[This is post is part of a five-part series. You can find a link to all five here.]
I’ve been writing of late on the topic of race and racism, and I intend to conclude this topic with a couple more posts over the coming weeks. However, I’m realizing some context may be helpful.
A large portion of those who read these posts have some personal connection to me. And I also imagine the majority of my readers to have a divergent starting point from my own on the topic. Regardless of whether you know me or not, I know what I’ve been writing may resist compatibility with your longstanding conceptual constructs. I say this because I myself not only had a divergent view from my own current one only a few years ago, but, until lately, could scarcely have comprehend the view I now hold.
I want to mention up front that this is neither a liberal nor political exercise, though I understand that it may seem this way. I find myself allergic to the political climate in general of late—disillusioned with both parties, with the system in general and with the toxified smog of politico-centric attitudes in our nation. The current ineptitudes toward sympathy in otherwise kind and reasonable people can only be explained by the state-altering psychosis politico-centric thinking produces.
No, my intentions are of quite a different variety—humanitarian, in nature.
Canadian aboriginal leader George Erasmus framed this well when he said,
Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.
My five overarching aspiration are:
A fascinating sequence of innovations took place between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, leading to poignant moment of repurposing in our nation.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed The Homestead Act, granting free parcels of land to Americans willing move west to farm them—270 million acres in total. During this time, the agronomics of cattle-driving cowboys gave way to fence-enclosed grazing and crop farming. And the middle of our country was divvied up by a new invention; barbed wire—dubbed “the devil’s rope.” Hundreds of miles of this durable, menacing fencing material were unfurled across the Great Plains, partitioning and protecting property and possession. Sturdy and pain-inflicting enough to hold back the strongest of livestock, it would eventually be deployed as a tool of trench-warfare and human incarceration.
Its grim efficacy would eventually be compounded by supplying a jolting electric current!
But clues would be found in this iteration that would accomplish an alchemy of sorts. It was at this same time, you see, when Alexander Graham Bell was refining his research in the technology of of harmonic telegraphy; viz., the telephone. By 1886 over 150,000 people were communicating by telephone. However, there was no telephone infrastructure over the vast expanse of the west, until it was realized that there was indeed an extensive network of wires webbing out across the middle of our country. You guessed it: the devil’s rope!
Farmers and ranchers began attaching mail-order phone kits to the top line of their barbed-wire fences, and a makeshift communication system came into existence.
A 99% Invisible segment observed,
Barbed wire’s history has mostly been about control, possession and separation but there is one instance where barbed wire was used not to separate us, but to connect us.
The signal was crackly and poor and deteriorated altogether in inclement weather. Also, it was virtually impossible to prevent neighbors from eavesdropping on conversations. But it was a start.
This seems to me a fitting analogy for the topic of race and racism.
As I’ve written in my two previous pieces, the very notion of race is also a human innovation aimed at dividing. Like barbed wire, it was engineered to divide and inflict pain. It is, like barbed wire, the devil’s rope—constantly conducting a high-voltage shock. And so we recoil from the topic altogether. And we remain divided.
Why write on race? I hope our society might repurpose this instrument of division into an instrument of dialogue; or at least some of us. It will be a staticky, sub-standard alternative of the ideal, but may need to suffice for now.
My previous posts on this topic have sought to address the simple incongruence between the intended meaning of the word “racism” within the white and non-white communities. This is actually a fairly straightforward semantic exercise. But when one aligns with one definition or another, things become barbed. When the historical and societal foundations undergirding each preferred definition are introduced, they pack a strong jolt. Sacrosanct values of justice, responsibility, patriotism, honesty and inequality generate powerful currents (as well they should); so too, pain, loss, humiliation and despair. It is a live wire!
But one must simply find another who prefers dialogue over diatribe, harmony over discord, hopeful vulnerability over stubborn entrenchment. These can be parties of one or many. The tacit invitation is, of course, to be or become such people. Hiding under this invitation are questions of what we value most and how those values will shape our behaviors and relationships.
Over the last few years, I’ve sought, in my own arenas, to repurpose the devil’s rope of race and racism into a line of communication. Here I’m doing it through writing, tolerating, nay, inviting eavesdroppers. I’ve been pleased to find myself in a number of safe settings lately where we’ve done just this, and, through the crackling distort, communication and understanding have taken place. There may have been a scratch here and a shock there—we are repurposing, remember—but love and deepening understanding were the results. I’ll take that cost/benefit any day!
And so I am writing on race, in order to jury-rig a phone to this wire; to make an overture, “Pick up the receiver! It will not harm or kill you.” Question your fatalistic attitudes—that disengaged defeatist posture.
