Honoring Nelson Mandela: Personal Truth and Reconciliation, Part 1

Written by Phyllis.

Cognitive dissonance: an uncomfortable feeling that comes from holding two conflicting views or beliefs at the same time.

Reconciliation: making it possible for two different views or beliefs to exist or be true at the same time.

I’ve been following two stories over the past few days. The first is the story of Nelson Mandela – the significance and celebration of his life, the events commemorating his passing, and the implications of his example. I have learned more about the history of South Africa in a week than I learned in the previous six decades of my life.

And I have reflected deeply on how to incorporate Mr. Mandela’s legacy into my own work. Although there are differences of opinion about his politics and methodologies, there is also a consensus that he demonstrated something rare and mysterious: how to insist that justice and forgiveness – two concepts that we usually think of as being mutually exclusive – be practiced at the same time.

The second story throws in our faces a dynamic that Nelson Mandela spent his entire life fighting against – white people’s sense of superiority. Making the rounds on social media, scattered among clips of Mandela’s speeches, is a video of a blond female news show host claiming that both Santa Claus and the historical Jesus are unquestionably white.

My jaw actually dropped open when I watched it the first time, thinking that she must be making a joke. When I realized she wasn’t, I dove into the fray, posting on Facebook first the original video and then the reactions to it – enraged, sarcastic, indignant, critical, snide, condescending, judgmental reactions. Some of the satirical pieces were hilarious; many used the incident as an opportunity to call out subtle and blatant expressions of racism. But most of the responses simply went after the woman herself, using language that I couldn’t utter if you paid me.

Mandela and deKlerkMr. Mandela intervened just as I was getting ready to share my disdain with a white racial justice activist/author I’d recently Facebook-friended. For some reason that I don’t quite understand, I went back and listened to one of Mandela’s talks about racial reconciliation and then wrote this instead:

“I just now got an icky feeling in my gut when I realized how much perverse satisfaction I'm getting out of judging this woman. This is one of the very real dangers that we white people encounter when we ‘get a clue’ about racism. There's a strong pull to condemn and laugh at those who are not as aware as we imagine ourselves to be, in an effort to make ourselves look much better by comparison. She's a white woman - just like I am - who has clearly been taught lies about race - just like I was - and who very likely has no close black friends - just like I didn't. It's only through the grace of God that I fell into circumstances that allowed me to free myself of some of the more grossly ignorant racial stereotypes. And yet, as savvy as I like to think I am, I still totally miss things that my white-minded, white-blinded frame of reference keeps me from seeing - things that fortunately my black friends will call me out on.

Is there a way to condemn the ignorance without condemning the person? Maybe she knows that what she's saying is crazy but she's willing to keep saying it for the money and attention. Or maybe she is a victim of the insidious, toxic, unconscious racial brainwashing that every white person in this country has had pounded into our brains. Either way, she is not in a healthy place. Sarcasm and contempt are not going to help her heal.

I'm not wanting to minimize the severe damage done by this kind of ignorance, especially because it comes from a ‘news’ source and therefore validates other people's harmful beliefs. I understand very clearly that allowing racism to go unchallenged is complicity and that attitudes like these underlie all forms of racial violence and systemic injustice. But there has to be a way to correct the lies and at the same time empower the one who spoke them to see and embrace the truth. The aim of humiliation is to make someone feel ashamed, and shame is not conducive to learning new behaviors. 

I've been gleefully participating in bashing my white sister, smug in my own sense of superiority. And I didn't catch myself doing it until a few minutes ago. If I really hope to make a difference in this world through my racial healing work, I need to act like a healer. But how do we counteract the damage she is surely doing, the ignorance she is validating and the injustice she is perpetuating, while keeping our own hearts free of condescension? Because in honestly searching my own private thoughts, I have to admit that I was thinking ‘Whew, I'm not like she is.’ And we know where a sense of superiority inevitably leads. We must find an authentic way to support each other's evolution and nurture each other's transformation, or we will just keep spinning and spinning in a downward spiral.”

Some things are irreconcilable; I cannot claim that we are all one – cells in one body, children of one Creator – and yet feel justified in belittling my sister, even if only on Facebook, even if only for a day, even if everyone agrees she deserves it. The cognitive dissonance is unsustainable. Other things are paradoxes and make up the bulk of racial justice work. I’ll be at this for a while, trying to figure out how to accomplish the reconciliation of two seemingly conflicting goals – the need to insist on justice and the desire to practice forgiveness at the same time. Fortunately I have an example to study.


Photo credit: By Copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons