In the early days of the protests, when the murder of George Floyd was fresh, my instagram feed filled up with folks sharing petitions, anti-racism resources, protest photos, and statements of solidarity. Like anything on the internet, it was a mixed bag. The most useful posts were from people who said something about their own journey of recognition alongside a reading list or an infographic about white privilege. One high school classmate shared strategies for inner work: I recommend the Enneagram, she wrote, and then something like: it will help you understand what’s coming up for you as you’re learning more about racism and white supremacy.

The Enneagram, if it has by some miracle not yet reached your corners of the internet, is a model for understanding your personality type. (White Christians LOVE the Enneagram.) There are nine types, referred to by their numbers and often by a short epithet. If it were not already clear to you from, I don’t know, everything about me, I am a One: the Reformer. We like to be right about everything.

Actually, though, it’s more that Ones are afraid of being wrong. An example: as a small child, I refused to speak until I could produce full sentences. I do the same thing with every foreign language I learn. If I can’t get every preposition and suffix and verb tense exactly correct, I don’t say anything at all. I want to get it right so badly I’ll sit there puzzling out the third person singular subjunctive conjugation of saber until the conversation has long since passed me by. But it’s deeper than grammar. According to the Enneagram typing system, a One’s basic fear is of being corrupt, evil, or defective. (It is too on the nose here to make a joke about Calvinism and total depravity, I just want you to know that I know.) Because I want to get it right, and because I’m afraid of being wrong, I love rules. They tell me what I can do. They tell me how to avoid anyone being justifiably angry at me for any reason ever, or even correcting a mistake in my diction. They protect me. If I can follow the rules, and get everything right, I will be safe. 

In terms of reckoning with my racial identity, this means that all my defenses are activated when folks suggest to me that I am wrong, or that I have done something wrong: the language I used, or the assumption I made, or the joke or comment I shared were harmful to someone else. I am put on edge by the suggestion—the reality—that my family history and my personal history and my resources and my lifestyle now are bound up in the systems that enslaved and oppress Black folks, indigenous communities, and other people of color. And I especially hate the idea that because I am a white person in America, socialized into a white supremacist society, I am going to be wrong and be in the wrong over and over and over again, even as I work to un-learn a lot of my harmful ideas and assumptions about race. 

The very hard thing I am learning right now—about race, and about myself—is that the rules I have been living by are not very good ones. And the rules will not keep me safe.

A few years ago, when I was living by myself in a dusty Cairo apartment and feeling very alone, I wrote about a line from Marilynne Robinson: there is no safety. I think about this phrase almost every day, now. I think what I meant then was something more like things are not as clear cut as you believed. And now I’m realizing that she might mean safety literally. There is no safety from a contagious respiratory virus that has killed 150,000 Americans, and 620,000 people worldwide. There is no safety from a police force that murders Black Americans over a $20 bill.  There is no safety under a government that sends secret police to illegally arrest protestors and gets away with it. There has never been safety. There has been the illusion of safety, for some of us, and there have been many stories about danger, and where it comes from, and so many of them are so very, very wrong.

My deeply held, personality-type-defining desire for a secure position on the moral high ground is bound to interfere with pursuing the kind of rightness I know is most important. I am paying attention to that, because in a world without safety, I must be very wary of what makes me feel safe. The rules are not neutral, and they are not holy. They do not make me innocent. And there is a far distance between what is right and what is safe.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I just wrote out this entire comment about Brene Brown and Austin Channing Brown’s talk and then reread your post and realized that you linked to it. Realizing that I’ve used rules in my past as a weapon to protect me rather than a way for me to advocate for others is something that I’ve been reckoning with since I’ve listened to that podcast. There’s gotta be some connection here with how the Pharisees viewed/lived the law of the Old Testament and how Jesus viewed/lived the law, but I’m not quite there.
    Thanks for your honesty, as always.

    Reply
    • Katie

      Oh, it’s a very good podcast episode! I’ve been thinking about it for weeks (hence this post). I’m not quite there yet either but I hear you re: Pharisees. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Your last line makes me think of the description of Aslan: “Of course he isn’t safe…but he’s good.” Thank you for this thoughtful post. I continue to be impressed by your writing skills and also your searching heart.

    Reply
    • Katie

      I had not been thinking of Aslan, but it must be in my bones. (Thank you, Mrs. Knol.)

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Thank you for writing this, Katie. I love how logical and coherent your writing is.

    I especially like this concept of “the illusion of safety.” It makes me think of how the US spends billions of dollars (literally) on high-tech home security systems, yet so many of us are unwilling to get to know our neighbors.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    Thanks, Katy! I appreciate your writing, your caring, your honest heart.
    No, there is no safety for any of us.
    But in the din of internal dissonance, there still is a voice that says, “Fear not.”

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    I think the very idea of using the Law to advocate for those on the margins is how Jesus viewed the Law. “I have come to bring life, and to the full.” The Pharisees used the rules as a burden, which they could hold (being rich and educated) but the poor could not. Jesus took the burden of the law onto himself and freed the poor and vulnerable from that burden. Paul talks about how Christians are free to follow the Law but to do things that are not even immoral (under Christian freedom) is wrong if it is a burden on other Christians.

    Reply
  6. Kyric Koning

    “The most useful posts were from people who said something about their own journey” indeed. Keep traveling, keep thinking, and keep sharing your thoughts with us in such direct, beautiful ways that we can chart a course for ourselves.

    Reply

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