A White Response to Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Michael Eric Dyson, an ordained minister for 35 years, a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, and a writer for several prestigious magazines including The New York Times, wrote the book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America [St. Martins Press, 2017]. This is a book every white Christian should read especially now in light of the events in Charlottesville and the ongoing racial tensions in our America. The first step towards being a redemptive presence in our communities is to truly enter into the lived experience and the actual perspective of our African American brothers and sisters.

We need to get out of the pulpits, sit down in front row pews, and hear our brothers of color preach to us. As is a central characteristic of black preaching, I want to give a response.[1]

Call and Response

The hallmark of black preaching is the Call and Response pattern. The pastor preaches—gives the call—and the congregation responds, carrying the preacher and the congregation to the Holy Spirit conclusion. Without this joint interaction between the person in the pulpit and the people in the pews, the sermon is pointless. There has been no connection. Evans Crawford, in The Hum: Call and Response in African American Preaching, names five ‘progressive affirmations’ in a well-executed black sermon. Those stages are:

  1. Help ‘em Lord
  2. Well?
  3. That’s All Right
  4. Amen!
  5. Glory Hallelujah!

As a white person, those stages guide my response, my prayers, confessions, and actions. After reading Dyson’s book, my response comes in progressive affirmations:

‘Inventing Whiteness’

“You don’t get whiteness from your genes. It is a social inheritance that is passed on to you as a member of a particular group… Whiteness is an advantage and a privilege because you have made it so, not because the universe demands it. So I want to tell you right off the bat that whiteness is made up, and that white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity.” [44-45]

           Help me Lord! 

“Whiteness has only two modes: it either converts or destroys… The only way to save our nation, and yes, to save yourselves, is to let go of whiteness and the vision of America it supports.” [49]

           Help us Lord!

 “But there is a psychological and social advantage in not being thought of as black… And there are a lot of privileges that white folk get that don’t depend on cash. The greatest one may be getting stopped by a cop and living to talk about it.” [66]

           God Almighty, help us Lord!

‘The Five Stages of White Grief’

“White racial grief erupts when you fear losing your dominance… The first stage of white racial grief is to plead utter ignorance about black life and culture… It is willful refusal to know… It is not unlike those explorers and pilgrims who ‘discovered’ America, that is, discovered a land full of native people. Native lives stopped mattering before they ever began to count.” [73-74] Native lives stopped mattering before they ever began to count. @MichaelEDyson Click To Tweet

          Well? Do I know the history of black lives and the stories of black culture?

 “The second stage of grief flashes in the assertion, ‘it didn’t happen.’ Instead of ‘forget it,’ there is ‘deny it.’…White denial thrives on shifts and pivots. ‘It was my ancestors, not me, who did this to you.’ But what looks like confession is really denial. The ‘them, not me’ defense denies how the problem persists in the present day.” [78-79]

          Well? Am I aware of how the problem persists today? Do I believe it or do I deny it?

 “The third stage of white racial grief, appropriation, looms everywhere. If black history can’t be forgotten or denied, white America can, simply take it… The credo of appropriators is ‘it happened to me too.’ Blackness, that is, but not its costs or penalties….” [81-82]

          Well? Do I feel compelled to tell my white story of pain and not recognize the costs and penalties of black stories of pain?

 “When some of you say, ‘I don’t see color,’ you are either well-intending naïfs or willful race evaders…One of the greatest privileges of whiteness is not to see color, not to see race, and not to pay a price for ignoring it.” [86]

          Well? Do I feel compelled to say ‘I don’t see color’ to feel better and to ignore my white privilege? One of the greatest privileges of whiteness is not paying a price for ignoring color. Click To Tweet

 “The way of racial revisionist (the fourth stage of white grief), when it comes to black life and history, is, simply, to rewrite it. Their motto is, ‘It didn’t happen that way…This radiates in thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza who claims that American blacks brought here through slavery are doing far better than their African kin… revisionists would much rather describe the dehumanization of black folk as little more than a commercial transaction.” [86-87]

          Well? Do I seek to understand history from the black perspective or do I want my own spin on it?

 “The urge to rewrite black history occasionally gives way to the final stage of white racial grief, which is, simply, when it comes to race, to dilute it… To summarize: ‘Bad stuff happens to everyone.’” [88]

          Well? Do I rationalize that people are suffering everywhere to dilute my responsibility to address racism in my own life and community?

