#8 “Don’t refrain!”

When my father got wind of my commute from my campus apartment on the Cambridge/Somerville line to East Boston (then considered the “murder capitol” of Boston”) for my field ministry placement, he insisted I get a car instead of taking the subway (the “T”) late at night. I could not afford to buy a car outright, so I took over the monthly payments on my dad’s Ford F-150 pick-up truck and started driving that around Boston. (It turned out to be rather handy because I could haul the equipment for the youth band I was meant to shepherd.)

When I needed help with hauling larger items in the truck, I enlisted my then boyfriend, a Canadian innocent who had never driven in Boston traffic and could barely remember how to operate a manual transmission (yes, Dad’s truck is stick shift). As we barreled down the narrow streets, I listened as he, sweating with effort, stripped the gears and had several near accidents. It occurred to me that he didn’t have a feel for how large the truck was, and thus kept stopping short, slamming on the brake to avoid plowing into the row of cars at each stoplight.

After a particularly scary near accident about an hour into our drive, I finally mumbled, “You need to give yourself more time to brake. The truck requires more time to slow down than a Toyota Corolla. Think about the mass of it…” My voice trailed off.

He looked at me wild-eyed, “WHY didn’t you SAY that sooner?!?” His face was flushed bright red. “I could have killed someone!!!!”

I thought about it… “Well, I thought I should refrain. You were literally in the driver’s seat.”

Exasperated, without hesitation, he shot back, “Don’t refrain! Don’t refrain! Don’t refrain when you see I need help and you could help me!”

It was unusual for him to get upset. To be honest, I was the yeller in the relationship. His words really gave me pause. Why was I refraining when I knew he was endangering our safety and that of others? When I knew what he needed to do differently to keep everyone safe?

This week, the truth-telling, spell-binding author Toni Morrison passed away. She spoke eloquently and pointedly about racism, “If you can only be tall because somebody in their needs, you have a problem. And my thought is that White people have a very serious problem…” As a White person, I think about what to do in order to take responsibility for my own biases and internalized racism, as well as how to interrupt situations where racism is driving people’s behaviors. This is different than speaking for people of color or patronizing people of color by speaking on their behalf when they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. I’m specifically thinking of situations – whether someone is telling a racist joke or deciding against hiring someone because of their race or ethnicity – when, as a White person, I can use my unearned privilege to speak out against racism. These are the kinds of situations in which I hear a voice in my head saying, “Don’t refrain!” White friends, I hope you hear it, too!

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