Listening to black voices

To learn more about racism in America, I read two books written by black men. The first one was Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson. The second was Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Dyson wrote his book to white America. Coates wrote his book to his fifteen-year old son. Both men wrote about the suffering, despair, and fear that result from racism and about the terror of police brutality.

Two perspectives…

Inside the covers of Dyson’s book are the words, “how we can make it through the long night of despair…to the bright day of hope.” Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University and an ordained minister, wrote his book as a sermon to White America because we need to hear the blunt, honest truth about the consequences of the “original sin” of slavery. Although the “sermon” was tough to read, Dyson softened his message by referring to the white reader as “beloved.”

Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote about growing up in fear in Baltimore. He went to Howard University and read extensively about black history trying to understand the divide between the black life he knew and the white American Dream.

When Coates heard his son crying after learning that Michael Brown’s killers would go free, he did not reassure him that everything would be okay. He told him “that this is your country, that this is your world, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

As a man of faith, Dyson believes in the power of redemption. Coates does not believe in God and never believed that a just God is on his side.

Throughout his book, Coates frequently referenced black bodies, starting with the opening line: “Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.” Later, he wrote that the question of his own life was how to live “within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.” “White America,” he wrote, “is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.”

I was puzzled about why Coates kept referring to black bodies. People of color aren’t just bodies – they have hearts and souls just as I do! Then I thought about America’s long history of owning and controlling black bodies. Black bodies were treated like property, as less than human. Black bodies were segregated from white bodies. White people controlled where blacks could work and go to school. White people controlled where black people could live and eat. Even today, many whites act like black bodies are disposable. We see again and again that whites have the power to slay black bodies with impunity. Coates was telling his son, your black body belongs to you. You will also have to learn how to live in this country within a black body.

Inventing Whiteness

Dyson wrote about the invention of “whiteness.” Whiteness is not genetic; it is a social “inheritance.” Whiteness is privileged in America not because there is a legitimate reason to be privileged but because people with white skin have made it so. Whiteness took various ethnic identities – German, Italian, Jewish, etc. and built them up into another identity. Whiteness is willfully ignorant of black life. Whiteness is a defensive shield that keeps whites from facing the realities that blacks have always known. Whiteness keeps whites from being empathetic – from putting themselves in another’s shoes.

Paraphrasing James Baldwin, Coates frequently referred to people with white skin as “people who think they are white” or “people who want to be white.” Coates wrote that “race is the child of racism not the father.” There have always been differences in skin color and hair. Believing that skin color can be used to organize social hierarchies is the idea of “people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

The Five Stages of White Grief

Dyson wrote that whites have been grieving for years over the loss of our dominance and preferential position in history. He described what he called five stages of white grief:

  1. Pleading ignorance about black life and culture
  2. Denying any responsibility for racism
  3. Appropriating black culture, history, identities
  4. Revising racial history
  5. Diluting or minimizing racism

Many whites do react with anger and denial as in the stages of grief at the loss of a loved one (anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance). However, the responses of whites to racial issues are not stages or phases that whites will get over once we work through anger and denial. I wish that it were so.

Much of what Dyson wrote about white grief are examples of white fragility. Whites are defensive and protective of the status quo. Many whites refuse to admit the reality of black life in America. We promote a racially blind version of history. We forget or “disremember” our horrible past and refuse to acknowledge the ongoing consequences. We claim to be colorblind. We try to minimize the effects of racism by saying that bad things happen to everyone.

Terror of policing

Both writers explained, through experience, why black people are terrified of the police. Dyson told a story about his son, an anesthesiologist, who was stopped by a policeman while driving a rental car with his five-year old in the back seat. The cop told him it was illegal to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time. Dyson’s son had not been talking on the phone; it had fallen on the floor when he turned the corner. The more he tried to politely insist that he had not broken the law, the more upset the cop became. He placed his hand on his gun. He asked Dyson’s son if he was stupid. The cop said, I should take you to jail and I would, but I have no place to put a child. He gave him a ticket and a warning and said if I ever see you again, I will take you to jail. Imagine facing this hostility and knowing you could have died because you drove while being black.

Sadly, stories like this are not unusual. This summer, I read about Elijah McClain, a 23-year old black man from Aurora, Colorado, who was reported as suspicious because he was waving his arms, dancing while walking to the store. The cops placed him in a chokehold. He tried to explain, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t even kill filies. A paramedic injected him with ketamine to subdue him. Elijah McClain had a heart attack and died within a week. Twenty-three years old.

I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong.

Many whites deflect when the subjects of police brutality or discrimination come up. They bring up black on black crime, disregarding the prevalence of white on white crime. They say, they shouldn’t have run. They should have cooperated. But as Dyson wrote, no matter what we do, the cops come for us. It doesn’t matter if we’re polite and tame, we’re seen as a menace and a threat. Blackness is viewed as criminal and as less than human.

