Anxious to Talk About It (Carolyn Helsel) - A Review

ANXIOUS TO TALK ABOUT IT: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism. By Carolyn B. Helsel. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018. 127 pages.


If you are white, like me, you will not have experienced racism in quite the same way as a person of color. In other words, you will never have profiled by police because of your race or have been followed in store due to your race. You won’t have stories to tell about family who were placed in internment camps. I could go on, but you get the point. When the #BlackLivesMatter movement erupted after a series of incidents where black men and women were killed by white police officers, along with acquittal of George Zimmerman, many white folks suggested that a better term would be #AllLivesMatter. Although it’s true that all lives matter, arguing that point misses the larger point, which is that while all lives do matter, it would appear that in many cases that hasn’t always included black lives.  That call for an #AllLivesMatter movement also reflects the anxiety with which many of my fellow white citizens approach conversations about race and racism. Part of the anxiety we feel stems from a fear of what we might discover about ourselves. Perhaps there are racist elements in our person, and that’s not something we wish to face.  Yet, if we are to move forward as a society and as church, this is a reality that must be faced.

Anxious to Talk About It is the product of Carolyn B. Helsel pen. Helsel is a white woman who teaches preaching at a Presbyterian seminary in Texas (Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary). Life experiences and academic considerations led her to focus her attention on questions of race and the church. While she doesn't do anti-racism training, she has focused on helping preachers address the topic of racism in their sermons. This book is a companion, of sorts, to her excellent book Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders, which was also published in 2018 by Chalice Press. Having read book books, I believe they go together. This book will assist in congregational conversations, which Preaching about Racism prepares clergy to take congregations on this important journey to wholeness. In both books, Helsel addresses this deep-seated anxiety that inhabits the lives of white Christians, especially those who believe in justice and equality for all.

Helsel reveals upfront that she wrote this book out of her own sense of anxiety. Having made that confession, she is able to acknowledge the possible anxieties felt by the readers of the book. Nonetheless, she writes in the hope that "by reading it, you will feel yourself honored and cared for, your emotions attended to, and not feel shamed for getting it wrong" (p. 3). In other words, this isn't a harangue about racism meant to create shame or guilt. Instead, this is a guide to a conversation that can transform the lives of readers, as well as the church and society.

This is a brief book that is designed for congregational study. There are six chapters, that invites to consider how we think about race and racism. She addresses the oft-stated query: shouldn't we be colorblind? After all, we’re all the same underneath our skin. Isn’t that what Martin Luther King dreamt of? Shouldn’t we be a society where we are judged by our character and not the color of our skin? Dr. King had a powerful dream, but it would seem that for many folks of my color and background, that means assimilating into a white-dominated culture. Talk of being color blind is often linked to the myth of America as a melting pot. Again, the assumption is that there is a distinctive “American” culture into which we’re all melted, letting go of our distinctions. Again, this leads to the assumption that the United States is a white Euro-centric nation. Therefore, the book begins with definitions, from there a conversation can commence.

The first conversation invites us to consider what it means to feel white. She invites to hear the stories of how people grow up and the way people live. By doing this we discern differences of experience. As she does this, she talks about the challenges of "political correctness" and the feeling that one can never get it right. Again, definitions are important, but so is experience. Many conversations are cut short, because people feel as if the goal line keeps moving. When that happens, we tend to give up in frustration. She wants us to acknowledge these feelings, so we can move forward with the conversation.

In chapter three, she introduces us to the idea of "mapping racial identity development." This is an important concept that is new to me. It’s not something I’ve encountered in prior anti-racism trainings. The idea here is that we all have a racial identity. That includes those of us who are white. The point here is the importance of becoming comfortable within our own skin. The point of mapping this development is learning how we get to that point of being comfortable in our own skin, so we can be comfortable with the skin of others. This leads to the next chapter, in which we are invited to listen to different stories about race. She introduces us to a series of stories that emerge out of an oral history project. At this stage of the conversation, we listen to how others experience themselves and their race. Is it positive or negative? Part of this conversation centers on stereotype and fear. She notes: “We are taught to fear. Noticing fear and talking ourselves of that fear is essential if we are to overcome the biases we were once taught” (p. 83).

I found chapter five to be quite interesting. Here she speaks of the call to express gratitude. This chapter provides a framework for conversation, in which we consider what we might be grateful for. That includes being grateful for this conversation. It is a reminder that we’re not entering this conversation out of guilt and shame, but in gratitude for the grace of God received through Jesus. As part of this conversation she addresses the myth of meritocracy in America. Gratitude for the gifts of God help us envision reality differently.  Finally, in chapter six she invites us to engage in spiritual practices, beginning with self-compassion, bearing witness, and hospitality. Developing spiritual resources that empower the conversation that can begin to create bridges, that is relationships, is key to the movement toward an anti-racist identity.

I read her book on preaching first and found it powerful and compelling. There is overlap between the two books, but they are directed toward different audiences. If you’re clergy, I would read Preaching about Racism first.  It takes some of the conversations deeper. Once clergy take in the preaching book, then they’ll be ready to take their congregations into the conversation using Anxious to Talk About It. It is my sense that most people of good faith and heart do not wish to be racist or even appear to be racist. Yet, we know that many of us have been taught ideas that create fear and stereotype. We’d rather not address the questions, and yet unless we do, we won’t move forward. I believe that Carolyn Helsel has provided us with some excellent tools that will enable us to move forward. The reason why this book is important, is that it is incumbent on we who are white to take the first step toward reconciliation by addressing our own past and our own perceptions of ourselves and our neighbors. If we take this step there is opportunity for us to build new and exciting relationships across racial and ethnic lines. Rather than embrace the idea of the United States as a melting pot, we might be ready to recognize the United States as a Salad Bowl! With that I invite my white brothers and sisters to take and read.

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