BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Silence and Ignorance

Continuing last week's discussion about Justice and Reconciliation, let us examine an all-to-familiar scenario: 

A white person, trying to be friendly and reach out, makes a small comment to her black friend about hair, music, politics, any number of things. But since one of the consequences of the racial divide is the majority's lack of contextual understanding, her comment sounds insensitive, rather than engaging. And again, because of this basic ignorance, the she is caught completely off guard when, rather than an enthusiastic response, she is met with outrage. Now the white chick's head is spinning with a mix of pain, indignation, exasperation, and a strong lesson to not to ever engage in racial dialogue again. So she avoids entering into conversations about race, never mentions the topic even among other white folks (who also never bring it up), perpetuating the divide of misunderstanding.  What results, is a hostile impasse in which inter-racial conversations stall out: one side feeling attacked and silenced, and the other side feeling, well....attacked and silenced. 

There are so many missteps here, it's hard to unpack, but let's try (broken up into a couple week's worth of posts):

First of all, let us recognize that at the root, white folk have the huge privilege of never having to learn about other cultures if they don't want to do so. We can arrange to be in the company of our own race most of the time, we can avoid other groups we don't like, we can access desirable housing within the comfort of similarity, we can easily find news, TV shows, and magazines that only talk about people similar to us (Yes, blatantly borrowing from McIntosh's Knapsack). 

The consequence of this privilege is that not only do we say offensive things, but we don't even know why they are offensive. It's a terrible place in which to find ourselves, because the very act of self-education is bound to bring pain to the very people with whom we are trying to reconcile. So why bother?? Maybe it's better to just ignore the whole thing so as avoid further injury to self and others. And this is what many white folks do, forgetting that ignoring a problem does not make it go away. 

The result is a deafening silence in the white community when it comes to race. It's not that when we are among ourselves we all sit around snickering at racist jokes and derogatory slurs.* We just don't talk about race at all. Ever. Never EVER. We don't even use the word 'black', and you'd better use a wispier and quotation if you've got to say "African-American." Race is far too contentious of a topic and someone is liable to call you a racist, so it's better to just be quite about the whole thing! 

White folk don't talk about racism, so we think it is over. We stay silent, which means we also stay ignorant. 

And this is why no white person thinks she is a racist. How can I be a racist when I never talk/think about race!?! Of course, we know that this lack of involvement in the racial world is, in fact, an act of racial injustice. But to the racially-privileged, it feels healthy, post-racial, 'colorblind,' which means we are totally unprepared for the passionate responses we receive in a conversations about race.  To those that never talk about race at all, suddenly encountering someone's deep pains and anger about centuries of racism can feel out-of-the-blue, disproportionate, and unjustified. 

This is the moment that white folks so often label as "reverse racism." It is the false premise that arises from the belief that we have reached a state of racial equality, and therefore any aggression from POC must be the result of an overcompensation, rather than the legitimate reaction to centuries of abuse that remain unrectified. But denying the truth of this pain and its roots only breeds more hurt and frustration. Not only do we remain ignorant, but in doing so we belittle the feelings of those with whom we are supposedly trying to build relationships. How would you feel in a marriage, for example, if your spouse dismissed your anger and pain as being unfounded? And then said it was all in your head? Trust me, it doesn't work so well in building unity. Part of breaking out of our own silence is remembering not to silence others. 

White folks need to remember that, although we have the privilege of never having to talk about race if we don't want to, we have sisters and brothers that have to be aware of the racial divide day in and day out. Therefore, when we are not even conscious that we are unconscious of race, we flagrantly parade our privilege. Which is why, of course, our seemingly simple comments made in passing can hurt so badly: it is a blatant expression of white folks' ability to be oblivious to the cultures around them. You might not be intending to brandish your privileged status, but the pain your ignorance causes is real, whether you meant to hurt or not.

So of course there is conflict. There is pain when white folks don't even recognize the daily struggle of being a modern POC, and there is also woundedness for a white person when she starts to break her silence, but lacks the vocabulary, makes a mistake, and then gets chewed out for it. 

Understand, I am not justifying the situation. I'm just laying it out, explaining how it is. Neither am I trying to put the responsibly of reconciliation and education on the those already marginalized. Ultimately, it's white folks that need to make up for lost time, and to have the courage to end their silence. But we'll get there quicker with POC's grace and guidance. 

