25 years ago, I married the spectacular woman who I had been lucky enough to meet and fall in love with eight years earlier when we were in highschool. I have been blessed with her companionship and guidance, and with the beautiful family that we have worked together to raise.
This is not a love note to my wife. I will send her that privately. This is a note that I wanted to share publicly as I thought about the lessons we have learned from each other over these decades, and how they seem to apply to what is going on in America at this moment.
My wife and I have had our share of arguments over the years. I’m not embarrassed to say so. I have learned and grown immensely from them. The most important thing I have learned is that it doesn’t matter who is “right” and that the goal of a relationship is not to win, but to love.
I realized, after many years, that if one’s goal is to win every argument, then he will likely lose the one who he constantly defeats. To be successful in a relationship means not that I get what I want, but that I learn to give what you need.
It seems to me that America is in desperate need of relationship therapy. The national “marriage” between black and white America is in bad shape, and we’ve been not only neglectful of our partner, but abusive. If we don’t make amends immediately, we’re going to end up ruining our union, wrecking our home, scarring our children, and losing everything we had once believed in and worked for.
The good news is that many whites are starting to listen and to realize how our partner is suffering and how we have continued to deny and ignore our responsibility for that suffering. The problem is that there are still many decent people (we are not discussing extremists or supremacists here) who want to debate issues of fact and fault. They want to argue who deserves blame, rather than listening to their partner’s pain, and rather than offering, at the very least, a receptive ear and a shoulder to cry on.
While everybody has his/her facts and figures, it is not data or analytics that are ultimately meaningful when relationships are strained. This is not to say that we should ignore facts or hesitate to insert them into the conversation when they can be heard. But what is essential right now is not an intellectual response, but an empathetic one.
Sometimes in a relationship, your partner will express hurt, and it may make no sense to you. You will analyze the "facts" as you see them, and you may conclude that the person’s emotions are illogical, exaggerated, or overblown. At this point, you can choose to either cite "facts" to explain to the person why her/his feelings are irrational and unnecessary, or you can put your facts aside for now and comfort the person and let her/him know that you are here for her/him.
In the first case, your facts may or may not be right, and it may or may not be true that the person is being overly emotional and that the “facts” do not warrant this response. You may truly care for the person and believe that by clarifying the “facts”, you will help her/him to see more lucidly and thereby ease her/his pain. However, even if you are right, and even if it is your desire to help, these are not the primary ingredients for success when it comes to pain and emotion. Explaining the “fault” in one’s feelings will rarely resolve those feelings or improve the relationship. It will, on the contrary, convey your disinterest in your partner’s experience, and your insistence on your own perspective. Your partner will grow weary of such a one-way relationship. S/he will eventually leave you, or you will forever dominate and leave your partner feeling defeated and unloved.
If, however, you decide to put “facts” aside for the moment and to empathize instead without debate, you will convey your interest in your partner’s experience. By listening to her/his narrative, you may or may not come to learn something that will change your mind, but you will have succeeded regardless in opening your heart. When your partner recognizes that your heart is open, s/he will open reciprocally and will work with you in spite of your past struggles. We are all imperfect beings - when we admit our fallibility, we invite our partner to help us to become better, and s/he will become better alongside us.
As a white man in America, I recognize that there is systemic racism and implicit bias in our country. It is sometimes subtle, like subconscious mistrust or “innocent” jokes, and sometimes blatant, like the profiling that makes black men far more likely to be detained by police. I don’t believe that the majority of police are racist, and I don’t believe that America is a racist country at this point in spite of its violent history and its many current imperfections - our principles and aspirations are equitable even if our reality is not. But ask any black person if they have experienced bias and discrimination, and it’s certain that they have. To tell them that the system is full of equity and opportunity and it is only their failings that keep them down, this is willfully ignoring their reality and pain, and it only adds insult to injury.
The vast majority of white people I know would like to work to create a more just and equitable society. Included in that group are those who nevertheless provide endless facts and figures that deny the existence of implicit bias and systemic racism. I encourage them to consider the effects of their protestations, and I ask them what is the benefit of debating at this moment rather than listening and empathizing.
“You’re wrong” does not make anything right. Black Americans have been “you’re wrong-ed” and wronged for centuries. This does not mean that there hasn’t been progress or that there aren’t good white people who have been trying to right these wrongs. Nor does it mean that there haven’t been misguided black people who have contributed to the problem. It doesn’t mean that the answer is to completely overthrow the current system or to further handicap the black community with programs that have kept them dependent and reliant. It means that this is not time for blame or debate. This is not an intellectual issue, it is a relationship issue. This is not about policy or partisanship, it is about humanity.
As my wife and I celebrate the day we were wed 25 years ago, I realize that the single greatest moment of growth in our marriage was the moment when I realized that “who’s wrong” is a far less important question than “how can we make it right.”
The first thing we need to do to mend our partnership with black Americans is to re-establish the love, respect, and trust that is the foundation of any relationship. Afterwards, we can work together to improve the systems and dynamics that will make our home more peaceful and equitable for all of us.
Tell me your pain. Tell me how I can help. I will not argue or make excuses. I will not interrupt, and I will not turn away. I will hold your hand, and I will protect you and be here for you. I am imperfect, but I am your partner, and that’s just what partners do.