Still Haunted

NOTE: Despite the title, this is not a Halloween fantasy but a recognition of a real-life haunting that continues to this very day and shows few, if any, signs of ending. 

I have removed images that were shown earlier, to avoid triggering readers. 

A dear friend told me about her high blood pressure during the past weeks and months—a response to nightmares she is experiencing. The nightmares include her being beaten, even shot, “because of the color of my skin.” She said a recurring one involves Walking While Black, being shot for walking down the street. 

It is for me a powerful reminder of the power of White Supremacy to keep BIPOC people on edge, off-center, always having to be aware of everything going on around them, to take extra precautions to be safe wherever they are, whatever they are doing. 

Even more, it is a powerful statement about what all that watching and being prepared for the next bad thing, every moment of every day, can do to people’s psyche, their sense of well-being, their mental health, and indeed their physical health. BIPOC people are so very aware of being expected to not precipitate what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—the form of bullying used by White people to maintain dominance, to keep people of color in line and “in their place.”

My friend is a Black woman in her 60s, now retired, with a long record of distinguished accomplishment in her profession as well as continuing engagement in working for social change. She is a well-known, greatly admired leader in our local community. She would seem to have everything going for her, and yet she is experiencing dangerously high blood pressure due to a lifetime spent coping with the insidious nature of White supremacy. 

Another friend speaks of “adaptive behavior” that she and other Black people (and other racially marginalized people) have learned to do to survive, expressed through self-denial and self-silencing (swallowing feelings, looking past hurts and insults, avoiding disagreements, etc.) piling up over years of stifling oneself. Small wonder people have nightmares.

None of what has happened in recent years to Black people surprises either of them, nor does it surprise any other Black people………or Indigenous or other People of Color. But all of it takes a toll on their well-being. This is the seemingly “non-violent,” quiet, side of White supremacy—it is not available for video recording and replay, it is not a dramatic moment like a shooting or a lynching or White supremacist demonstration. 

But it is violence. Social violence. State-sponsored or at least state-allowed violence—just think of the differentials for health outcomes not only in the Pandemic but all the time between White people and BIPOC people. And it is only quiet in the sense that our White supremacist social structure ignores it, pretends it does not exist. 

And it is violence enacted by individuals. Most White people don’t know our own complicity in everyday attitudes, interactions, and practices that perpetuate and even encourage the violence. 

This is why Ta NaHesi-Coates, in his powerful 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” speaks about the time after the passage of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, and indeed all that has followed, down to and including our own time. 

Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. 

[If you have not read his piece, here is a link so you can read it now,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  …..vital reading for us all.]

“But still we are haunted.” 

That is my friend, but it is not limited to her. Nor is this haunting solely attributable to overtly racist, White supremacist people, or even to a President who denies the realities of American history and belittles those who keep bringing it up. 

The long and short of it, my fellow White Americans, is that we have so much to do because we have so much to answer for. We must engage in ongoing, probing self-examination, looking intently in the mirror of our souls, our minds, to be willing to root out our unconscious obedience to racist social rules of which we have remained blissfully unaware. We must become conscious about what is unconscious and challenge it, we must to dare to see what we were trained not to see and begin to share it with others, and we must confess and repent and figure out what we can do to repair at least some of the harm we have caused. 

For example, without asking a BIPOC friend to educate you (an old trick designed to keep the focus off us and on them, to help us feel good about ourselves for asking) you might ask them to tell you of something that happened to them with a White person recently that caused them to feel devalued, hurt, anxious, or angry, perhaps all of the above. Then watch your own reaction honestly and analyze all your feelings, certainly expressing your concern for them but really being open to the full range of your feelings. Let their testimony simmer in you and see where you go. And if you don’t have such a friend to ask, that is a wake-up call. 

Until we as White people realize, really realize, with the spoken word artist Guante that “white supremacy is not the shark in the water, it is the water (see below),” until we acknowledge how much harm has been caused, and how we continue to maintain it ourselves, until we can hear people like my friend and not become defensive, until someone we know tells us of their pain and we seek to learn more and to check in with other BIPOC friends, until we confess our complicity in this sin and start changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our words, our hearts and minds, the haunting will continue.

Let’s work, with each other and within ourselves, to end our participation in the haunting.

