When I walked into my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the spring of 2018, a leathery veteran of the sobriety wars gave me my marching orders kindly but bluntly:
Sit down, shut up and listen.
I was in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, but I knew I needed to be there if I were to learn how to manage the incurable disease of alcoholism. My very life was up for grabs, not to mention my job as a parish priest, my career in ministry and the respect of those whose opinions meant the most to me.
So I sat down, I shut up and I listened.
And now, after years of inexplicable procrastination, I have stepped into another new and unfamiliar movement: the anti-racist crusade. I know that as a pastor in God’s church I should have signed up for this campaign many years ago; after Rodney King perhaps, surely in the wake of Ferguson. But like so many others, I was finally spurred off my couch and into action by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
And not only have I had to account for the reality of my years of inaction as good people have suffered and even died, I have had to face the truth that as a White Male of Privilege (hereafter WMP), I am part of the problem.
But as with my leap into the AA world two years ago, I realize that I can’t simply close my eyes, pinch my nose and plunge into the troubled waters of systemic racism and hope for the best.
So what is a WMP to do? Inaction is no longer an option.
But, taking a page from my AA experience, perhaps it’s enough, for now, to sit down, shut up and listen.
True listening means opening the ears of one’s heart. My neighbors and friends of color have stories to tell about the systemic racism that has been the reality for dozens of generations in this country. I’m eager to hear about their experiences. Along the way, there are surely new friends and connections to be made. A sponsor, as in AA, or mentor would be invaluable. Still, I know I’ll never feel it in my bones the way they do. Best intentions aside, I will always be a WMP.
Already I’ve begun listening to the voices of those who have put their experience in writing, precisely for the purpose of educating WMPs and other clueless but well-meaning beings. Thankfully, many independent bookstores and even Amazon have recently curated reading lists for the uninformed. James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison are on my personal list.
I’ve also been working to engage fellow WMPs and others of privilege who have already blazed a trail into the anti-racism movement. Most, it seems, are still somewhat new to the struggle as well, still in "basic training," still learning, still gaining perspective, still shedding their original skin of arrogance and entitlement. But they have made a start and beckon to me to follow suit.
So, yes, I have something of a plan. I know I mustn’t allow my lack of experience and training to push me back onto the sidelines. This is a liminal moment, a time to invest myself thoroughly; to engage, study, read, reflect, pray, repeat.
So pardon me while I sit down, shut up and listen.
Laird MacGregor is an Episcopal priest and a freelance editor and writer. He lives in Lawrence.