I spent the day at a breathtakingly powerful seminar and workshop on racial justice. Ben McBride is a pastor and activist who spoke about his experience moving into the “kill zone” in Oakland with his wife and three children, his work training the Oakland Police Department on implicit racial bias, and joining thousands of protestors in the streets of Ferguson MO in 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown.
At one point Ben flashed the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush on the screen, drawing a parallel to the modern day “burning bushes” alerting us of the crisis of racism and the brutalities committed against black bodies every day in America. He spoke about how Moses was hesitant to leave the comfort and stability of his life under Pharaoh behind to follow God, and Ben challenged us with this question “What is your Pharaoh?”
Folks around the room shared their answers, and they ranged from “I feel inadequate to know how to help” to “I feel ignorant that I didn’t even realize how bad the problem was.”
My answer was immediate, and shocked me in how absurd and lame it seemed in the face of what we were talking about.
What’s my Pharaoh?
I want to be liked.
The biggest barrier to me speaking out against injustice and the killing of unarmed black men and the relentless ways “whiteness” [meaning the social construct that some humans are inherently more valuable than others] has done and is doing, the irreparable damage to the bodies, minds, souls and spirits of our brothers and sisters who are not white – I want people to like me. I want people to like me and I’m afraid that if I speak out or challenge them they will feel less than warm and fuzzy feelings towards me. I’m afraid if I call them out they’ll be defensive or resistant or angry, that they’ll turn the tables on me and lash out in anger.
I voiced this out loud in a smaller group with a sense of deep embarassment at how absurd it sounded and a kind and wise friend shook her head and said with great compassion – it’s not stupid.
I know what she meant. She meant that she knows it goes much, much deeper than “wanting to be liked.”
For me, the combination of my personality [people-focused, prioritizing relationships, type-A, perfectionistic] and growing up female in a world – particularly the church – where being sweet and agreeable was the height of femininity and acceptance, means that I equate being likable with being loved. I was taught that not rocking the boat or making waves was what was expected of me, and if I wanted to be accepted and loved by my community [and someday loved by a man who would want to marry me] I need to stay sweet and small and agreeable. I needed to liked by everyone.
What saved me was my parents, particularly my dad who always made it clear he saw me as a person first and a girl second – meaning I could do anything I set my mind to, gender norms be damned. That helped, but it wasn’t enough to undo all the other messages – church, culture, the media – that told me if I wasn’t likable I would never be loved.
So when something came along that threatened my likability, I felt gripped by fear – because if my lovability hinged on my likability, I damn well better figure out how to make sure every person I met – regardless of whether or not their opinion was worth caring about – liked me.
This led to me minimizing or ignoring the racist or sexist or homophobic comments I heard made about other people. This led to me accepting unkind comments and behaviors from guys I dated because I didn’t want to challenge them and risk their ire. This led to three decades of selectively smoothing away other people’s rough edges so I didn’t have to call them out when they were not being decent humans and risk the unthinkable – being disliked.
Here’s the thing though – I started the realize at some point that when I did that, when I stifled myself from speaking out, I was failing miserably at “loving my neighbor as myself. ” I was caring more about my own emotional equilibrium than another person’s good. The good of the person who needed to be called out and told that their comment/behavior was not ok, and the good of the persons/people who would be hurt if that behavior continued. Today, as I watched old black and white footage of men and women being pulled from lunch counter stools in the segregated south, as I watched modern-day footage of the police firing rubber bullets and tear gas on the peaceful protestors of Ferguson, as I listened to Ben share stories of being called the N-word and receiving death threats before he preached at a church, I realized the cost of my fear, of putting my comfort ahead of the lives of my brothers and sisters.
And here’s the real kicker – that deep fear I have, of being unliked? It’s all based on a lie. I do not need to be likable in order to be loved. My belovedness, my value, my worth? It’s a done deal. I am deeply loved for the truest truth of who I am by the God who created me. I am deeply loved for the most brave, fierce, truth-telling, boat-rocking, waves-making version of myself by close friends and family who love me enough to hear my pushback and truth-telling – just like I love them enough to hold theirs.
I am deeply loved just as my black brothers and sisters are deeply loved – and because I know that, I can use my voice to testify to the truth of their belovedness in a world that tries it’s damndest to convince us all otherwise.
And at the end of the day, if I speak the Truth in love and someone doesn’t like me for it? Well then I don’t think their approval was really worth having in the first place.
So I’m walking forward in newfound freedom – freedom from the shackles of needing to be liked, so I can roll up my sleeves and do the hard and beautiful work of Love.