Saturday, September 19, 2015

Confessions of a Racist

This is a blog post that appeared on my denomination's (the United Church of Christ) new blog called New Sacred.  This is a new and improved version of thoughts I posted here on this blog a few months ago.  I think the new version, in addition to being shorter, is also better.

Confessions of a Racist
I’ve had plenty of conversations about race over the last year since Michael Brown was killed. In almost all of them, white people became defensive. I recognize this defensiveness in others, because I feel defensive too.
Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist; 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 originate segregation or racial prejudice.  That’s also not the point.
I’m white and I live in America.  That’s the point.
I didn’t create racism, but I was born into a culture of systemic racism.
That means I was born into a complex web of present and past laws, policies, behaviors, opinions, and norms—both written and unwritten—which determine what skin color means and does not mean.
I was taught these things by innumerable social interactions, media representations, and societal customs.  I could no sooner avoid all these influences than I could avoid society’s messages about gender, sexuality and class.
No matter how much I unlearn these things, there is always more for me to unlearn.  I hate to admit it, but I am a racist.
And if you are white in America so are you.
I know it’s hard to accept the idea you are a racist; I didn’t come to this conclusion easily. Racial inequality exists, however, and all of us who are white Americans benefit from it.
Since we are beneficiaries of racism, we have to admit that we are responsible for it.
Confessing one’s own complicity in a racist society, however, is a difficult task.
Why is it so hard?
“Black people think in terms of Black people,” African American journalist John Metta writes. “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…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…[Whites] 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…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 Metta is correct. “White-ness” is the norm in our culture; therefore those of us who are white do not have to identify with all white people. We acknowledge racism exists, but we believe it is always some other white person somewhere else who is racist.
We choose not to see our collective responsibility for a system that allows us to avoid racial profiling, to avoid racial barriers to accumulating capital and power, and to avoid dealing with otherness by self-segregation.
As a defense mechanism against the charge of racism, white people change the subject. When the subject of racism has come up in conversation, instead of admitting racism is real and acknowledging my part in it, I have become defensive and adamantly declared that I’m not a racist. In an instant, I’ve made the conversation all about me.
It’s not surprising that white people center ourselves in any discussion about race. After all, one of the chief benefits of being white in America is that the system is designed so white people can believe everything is all about them.
All Christian ethics must begin with compassion (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 feelings rather than on the oppression of black people is not a compassionate discussion about racism—it’s a white person being defensive.
If white people want to have a conversation about race, we need to shut the hell up and listen for a change.  If we wish to be compassionate, we must listen to the pain of people who live with racism every day.
If we who are white Americans cannot acknowledge our own racism and refuse to acknowledge the very real pain of African Americans, then there is really no point to having the conversation at all.

I'm now a writer for the new UCC Blog "New Sacred"

I'm honored to be one of the writers for my denomination's new blog called "New Sacred."  It's pretty humbling to be among such talented company.  My posts on New Sacred will happen about once a month and probably will be improved versions of thoughts I post here first.  Check out New Sacred and check back daily for new posts from great progressive Christian writers.

Learning a New Vocabulary

Audre Lorde, a black feminist lesbian civil rights activist, wrote the following words in her essay, Scratching the Surface, "If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others-for their use and to our detriment."  She wrote these words in response to critics on all sides who would not value one or more parts of her identity--white feminists who ignored her experience as an African American, black activists who criticized her sexual orientation and so many more who might have found common cause with part of her identity but not all of it.  She claimed the right to define herself rather than allowing others to fit her into a category which neglected a vital part of who she was.  She understood the power of self-definition.

There is a power in naming someone or something.  A name involves definition and the one who decides on the definition holds the power.  Anyone who reads the Bible should not be surprised at this idea.  When God re-names Jacob and calls him Israel or Jesus renames Simon by calling him Peter, a person's identity is changed.  Yet, as we humans often do, when we name others we take the place of God and our naming is an attempt to exercise power over them--power that only God can claim.  Our names for others end up contradicting the names God has already given them.  God has already called them "beloved," meaning a being worthy of love from the Creator of the universe.  We name others to diminish their divine worth.

