An elder fish passes by two young fish and says, “Hey, how’s the water today?” A few moments later one of the young fish turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
This old story is a wonderful metaphor for unconscious realities. Whether in our family systems or our social norms, powerful realities can remain invisible and therefore beyond the reach of examination and reform. Since we’ve always known them, we might not even see they are there.
MLK Day, like Christmas, is not the only time to seek the healing of racism, but it does serve at least as one reminder. And racism, or perhaps racial identity, has been like the unconscious water we swim in if we are white. While people of color have been aware daily of the waters of racial identity, white folk have the option, the privilege really, to not see or think of it. Over the many decades and centuries, white folk could view themselves as the norm. The old box of Crayola crayons had a salmon-pink-peach-ish color they called "flesh," as did a box of Band-Aids. This is all part of swimming unconsciously in the waters of white supremacy where white is normal, centered, and right.
If you are white, ask yourself “when did I first know I was white?”
Some of us white folk might have a hard time answering that because white norms were unconsciously assumed. People of color can usually tell you when they knew they were identified as black or brown or red. By conscious memory, my knowing started when I was a toddler. My mother volunteered at a migrant farm worker shelter and took me along and I played with kids with light brown skin who spoke a different language. I’m still working on being conscious of the racial waters of whiteness and white supremacy, still trying to see how the things I think, say, or do might keep white identified, Euro folk as the more valuable centered norm.
I was never raised explicitly or intentionally to see people of color as less than me, less than white, but, because of the unconscious American cultural waters I swam in, it happened at some level anyway. I’m hoping to be an elder fish one day who knows how to fully be aware of the waters in which I swim, the waters in which we all swim.
Jesus said that “the Truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). This is true collectively and individually, and in the matter of racial unconsciousness for white folk. Through conversation, reading, and reflection may all white folk awaken to their whiteness so that we can all be free. In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, not to mention the women leaders like Coretta Scott King, JoAnn Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others who sought and acted for the Beloved Community, let us faithfully go and do likewise.
The Rev. JT Smiedendorf has been a UCC minister since 2001, serving churches in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington. He has a particular passion for reclaiming the earthy, embodied, and experiential aspect of Christian spiritual practice. He and his wife Allison are co-founders of The Sanctuary for Sacred Union, an inter-spiritual initiative, and he is currently earning a postgraduate Certificate in Psychedelic Therapies and Research. Read more about JT here.