And if you aren’t familiar with the impact of racism on mental and physical health, here are links to two articles that provide some good information. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/racism-in-care-leads-to-health-disparities-doctors-and-other-experts-say-as-they-push-for-change/2020/07/10/a1a1e40a-bb9e-11ea-80b9-40ece9a701dc_story.html 

https://mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health 

 You can hear Guante speak the truth in this 3.5 minute video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDSEHfxXLhI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2-of-33eg8MhXN96m7VqsYzzfOJ1WQEqWyenS9tL8f_HBNi-gh89u6T8E

Dark(?) Times

Friends and others lament these “dark times,” meaning for them one or all of these: the ugliness of Trumpism and our politics in general; and the scourges of four Pandemics— Covid-19, racism and White supremacy,  economic despair and devastation for too many even before the virus struck, and a burgeoning climate crisis. 

I share this lament, but not the negative value associated with the this usage of “dark.”

Why is the devil so often portrayed as black/dark?

As one who feels at home in the dark, the phrase “dark times” troubles me. There is so much that is good about darkness—whether it be darker-pigmented people or the underland where fungi and other creatures deepen and extend life in the soil or even the overland beauty of leafless trees in winter against the night sky. Or what about the things we learn as the result of “being in the dark” and the feeling of revelation, sometimes even elation, when we see what we had missed before? 

I experience darkness as almost always a gift, a break from the light pollution to which we are exposed every day. For example, there is more than enough light created by our neighbors and us in our small court of co-op homes as we leave our porch lights on at night to discourage criminals from breaking in. We also  live across the street from city hall, the community center, and the library, which are overlaid with light each night. 

When I go outside at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to meditate and pray, all this light, not to mention the noise of twin-interstate highways and a local parkway that meet just outside our town, reduce the number and brightness of stars visible in the sky and compete with the chorus of cicadas.

Why is Jesus so often portrayed as white, non-Semitic?

Often it feels to me life is an unending contest where light keeps trying to overcome, even erase, dark. And light wins all the time—a system of light supremacy to which our society is addicted. Why can’t we accept, and celebrate, the reality that there is life, good life, in darkness, and that we can learn from its multitude of gifts?

White racism, White Supremacy, is a good place to start. Despite the beauty, strength and resilience of darker-skinned people even in the most ugly times, Western Civilization insists on the primacy of Euro-American positive valuation of light and the negative valuation of dark. 

In the United States, we connect White Supremacy with the subjugation and domination of African peoples. And yet, coupled with an Enlightenment mindset—namely the value of the rational over the mystical, the scientific over the intuitive and artistic, and the valorization of the individual (often to pursue their own interests over the well-being of community), White Supremacy supports and sustains the subjugation and domination of other groups as well. 

For example, Arab learning—at one time the zenith of mathematical and scientific reasoning and knowledge in the world—was discounted to justify Christian crusades against Muslim people. That same strain of Christian imperialism and the belief that Western (northern European) ideas, culture and systems are the apex of human achievement unite in capitalism and colonialism to undergird and justify the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas as well as the importation and breeding of slaves for the profit of their owners. 

A central method of the capitalist/settler colonialism drive to subdue and own land and all it contains is to label the wisdom and practices of indigenous people as primitive, without value in the modern world. Thus, today we can see not only how African Americans and Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America continue to be oppressed, but also how the Middle East, other than Israel, is viewed as backward, and even nations and peoples further east are the victims of negativity.  

Further, this intersecting series of belief systems produce the subjugation of nature, degradation and elimination of species, and denial of what is happening in the Climate Crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, non-indigenous people are trained to devalue the teaching of nature.

In short, “we” have created a worldview that highlights only some parts of reality and casts the rest into the dark—not listening to BIPOC people (Black Indigenous People of Color); not paying attention to that which makes life possible for all, namely the earth and all its parts; and refusing to build a world in which all have what they need to thrive (rather than some having far more than they need and too many not having even enough to survive).

Thus, I believe we must begin the practice of Endarkenment, to value not only things that appear dark but also the wisdom we have cast into the dark. In future posts, I will discuss this concept but suffice it to say at this point that I believe if we continue to refuse to acknowledge and accept and even celebrate the equal partnership of dark and light, we, and certainly our children and grandchildren and their children, are doomed. 

These are not “dark times.” They are times of pain, fear, anxiety, injustice, and crisis—and thus times of challenge and opportunity to radically change our ways to save us all. 

