Today my country is observing a solemn day, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. I remember that day. I remember it from the point of view of a white child who was nowhere near Selma, who was told that the communists were having a march down there in Alabama.
I grew up in a conservative white Catholic family in Tennessee. I mostly held conservative political views until I spent my early 20’s in a company town and realized there were an awful lot of questions I’d never thought to ask. Coming out as a lesbian in my 30’s raised more questions and gave me a taste, a small taste, of being Other in America.
Lately I’ve been working a private study project on Twitter. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that I wasn’t as knowledgeable about race as I’d like to be, but I was not clear what to do about it. I felt stuck until I realized that on Twitter, I could just listen and learn from people who actually know something. People mostly welcome a “follow” as long as you don’t tweet stupid things to or about them.
I agreed with myself that I was going to be quiet and listen. When something interested me, I would back up and read for context and do some research. If I were truly, truly lost I could ask a question, but I wouldn’t argue and I wouldn’t defend. Mostly I just listened and followed links.
Holy cow, I have learned a lot from listening to conversations and following links! It helped that my little project coincided with the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
I thought my heart and my mind were open, but I was kidding myself. If, reading this, you are assuring yourself that you’re pretty knowledgable, I challenge you to follow some smart people and listen for a while. Follow their links. Follow the articles they write, their blog posts. Find some thought-leaders in their fields, and see where they lead your thoughts. You will know you have found the right ones to follow when it gets uncomfortable.
If you insist on a short cut, there’s an essay I can suggest. I found it challenging to read with an open mind, but well worth the effort. How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility by Ta-Nahisi Coates is an eye-opener, especially if you’ve wondered to yourself how a well-meaning 21st century white person can be held responsible for the legacy of slavery in the US. Put the shields down for a few minutes and read it – easier said than done. If that’s too raw for you, too much information and anger for you, I recommend the writing of Michael Twitty on his blog Afroculinaria. He is a gentle healer of a man, but what he has to teach is no less powerful.
If, as a rabbi, I were to say, “I know all I need to know about Torah,” I would be a fool. If, as a citizen of the USA, I were to say that I know all I need to know about an issue as big as race, I would be no less a fool. We learn by listening, by reading, and by asking an occasional question. If we only talk to people who agree with us, then what we think today is all we’ll ever know.
I am writing this because I think I’ve found a way for a good-hearted person to learn without being a pain-in-the-neck, demanding that on top of everything else people of color should educate me. Twitter is great; it comes in tiny bites. It links to articles available on the Internet. It lets me listen quietly and digest.
Anyway, I thought perhaps there might be a reader interested in my study project, who might have a project of their own for which Twitter is a great medium to learn without being a pest.
Maybe for you it’s some other category. How many LGBTQ people do you know? How many Muslims? How many people with mental illnesses? How many with disabilities? Just remember, when you find some good folks to follow, don’t defend, don’t explain. Listen and learn. Follow the links. Take it in.
Rabbi Nachman said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.” The next line is usually translated “the important thing is not to be afraid” which is not quite right. What the Hebrew really says is, “The important thing is not to panic.” I think that the marchers of 50 years ago would say that the important thing is not to give up, even if panic was all you could do the first time out. Let us not give up, not now, not ever, not on ourselves – and never on one another.
My “handle” on Twitter is @CoffeeShopRabbi.