“In this time of our national transition…reach down into your soul. Find the courage to trust God’s Spirit—move with God in the direction of liberty and justice for all.”
– Lisa Sharon Harper
I looked at the story in front of me—“Hansel and Gretel.” A room full of people longing to learn how to better engage the stories of others each held a copy. I felt optimistic to be given a story that was so familiar; after all, I’d heard it told often during my own childhood and recounted it to my own sons many times. Do you recall it?
Two mischievous children, walking in the woods, stumble upon a charming cottage crafted of candy. Unable to suppress their insatiable appetites for sweets, they begin to eat. Soon, they are lured into the cottage by the proprietor…not a sweet old lady, but a wily witch, who plans to eat the fattened children for her own supper. In the end, Gretel outwits the witch, who perishes in the oven, and the children escape.
That’s the story I was prepared to read. Instead, I found myself reading a disturbingly different tale.
In the Grimms’ fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel are barely surviving a famine along with their father and step-mother. To survive, the step-mother suggests that they abandon the two children in the forest. Hansel overhears the devious plan, and the first attempt fails because he leaves behind a trail to lead them home. However, on the second attempt, his trail is eaten by birds. Gretel and he are abandoned in the forest—famished, frightened, lost, and vulnerable.
After three days, they stumble upon a little house covered with cakes; starving, the children begin to eat. An old woman appears and welcomes them into her home with immense kindness, only to turn on them, imprison Hansel, and torment Gretel. In the end, Gretel has no choice but to kill the woman to save Hansel from certain death. The two children again wander through the forest, eventually finding their way home, where they discover their stepmother has died and their father is lamenting his choice to abandon his children (yet he is not searching for them).
Reexamining the fairy tale exposed my previous Looney Tunes’ understanding of it for the farce that it was. While amusing to watch the plump, pink, golden-haired Hansel and Gretel taunt Witch Hazel, I completely missed the wickedness in the story, the dilemma of the children, the tragedy of their circumstances, and the trauma they endured. Given an invitation to reread the narrative with attention to detail and an open mind, I discovered a tale that was far more troubling.
Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, a collective voice rose from persons of color across the country—a voice of anguish, outrage, exasperation—beckoning the attention, remorse, and response of their fellow countrymen and women. In light of this latest brutal killing of a black man by a white police officer, the streets of numerous cities, vacant during the long weeks of shelter-at-home orders, filled with protesters. People of varied cultures marched side-by-side and declared, “Black lives matter.”
As I watched the news and surveyed social media, I saw thought leaders in the black community urging white Americans to stop defending, to stop deferring with platitudes like “all lives matter,” and to choose to be silent and listen. They offered a gracious invitation—for us to honestly examine our own narratives regarding people of color and to do the work to become anti-racist.
I’ll be honest…after two months sheltered in my house with little contact with the outside world and limited consumption of the news, I watched the national struggle on the television screen with a sense of seeing something otherworldly. I scanned my social media feed, and initially, the content felt far removed from the one-acre world in which I was living. However, it was in watching a conversation between Jen Hatmaker and Lisa Sharon Harper entitled “White Women’s Toxic Tears” that I realized that this broken world was my world and I could no longer remain detached. I needed to begin the work of becoming an anti-racist by listening to and learning from people of color and by considering my own story of racial bias.
As I consider my story, can I be honest about the ways I have been ignorant, insensitive, complicit, or toxic? And am I willing to repent?
Like the sanitized version of Hansel and Gretel that I recalled, I could rattle off my story in a few simple sentences; however, reexamining the narrative required that I dug deeper, looked closer, and named with greater truth.
What I read as simply my adoption as a newborn by middle class white parents showed evidence of my white privilege. What I read as my tightly knit childhood community revealed residential segregation in my small Southern town. What I read as my color blindness was merely the absence of blacks and other persons of color in my life. What I read as shyness when a fellow college freshman, a young black man, asked me on a date was truly my implicit bias. What I read as scandal when I heard that a friend was dating a black man displayed deep-seated prejudice.
And my hesitation, stress, and guilt in naming these truths was evidence of my white fragility.
I desire to grow. I am ready to repent. I long to learn. Rather than holding tightly to a false narrative, I want to read my story more rightly, even if that means naming hard truths, holding tension, creating space for diverse voices, and engaging in difficult conversations that lead to greater and truer understanding.
Can we be invited into the conversations about race without getting defensive? Can we consider the possibility that we have something to learn? Can we accept that repentance and change will likely be required, and can we hold onto the hope that this posture of contrition will ultimately lead to growth, reconciliation, and flourishing?
I can, and I will. I hope you will too.
A lover of story, Susan Tucker has always been captivated by beautiful writing. She is drawn to themes of tension, joy/grief, hope/loss, freedom/shame, which she explores in her own writing. Susan spends her days teaching middle school English, mothering her two teenage sons, and loving her husband of 25 years. She cherishes her first cup of coffee each morning, moments of quiet and solitude, restorative yoga, worship music, and faithful friends.nbsp