As part of KUT’s ongoing coverage of race and racism in Austin, Morning Edition Host Jennifer Stayton talked recently with Carolyn Helsel, a Presbyterian minister who teaches preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Helsel has spent more than 10 years facilitating white congregations’ discussions about racism and published a book called Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism.
Helsel tells Stayton she was drawn to this work when she got to seminary and realized the Christian life she had been raised to lead did not honestly address racism.
Listen to their conversation:
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Helsel: That felt like a cognitive dissonance to have been raised, to try to live a certain way and to be prepared for ministry and yet to not have this deeply painful reality spoken about in my predominantly white communities. So that led me on a journey of studying about this and talking about it with other people. And this book is kind of finally my way of saying – this is how I think it might be helpful for us to talk about it.
Stayton: So the book is titled, Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism. Why do you think those predominantly white communities, thinking about congregations and other groups, why are they anxious to talk about race?
Helsel: The title is a little bit of a play on words. But it does highlight the anxiety that a lot of white people have around talking about racism and that stems from a number of different sources. One is we're afraid to say the wrong thing, words continue to change how we refer to things, changes over time, our historical context change and all that impacts how we talk about racism. And so, one of the main reasons is we don't know what to say. But also, we don't like feeling bad about ourselves. A lot of the time that we're talking about racism we're learning about how whites have been the perpetrators of racism and that makes us feel bad about ourselves and that makes us anxious.
Stayton: Early in the book you have a sentence: We should not feel shame for getting it wrong. But it seems like white people getting it wrong is part of the problem. Shouldn't we feel something negative or at least revelatory when we do mess up and we do say something wrong?
Helsel: Yes. Yes, I definitely think it's important for us to have those feelings but to not get stuck there. So often we say something wrong, we feel shame and then we don't want to talk about it again because we don't repeat that experience. But looking at kind of a long-term trajectory: How do we stay engaged? And one way that we do that is by saying, "My shame is not the end of this conversation. It's not the goal to make me feel ashamed. It's moving toward a place of gratitude and mutuality and learning from other people."
Stayton: Can you walk us through then what that expression of gratitude looks like when white communities, white congregations, are trying to think about race and racism?
Helsel: One way we can do that is to see these hard conversations as a gift, as counterintuitive as that may sound. How can we view these difficult emotions, these hard conversations as a gift? Ultimately, they may lead us to deeper relationships with people in our communities, deeper awareness of what people are going through. And so even if it may feel awkward and painful, it's really a gift that we're accepting and having these kinds of conversations.
Stayton: When a white person says or feels something like – "Well, I'm not racist because I'm not in the Ku Klux Klan. I don't go to Nazi marches, so I'm not racist." – Isn't that a particular thread of thinking here that holds people back from moving forward?
Helsel: A few years ago, we had a black president and a lot of people who were white felt comfortable saying, "Well, they're not racist. Look, we elected a black president." But fast-forward and you see the kind of racist words that we're hearing from our administration and the empowerment that gave to white supremacist groups. And so, we see the power of words, the ways that these groups continue to gain more and more power and how do we stop that? How do we keep that from happening in our own communities? That means all of us have to grapple with these hard realities.
Stayton: How do you define racism?
Helsel: Racism is a system that creates unfair advantages for whites, while disproportionately penalizing persons of color. This isn't a new concept; it's something that was forged in the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, justifying why we should be able to have people as property. And this racism, this warped imagination, is what continues to keep some people in disadvantaged positions compared to whites. So, my definition of racism has a particular context in that it is something that I view as a system; it's not something that's just individual hate acts of one person saying a bad word or an offensive phrase, but it's this larger system that has infected us. That's part of the air we breathe. That's something that we need to be able to uncover so that we can work toward eradicating it.
Stayton: What constitutes success to you in this arena?
Helsel: I hope that through these conversations white people can increase their capacity to hear and sit with the pain that other people are experiencing. Because when we increase our capacity, it means we're much more likely to be able to engage with that and help work together to make the society different. If we don't have a capacity to hear that suffering, it means that we're limited in our ability to respond.
Stayton: I read the book and came away with the impression that these first conversations need to be white people doing this work separate from people of color.
Helsel: One of the things that I've heard from people of color over the years is that they are tired of having to be the ones to teach white people about racism. And so, these conversations aren't meant to be intentionally segregational, keeping people of color out – I welcome anyone to these conversations – but really putting the onus on white people to do our own work and to learn what we can and not expect people of color to speak on behalf of all people of their race or community. The emphasis on white people talking to white people is really about helping us reclaim the responsibility that we owe to this work.
Stayton: Someone might say every year that we're further removed from segregation laws on the books we must be getting better and that the more generations we have that are born and grow up without that having been part of or lived experiences, surely we will all get better at this. But then there's so much evidence out there to the contrary that actually feels like sometimes we're stepping backward.
Helsel: Right. My 7-year-old daughter told me last night, "Mom, some people are really against immigrants, but weren't the first people who came to this country immigrants?" My son, who is in fourth grade last year, had people yelling, "Build a wall," even though he had Mexican -merican friends that were also in the classroom, who had relatives very much impacted by immigration laws. So, it's important for us to not just have this Pollyanna view about our children growing up in this diverse society and assuming they're going to fix our problems when they're coming into the same world that we're perpetuating, and we need to be able to make a difference for them.