There is a reason Native Americans abhor the Washington Redskins name.  Redskin was a term of derision and subjugation by whites used to justify genocide.  As one Native American speaker at our denomination's national meeting this year said, "I am not a mascot.  I am a person!"  In other words, Native Americans wish to claim their identity as people of worth and beloved of God.

There is a reason why African Americans have chosen the term "African American" or "black" to describe themselves.  They wanted to take power away from those who had oppressed them.  Rather than being called "negro," "colored" or worse.  African Americans chose their own name.  They wished to re-claim their identity for themselves as people beloved of God.

This same motive is the reason that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people added each their own names to the acronym LGBT.  In the same way, more people who were never allowed to name themselves have expanded that acronym to include the letters Q, I and A.  Q stands for Queer people who do not fit into one of the previous four letters.  I stands for intersex people who have genitalia of both male and female. A stands for asexual people who have no sexual attraction to others.  That acronym keeps growing, and it can feel like a mouthful at times, but each letter is not merely a letter but a group of people who have claimed their own power and chosen to name themselves.  Each group is claiming its own worth and dignity as beloved of God.

The criticism of so-called "politically correct" language boils down to people who had power to name others losing that ability.  As the hierarchy of power in our culture that places white straight males at the top continues to crumble, so also does the majority's power to name those in the minority.  Loss of power is threatening.

If the Christian message means anything, however, it points us to the truth that giving up our power over others is what it means to follow Jesus.  Paul wrote in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

"Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings."

If we wish to follow Jesus, those of us at the top of our society's hierarchy for so long should take it as a blessing rather than a threat that we get to step down from lording over others.  When we set aside our self-proclaimed right to define who others are and are not, we become more like who God made us to be and less like a distorted version of our true selves.  We stop trying to play God.

When I hear Donald Trump's declaration that he will "Make America Great Again," I hear the cries of people who are losing the power to name, categorize and control others.  They are angry about no longer having the power they once took for granted.  I hear in the denigration of "illegal immigrants" and "poor people" and the "losers" of society the sinful declarations of people who want to be back in the place of God.  They want the power to name others and to define them as someone other than God's beloved.

It's not easy keeping up with new names and terms.  It amounts to learning a new vocabulary.  Recently in my own journey, I've been learning the meanings of new words like "cisgender" and "intersectionality" and "whiteness."  If they're new to you, here are some quick definitions thanks to Google:

cisgender--the opposite of transgender, a person whose physical gender characteristics match the gender they identify with.  The prefix "cis-" means "this side of" while the prefix "trans-" means "the other side of;" so you are either "this side of" gender or "the other side of" gender.

intersectionality--the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. For example the writer and activist Audre Lorde whom I quoted above, existed at the intersection of oppression based on sexism, racism and homophobia.  She refused to confront one form of oppression to the neglect of another form of oppression but instead resisted all of them.

whiteness--the social construction of whiteness as tied to social status.  In other words, the idea of people being either "white" or "black" despite the fact that their skin is usually pink, tan, brown, beige or some other color, is a made up idea.  As James Baldwin wrote in "On Being 'White'. . . and Other Lies", "No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country."  People now called "white" were once Irish, English, Italian, German, etc., but eventually in America they became "white" as opposed to "black."  "Whiteness" necessarily involves controlling and oppressing people who are "black."

These new words for me are opening up my mind and confronting me with the ways I have stolen the right of others to name themselves.  I was born into a system of names and words that I did not create, but I benefited from them just as others were diminished by them.  If I wish to give back to God--what is God's right after all--the role of naming and defining others as "beloved," I must acknowledge the God-given right of others to define themselves and to name themselves.  I must give up power and I must stop playing God.

Rather than feeling threatened, I feel relieved.  Playing God is hard work.  It's so much easier just to listen to others and ask them how they wish to be named and defined rather than trying to be the arbiter of language and the dictator over others identities.  

Let's journey together and learn a new vocabulary.

Grace and Peace
You can read more of my thoughts and keep up with what I'm reading on my blog: and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.  

Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching--8.28.15 Edition

I've been neglectful of my blog lately.  Here's a reading list from several weeks ago, but the stuff is still worth digesting if you haven't done so already.

