I’m a Black man from San Francisco. I’m a father, a husband, brother, son, and more. I’ve ministered the Word of God because I believe it is a healing force and because my father did the same. I also carry generational pain. My parents grew up in the Jim Crow South, and my great- uncle was killed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). I care about helping people and addressing the issues that cause people pain, to the point of sometimes getting arrested for them (more on that later). I am that passionate. My size 13 shoes—whether Cole Hahn loafers, Timberland boots, or Air-Force 1 sneakers—lead me on a path toward justice, and that means I can be outspoken. But even though I go about being a warrior, I’m also vulnerable. All of this makes me walk a certain way. I also know that people are afraid of me, as a Black man, simply for being. That, too, makes me walk and talk in a very certain way. My walk and my shoes are my identity; they are my narrative. They are my story.
What’s your story? How do you walk? How do you belong, and how do you create space for others to belong?
People sometimes think of belonging as the feeling of comfort when we are accepted, the sense of fitting in. But when belonging means simply acclimating to the status quo of the cultural majority, it stops being true belonging. Belonging can’t just be the comfortable and happy feeling we might get as we nestle down with people who are just like us. If we think that, we have missed the point. Belonging cannot be held ransom for assimilation. Those in society who have long been considered the “other” hold valuable and honest truths. Their insights into life will always make us stronger, wiser, and more aware of areas where we fall short and how we can step it up.
That’s where the radical part comes in. Radical belonging means cocreating with the “perceived other” to widen the circle of human concern. And what makes it truly radical is that it means doing this even when that very person or group seems to be working to constrict the circle of human concern. Radical belonging pushes us to imagine a world where the circle of human concern is big enough to include everyone—me on the front steps, the brother on the porch that used to be his. This includes those who are showing up to us as our enemies, and it includes even those who are manifesting a world that does not include us. This means expanding the circle beyond one that only includes us and the people who are marginalized—or privileged—like we are. It eliminates the widely accepted separation of “us” and “them” and elevates “we”: collective humanity.
So for someone like me, who carries the trauma and pain of all unjust things that have happened to my family growing up in the South, radical belonging means imagining a world that can include an insurrectionist who proudly paraded through the US Capitol with a Confederate flag. In truth, I don’t want to imagine a world that has room for that person. They can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. But if I am committed to radical belonging, this is the challenge I must accept. The man parading around the Capitol has to figure out a way to include me and other descendants of slavery in his vision of the future too. It’s the challenge we all must accept if we are to snuff out othering, heal our planet, and save ourselves.
Sawubona is the Zulu greeting for “hello” and translates to “we see you.” The response, sikhona, means “because you see me, I am here.” The sawubona and sikhona greetings remind us that people aren’t seen just because they are in a particular physical space; something must happen, collectively, for people to be seen. To truly see one another means being willing to bring people’s lived experiences into ours. To truly see another—and to be seen—is an act of radical, reciprocal belonging. It’s a greeting that suggests how urgent it is for us to see each other. It’s almost like neither of us can exist apart from the other. Do I truly see you? Do you truly see me?
Whenever I encounter personal friction in embracing radical belonging, I remember a story that civil rights activist Andrew Young, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, told me about Dr. Martin Luther King. Ambassador Young, Dr. King, and a group of their comrades had stopped at the home of one of the sisters who prepared meals for them when they were on the road. It was a common practice in those times. During a discussion about white supremacy, Ambassador Young remembers, Dr. King reminded the group, “White people are no more inferior because of their racism than Black people are superior because of our ability to see their racism. We were both born into an unjust story.” He continued, “What we’ve got to do is pursue our own liberation as a part of our own dignity, but we must do it in a way that doesn’t cause us to actually become what we see in these white brothers and sisters.”
Dr. King went on to say that liberation and belonging aren’t one-dimensional. “As we get liberated, we liberate them as well,” Ambassador Young remembers King saying, “as long as we pursue a world that has room for them to belong.” For me, this story embodies the spirituality behind the civil rights movement, which aimed to get us to a beloved community. That spirituality asks us to recognize that even the “racist” children of God are children of God.
And that’s where we are today: Our planet is sick, suffering from the ills of white supremacy and systemic racism. White supremacy is a global pandemic that is way more dangerous and deadly than COVID-19, the Spanish flu, polio, or any other disease. It has made the world so sick and has created fertile ground for othering: from policies to education to healthcare to finances and more. Because of the ways that people are being othered and oppressed here in the United States and around the world, we’ve entered a frightening time in our history when violence is becoming the first course of action for solving our disagreements or hanging on to perceived power. As a result, we’re suffering more terror and chaos and unrest than we’ve experienced in generations, manifesting as the exponential growth of white nationalism, increased mass shootings, near coups of our government, and increased homicides within our communities.
Unfortunately, those on the receiving end of the cruelties of othering sometimes meet that violence with more violence. For generations, the message from dominant groups has been: “Because I don’t see you as human, I am going to take away every ounce of your dignity and your ability to be human. I’m going to turn you into an animal and then ask you to rejoin society without treating the trauma caused by all of what I did to you.” Those who are othered resist the oppression—often nonviolently, sometimes with tactical violence. But when the resistance strategies fail, the oppressed often become demoralized and choose violence too. This vicious cycle will continue until we collectively decide: “Enough.” We have to get to a place where we all get to at least exist, even if we don’t get along.
The decision to engage—to wade into the water—can be scary. Wading into the water of new situations takes some courage. There’s an old Negro spiritual called “Wade in the Water” that enslaved Africans would often sing on their journey along the Underground Railroad in pursuit of freedom. One line says “God’s gonna trouble the water,” which is an image of healing and hope and liberation that comes from the Christian scripture. Wading into the waters is scary enough. But troubling the waters—the waters that other powerful people might tell you are calm and peaceful and don’t need to be disturbed? That’s even more difficult. When you trouble the waters, you might be told: “Stop making waves” or “Everything was fine before you came along and stirred up conflict!” Troubling the water requires you to see beneath the politeness and what Dr. Martin Luther King called “a false peace.” That false peace is the absence of tension but not the presence of justice. Sometimes we need to stop keeping the peace and start disturbing it because the kind of peace that needs to be “kept” is usually the false kind. Sometimes we need to, as the great John Lewis said, “get in good trouble.”
Troubling the water isn’t just a risk you’re taking for yourself. Your child is going to have to buy into this. For white people, your whole family has to abandon white supremacy. For men, this also means abandoning patriarchy. For people of color who have access to power, privilege, and resources, this means being willing to sacrifice some things. We all have to be willing to take some risks. And you know what? It’s going to be uncomfortable for a while. This work is hard. This work is messy. This work is sometimes thankless. But this work is necessary. I can’t make it easy for white people, and I can’t make it easy for anyone—including myself. But it is worth it.
This is an excerpt from Troubling the Water, Introduction.