Time to Begin

 

Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999). 

Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him. 

So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews): 

Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.

Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise. 

Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”

For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.

Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times.  In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us).  Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society. 

Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc. 

Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

Telling the the truth of the history and current reality of White supremacy

In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day. 

Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over. 

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.

It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose  to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.

Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?

I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest. 

But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries). 

Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue. 

When Racism and Sexism Meet

Monica Hesse, a columnist for the Washington Post, published an insightful piece about racism and sexism today, “The Point We’re Missing about BBQ Becky and Her Sisters.” Click on the link to read.

She makes two fundamental points:

  • using hashtags to jeer at, and make fun of, white women who call 911 to report alleged suspicious behavior by black men is a denial of the serious racism involved,
  • and it also signals sexist behavior in that the practice of creating “cute” nicknames when referring to the women–because white men who do similar things are rarely, if ever, labeled this way.
Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse

I urge you to read her post about these points–especially her iteration of the role of white women, especially in the South, in creating the “black sexual predator” who destroys white female purity (this system was of course created by white men to keep black men in line while many of the white men sexually abused black women).

But I also encourage you to reflect on her interaction with the young black teen on the D.C. Metro. His instinctive, self-protective action in the face of transit police boarding the train is very revealing, and all too common and necessary for the survival of young, and old, black men.

The “isms” are often, probably always, tangled up together. Part of our task is to untangle and name them, and change our attitudes and behaviors. Hesse helps us here.

 

 

 

Keep It Moving

“Hope is not magic; hope is work.”

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson
Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away . . . .

BlackkKlansmanThere is another new film to match with Sorry to Bother You, the creative work I have written about previously (see earlier posts, Sorry to Bother You, When Do I Use My White Voice, Scraping More Paint, Unlocking the Trap–Part 2, and Part 1).

The new one is BlackKKlansman, the latest Spike Lee offering. And those two films are parts of a trilogy of recent films about racism/white supremacy, the third being last year’s Get Out (some would add a fourth, Blindspotting, but I have yet to see it and so don’t comment here). Sorry to bother you

Every white person, and others too, should see all three to learn more about our racialized heritage. Each of these works probes and unpacks truths about the reality of white supremacy/racism in the United States today—instead of reifying that reality as films have done for so long. 

Get OutI can already sense some white readers saying, “Not this again. Do we have to hear more about something we did not cause and do not like?”The answer is yes, of course, because we have a role in changing the system. 

There is so much to write about this film that tells of the true story of the first African American Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (played brilliantly by John David Washington, Denzel’s son). In simplest terms, he wanted to be a cop. The film has us believe the chief wants to hire him, but at the same time he is not just sure what to do with him. So his first assignment is to the Records Desk, getting files for other officers. There he encounters considerable racism, especially one deeply racist, white supremacist cop. 

What Stallworth really wants is to be a detective, and he gets a chance to go undercover at a rally of the Black Student Union of a local college, an event headlined by Kwame Toure (known to the police and much of the white world as Stokely Carmichael). 

Of course, if Stallworth had been white, he would not have been given that assignment. Yet, it is on this basis that the story unfolds. It is here also that a romantic attachment begins, one that will reverberate in many ways throughout the film. 

Black Klansman A MemoirThe plot is taken pretty faithfully from Stallworth’s book. Black Klansman: A Memoir (2014), although dialogue is the creation of Spike Lee and others. And Lee adds important background in showing scenes from the deeply racist silent film, Birth of a Nation, as well as news footage from last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA (including the remarks of the President about “good people” on all sides. 

I have thought quite a bit about what I, as a white person, gain from this film, and what I think other white people could also receive. 

Adam Driver and Washington in BlackkKlansman
The team: Adam Driver and John David Washington

First, is the intimate portrait of evil within the KKK (and the wider white nationalist supremacist movements), especially as they are uncovered by Stallworth’s white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played with incredible power by Adam Driver). Part of that power comes from Zimmerman being Jewish. Indeed, I was left reeling during the scene where he disagrees with other KKK members who claim the Holocaust is “fake news,” by claiming it did a good thing by wiping out Jews—and his newfound allies are supremely satisfied that he really gets the truth. 

it is the use of language that kept me riveted, and helps me see how white extremists continue to bury their vile views in acceptable language. 

