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  • Helms Jarrell

Fail Better Soon: Getting it Right

I interviewed for a job in 2015. I thought I was doing great. There were questions about race and power. I answered the questions. Then, the interviewer asked me if I had ever been to anti-racism training. I explained that I had not been to formal training, but that I had been working and learning about how to not be racist. At the time, I didn't know that there's a difference between not being racist and anti-racism. I didn't know that in a society built on racist structures, you can't "not be a racist". I hadn't engaged in critical racial analysis. I didn't see fully, couldn't articulate, the difference between racial bias and racism; between interpersonal cross cultural relationships and systemic structured racial oppression. I knew some of this in my gut, but had not dissected it enough to really grasp it. I didn't get the job.


Sometime later, after I had attended Anti-racism training, I was asked to be on someone's ordination council. At the conversation table were nearly all white women, one white man, and one black man. The black man was sharing about his ministry partnership with the church. The person who was to be ordained was a white women who served the white church that partnered with this black pastor's ministry. At some point, I turned to the white woman, my friend, and asked if she had been to anti-racism training. We had a tender yet tense conversation, in front of the rest of the council, about how she wasn't racist and that she was working well with the black pastor. I didn't mean to make her feel trapped or accused. She seemed to feel that way anyway. I wasn't asked to be a part of her ordination service. We, mostly, lost touch after that.


In 2016 thought I was already an experienced protester. We protested the Iraq war while we were in seminary. I'd paid close attention to and visited the occupy spaces in CLT. I knew what to expect and knew how to engage. I knew the songs and chants. I attended the clergy prep meeting. I had friends who were leading the rallies. I just knew I was supposed to use my gifts and leadership for the cause. On all the volunteer pledge cards, I left my name and a long list of skills I could offer to the movement- I can lead this, I can take charge of this, I can organize this. No one called. White folks were asked not to say "our streets" when the chant question was posed "Whose streets?" When white folks, including me, took our spot in the march on the perimeter, I thought we were following the rules that said that white folks put themselves in between the police and black folks, to save them, to protect them. We were called out for standing alongside the police. We were asked never to start a song, never to start a chant. We were asked to step back. We were being taught what it means to be allies and accomplices,


In 2020, I new to be quiet. Take my place with the clergy. Follow the instructions of the leaders. Listen carefully. I knew who the established leaders were, who to take my cues from. None of them were there. This was altogether a different group. Each of the protests and rallies I attended had a different collection of people. Multiple leaders, new faces, new rules. New voices at the mic and on camera. New chants and songs. New neighborhoods, even.


There's a thing about whiteness: we are taught to get it right. Do it right. Learn the rules and follow them. Think about it the right way. Don't get in trouble. Don't get out of line. Do things correctly and respectably. Don't mess up. Don't fail. If you fail, if you get it wrong, love will be withheld from you, connection will be taken away. If you get it wrong, you will be discarded. If you get it wrong, you will be made fun of. If you get it wrong, you will get a bad grade, a bad job, a bad career, a bad lifestyle. If you get it wrong, you will lose friends and family. If you get it wrong, you won't have a voice, you won't matter.


The work of anti-racism is a practice and process. It is not a project you have to get right. It is not a program you have to perfect. It is the long slow work if dismantling myths and lies. It is is hard work of the brain, heart, body, spirit, relationships, government, economy, household, church, institutions, neighborhood design, denominations, family, friends...and we're not going to get it right. We're not going to get it right again. We're going to keep not getting it right. And we're going to keep trying anyway. And we're going to learn and grow. And new voices are going to emerge. New practices and chants are going to take hold. New cultural norms will be developed. And we're going to keep tripping up and making mistakes. We are going to learn that even though we fail and fail a lot, that we are not dispensable. With that knew knowledge in our bones, we're going to keep praying to fail better soon.




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