‘The Plague of White Innocence’ 

“To be blunt, you are emotionally immature about race. But, my friends, your innocent whiteness is too costly to maintain.” [96]

          That’s Right! Lord, I am immature about race.

“White fragility is the belief that even the slightest pressure is seen by white folk as battering, as intolerable, and can provoke anger, fear, and, yes, even guilt.” [98]

          That’s Right! Lord, I am uncomfortable, and I have chosen silence or ignorance.

 “It means accepting accountability for your unanimous, collective capacity for terror, for enjoying a way of life that comes at the direct expense of other folk who are denied the privileges you take for granted.” [100]

          That’s Right! Lord, hold me accountable; hold us accountable for our sin.

 “Beloved, to be white is to know that you have at your own hand, or by extension, through institutionalized means, the power to take black life with impunity. It’s the power of life and death that gives whiteness its force, its imperative. White life is worth more than black life. [104]

          That’s Right! Lord, we have sinned by dismissing the message of ‘Black Lives Matter.’

“The most radical action a white person can take is to acknowledge this denied privilege, to say, ‘Yes, you’re right.” [104]

          Amen. Amen. Yes, you are right. Yes, you are right.

 “Institutional racism is a system of ingrained social practices that perpetuate and preserve racial hierarchy… It is glimpsed in the denial of quality education to black and brown students because they live in poor neighborhoods where public schools depend on the tax base for revenue.” [107]

          Amen. Amen. Yes, you are right. Yes, you are right.

 “What we did not fully understand, or account for, is the deep-seated, intractable anger of the white Americans who never viewed Obama as either fully American or quite human. Donald Trump has exploited these people, promised them a different transformation, one that returns the country to what they would like to believe it once was: theirs. This is the naked, unapologetic face of white innocence on steroids.” [111]

          Amen. Amen. Yes, you are right. Yes, you are right.

“Nationalism is the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political virtue… Patriotism is the belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to realize those values. If the nation strays, then it must be corrected.” [116]

          Amen. Amen. Yes, you are right. Yes, you are right.


“As we prepare to part, I offer you a few practical suggestions…First, my friends, you must make reparation.” Some examples: Hire a black person and pay them slightly better. Give a deserving black student a scholarship. Your church can commit a tenth of its resources to educating black youth. [There are two pages of excellent ideas. 197-198]

          Glory Hallelujah! With the help of God, we can do this!

“Beloved, you must also educate yourselves about black life and culture. Racial literacy is as necessary as it is undervalued.” [There are six pages of excellent books to read 199-204]

          Glory Hallelujah! With the help of God, we can do this!

“Beloved, your participation in protests, rallies, local community meetings, and the like makes a huge difference. When we gather to express grief, outrage, and dissent, your presence sends the signal that this is not ‘just a black thing.’ It is, instead, an American thing.” [204-206]

          Glory Hallelujah! With the help of God, we can do this!

“One solution is new black friends. It is distressing that so few of you have more than a token black friend. Beloved, hopefully your new friends will make it easier for you to speak up against the injustice that black folks face. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that we would have to repent not only for the ‘evil words and deeds of the bad people,’ but for the appalling silence of good people.’” [207]

          Glory Hallelujah! With the help of God, we can do this!

“Beloved, all of what I have said should lead you to empathy. It sounds simple, but its benefits are profound. Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness.” [211-212]

          Glory Hallelujah! With the help of God, we can do this!

Preach it, beloved brother in Christ, Pastor Michael Dyson. May your inspired words seep deeply into our souls and help us be true sisters and brothers in this systemic struggle for all children and all men and all women to be free.

[1] Dyson’s wrote his book in the format of a complete worship service with sections on Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Invocation, Scripture Reading, Sermon, Benediction, Offering Plate, Prelude, and Closing Prayer. I have responded to one of two parts of the Sermon Repenting of Whiteness. The second part of the Sermon Being Black in America was just as profound and helpful, but to avoid wearing out the reader, I have chosen to respond to a small part of the book. The entire book is worth reading. Buy the book. Read it slowly. Talk about it with your family, friends, in your church. Pray. Confess. Act. There is no time like the present to read this book.

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