Friday, July 31, 2015

White Defensiveness--Can We Let Down Our Defenses Enough to Be Compassionate?

As a minister, my job is not to tell people what they want to hear but to tell them--as best as I can figure out--what they need to hear.  Granted, I'm supposed to offer my thoughts in a loving and empathetic manner--not to mention in a way that makes sense--but plenty of times my delivery could be improved--to say the least!  

I've received some interesting responses from members of my almost entirely white congregation when I've preached, taught and written about race over the last several months.  I've spent a lot, lot, lot of time thinking about those responses, especially responses to my thoughts about how race and racism relate to our church's name, the neighborhood and part of Kansas City our church is located in and the history of race in Kansas City.  Some of the responses I've received have been positive, some have been helpful offering me suggestions of ways my thoughts or the way I expressed them could have been better, and some have been, let's say, defensive.

When a minister has church members who feel defensive about a sermon she or he preaches, it could be because the minister was out of line, the minister expressed herself or himself poorly or because the minister was doing what she or he is supposed to do--speak truth to the congregation even if they don't want to hear it.
At the risk of me being defensive about my own ministry, I'd like to talk about this defensiveness which I think I've seen when it comes to discussions of race in our church.  I don't think this defensiveness is unique to white people who are members of my church, but rather I think it is characteristic of pretty much all white people in America today.  I think I can speak about this topic, because I also feel defensive when I'm having conversations about race.  Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist--except for maybe the most virulent sort.  Neither do I.  Yet, I'm white and I live in America, so if I"m honest, I have to admit I am a racist.  

Oh sure, I'm not a Confederate flag waving, klan robe wearing kind of racist.  That's not the point.  I didn't actively create segregation or racial prejudice.  That's also not the point.  I have two bi-racial sons.  That's important but not the point.  I preach, teach and work to combat racism.  Also important, but still not the point.  

I'm white and I live in America.  That's the point.  

I didn't create racism.  I was born into a culture with systemic racism.  That means I was born into a complex web of present and past laws, policies, behaviors, opinions, norms both written and unwritten about what skin color means and does not mean.  Those factors are uncountable and unavoidable.  As much as I try to resist this cumulative weight of racism, I cannot avoid it.  I was taught these things by innumerable social interactions, media representations, and societal mannerisms often by people who had no idea they were passing them on to me.  I could no sooner avoid all these influences than I could avoid society's messages on gender, sexuality and class.  No matter how much I un-learn these things, there is always more for me to un-learn.  I am a racist as much as I hate to admit it, and if you are white in America so are you.

I was helped greatly in my thinking about why we who consider ourselves "white" (whitness is a social construction after all) are so loath to admit our racism at this particular time in our nation's history by a sermon preached by an African American writer named John Metta  He is a writer, not a minister, but he preached a sermon (at a UCC church no less) and the text of his sermon has circulated widely.  In it, he explains why he no longer has discussions about race with white people--including his white family members.  Here are some excerpts:

He begins by describing a conversation about race his black sister had with his white aunt in which his sister said, "The only difference between people in the North and people in the South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist."

He goes on to write, "Over a decade later, this sentence is still what my aunt talks about. It has become the single most important aspect of my aunt's relationship with my Black family. She is still hurt by the suggestion that people in New York, that she, a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members, is a racist.  This perfectly illustrates why I don't talk about race with White people.  Even--or rather especially--my own family.  

New York State is one of the most segregated states in the country. Buffalo, New York, where my aunt lives, is one of the 10 most segregated school systems in the country. The racial inequality of the area she inhabits is so bad that it has been the subject of reports by the Civil Rights Action Network and the NAACP.
Those, however, are facts that my aunt does not need to know. She does not need to live with the racial segregation and oppression of her home.  As a white person with upward mobility, she has continued to improve her situation. She moved out of the area I grew up in- she moved to an area with better schools. She doesn't have to experience racism, and so it is not real to her.
Nor does it dawn on her that the very fact that she moved away from an increasingly Black neighborhood to live in a White suburb might itself be a aspect of racism. She doesn't need to realize that "better schools" exclusively means "whiter schools."
I don't talk about race with White people because I have so often seen it go nowhere. When I was younger, I thought it was because all white people are racist. Recently, I've begun to understand that it's more nuanced than that."
Moss goes on to explain why he no longer has conversations about race with white people:
"To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people.
We don't see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot. . .
Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us--right here, right now.  Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are "you," I am "one of them." Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.
What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that "people in The North are racist" is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn't exist because they don't see it."
I think Moss is correct.  Because "white-ness" is the norm in our culture, those of us who are white do not have to identify with all white people.  We accept there is diversity among white people.  But because black people are in the minority--not the norm--they are forced to deal with the judgment by those in the majority that one black person is the same as all black people.  So black people think in terms of "we" while white people think in terms of "I."   Of course, all generalizations about people to a lesser or greater extent are false, but just because they aren't true doesn't mean they aren't real--at least in terms of a culture's norms.
The reason white people--myself included--feel defensive about being called a racist is because we have a complicated compartmentalization going on inside our heads.  We acknowledge racism exists, but we believe it is always someone else and somewhere else.  Just because we do not actively discriminate in overt ways does not mean we are without racist thoughts or attitudes.  It's just outright denial to believe that those racist thoughts and attitudes don't influence our actions one way or another.  Yet, acknowledging this reality is painful.  Who wants to think of themselves as racist?  Not me.  

