There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.
In Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.
And so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.
I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.
African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson’s account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children “The Talk,” they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.
Those – like me – who aren’t regularly plundered by this country (see this video for examples of what plunder as cultural appropriations can look like) can follow Coates’ reasoning, but there are good reasons why we struggle to actually believe it.
But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.” Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.
I’ve felt this strongly over the past few months, the need to qualify any criticism about unjust policing. There is such a strong pull to limit an unjust situation to its primary actors – a rouge cop, for example – in order to preserve the authority of the overall system. Austin Channing has observed this tendency and points out the regular practice of “balancing” after any criticism of authority: it “becomes necessary to also admit that there are problems in the black community- black on black crime, fatherlessness, poverty, etc…” But she’s not having it:
It is not that I am unwilling to talk about these other devastations that plague some communities of color. In fact, I welcome conversation about these realities. But you should know in advance that I don’t relegate the conversation on race to shootings and incarceration rates. Racism is far too effective, conniving, and complete to define only these. So lets talk about poverty, but lets do so without forgetting about slavery, jim crow, redlining, white flight, contract sales, and the extraction of wealth from generations at the hands of government, courts, real estate agents and landlords.
This is our challenge. It’s nearly impossible, within a society where the majority experiences respectful authority and many others experience oppressive power, to respond to injustice in a manner that will seem balanced to everyone. Thankfully, balance is not the goal for Christians, including we who are cozy with corrupt authority. No, the goal is truth. And if Jesus is any sort of precedent, in our pursuit of truth we’ll reject false authority and find our place on the receiving end of corrupt power. We’ll be in very good company.
Frankly, Rev. Graham, your insistence that “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” “Listen up,” was crude, insensitive, and paternalistic. Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father’s ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president’s task force on policing reform.
In the nadir of your commentary, you tell everyone to “OBEY” any instruction from authorities and suggest that the recent shootings of unarmed citizens “might have been avoided” if the victims had submitted to authority.
And you bluntly insist, “It’s as simple as that.”
It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.
I’m grateful for these thoughtful folks – some personal friends among them – who took the time to respond to Franklin Graham’s condescending post from last week. I have nothing to add to what they’ve said so clearly and directly except this: Rev. Graham, you’re not helping.
On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.
During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.
Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:
White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.
Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.
In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.
Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.
So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.
To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.
Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.
As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.
Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]
The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.
My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.
A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.
The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Lifestory about housing discrimination.)
The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.
Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.
During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs. I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.
The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.