When they succeed, they delude not only themselves but also the rest of us. In this film, members of the Klan are schooled to never use that name; instead it is “the organization.” The local Klan leader seeks to put a pleasant face on the group (undercut by others who relish in virulent language), and David Duke (Topher Grace), the storied leader of the Klan nationally is portrayed as a mild, well-mannered leader who hates no one, just wants white people to live among themselves without the presence of Blacks or Jews or others. 

BlackKKlansman Topher Grace
Topher Grace as David Duke (some of his best action is on the phone talking with Ron Stallworth)

Critic Naomi Elias writes, “In his slickest salesperson voice Duke says that he agrees with people who say that “America is a racist country” — but unlike the black Colorado residents using the phrase to call out the racial profiling and police brutality they experience, Duke argues America is racist because it’s “anti-white.” This willful misuse of the word “racism” allows him to reframe oppressors as victims and vice versa.”

Of course, more people than David Duke use this kind of language reversal to make themselves and others in their groups into victims. We can see this in a certain President of the United States. 

“Alt-right” is a seemingly harmless way to describe people who are white supremacists and nationalists, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, white racial purists, and its proponents have brilliantly succeeded in getting much of the mainstream media as well as ordinary people to use the term. It even sounds lively and avant-garde, like alt-rock and alt-weekly newspaper. 

Alt-rightThis echoes the efforts in the 19th Century (and yet today) to claim that the South was only fighting for states’ rights not slavery. This also echoes how many white people say, “I’m not racist,” meaning they do not use the N-word or other ugliness—even as they help perpetuate structures of race-based oppression. 

Organizations, business and otherwise, even churches do this sort of thing when they talk about diversity and inclusion while never linking either to our white-dominated national (and global) heritage that remains alive and well. The goals are commendable but they tend to work “feel good” emotions—valuing everyone equally is a worthy goal, but that will not happen until we take our boot off the backs of those unlike ourselves. 

We have much to learn about ending the ugliness of the KKK and allied hate groups, and even more to learn about how to undo our denial of what our fellow human beings go through every day. That requires taking the blinders off. 

cant we all just get along Rodney King
The plaintive cry of Rodney King, viciously beaten by police in Los Angeles in 1991–how are we doing 27 years later?

This is much harder than trying to get people to “just get along” better. It requires that we pay close attention not just to good intentions but also to dangerous, damaging, destructive outcomes. In simple terms, I mean paying attention, and proactively working to correct the reality of outrageous levels of incarceration of Black and brown people, the high rates of poverty within Black communities, “food deserts” and lack of health care in minority communities, etc. 

The usual practice of denial and dismissal is shown by the action of the Chief of Police who tells Stallworth and Zimmerman and the other officers who have been supportive of them to bury the files. Thankfully, Stallworth wrote his book, and Lee made his film.

We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away until we face it, name it, recognize our role in it, repent, change our ways, and make reparations. 

Start by seeing this film (and the others mentioned above). 

When Do I Use My White Voice?

“This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism . . . .”

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.

Scraping More Paint

Will it never end?

I watched an hour-long program on MSNBC recently, “Everyday Racism in America.” Here’s the link if you did not see it.  I urge you watch it, even before you read another word here. That tells you, I hope, how valuable I perceive this video to be.

everyday racism in America MSNBCOne reason I feel that way is that the concept of “everyday” racism is most likely difficult for many to grasp—many white folks, that is.

The stories told during the program were not just the dramatic ones we know from police shootings and other violence, but more about how ordinary human encounters with white people, police yes but also neighbors and fellow shoppers and many others, too often turn out to be painful and angering, if not dangerous, for the person or persons of color who are involved. This is part of their daily living, their everyday lives, in the United States of America. They have to live each day knowing, yes knowing, something ugly can, and probably will, happen.

michael-hayesSometimes, police or others get it right, as here  in a news report about a young Black businessman in Memphis, Michael Hayes, but the initial action—a white woman calling police about the man at a boarded up house across the street, and continuing verbal outbursts even after the police verify his identity and his legitimate purpose in being in her neighborhood—is very common and at least painful and often dangerous for the person of color.

This story, and many from the MSNBC program, and others I read often in the media, have caused me to examine my own history of unconscious or inadvertent, or even intentional or at least obvious, racist behavior.

