Last week, I went to see "Lincoln" with my family. I walked out of the theatre a little tired (it's over 2 hours long), mostly entertained and glad to have some time with the family. I didn't think much about the movie beyond this.
A couple friends asked me what I thought and I simply replied, "it was pretty good. I guess it's worth seeing."
My week went on until I came across this movie review. In a quick flash, everything became apparent to me. The only black characters in the entire movie with speaking parts consist of two soldiers at the beginning begging Lincoln for equal treatment, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker (Elizabeth Keckley) and Thaddeus Stevens' common law wife (Lydia Hamilton Smith). What do all these characters have in common? They rely on Lincoln or another virtuous white character to protect them.
Where is Frederick Douglass? Not in this movie....
Where are the black soldiers who secured their own freedom? Not in this movie...
And the countless African American abolition leaders, writers, thinkers, or politicians who lived in the mid-19th century and met Lincoln? Not in this movie...
What disappoints me more than Spielberg's choices to not include these characters, or give names to the important African American characters he does depict (such as Lydia Hamilton Smith) is that it took a week for this to hit me. I've just come back from a week-long conversation with colleagues about racism and multiculturalism. I've taken numerous trainings on white people challenging racism and the like. I've read books, written sermons and careful reflections on anti-racism, anti-opppresion and multiculturalism.
And in the last week I overlooked racism in a movie, made an exclusive statement in a small group and when considering AIDS Day forgot to mention the significant impact on the African American community, especially black Americans ages 19-44.
What's my point?
I don't desire a wave of white guilt. And I fully expect some people reading this may become defensive or try to assuage me that I am not a racist. I am not seeking assurance or trying to inflict guilt.
My point is that racism is still a painful conversation, even for someone like me and my cultural competency does not seem to be improving at the rate of my desire for it to improve. However, I can say that now after these years of uncomfortable conversations, I am more aware of my privilege to avoid them entirely. I am better able to take responsibility without swooning with guilt. And I have no delusions of ever being competent, but great aspirations for humility and learning.
My bigger point is we need to keep having these conversations. We need to create circles of accountability that keep those with privilege engaged and accountable to do so. I consider myself included in this group. I still feel angry when someone speaks truth to me. But now I am accountable to engage in a conversation that has truth for me to hear. I think this is improvement.
I know I am going to mess up with my words, make mistakes and even hurt people. I don't desire this-it seems to be human. But I also know that if I avoid trying to look outside my own narrow vision, I will cut myself off from a measure of love and healing this human heart needs.
So let's keep talking, and hopefully listening too, even if it hurts.