This breaks my heart.

The Plague of White Innocence

We are afraid that when the tears begin to flow, we cannot stop them.

Michael Eric Dyson

Whites do not like to be challenged on racial issues. When blacks bring injustice to our attention, we often react with indifference or deafening silence. Or we blame the victims of injustice. Dyson urged White America to let go of our whiteness and find our humanity. We should accept accountability for our collective capacity for terror. We have to accept responsibility for accepting a privileged way of life that comes at the expense of people of color. We should surrender our innocence and face the truth with all the discomfort it brings.

At the end of his book, Coates told his son, “I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves.” “Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved.”

Lord, I pray for white America. I pray that we will listen and respond with empathy and compassion to the voices of our beloved black brothers and sisters and that we will stop defending a way of life that is unjust. I pray that we will acknowledge our collective responsibility for the sin of racism. Amen.

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Photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

Acknowledging White Fragility

You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are 100% responsible for fixing it.

Ken Keyes Jr.

Last week, I shared a meme on Facebook with a drawing of a young black woman and a message similar to this quote: “You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are responsible for fixing it.” I went back to read the meme and it was gone. The image had either been deleted by the person who originally posted it or perhaps they decided to make it non-public. I can’t help but wonder if there was too much backlash from white people.

I have been doing some soul searching since the recent racial protests, thinking about the ways we talk about racism, the ways whites continue to deny it, and about the price of silence.

Today, many whites are recognizing that racism isn’t limited to individual acts of discrimination based on race. In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo described racism as a social construction, a system of advantage based on race, a system that privileges whites. She said that racism results when cultural prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control.

When I shared the meme, one of my sisters said she is grateful we weren’t programmed the wrong way as kids. I can only share my perspective and it is that I received mixed messages about race. We grew up in small towns with no blacks. At home, we were taught that racism is wrong and that we shouldn’t say the ‘n’ word but we obviously heard it somewhere. At church, we were taught that children of all colors are precious in Jesus’s sight. I remember only one lesson at school about prejudice and stereotyping. Although I was taught that racism is wrong, my impressions of blacks were based almost entirely on what I saw on TV and those programs often promoted stereotypes.

When I entered the real world as a young adult, I was uncomfortable and unsure of myself around the few blacks I encountered. I was on my guard around black men because the media too often portrayed them as threatening and aggressive. I worried that the blacks I met would not like me because I am white.

As DiAngelo wrote, segregation makes it hard for whites to see racism and easy for whites to deny that it exists. Whites have a very simplistic understanding of racial issues. Many of us are just plain ignorant about the inequality and injustices experienced by blacks. But we can’t understand racism if we don’t pay attention to group behavior and how it impacts us as individuals.

Unlike blacks, whites are not taught that our race matters. We don’t have to think about our race. Where ever we go, we are in the majority. White is seen as the standard or social norm. We automatically get the benefits of belonging. We automatically get the benefit of the doubt. We don’t have to worry that we won’t get a job because of our race or that people will assume we are up to no good because we are white. We are welcomed in every neighborhood. When a white person is admitted to a prestigious school or holds a prestigious position, no one is surprised.

At a young age, we are taught that it is better to be in one group than in another – male versus female, young versus old, straight versus gay. White children are taught not to mention a person’s race. With a shush from our moms, we learn to pretend that we don’t notice a person’s race just as we are taught to pretend we don’t notice a physical deformity. The subtle message is that there is something undesirable about being black.

I’ve always thought of “white supremacy” as the beliefs of the fringe “alt-right” members of society. But white supremacy is “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” It is an erroneous but pervasive belief in our culture. The concept of white supremacy was created to justify unequal treatment.

White Fragility put a name to the defensiveness that I have been seeing in fellow whites. I see it in the response, all lives matter. I saw it when a childhood friend posted a picture of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup (after Quaker Oats said they would change the name), saying she had the makings of a good breakfast. I saw it when another classmate shared a meme that said, among other things, “I will not apologize for being Caucasian.”

Those of us who were taught that racism is wrong may think that if someone calls you out for your prejudice, they are saying you are a bad person. We are all prejudiced and need to be reminded that we should avoid making generalizations about groups of people.

When Obama was the president, I spoke to my mother on the phone one day. She said that Obama was trying to force the affordable care act into law because that’s what “they” do. I told her, that’s not true. My mom wasn’t a bad person. She taught me that racism is wrong. She was one of the most accepting people I’ve ever known. After she and my father divorced, she dated men of other races. Yet even she needed to be challenged for repeating a racist message that she likely heard on TV.