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along. 

Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching
Christians Behaving Like Christians

A NC church that fully welcomes LGBTQ people had their building vandalized with homophobic graffiti.  How the church responded is inspiring.

"The Pope and the Planet"--by Bill McKibben.  One of the leading activists against climate change writes about Pope Francis' encyclical on our collective sin towards the environment.

nun has had a secret ministry for over sixteen years to transgender people.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference offered by the Center for Progressive Renewal.  One of the great treats of the event was hearing a musician named Heatherlyn sing.  Here's one of her songs.  It was pretty awesome to sing it along with her.  The lyrics are deeply inspiring.

Christians Behaving Badly

Christian students at Duke University have refused to read an assigned book with sexual content.  Somebody should warn them about the sexual content in the Bible. 

Our Broken Criminal (In)Justice System

Bryan Stevenson was a Harvard Law graduate who began his career working to free African Americans unjustly put on Alabama's Death Row.  The book about his career is being made into a major motion picture.  Hear an inspiring interview of him on WNYC radio.  Watch his TED Talk about our society's on-going racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

More on Missouri's racist use of the death penalty--not an opinion, backed up by depressing and anger-inducing statistics.

The Murder of Transgender Women in KC

Kansas City made international news over the last two weeks when it was revealed that a second transgender woman had been murdered in KC this year.  It seems the police can't even get the gender of the victims correct.  KCUR had several good programs this week about the transgender community in KC and the violence they face--especially transgender women who are African American and Latino.  A memorial service for one of the victims, Tamara Dominguez, is happening Sunday afternoon at 2 PM.

Race and Our Culture

Ken Burns, creator of the PBS documentary series on the Civil War, took to the airwaves last weekend to state clearly that the Civil War was about slavery--not "states' rights," not "heritage."  Let's speak of our history with honesty.

John Dorhauer, the new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, has made dealing with white privilege one of his top priorities.  On October 3, he is speaking in Overland Park--see our church's Midweek e-mail for details on how to attend.  Here's agood interview with him.  Here's one of his blog posts on the Huffington Post: "I am Darren Wilson."  

Here's a nice overview of racism in the United States.  You can't understand what #BlackLivesMatter is saying without knowing your history.

I think we should all break up with "White Jesus."  

Pundits often criticize the #BlackLivesMatter movement for being vague on its demands.  Well they can quit criticizing, because the movement has stated its demands more clearly than ever before with what they are calling "Campaign Zero.".  Read them here.

One of our church members passed along this article listing the 10 most segregated metro areas in our country.  Kansas City is number 9.  The statistics of education, life expectancy, etc. are shocking in their disparity between majority white and majority black areas.  If I'm reading the graphic correctly, our church sits in one of the areas that are overwhelmingly white--I pretty much already knew that.  If you don't know why that is, I recommend reading Tanner Colby's book Some of My Best Friends are Black which has a chapter on KC's Country Club District.  

If reading about segregation isn't your thing, I encourage you to listen to the two episodes on segregation the public radio show This American Life recently aired.  It includes a story on the Normandy school district near St. Louis.  Thanks to another church member for drawing my attention to them.  Warning--hearing the racist views of white parents on these programs will make you outraged.

When the Mainstream Media Talks About Faith

The Power of Negative Thinking

Last Sunday morning our Adult Ed class discussed a video by scholar Brene Brown who has written widely on the power of vulnerability.  I've recently been reading religious writers who are making use of her works.  Here's a good interview of her in the Washington Post.

Listening to Low-Income Women About Planned Parenthood

Progressive Christian writer (and former member of the Religious Right) Carol Howard Merrit shares "Why I Support Planned Parenthood"

Kids and Gender

A few weeks ago, I preached about our ideas of gender and how they affect our views of God.  I mentioned Target's decision to no longer label kid toys according to gender and the ensuing outrage by religious conservatives.  In response, a church member passed along to me two great links on the subject of enforcing gender expectations on our kids: 1.  a story on the Moth Radio Hour Podcast entitled "The Pink Bicycle" about a father struggling with his son's desire for a pink bicycle for his birthday and 2. this handy guide for discerning if a toy is suitable for boys or girls.