Recently, while walking our dog, I encountered a group of young Black men, and I was surprised to realize I felt some anxiety. I thought to myself, why do I feel this? They were a group of friends—hard to tell if there were high school or college students, perhaps both—who are enjoying joking and jiving. Then, my mind flashed back to an incident in Detroit from my childhood.

Bleazby's store Detroit
Bleazby Brothers, Detroit

My father and I (age five or six) had driven into Detroit to pick up my aunt (my mother’s older sister) for Thanksgiving dinner at our home in Milford. She worked in the city during the winter months for a gift store (she also worked for them in the summer in a northern Michigan community when the store catered to the many tourists). When in Detroit she lived at a downtown hotel near the store (the picture below makes it look very glamorous).

He parked right in front of the hotel. I waited in the front seat—I think it was 1952 when I was six years old—while my father went up the steps to the hotel to collect my aunt. He was gone a short time.

But in that time, an older Black (we would have said Negro) man opened the rear hatch of our station wagon and started to climb in. I was startled; I am not sure I had time to feel much fear.

My father came out with my aunt, waved to me, and then saw what was happening. He left my aunt standing on the steps while he raced down yelling at the man to get out of the car. When my father got to the back of the car, the man climbed out, mumbling words I could not hear. He left, giving a slight bow to my father.

Madison-Lenox Hotel
This is the hotel, now demolished (as so much has been in Detroit)

By now, my aunt had gotten to the car, and climbed in the back seat. My father sat in the driver’s seat. He asked me if I was okay. I said yes.

My aunt said, “Well, I’m not okay. That is outrageous” (I cannot remember her precise words, but these feel right). “That Negro (I don’t think she used the ugly “N-word” but I am not sure) needs to be arrested. Bob (speaking to my father), you should immediately call the police.”

“Well, Grace” (my aunt’s name), I am not going to do that. I think he meant no harm. It is bitter cold out and he had no coat or hat, only a thin shirt and pants. I think he was trying to get warm” (again, not my father’s precise words, but I think close).

“But,” continued my aunt, “Robin could have been killed. Don’t you care?”

“That’s enough,” my father said, his voice moving into a range I knew meant he was angry. “Of course, I care, and if Robin had been in real danger I would be doing that. In my judgment he was not at much risk. Besides, I don’t want this to create ugly feelings in Robin.”

My aunt started to speak again, but my father cut her off. “We will say no more about it, unless Robin has anything he wants to say.” I remained silent, as we all did the rest of the way home (an hour or so). I remember it was an uncomfortable ride.

Later, my mother asked me how I felt. She said Daddy had told her what happened. I told her I was okay. I don’t remembering acknowledging any fear or anxiety. She told me that neither she or my father would ever let me be harmed. I said I knew that.

I have thought of this over the years. It was my first encounter with a Black person (this is before we moved to the country and had Black neighbors (as I recounted in the previous post). How much has it affected my perceptions and reactions?

As I have acknowledged before, my father showed no signs of racist thinking or behavior (until I learned later about his ugly feelings toward Native Americans). In fact, his actions and comments in this incident are consistent with his voice on the subject of white attitudes toward Black people.

At the same time, however, he never engaged me in any dialogue on the subject, never sought to share one-on-one with me his own views and beliefs. He surely did not prepare me for a racist world.

And my aunt, who I cherished and who was in some ways like a second mother to me, was both a fearful woman and quite judgmental. Over the years, I heard her say some unpleasant things about others—not just Black people but others outside her circle.

So, here I am, a 71-year-old white man (65 years later), feeling anxiety when I encounter a group of laughing young Black men who make space for me on the sidewalk as we pass, even some nodding at me and looking admiringly at our dog.

Will it never end?

And I know the answer, at least for me, is to get it out, admit my prejudices and fears, trace and uncover my history, “scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses” (as suggested by poet Alberto Caeiro in my previous post), in order to undo the damage done to me and to help others do the same. I expect there will be more paint to remove, and I pray I will do it whenever I see it.

What about you?

I repeat my invitation: Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible.  I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net

Unlocking the Trap–Part 2 (or Scraping off the Paint)

If we are to understand our history, first we must know it.

The essential is to know how to see . . .

But this . . .

This calls for deep study,

Learning how to unlearn . . .

I try to get rid of what I learned,

I try to forget the way I was taught to remember,

And to scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses.

