Racial Equity as Spiritual Healing

A note from Deanna Thompson, Lutheran Center Director: I’m so grateful for this post from Naaima Khan, a member of the Lutheran Center Advisory Council and Owner and Principal of Create Good, a consultancy that helps organizations more effectively pursue anti-racism work using insights from data and evaluation. Khan’s linkage of racial equity to spiritual healing resonates deeply with the mission and work of the Lutheran Center as well as to this year’s MLK Day speaker, Ruby Sales, who has argued that the struggle for racial justice is at its heart a spiritual struggle.
Flowers at the George Floyd Memorial
Flowers at the site of the George Floyd Memorial. “Our goal should be to no longer sugar coat realities or talk in abstractions, but to build on the authentic conversations that we’ve begun in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent uprisings,” says Khan.

If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that human connection is absolutely critical for our mental and spiritual health. When face-to-face interactions have not been possible due to public health and safety concerns, virtual methods of connection have become more widely adopted. However, as many of us have found, even virtual connection has its limitations. This is because we are fundamentally physically social beings.

And as social beings, it’s important to pay attention to our patterns of socialization. In her book, White Fragility, author and scholar Dr. Robin DiAngelo comments on how people in the United States are socialized to maintain relatively homogeneous networks. It’s especially uncommon for people who identify as White to be closely connected to many people of color.

Sometimes, what we miss in connection with other humans is not as obvious to us.

But how much more can we learn and how much richer can our life experiences be if our networks are more diverse? If we aspire to be global citizens that are interculturally agile, this raises the question: what is our responsibility for connecting with communities that are racially and ethnically different from us?

America’s history is defined by the original sins of the near genocide of Native American communities and the enslavement of African Americans. If there’s one inflection point that the triple pandemics of COVID-19, racism, and economic inequities have pushed us to, it’s the question of when America will come to its racial reckoning.

And that’s where we often face the social rub.

Race has become, not just a conversation at the forefront of our minds, but also a divisive conversation.

And, in my opinion, that is because we not only have a problem of racial hatred in the form of outright bigotry — we also have a deeper problem of racial denial eating away at the spiritual soul of this nation.

The average American will likely not overtly hate or discriminate against groups of people based on their racial identity. However, our problem is coming to terms with the need to scrutinize and counter the more subtle forms of racism — the problematic narratives we’ve internalized since we were children. For example, seeing the founders of this country as people who perpetrated genocide and enslavement instead of heroizing them to the point of glossing over these realities.

The legacy we’ve established through whitewashed narratives of our country’s past continue to inform how our culture and systems work until today.

Our goal should be to no longer sugar coat realities or talk in abstractions, but to build on the authentic conversations that we’ve begun in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent uprisings. The goal is to recognize and confront our own feelings of discomfort and guilt so that we can become more whole.

And this is not easy work.

 Talking about race causes visceral reactions within us that include getting defensive or tuning out. But it’s exactly when we begin to notice this discomfort that we need to sit with it. We must lean into exploring why it exists and where there might be opportunities to engage in the conversation in a different way — one that seeks to hold multiple perspectives, including those of your own lived experiences and identities as a person.

A common mistake that I see people who champion racial equity make is internalizing difficult conversations about race as personal condemnation.

And that’s why conversations tend to stop. Yes, we all have work we need to do at an individual level, but it’s also in the context of how we, collectively, participate in larger systems and structures of racism.

We typically understand racism as discrete acts of hate and bigotry, which certainly is part of how racism shows up. But it also entails things that are much more subtle. In her book, White Fragility, Dr. Robin DiAngelo writes:

“[If, instead] I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth. One of the greatest fears for a white person is being told that something that we have said or done is racially problematic. Yet, when someone lets us know that we have just done such a thing, rather than respond with gratitude and relief [that we learned not to do it again], we often respond with anger and denial.”

As we enter 2021, I invite us to see this moment as the beginning of an era of our racial reckoning.

It’s an opportunity for us to recognize that White dominance and normativity hurts everyone including White people. It’s an opportunity for us to interrogate the ways that we continue to participate in and reinforce systems that elevate the White identity as the dominant group.

Hundreds of years of apathy and a lack of collectively addressing the legacies of genocide, slavery, and colonization have deepened wounds within Indigenous, Black, and brown bodies until today. But it’s equally important to recognize and discuss how the wounds manifest in White bodies.

You might ask, “how?”

In our faith tradition, Muslims believe that God uses the symbolism of likening all humans to one big human body — and the different communities that make up our human race symbolized by different parts of that body. Seeking collective liberation is about getting to a place where, if one part of our body — if one community — is hurting, we all feel that pain and act to heal it.

We often think about working on racial equity as “head work,” where we look at data, change policies, or work to create more accessible programs. While all of those elements are important, we must start doing the heart work required to make more foundational shifts to how we operate. We must work toward a deeper, spiritual healing that recognizes that in order for our hearts to be healthy and whole, we must all be healthy and whole.

Editor’s Note: The author wrote this blog before the latest killing by the Minneapolis Police Department of Dolal Idd and the events of Jan. 6.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

Naaima Khan is Owner and Principal of Create Good, a consultancy that helps organizations more effectively pursue anti-racism work with a special focus on using keen insights from data and evaluation. Prior to starting her own business, she worked in philanthropy for over eight years, advocating for it to be a more accessible space for IBPOC professionals and communities. Naaima has spoken about race equity and inclusive design at Ignite Minneapolis, Black Ignite, TEDx Mahtomedi and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits annual conference. You can follow Naaima on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @naaimak.