitments to working for a more just and equitable social arrangement in which those with the least are left with more than crumbs.  But in a contemporary climate in which money equals political power, and in which so few with so much purport to speak for so many with so little—and since they often do so with no clear way of remaining accountable to the most marginalized—I must wonder, for instance, about the timeliness of making sure we nail down the precise distinction between shame and guilt.  Especially when it appears that plenty of our most prominent political, social and cultural, intellectual, and religious public figures have neither.

Both speakers contributed thought-provoking sound bites, but the exchange lacked the prophetic dimension that characterized King’s critique of the Vietnam War.  The conversation’s focus on individualistic expressions of courage could have benefited from linking individual and communal expressions of courage, highlighting groups standing in solidarity against systemic forms of violence.  Placing concepts like joy, hope, and empathy in a framework that both addresses the present day crisis and allows for an honest interrogation of history prevents these optimistic concepts from being sprayed on the stench of deeply systemic problems like cheap perfume.

Hard conversations around race, however uncomfortable, may indeed help foster interpersonal compassion and empathy.  But our work cannot end there.  The personal must be linked to the societal.  We must always highlight the social structures responsible for creating both the privilege enjoyed by some and the suffering endured by others.  Injustice operates at an institutional level within our workplaces, schools, houses of worship, government, etc.  White supremacy along with economic injustice, patriarchy, homophobia, and so forth, are all forms of social sin that will require collective social action to overcome.  The courage to show up means finding ways to connect these justice struggles in pursuit of the common good.  Only through ally-ship and standing in deep solidarity with one another can we make real the beloved community.

What is good race talk?  What does it look like and what does it accomplish?  When Alice Walker defined womanism, she included in her definition, “Loves struggle.”  On this account, good race talk necessarily takes in struggle.  The Brown-McKesson dialogue began by expressing worry about the seduction of cynicism and the vulnerability of joy.  We find no error in the claims themselves, but this opening moment in the dialogue was already a seismic shift away from race talk, certainly away from good race talk, for these claims immediately reduced race to interpersonal relations—as if to say in the face of a lynched body or a child violently murdered by the state, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Attention was immediately focused on the affective disposition of those who resist race talk because they have the privilege not to engage it.  “We need to be careful about denying people of privilege their pain,” Brown declared.  Careful to avoid the trap of engaging in competing forms of oppression, McKesson responded to Brown’s call for caution, “I’m not denying their pain, I’m trying to situate their pain.  White people’s storytelling about pain takes up so much space.”  Good race talk, we suggest, does not foreground white pain.  The dialogue was, in effect, a grand performance of whiteness.  McKesson put it poignantly when he said in the telling of an anecdote, “Watch whiteness work.”

Brown genuinely grappled with the question of how to get white people to see race if seeing race is an invitation to pain, the pain of shame and guilt.  The tragic move here is that race talk is now gifting center stage to white shame and guilt.  White supremacy reigns supreme, its victory won by putting on the veil of concern for those it brutalizes, maims and kills.  The personal comfort of white privilege is preserved.  Good race talk, on the other hand, recognizes that hope is violent when it manifests in the American dream realized through black suffering.  Good race talk exceeds—and sometimes undermines—conversation.  Good race talk is protest where protest is hope that rejects optimism.  Good race talk engages the work of transformation, transforming not just personal shame, but the sin of the world.  Good race talk calls us into hope that can only come from the work of God.  Good race talk loves struggle.  Regardless.

Nkosi Anderson, Ph.D. student in Social Ethics
Isaac Sharp, Ph.D. student in Social Ethics
Stanley Talbert, Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology
Andrea C. White, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

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