–Alberto Caeiro

 

I am, like every other human being, a creature of many parts—body, mind, spirit, ethics, priorities, wisdom, knowledge, and more. How they fit together to make me a functioning person is often a working of personal and social forces in my history and my present.

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor today

I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on October 10, 1946. Given the identities of my parents, I was a white baby. I still am.

I don’t mean to be funny. Instead, what I am reflecting is that some things about us do not change.

But context carries enormous power to shape those facts and thus our identities. My earliest context was a small, rural community, Milford, 40 miles northwest of Detroit. Everyone was white.

Well, almost everyone. There were two Black families living about three miles outside of town.  I did not know this until I was seven years old, when my parents moved us from town to the country less than a mile from these families. I only knew one of them for a while, because my mother hired her to clean our home once each week. My father had known the family for many years, beginning with his time of serving as Superintendent of Schools.

Milford MI map with Detroit etcA few years later, I became more acquainted with the other family, whose two daughters were a couple of years ahead of me in school. We belonged to the same 4-H Club, and they and I, along with another white male, formed a square dancing demonstration team.

I really enjoyed doing this. We had a good time, at least I know I did. There was one discordant note however. On occasion I was asked, as was my fellow white team member, how it felt to dance with “colored” girls (some said “Negro”).  I was so unaware the first time it happened, I said, “Why do you ask that?”

The answer referred to how “those people” smell different from “us.” I could only respond that I did not notice any difference—I said something like this: “We all sweat as we dance and we just laugh about it.”

4-H pledge cloverLooking back sixty or so years, I now see that none of the adults in charge of my development—my parents, school, and church– had prepared me in any way to know, let alone understand, racial dynamics. I had not been raised in a home with overt racial prejudice—in fact my father spoke up a couple of times to contest anti-Black remarks by others in our community and among family friends. There is one exception to this:  my father bore strong prejudice against Native Americans (he had lived in Montana for ten years and claimed to know all about them).  But I did not know this until years later.

I speak of these things, as also I recently wrote about racialized experiences within my MCC faith tradition (see previous post  “Unlock the Trap—Part 1”), to begin a process for unlearning what I was taught, to begin to “scrape off the paint . . .  used to cover my senses.“  I write in response to James Baldwin’s powerful insight that “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.”

If we are to understand our history, first we must know it. We have to scrape the paint off it, examine myths, remove our blinders and whatever else has hidden it from us. We must take it out and examine it, turn it over, look at the underside, dig deep into our personhood to find the landmarks, the formative experiences and feelings. We need to examine our own personal history, and we also need to know the history of our faith community, society and world.

So what is our history in Metropolitan Community Churches?

white people what will we do to overcome our legacy of violence carw orgI address that question to anyone interested in creating a new church, a self-reforming church, a new movement grounded in resistance to institutional racism in our own community and in the world.  I address that question to all people in our movement, whatever their own personal and institutional racialized history.

Some people already know their personal and institutional history in this regard very well. Racial prejudice and institutional racism are part of their everyday lives, in church and out.  They don’t have to dig very hard to have plenty to share.

But what about the rest of us, the people like me formed in a white dominant environment, trained not to see the pain and anger of people of color, conditioned from the beginning to walk through our days “to not see color,” empowered to ignore anything that challenged our racial worldview. Indeed, for many of us, probably most, nearly all, we never even knew we had a racial worldview. It was the other people who had race. We did not. That is the most effective enforcement mechanism of white supremacy and white privilege.

 

That justice is a blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes.

–Langston Hughes, “Justice”  in The Panther & the Lash

What I am proposing is that we, whoever we are as people who want to facilitate change in ourselves as well as our church, society, and world, begin sharing some stories—personal as I have done above (and I have many more, and I bet you have a goodly number, too, if you let yourself dig deeply), church (as I did earlier), society and world.

Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible.  I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net

ihughej001p1
Langston Hughes

Either way, I hope we can begin. And I hope at some point this could grow into a larger dialogue through either or both online and in person oral sharing.

I admit this is a small start, but I do not know where else to begin other than with my own history and my own commitment to creating change in this moment and beyond.

I close with how I opened the previous post, reminding us of the hope and determination of James Baldwin—that we too might contribute to ending the racial nightmare in which we participate.

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time