You, Me, and White Fragility: Open Letters from the NEXT Church Co-Chairs

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

A dialogue between Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek

Shavon: Hey, Adam!

So we are drawing near to the end our year of overlapping as co-chairs for the strategy team of NEXT Church and it has been quite a year! We have had amazing opportunities to stand side by side to celebrate the innovative, creative ways in which the people of God are sharing Christ in the world, like at the National Gathering in Baltimore, and we have had times when we have navigated tension and discord – particularly around issues of systemic and interpersonal experiences of racism in our work.

I have to admit that despite having met through NEXT Church a few years back, I was curious as to how we would work together. We come from different church setting backgrounds – you, larger predominately white; me, mostly serving a smaller multiracial, multicultural church.

Our time of shared leadership started with a rather shaking experience that reflected the systemic and personal messiness of racism. For some of us it was a shock, a rip, a rending of the relational fabric which NEXT Church builds itself upon; for others its was an unmasking of holes that already existed.

In response, the fuller NEXT Church leadership looked, felt, searched for a way forward grounded in our Christian call for justice and mercy. There were times when as an African-American woman, the weight of my deep love for NEXT Church and the PC(USA) combined with the piercing of the heart, mind, and spirit that comes when racist ideas erupt so closely seemed like too much for me. I was particularly pained when I saw racism wound other leaders of color who are precious, beloved friends and colleagues.

In hindsight at the beginning of our shared tenure, there were times when I could have used a bit more support particularly when a systemically oppressive idea was shared in our work.

Recently, I was wondering about those moments. I wondered, could Adam sense that something needed to be said? Was I expecting him to be a mind reader or was there something else going on there?

Without being accusatory, it seemed like those earlier moments that I struggled with were actually examples of white silence and the white solidarity that it promotes. Both of which, as you know Robin DiAngelo discusses in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But I also wonder if it’s me or did you also notice a shift in our co-leadership once we read White Fragility along with the fuller NEXT Church strategy team? I have noticed you have stepped into have certain situations with a posture that is supportive of the leadership I bring and yet volunteers to carry weight that might be extra heavy if I had to carry it. I have felt that White Fragility (the book, not the phenomenon) has been a helpful conversation partner in our co-leadership, but would love to hear your thoughts.

Adam: Shavon,
Thank you for your honest, challenging, and compassionate letter. Across this difficult season we’ve shared, I’ve learned so much from leading with you. Among your many gifts, you know how to name an issue – to call it like it is – and here you’ve done it again. And you always do so speaking the truth in love.

White silence – the idea that white people maintain their safety in difficult conversations about race by being silent – was a new idea for me this year. You and I became co-chairs just as our strategy team agenda unraveled into a long-overdue conversation about racism and white privilege. My first reaction was to become silent. My rationale went something like this: “The last thing this conversation needs is another white male to be a dominant voice. The best thing you can do, Adam, is listen and try to learn something.”

Then, as our hard conversations progressed, I heard that one of the worst things well-meaning white people do in conversations about race is remain silent. When something uncomfortable or racist is said by another white person, white folks expect the persons of color in the room to bravely name it, rather than taking responsibility to speak a challenging word to our own white brothers and sisters and try to be brave ourselves. I first started internalizing this feedback thanks to you and other people of color on our strategy team. Then, when we read White Fragility, I found a name and definition for it: “white silence.” So in that sense, the answer to your question is “yes,” our reading this book together has given me language to name behaviors I’ve been struggling with all year long.

The more complicated response to your question is that I still haven’t figured out the best way to break out of my white silence. While I have a renewed conviction about calling out white privilege and white fragility when I see it, I know also that there is much to be gained if me and the other white folks spend less time talking and more time listening.

There is no rule book or manual that helps me know when to speak up and when to shut up, and I continue to struggle with that – it makes me feel vulnerable, unsafe, and ill at ease, like I don’t really belong. I’ve tried to make peace with those unsettling feelings by reminding myself that, especially in the 90% white PC(USA), people of color are almost always in contexts like that. They are asked to play by a rule book of white behaviors that cause people of color to feel unsafe. For generations, people of color have figured out how to bravely navigate those situations. I confess that in my own white silence I have been a coward, and I hope to be more brave in the days ahead.

I promised you a question back. I know that you have thoughtfully engaged your congregation and presbytery in some of the same work we’ve been doing at NEXT Church with White Fragility. What is your vision for where those conversations go in the PC(USA) and how can I and other white folks in our denomination help to advance that vision?

Shavon: Thanks Adam!
Truly. Thank you.

My vision is that the PC(USA) will be a denomination recognizable for cultivating and liberating Christian community with the theological, spiritual, and interpersonal courage and stamina to overcome the atrophy of the faith which is reflected in all forms of systemic and interpersonal expressions of oppression – including white fragility. In order to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will edify the faithful to be stewards of power or privilege for divine justice in ways previously unseen.

Regarding how to help advance that vision – God willing, all of us, but particularly our white siblings can begin with a counter-cultural expectation of discomfort, vulnerability, and failure. To do so is to expect to learn, to grow, and to experience God’s grace in their lives and the lives we touch.

Adam, I am truly blessed that God has allowed our lives to have touched.

With Gratitude and Hope,
SSL


 Shavon Starling-Louis is the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Adam Fronczek is pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both have served as co-chairs of the NEXT Church strategy team for the past year.