What if you spent your childhood being told a story that you were less than? Not as worthy of everything good and more deserving of everything bad. You weren’t beautiful. You weren’t smart. You weren’t even good on the inside. Or intrinsically capable. Or worth other people’s time or money. You had no second chances. Your intentions were always questioned, your goodness was always debated. Every indiscretion could seal your ultimate fate.  How many years would you have to hear this to start believing it? And then after you did, how would you feel when you realized it was a lie? A lie that millions of people who don’t know you believe no matter what? The truth, of course, is that you are as special and worthy as everyone else. Not one bit less. How would you feel? Angry? Crestfallen? Despairing? Would you be able to recognize the extent of your trauma? Would you be able to love or trust through that trauma? Would you be able to unlearn the lies that you had been told about yourself and others?

What if you spent your childhood being told a story that you were better than? An heir to whatever you named. A smart and brilliant future leader. A very, very good person who is beloved to many and deserving of everything you could want. Whose indiscretions should never be allowed to dull the potential that lies within you. You are special. More special. So special that you were allowed and encouraged to be indignant about any injustice and demand as many benefits of the doubt and clean slates as you could afford. How many years would you have to hear this to start believing it? And then after you did, how would you feel when you realized it was a lie? The truth, you learn, is that you are only as special and worthy as everyone else. Not one bit more. That your job, clothes, appearance, and memberships weren’t indicators of your value as a person. And, much of what you had was acquired at tremendous cost to others. And you realized, that the promises that were made to you about the future could never be kept. How would you feel? Ashamed? Cheated? Resentful? Would you be able to recognize your own pain and loss? Would you be able to see your place in the pain of those oppressed? Would you be able to unlearn the lies that you had been told about yourself and others?

These are not the only two stories that we tell our children, but they are two commons ones. Maybe you can see a piece of the story you were told reflected in them. They are tragic and false and incredibly damaging. And they are linked together, these myths of superiority and inferiority. One profits from the other, but it is tragic too.

It’s easy to think of racial equity work as something we (white people) should do for others out of guilt, compassion or service. It’s important to also realize that we have harmed ourselves too. We have been told mistruths. And some of those mistruths we continue to tell to ourselves, and our children. We have bartered our own humanity for false superiority. And it hurts us, everyday. We can’t just do this work for others. We must to this work for us all.

Not one of us is exempt or unscathed. Each one of us has an opportunity to be whole and free and loved and to love. To start we must first look at the stories we are told and tell and retell. Are they true? Do they enhance or diminish our collective humanity? Just because they haven’t doesn’t mean they can’t. They can.

image courtesy of LA Johnson via NPR from a segment about school integration

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