See next week's post on how 'intent' plays a role in discussions about race and the choices we have in how we respond in the situation outlined above. 

*Sure, you sometimes get the crazy oddball that say something stupid, but that is how that person is seen: as a crazy 'racist.' Not at all like we who are 'post-racial and colorblind' and know better than to say stuff like that...right...

See Also
Does 'Intent' Matter?
I Don't Know
Justice vs Reconciliation

Monday, June 20, 2011

Justice / Reconciliation

The miracle of the cross was Christ’s unique capacity to fulfill both God’s justice and His mercy, simultaneously. God’s justice required fulfillment of the law, yet by His grace, He yearned to be lovingly reconciled to us. Both were accomplished in full perfection through the sacrifice of Christ (see Resurrection and Reconciliation).

Racial healing must navigate a similar dichotomy: there must be rectification of injustices (both past and present), as well as reconciliation in love and unity. For true racial redemption we must have both. But it can be tricky to find the balance and to maintain equal weight for each aspect.

The marginalized cry out passionately for justice, but may be understandably hesitant to trust reconciliatory relationships for fear of adding to their injuries. Unfortunately, this tendency deprives the body of Christ of the unity to which we are called. Conversely, those in the position of privilege are often quick to reconcile, to put aside past differences and to 'all just get along,' yet tend to shy away from recognizing the continued injustices that exist. Both perspectives are understandable, but without each other, they are also incomplete.

All parties must discipline themselves to interact with each other in a Christ-like manner. For white folks, this means taking responsibility for our continuing role in racial injustice today. We must understand that every day we receive benefits because we are white (see post: Dr. Tatum: What Is Racism?). It means listening when people of color get angry, and not becoming indignant. It means hearing stories from their own experiences as truth--not as a power play, not made up, not exaggerated.

Reconciliation without justice is not possible (Christ still had to die for our sins, after all), and it is our responsibility to take deliberate steps towards reversing the centuries of imbalance that have accumulated. Don't be surprised that the wound is still fresh, especially when we continue to rub salt in it. Do we really expect a clean slate when we often refuse to acknowledge how dirty it is to begin with? 

For those on the receiving end of racial prejudice, healing in Christ means having grace and forgiveness even as white folk repeatedly disappoint you. It will happen time and again, but white folk are dependent on you to persevere. I understand the desire not to: pushing through the pain and exasperation can feel like it just isn't worth it. Your other choice is to pull away, to disengage, to give up, and to self-preserve. This reaction may be a legitimate option in the secular world, but not if we claim to be one body in Christ.

We are called to reconcile in unity, not to discard the hand for the sake of the eye. This means continuing to engage in the 'teachable moments,' answering calmly rather than with fury, seeing the good intentions rather than failed attempts. God is love, and He continues to love through all of our sinfulness. Therefore so too must we commit to walking with each other in reconciliation.

Offering patience and forgiveness does not mean that we deny or excuse the injustices that exist. But by being Christ to your white sisters and brothers, you act as a witness to the power of the Gospel. To do otherwise, to respond with the animosity that would be so understandable, is  counterproductive to His cause: both that of justice and reconciliation.

When we are able to strike the balance between justice and reconciliation, we present the image of a radically healed body of Christ to the world. We reflect how Jesus conducted himself with his disciples. He corrected and taught the tough lessons, but was patient and loving through it--all while ultimately going to the cross for the sake of justice.

Surly, He longed simply to forget the brokenness, to erase the great divide between we sinners and the Divine. Surly, He was tempted to lash out in anger when His disciples once again failed to understand His teachings. Yet Jesus does not flip out on the disciples in reaction to their ignorance. Nor does He condone their sin and ignorance. Jesus repeatedly chooses to instruct and reach out in love, while maintaining an unwavering commitment to justice. That He manages this balance with grace and power is evidence of His divinity. It is no small thing to emulate, yet it is our mandate as Christians to do so. 

Both sides of the equation will find the path difficult. It will seem unfair and humiliating. But this is the holy tension of God's paradox: perfect justice with perfect reconciliation. We need brave souls to stand in the divide, to reach out their arms to bridge the gap. 

