Lessons from Lady Gaga: Building Beloved Community Through Unlearning White Supremacy

The Vision of Beloved Community

“My unlearning is a path to healing and love in its most honest and raw form; my unlearning is a necessary invitation that opens the door to real freedom in this country.” Lady Gaga, Beloved Community Awards 2021.

How do we begin to build a world in which we may live into the fullness of our humanity together? How may we come to recognize, embrace, and thrive upon our interconnection, building each other up through solidarity and service? How do we work together to create social and economic justice, a world in which no one is left out on the margins? How may we build the Beloved Community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, wherein, through mutual respect, appreciation, and love, we encourage and enable one another to live into our full, unique and beautiful potential?

In her eloquent, compassionate, and deeply vulnerable acceptance speech for the 2021 Beloved Community Awards, Stefani Germanotta, known to the world as Lady Gaga, dedicated her award to people of color while inviting white people in particular to join her on the path to Beloved Community by committing to a lifetime of unlearning. The structures of white supremacy that keep us divided on racial lines, imposing hierarchy rather than harmony and conflict rather than community, cannot be dismantled until they are unlearned: recognized, rejected, and replaced.

… the concept of advantage itself only exists in a world of inequity.

The Call To Unlearn

In a nation built upon the unstable structure of white supremacy, Beloved Community can only be created where that structure is uprooted and a firm foundation of respect and affirmation for human dignity is laid instead. People of color, living “full and beautiful lives despite the systems of white supremacy that are intended to keep them from doing so,” are already laying that new and firmer foundation on which Beloved Community may be built by living in resiliency and defiance of the powers that be.

Those of us who are white may also participate in the creation of Beloved Community as we unlearn the lie of white supremacy. Indeed, there is a degree to which everyone must unlearn this lie, for racism so permeates and structures our culture that it can be internalized or pit different racial minorities against one another. But white people have a particular responsibility to unlearn and dismantle the structures of white supremacy. Our eyes need opening, for white privilege is a log in our eyes that obscures the harsh realities of our racialized society, realities that people of color already know all too well.

While white people have a particular responsibility to unlearn white supremacy, everyone is called to unlearn something. To be human is to have limited knowledge in a vast and complicated universe. It is not only to make mistakes, but to live in a world shaped by mistakes and prejudices that have compounded throughout human existence. Thus, there is a degree to which we all must unlearn the detrimental forces that disrupt living harmoniously together, forces that come in forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and so many more, building upon each other. Progress, transformation, and healing come through unlearning.

The extent to which prejudices give us advantage over others is the extent to which we have both particular responsibility and particular difficulty with unlearning. Recognizing how others are harmed by systems that give us relative advantage can induce feelings of guilt and defensiveness that can paralyze us or tempt us to false justifications.

So how do we go about the process of unlearning white supremacy? How do we embark on this journey of changing our minds, hearts, actions, and ultimately the structures that shape not only our own lives, but the lives of others? How do we disentangle ourselves from lies that have shaped not only the world, but our inner selves, without so much shame that we are tempted to deny or shrink away?

We start by acknowledging that as difficult as the process is, we can only reach better by going through it. As we unlearn and begin to transform our world of prejudice and marginalization into the Beloved Community where everyone can flourish, we come to recognize that “advantage” over and against others is not at all desirable, because we can never fully thrive when others are kept from thriving. Thus, the concept of advantage itself only exists in a world of inequity. As a new and better world is built, advantage becomes a lie. We can find the strength and courage to unlearn, to transform advantage into solidarity and mutuality, when we recognize that when we are all able to live into our best and most beautiful selves, the Beloved Community holds more joy than we can yet imagine.