Another part of white defensiveness is the assumption that taking responsibility for one's own racism is the same as taking responsibility for ALL racism.  Yes, as a white person in America, I am born into racism and become complicit in it, but I did not cause all of it.  Even so, accepting responsibility for one's own racism is not an easy thing to do.  The hardest part--I think--of accepting my own racism--my own part in this complex web of our racist culture--is acknowledging my privilege.  

"Check your privilege" has become a trite catchphrase on college campuses and on social media, and it is dismissed as political correctness run amok.  Yet, privilege is real.  Just by being born with the skin color I've got has opened countless doors for me and created opportunities for me--most of which I'm probably not even aware of.  The most helpful thing I've read lately about the concept of privilege is a blog post by Maisha Johnson.  She writes, 

"1.  Having Privilege Doesn't Mean You're a Bad Person
The fact that you get benefits that other people don't is really messed up. So when someone says you have privilege, it can feel like they're accusing you of deliberately taking from oppressed groups.

And if you're making an effort to actively fight oppression, it feels even worse - like you're trying your best, but people are still accusing you of doing something wrong.
But having privilege isn't about deliberately demanding something - it's just about the circumstances of your life that give you benefits you never asked for.
For instance, I have privilege as a temporarily able-bodied person. I don't want to live in a world where I get accommodations that disabled people don't have access to, but the truth is that I do.
That's not my fault. But I recognize that I benefit from it and I should do something about it, because everyone deserves access to basic resources.
Besides, taking this system of discrimination personally, as if it's just about something I'm doing wrong, would distract from the real point of talking about privilege: taking down oppression.
To be a supportive ally, I can't just focus all the attention on my own guilt - I have to help center the voices of disabled people who spread knowledge about how people like me can do better. Their liberation is what disability rights are all about.
2. Having Privilege Means There's a Whole System at Work
Privilege is not about individuals being bad people, but it is about entire systems that favor some groups and put down others.
These systems - like ableism, white supremacy, and classism - get structural support from laws, the media, and policies that affect our lives every day. Most of us aren't taught that these systems are such an influential part of how the world works.
We learn that everyone can work hard to earn rewards, pull themselves up by their bootstraps to gain wealth, and be a decent person to get respect.
So finding out that your privilege gives you a head start in achieving these things can be shocking - it challenges what you've always thought to be true.
That's why, to a certain extent, it makes sense that you haven't always been aware of your privilege, and even that it's hard to get used to the idea of having it."
I guess it's not surprising that I and white people across America make the discussion about racism in our society into one about us as individuals.  After all, one of the chief benefits of being white in America is that society is designed for you (as a white person) to believe everything really is all about you.  Yet, when we get defensive and make a discussion about racism in our society all about a debate over our own individual character (rather than our complicity in a racist social structure) we place the focus in the wrong place.  When we discuss racism, the focus should always remain on the people who are oppressed rather than on those who benefit most from society's norms.

As a Christian, I believe all ethics must begin with compassion.  Compassion meaning literally "suffering with."  Jesus Christ "suffered with" humanity and calls us to do the same with one another.  A discussion about racism that keeps the focus on an individual white person's behavior rather than on the oppression of black people is not a compassionate discussion about racism--it's just a white person being defensive.  If I and other white people want to have a conversation about race, we need to shut the hell up and listen for a change.  We must listen to the pain of people who must live with the discrimination society places upon their skin color in so many different ways if we wish to be compassionate.  If we refuse to acknowledge their very real pain, then there is really no point in having the conversation at all.

I'm working on my own white defensiveness, because I believe it is the ethical human thing to do.  I also believe it is the truly Christian thing to do.  I'm challenging my congregation--however imperfectly--to do the same.  I didn't become a minister to make people comfortable--that's not what I understand Christianity to be.  Christianity is about making people uncomfortable in all the best ways.  That's why I wade into the difficult waters of uncomfortable topics.  I may blunder about in those waters, but I know that's where I will find Jesus.

When Jesus began his ministry, he preached about the Community of God and called followers to repent.  Repent means "to turn away from" or "turn around from."  When it comes to racism, how can we repent when we are too defensive to even understand what we are repenting of?

I may not have all the answers when it comes to racism, but I do have a book to recommend.  I'm about halfway through Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is the most poignant and powerful writing about what it means to be a black man in contemporary America I am aware of.  As a white person, it is tough to read it.  It's words have been literally blowing my mind and causing me to rethink what I have understood America to be.  I encourage you to read it, but don't say I didn't warn you.  (Here's anexcerpt of the book in The Atlantic.  Here's an NPR interview with Coates.)

Grace and Peace

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