We Don't Talk About ...

By Rev. Sandra Nenadal

I was a history major in college, so I enjoyed history-based television programs like “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. In every episode, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. provides information his team has uncovered about well-known personalities’ family histories. Sometimes, the stories are exciting as people learn they are related to royalty or historical figures from the past. In other cases, they learn family secrets that no one has ever spoken about, such as the incarceration of family members, histories of mental illness or relatives lost in the Holocaust. 

Families have secrets, things we are afraid to talk about. The song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Disney movie “Encanto” has become so popular. It names a truth about families. 

This is true in churches, communities, and nations as well. Our nationwide discussions on anti-racism make this clear. In the recent Missouri Conference survey conducted by Discipleship Ministries, we learned that an overwhelming majority of the respondents said the Conference’s work to dismantle racism was important. While a majority were comfortable talking about race, racism and implicit bias, their discomfort rose when it came to talking about justice, white privilege and white supremacy. 

I can relate to this discomfort. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, my family understood privilege as something that existed for persons who attended Ivy League colleges and inherited great wealth. It was not until I attended seminary that a simple worksheet illustrated the privileges. I experienced being white. It asked us to answer yes or no questions like these:

“I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.”

“I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.” 

“I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”

“I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”

(“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh Winter, 1990 issue of Independent, 2-4)

These questions made me realize that while I could answer yes in 1990, a person of color might say no. The worksheet addressed other issues, but it was these questions that first made me aware of the depth to which racism impacts our lives. I had studied the history of slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement in college, but not the impact of white privilege. Writing back in 1988, Peggy McIntosh described white privilege as being like an invisible knapsack with a variety of tools and resources used to navigate the world. People of color face barriers because they lack these tools that make life simpler for persons of the majority culture. Our problem is that we don’t want to talk about the knapsack because it makes us uncomfortable. But being silent or ignoring the issue means we continue to live with secrets and the resulting tensions they create.

In the movie “Encanto,” the family’s secrets are eating away at their relationships, creating literal cracks in their magical home. One of the grandchildren, Mirabel, risks everything to uncover those secrets which require her to talk about her Uncle Bruno. She needs the whole truth to save her family.

The Apostle Paul recognized the dangers facing the church when we allow divisions and dissension to destroy our unity. He wrote about them in Ephesians. In chapter four, Paul focused on the importance of unity in the body of Christ, writing, “I beg you to live the way God’s people should live because he chose you to be his. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient and accept each other with love.” (Eph 4:1-3 ERV) Paul said harmony in the church relies on our capacity to love one another. It also requires us to recognize that the body of Christ requires diversity to function properly. Part of the way we build up the body and support the unity of spirit is to speak the truth in love. 
We can turn to Paul’s guidance in Ephesians as we do this challenging work acknowledging the impacts of racism in the church. That includes naming the benefits available to persons in the majority culture. It may make us uncomfortable, but until we can talk about the sins of the past out of love for all believers, we will find it difficult to create the community John envisioned. He wrote in Revelation 7:9 (ERV): “Then I looked, and there was a large crowd of people. There were so many people that no one could count them all. They were from every nation, tribe, race of people, and language of the earth. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Mirabel’s search for the truth led to a conversation with her grandmother. When they were finally able to speak truthfully with love, a transformation occurred. Truth healed their relationships. It started with being able to talk about Bruno. 

To be able to talk about anti-racism work, we need a humble spirit and a willingness to keep learning. We require resources. We need a willingness to listen and talk through what we learned. Finally, we must commit to living out Paul’s advice. 

We will “speak the truth with love. We will grow to be like Christ in every way. He is the head, and the whole body depends on him. All the parts of the body are joined and held together, with each part doing its own work. This causes the whole body to grow and to be stronger in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16 ERV)