In DiAngelo’s experiences talking to white people about racism, she sees two types of claims that whites make to exempt themselves from accusations of racism. One type of claim is color blindness. People who claim to be blind to color say things like, I was taught to treat everyone the same or I don’t care what color you are or Focusing on race is what divides us. DiAngelo calls the second kind of claims color-celebrate claims. I have people of color in my family. I work in a diverse environment or I live in a diverse neighborhood. I adopted a child from China.

I think that DiAngelo is a bit harsh on whites who honestly want to learn how to be anti-racist. Statements like the ones above are not equivalent to claiming to be exempt from prejudice nor are they necessarily meant to cut off discussions of race.

Why are whites so defensive about racism? Is it because we don’t want anyone to think we’re a bad person or is it because the system that privileges whites is too comfortable? Whatever the reason, it is hard for white people to talk about racial issues. But there are social consequences to being silent. When someone tells a racist joke or makes generalizations about people of color, silence communicates acceptance. Silence is not the way to stand up for what is right and it is not the way to resist the perpetuation of racial stereotypes and resulting discrimination.

I like to think of myself as open-minded and anti-racist. But I know I still carry around old biases I may not even be aware of having. I have to continually check my thoughts.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Lord, we were all created in Your image. We are all precious in Your sight. Search my heart and reveal any thoughts that are not pleasing to You. Give me the humility to face the discomfort of my own racial prejudices. Transform my heart. Give me the courage to speak out for racial justice. Amen.

A heart for justice is not enough

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

I have a heart for justice. I do not like to see anyone treated unfairly. I hate it when people get away with doing something wrong. I despise racism and bigotry. I confess that I don’t know what I can do about it. In a recent sermon about Moses, my pastor said that Moses had a heart for justice but it was not enough.

I really never thought about what it was like for Moses as a Hebrew boy growing up in an Egyptian household. He would have realized that he was different from his adoptive family. As a child he likely witnessed the oppression and mistreatment of his people by the people of Egypt. When he saw injustice as an adult, he took justice in his own hands.

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

Exodus 2:11-14

Moses was obviously angry when he saw one of his own people being abused by an Egyptian. When you have a heart for justice, injustice makes you angry. You want to retaliate. You want revenge. You may get so fired up, that you act impetuously, like Moses did, and do something you will regret later. When Moses took justice into his own hands, there were consequences. Another Hebrew witnessed him killing the Egyptian. When Pharaoh heard about it, he tried to kill Moses.

Years before God spoke to him from the burning bush, Moses had a heart for justice but it wasn’t enough. He needed to be shaped into the kind of person that God can use for His redeeming work. Moses fled to Midian and spent the next forty years living the humble life of a shepherd.

Moses spent forty years thinking he was somebody; then he spent forty years on the backside of the desert realizing he was nobody; finally, he spent the last forty years of his life leaning what God can do with a nobody!

Dwight L. Moody

As my pastor said, a heart for justice combined with humility before God prepares us to take part in God’s redeeming plan. When we are humbled, we realize we don’t have all the answers. When we humble ourselves before God, we are open to his guidance and direction.

If we want to be effective advocates for justice, we must listen to others and not just to the people who echo our own thoughts. We must exercise self-control and wait to respond so we can prayerfully choose the best course of action. We should ask God to reveal the action that we should take.

My pastor cautioned those of us who have a heart of humility to not get too comfortable and to not confuse comfort with humility. We should not stay silent. We must be willing to get out of our comfort zone.

Speaking out is a challenge for me. As an introvert, I am often too timid. I wait to find just the right words. I think too much before I speak and often talk myself out of saying anything because I worry about how it will be received or if I will even be heard above the louder voices.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7

In this slow-speaking way of mine, I can relate to Moses. Moses said to God, “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

I am encouraged that God used an imperfect person like Moses to be an instrument of His justice. A heart for justice plus a heart humbled before God prepares even me to take part in God’s perfect, redeeming plan.

Lord, Your power is made perfect in my weakness. Thank you for giving me a heart for justice. Thank you for showing me what is good and revealing what you require of me. Thank you for giving me a voice and help me to use it for Your redeeming work. Amen.

A change is gonna come

As people have been gathering across the country to protest racial injustice, I have been cogitating. I have been listening. I’ve been reflecting on the cultural changes of my life time, wondering what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say if he could see the world today, and most importantly, deciding that I will not be silent.

I’ve been rereading A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. King said that the racial crisis of the 1950’s was precipitated by two factors – 1) the South’s resistance to school desegregation and 2) the change in the way that black Americans saw themselves. The world was changing. Blacks no longer felt inferior to whites and were no longer willing to accept injustice.