White folk are dependent on the grace of people of color, and must be grateful when they choose to respond in love rather than in frustration. Likewise, POCs must remember to be thankful when white folks choose to listen, to realize their privilege, and to begin to relinquish it. Though it may feel like this is what the other group should be doing anyway, without any special thanks (and it is!), we must appreciate and reinforce when our sisters and brothers act in accordance with Christ's will.

To respond to each other with anger and pride shuts down a conversation that has yet to begin, perpetuates the divides in the body of Christ, and permanently mars our witness for Christ to the world. With the model of Jesus before us, let us offer ourselves that the world may see the Good News of what He has for us: that even in our sinfulness, Christ loved us, and through His own sacrifice brought about absolute justice for the sake of the ultimate reconciliation with the Father.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Defining Racism recently published an article on shifting attitudes and definitions of contemporary racism. Especially note how different  racial groups emphasis racism as a individual vs. a group phenomenon. It is easy to understand how when racism is conceptualized as an individual's hateful acts, it can seem like racism is a thing of the past, rather than a modern institutionalized system.

Tomorrow's post will examine more of these diverging perceptions, but for now read "What’s Racism? That’s Harder for Youth to Answer Than You Think."  I would think attitude are shared among many age groups. Perhaps the shifts in our conception of race is more temporal than generational? See what you think.

See Also:
Dr. Tatum: What is Racism?
White Victims of Racism

Monday, June 13, 2011

Religious Roots of Racism

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Christianity could be a major force for racial reconciliation, yet it's track record isn't so hot. Scripture and doctrine have been used to perpetuate and justify racism, and there are consequences  for our modern witness.

We are all familiar with the practice of cherry picking verses to hijack the bible into defending our own views. Certainly, racialized agendas are no exception. It doesn't help, though, that the bible provides no explicit condemnation of slavery, while providing a litany of guidelines that seem to condone the practice. The general scriptural take-away seems to be, 'if you are going to have slaves, here is how you should do it,' which opens the way for statements such as this one:

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America
Although Christians were certainly sold into slavery in the early church, it should not come as a surprise that we preferentially unfettered ourselves as we gained global influence.

One of the most famous examples of biblical justification of racism is the mark of Cain. The story goes that Cain (the first person actually conceived and born on earth) murdered his little brother and tried to cover it up (not easy to do when you are dealing with an omniscient God). God curses Cain, basically saying he won't be able to work for a living. Cain thinks that's a bit rough, and that people will try and kill him as a result. So God 'marks' him so that folks won't kill him. 

To me, this makes the mark sound like a good thing, yet a lot of people understand the mark to be part of the curse. Furthermore, though there is no indication whether mark is physical or metaphysical, some believe the it to be black skin, and that the mark, the curse, and the violent behavior are forever heritable. Yikes! Not such a great reputation with which to start out the entire history of mankind/race relations. 

One of the most popular biblical stories is also the one most often used to justify white racial superiority. After he disembarked from his 40-day cruise, Noah went a little wild in his celebrations, resulting in a bit of indecent exposure whilst passed out on the floor. Noah's son, Ham, walked in on him and saw the display. Rather than covering Noah, Ham went and blabbed all about it. When Noah recovered from his bender, he was not pleased with Ham and so he cursed Ham's son: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). Eventually the Canaanites did indeed become slaves to the Jews, so end of story, right? Nah...

Some claim that people with dark skin descended from Ham, while white folks came from Japheth and Asians came from Shem. Ham's name is thought to translate to 'black /dark,' and his descendants populated North-East Africa (Cush's descendants populated Sudan, Mizraim to Egypt, Phut to Libya, while Canaan's folks went to Israel). Again, the claim here is that both the skin, the curse, and the seedy disposition are heritable.

But of course modern race is so much more complicated than these simple lineages would suggest. We have mixed so much since then that there is little practical justification for such a delineation. Not to mention, it is actually Canaan that is cursed, not his African brothers! 

Although neither the mark of Cain, nor the curse of Ham are often used as justification of racism anymore, these story lines have laid the foundation for modern pseudoscience racism and the belief in heritable social ill based on skin color. Add the many verses in the bible that negatively reference blackness, and positively mention whiteness, and we have a real mess of microaggressive conditioning.  