The Olive

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Five Steps For Unlearning White Supremacy

The lifelong process of unlearning white supremacy, like unlearning every dehumanizing force, will be different for everyone. Yet we can encourage and support one another along the way, knowing that compassion, empathy, and gentle challenge are essential for the sustaining this difficult but necessary process. Wherever we may be in our journeys, here are five things we are called to do over and over as we unlearn:

  1. Ground ourselves in unconditional, irrevocable love. We can commit to acknowledging our mistakes and to humbly learning from those who point out our faults when we know that we are more than our shortcomings. As we commit to acknowledging the infinite worth and inherent dignity of every person, we cannot forget that we, too, have inherent dignity and worth. To build the Beloved Community we must remember that we, too, are beloved. Anchoring ourselves in love, we can set ourselves free from even our most deeply embedded misconceptions, prejudices, and biases, knowing that our true selves are rooted in something much stronger.
  1. Continually learn and acknowledge our past and current systems of injustice in “all their sinister realness,” as Lady Gaga puts it. This means seeking further understanding from people of color themselves, understanding that defies the dominant, glorious American narrative. Neither most schools nor mainstream media teach the full horrors of slavery or the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, the betrayals of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, the indignities of Jim Crow or the horrors of lynching, or the lingering effects of redlining, wage suppression, and being on the receiving end of so many forms of hate, fear, and dehumanization. The more we as white people commit ourselves to listening and learning from people of color, from authors and leaders like James Baldwin, Ibram X. Kendi, Carol Anderson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Cornel West, Mark Charles, and so many more, the more we may come to see through new eyes, cultivate empathy, and move beyond defensiveness to desire for change. The more we learn from people of color how promises have been betrayed every step of the way, the less content we are to push narratives of past progress and the more willing and able we become to do our part to make and safeguard real inward change and real societal transformation.
  1. Cultivate the humility and empathy to listen without reactionary outrage. Learning the brutal facts is only one step; we must also listen to the emotions and perspectives that come from living on the underside of injustice and oppression. When we cultivate humility, we can better prevent ourselves from lashing out in humiliation, becoming more able to accept criticism and correction graciously, as gifts of trust. We cultivate empathy by listening directly to people of color, and we can also learn from art, music, fiction, and other forms of creative expression. In thanking people of color for centuries of radical love, imagination, innovation, and extending grace, Lady Gaga acknowledged the creativity, patience, and compassion forged in the experience of living on the underside of oppression. When we cultivate the empathy to recognize and appreciate these qualities in people of color, our hearts begin to change for the better.
  2. Hear and speak the truth in love. Just as we are called to cultivate the humility and empathy that allows us to hear, absorb, and be changed by hard truths and criticisms, so we are called to share what we learn with other white people. Remembering our own need for compassion and understanding, we should follow Lady Gaga’s lead by speaking difficult truths persistently in love, conveying our faith in human redemption and acknowledging our own mistakes so that our words may be received in understanding rather than rejected in defensiveness.
  3. Follow the lead of people of color in taking direct action. We won’t always be able to understand how policy proposals or changes impact people of color unless we listen. When we hear the desires or protests of people of color, we can use our voices to amplify theirs. Becoming directly invested and involved in the aspirations of people of color, being sure not to drown them out but find our place in solidarity and support, is not just a result of unlearning, but a part of the never-ending cycle of unlearning. As Lady Gaga puts it, “the more [our] actions change, the more [our] commitment to a liberated community grows.”

Each step of unlearning makes all others easier. The more we remember we are loved, the more we dare to learn. The more we cultivate empathy, the less defensive we become to our brutal realities. The more we speak up in love, the more we build a world in which wrongs are recognized immediately, before they have time to fester and compound. The more direct action we take, the more we strengthen our ability and resolve.

And this process applies, with some adaptation, to all forms of unlearning. Where systems of injustice directly harm us, finding the courage to share our stories and perspectives on the world can open the eyes of others. Where we profit from systems of injustice, cultivating the humility and empathy to listen to people on the underside of oppression nurtures both our desire and our ability to unlearn and transform.

Conclusion: Becoming Our Better Selves

As we begin to unlearn, it becomes more and more clear that any relative advantage we may have at the expense of others pales in comparison to creating a world in which we all recognize our interconnection and support each other in becoming our most wonderful selves. As Dr. King says, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Ultimately, unlearning is an act of hope, not despair. In unlearning, we recognize the wide gap between the way things are and the way things should be, we dare to see how we may have lived in complicity with injustice, and we push ourselves to learn, do, and be better. Only in honestly acknowledging our mistakes, shortcomings, and wrongdoings can we work through the damage and come out better, kinder, and wiser on the other side. It can be difficult and uncomfortable work, but as we commit, we gain the strength of humility that carries us through to deeper understanding, solidarity, and finally the joy of Beloved Community.