The world is still changing. Yet sometimes it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Privileged groups still resist giving up their privileges. Privileged groups still resist change. Whites still make excuses for being racist.

Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance. But when oppressed people rise up against oppression there is no stopping point short of full freedom. Realism compels us to admit that the struggle will continue until freedom is a reality for all the oppressed peoples of the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today’s racial protests were precipitated by the viral video of a police officer’s brutality against an unarmed black man, which was preceded by a few other recent documented instances of racial injustices experienced by blacks. This time, white people get it. We get the anger. We’ve seen irrefutable proof that blacks are treated as if their lives don’t matter. Many of us are realizing it is not enough to not be a racist; we must be actively anti-racist.

Obviously, not all whites understand. When someone says “black lives matter” and whites respond, “all lives matter,” it’s clear that they just don’t get it. Black Lives Matter is a response to centuries of blacks being treated as if their lives are expendable. It is an affirmation of their worth. It is an affirmation that blacks are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

If King could see America today, I hope he would see the change in the way that many whites see blacks. Today, blacks occupy positions of power and influence in government, in police departments, in businesses and in other institutions. White people appreciate the contributions blacks have made to our cultural heritage. White people value the lives of our black friends, coworkers, and family members. They are a part of us.

There’s been times that I thought

I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come

Oh, yes it will

Sam Cooke

There has been much criticism of the protests, especially condemnation of looting and property destruction. The truth is most protesters are peaceful. As I read A Testament of Hope, I find inspiration in Martin Luther King’s rationale for nonviolent resistance.

  1. Nonviolent resistance uses the mind and emotions to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. Although it is physically non-aggressive, it is spiritually aggressive. It is not a method for cowards.
  2. Nonviolent resistance seeks reconciliation and redemption. It does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win him over with kindness and understanding. Violent resistance results in resentment and bitterness.
  3. Nonviolent resistance is a struggle against the forces of evil and not against the evildoer. It is not a fight against people who have been caught up in the forces of evil. The tension is between justice and injustice, between light and darkness.
  4. Nonviolent resistance accepts suffering without retaliation. It turns the other cheek. Suffering has the power to transform the oppressor.
  5. Nonviolent resistance is powered by agape, a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It avoids internal violence of the spirit (e.g. hatred and bitterness). Reacting with hate does nothing but increase the amount of hate in the world.
  6. Nonviolent resistance believes that the moral universe is on the side of justice. In the struggle for justice, we have cosmic companionship. Our God is a God of justice and mercy.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, sometimes it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. The ugly sin of racism still exists. People of privilege still resist change. I still have hope that change is gonna come. I believe in the redeeming power of love. I believe that truth and justice will prevail. God is on our side.

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Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

A Day of Lament

Heavenly Father, I was invited by Sojourners to participate with other people of faith in a National Day of Mourning and Lament to remember the lives of the 100,000 Americans who have died due to COVID-19. For the past few months, nearly every day, I have seen graphs and statistics showing the exponential spread of the virus. This virus has been truly devastating. It grieves me but another crisis grieves me more.

Lord, The New York Times honored the lives of thousands of coronavirus victims by printing their names on the front page, a tribute that powerfully illustrated that there was a life worth saving behind every number. Lord, You knew every one of the decedents by name. Please comfort those who knew and loved them. Every lost life matters.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

In the past week, news of the pandemic has been replaced with news of protests of the death of George Floyd, another black man whose life was taken for no reason. The sickness of racism has taken the lives and devalued the lives of people of color for far too long, from the abhorrent days of slavery to the hard-fought days of the civil rights movement to the we-should-know-better-by-now present.

The names of black men and women and children who lost their lives to the knee-jerk reactions of racism are written in our memories and our collective conscience – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor. Lord, You knew everyone of these victims by name.

God, this country is in crisis. I lament the senseless loss of life. I lament the violence. I lament racism. I lament injustice.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

Lord, I grieve for black parents who have to have “the talk” with their children, telling them that they must fear police officers. And Lord, I pray for the majority of police officers who serve honorably. Protect them and help them to make a positive difference in the communities they serve.

Jesus, my heart breaks for the message black Americans are hearing. One of my favorite columnists, Eugene Robinson, wrote a piece titled, Black lives remain expendable. As a black man, he was angry and rightly so. “Stop treating African Americans like human trash and start treating us like citizens.” Black lives are not expendable. Lord, I pray that every white American will start treating every African American as a human being. I pray that we will start treating every black person as if they matter. They do matter.

Lord, I can’t get these words out of my head: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Sir, I can’t breathe. The words of a man who wanted to live. The words of a father. The words of a brother. The words of a son calling out for his mama in the last moments of his life. He did not deserve to die.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer. Amen.