Overcoming the anxiety of talking about racism

Editor’s Note: Carolyn Helsel’s upcoming book from Chalice Press, Anxious to Talk about It, aims to help white people talk about racism. In this guest blog, she reflects on the August 11-12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Carolyn Helsel
Carolyn Helsel

Sick. Sick to my stomach. I opened social media Saturday morning to reports of torches and racist slogans of white nationalists at a “Unite the Right” rally on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

I turned off my phone to get breakfast for the kids. We were traveling to San Antonio for the day, so attending to children occupied my mental space. But I wasn’t hungry for breakfast.

While I tried to keep current events out of my mind, they kept showing up. As we drove through downtown San Antonio, three white men carrying signs and wearing shirts with Confederate flags crossed the street in front of my car while I waited at a stoplight. These men were headed several blocks away, to join a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue from a San Antonio city park.[1]

Later that afternoon, while I sat at a restaurant, the news on the TV reported the alarming headlines: at the Charlottesville rally, a neo-Nazi drove his car into the crowd of counter-protestors, killing a woman and injuring 19.

Minutes later, I overheard a young white man joking at a nearby table, “I tell you, white men have it hard these days.” I’m not sure he’d been paying attention to the news from Charlottesville.

Driving back to Austin, my mind kept returning to the white men wearing Confederate flags in San Antonio and the white men in the pictures from Charlottesville, carrying torches. I kept wanting to distance myself from them: these white people are not the kind of white people I know and love. These are really bad people. Ignorant people. Evil people. But feeling sick-to-my-stomach did not go away. I could not distance myself far enough.

Returning to social media at the end of the day, several people called out to white preachers, asking: “How are you going to change your sermon for tomorrow?” Articles in major news outlets challenged the Christian church to respond with a definitive condemnation of white supremacy, asking: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?[2] And “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?[3]

But I wondered whether the people who went to this rally even went to church? I doubt it. I wanted to think of them as crazy hate-filled heathens who would never step foot in a church. I want to think of these people as so very different from me.

But as a colleague of mine from Austin Seminary, Dr. Margaret Aymer, reminded me, these people still look like me and are not that different from me. Dr. Aymer posted the picture of the torch-wielding men, and instructed viewers to look them in the face: “If you are white or the parent of a white male child, as I am, look at these faces. Look hard. These are not monsters. These are not deformed or mentally ill people. These could be your sons. These could be my son. Look hard. There is no “they” out there. This is about you. This is about me. This about how you interact with family and how your raise your children. Do not look away.”

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to keep looking. We need to sit with the discomfort of these terrorizing moments, because they will not go away when we are not looking. They will keep happening. There will continue to be demonstrations that support this way of thinking. We need to denounce them as evil and to condemn this rhetoric.

At the same time, the depth and breadth of racism is thicker than this one event, bigger than a group of white nationalists protecting a statue, older than the history that these whites want to memorialize. And condemning racism as evil demands more than realizing that racism is a problem. We have to keep talking about it with other white people.

White liberals have prided themselves on “getting it.” There’s a sense of self-righteousness that comes from feeling you are on the right side of history. But self-righteousness fosters a sense of superiority. And superiority continues to compete for superiority. There will always be better labels, more critical analysis, and more radical calls for change; but if these only lead to self-satisfaction in our moral superiority, we have failed. Whites who want to make a difference need to accept that there is no moral high ground for us: no matter how “woke” we are, we continue to be part of a system that unjustly benefits us. We are not superior to these white nationalists. We bear the guilt as well.


[1] Emilie Eaton, “Dueling San Antonio protestors clash with each other, police over Confederate monument.” The San Antonio Express News. (August 12, 2017). http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Dueling-San-Antonio-protesters-clash-with-each-11814577.php

[2] Jemar Tisby, “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” The Washington Post. (August 12, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/12/after-charlottesville-will-white-pastors-finally-take-racism-seriously

[3] Emma Green, “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?” The Atlantic. (August 13, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/will-the-church-reckon-with-charlottesville/536718/