For example, look at Song of Solomon 1:5-6, famously 'Nigra sum nformosa': I am black, yet lovely. Indeed, it does not read, 'I am black and therefore lovely', or even 'I am black and also lovely,' but rather, 'even though I am black, I am lovely'--in spite of my skin color, I am attractive. All sorts of cultural and translational factors are at play here, yet the message remains, along with a litany of verses that imply similar racial values which can inadvertently reaffirm our modern biases. 

Wait, is that snow blue?
From these verses, stem so many of our modern worship songs and hymns that we hear all the time:

"Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus"

In a racialized world such as ours, we must be careful how we sing about black and white in our sanctuaries (see also 'Jesus Paid It All). Recognize that language has power, and when we sing words like this, we reinforce biases that affect relationships with those around us.

I am not claiming that these verses are the origins of modern racism, nor should we deny/ignore their existence in scripture. Instead, we need to put them in their proper context and have a sensitive understanding about how they are heard with modern ears. Their original meaning is very much in line with the Kingdom, but their current use may not be so in line with God’s will.

Our default, white, Jesus
Religious practice is subject to the same prejudices as any other human institution. Racialized language is all over our general lexicon (white lie, white hats vs black list, black plague ect). It is important to note how much our religious talk still tows this line. We are supposed to stand apart, to offer sanctuary. Instead, we are sluggish to change, and cling to the status quo, regardless of it's hurtful nature.  We ignore the painful nature of these verses, rather than examining them, and discussing them in the context of today's world. 

The consequence is that many marginalized groups in this country have sought solace in secular organizations. Far too many understand the Church as a hostile and unwelcoming organization, rather than one of comfort. Much of this altitude stems from the Church's history with race, it's persistence in continued abrasive behavior, and a lack of a coherent effort to reconcile past hurts

There are many verses that contradict the attitudes that stem from these few examples. Plenty
of scripture that promotes diversity, unity, and reconciliation. So as we go about our worship, let us be mindful of our language. Examine the songs we sing, the pictures we hang, the metaphors we use, the assumptions we carry.

Follow more conversations about racial justice and Christianity through email or RSS feed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Don't Know

Please welcome backMaxine Naawu, who among many other things, blogs about art, film and photography at Side Hustle Stories and hosts her own artistic work at her website. Here, Maxine articulates the important point that so much of our racial tension stems from a failure of white folks to educate themselves about race, leading to a litany of injuries due to ignorance that could have been avoided:

Many of my friends have been sharing a preview clip from the documentary “Dark Girls”, a film about the struggles of darker skinned black women in western culture.  It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with on my own and read a lot about, and I was glad someone wanted to take a deeper look at it. However, what stood out to me was a (white) person who commented on the video, 'thank you for sharing this, I’m not sure if I would have known about it any other way.'

I’m glad that person decided to check the video out, because I believe “not knowing” contributes a lot to race relations in this country. When the movie “Good Hair” came out, I was completely shocked that most (white) people didn’t realize that black women’s hair doesn’t grow straight. Coming to college, I learned that a lot of elements of black history that were second nature to me were completely unheard of to many. I guess that one week of black history is not enough each year isn’t enough.

From microaggressions like being asked if your hair is real, to larger problems like being rejected from a job due to assumptions based on your race, a lot of problems for people of color are caused by those in the majority having no idea about issues that are a part of everyday life for those in the minority. Not knowing about systematic racism and its effects is probably why some people white people get so angry at affirmative action & HBCUs, and why many white people think they are “losing” the “racism game” .

It’s not surprising that a lot of white people just don’t know. The same system that maintains privilege for those that are white, male, straight and cis gendered also silences the voices of those who aren’t.  White people don’t have to know about the everyday lives of minorities because they don’t have to have meaningful interactions with them if they choose not to. That’s why even though the memories brought back by the “Dark Girls” clip were painful, I’m glad they were getting a wider audience, especially in light of the recent “black women are scientifically uglier than everyone else” scandal. But it’s impossible to grow from an experience that is different from your own without giving it a fair listen.

One of the most powerful tools against prejudice is knowledge. If you’ve been following this blog and find yourself agreeing with some of what you see, but not quite knowing what to do now, get to reading. If there’s a person of color upset at a situation, and you think they are being unreasonable… maybe there’s a dynamic to it that you just don’t know about. White people can’t erase their privilege, but they can increase their knowledge. 

See also:
White History Month
Dr. Tatum: What is Racism?
Pepsi Max Superbowl Commercial: Love Hurts
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