Yes, it is a liminal space toward new ways of thinking—beyond those limited vantage points we all, each of us, are subject to. That is to say, it requires the hard work of learning and unlearning. For my own part, it has been like ascending a tortuous trail to a rugged, exposed overlook, being allowed to see landscapes of which I’d been utterly oblivious. Not pretty sights, but important ones—sights that have allowed me to see and value the realities of others in my human family more wholly, and, perchance, to love them more wholly.
Something horrible was ready to be revealed. It was late November 2015, and pressure was building for the city of Chicago to release dash-cam footage of a police-involved shooting in which a 17-year-old boy was killed (shot 16 times). It had been over 13 months since the incident.
A judge ordered the footage released, and it was. I debated whether to watch, but eventually concluded I should.
I had just moved to the South Side of Chicago a year-and-a-half earlier. The topic of race became unavoidable. And as I sat on the buses and trains or walked around my neighborhood or played with my kids at the park, I was suddenly a minority. I couldn’t discern between the feelings of danger or discomfort; I was hyper-aware.
In 2014 the names Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and others were becoming household. Theirs and other’s deaths were oftentimes accompanied by chilling footage from phones, dash-cams and body-cams. Each such incident deserves its own involved treatment; something I can’t endeavor here. But an powerful tide was rising. Demonstrations galvanized in black communities nationwide. Movements like Black Lives Matter coalesced overnight. The nuanced understandings on such events cannot be unpacked in this post, but pay attention to this next part. In August of 2014, the simple act of clicking the hashtag #Ferguson was akin to throwing back a curtain into an undeniable and tempestuous racial divide in our nation. Neither the police-involved deaths nor the protests produced it—they only occasioned the upswell of that which was already there.
Scores of people of color were screaming, “We’ve had enough!” Over-and-against this horde another mass angrily insisted, “You have nothing to be upset about. Be quiet!”
I couldn’t help but think, Why, if tens-of-thousands of people around the nation are spontaneously protesting as one, would another group of people simply insist there is no reason for it? Why no willingness to understand?
If I were walking by Wrigley Field and suddenly heard the crowd roar, would I shout, “There’s nothing to be cheering about!” Or would I ponder, What are they reacting to that I cannot see?
Meanwhile, we were hearing stories of our black friends and neighbors of being routinely pulled over for “driving while black” or their worries of having their sons targeted both by gang-violence and police harassment.
But when the Laquan McDonald video was released, I felt a sudden urgency to get my head and heart straight on the matter.
I lead a Christian-based non-profit that does programming on college campuses. We had started our work on one of the most diverse campuses in the nation.
If I had still been working at the midwestern state school where I had been until 2013, this would have been “a news story”. But in Chicago many of our students were out marching; no question about it. And I was angry and pained and horrified too, but couldn’t yet name the reasons why—not to a depth that could communicate to these students’ anguish. I was tempted to say nothing; to let my non-white staff do the talking. But, when they did do the talking, they told me I needed to speak up. “What can I say?”
So I sat in meetings and stood in rooms and said what I could: “God grieves this injustice. This is not the world as he would have it! He mourns every pull of the trigger. He mourns every penetration of every bullet. This violence kills both the killer and the killed, and this could not grieve God more.”
Those words are true. But I knew there were social evils at work, to which I could not speak directly.
“How is the video affecting you,” I asked a Mexican American student friend.
“I guess some folks are getting pretty worked up over it,” he answered.
“What about you? How does it affect you?”
“I don’t know. These things suck, but they happen,” he diplomatically answered.
“Do you related to this outrage? The race component, I mean? Like, what’s your experience with being treated differently because of the color of your skin?”
“Nothing really comes to mind,” he said.
“So this isn’t really your experience?”
“Not really.” He thought a moment. “I mean, there was this one time when I was walking in my neighborhood. A cop car came speeding up and screeched to a stop right next to me. They jumped out and pushed me against the wall, and started patting me down. One cop pulled out my wallet and then grabbed by student ID and stuck it in my face (he went to a prestigious parochial school). He said, ‘You see this! You’re lucky you had this! This saved you!’ Then they jumped back in the car and sped off.”
I stared at him for a moment. He’s one of the nicest, most polite people I know; not one to make a big deal. “I’ve never had anything like that happen,” I said at last. I thought for a moment. “Saved from what? Why would you need saving?”
“That’s a good question. I’m not sure.”
We talked a while longer. I left our time wondering what it might mean to know that you needed saving because of who you were.
A month later I was in Colorado at a gathering hosted by my organization on the topic of race and ethnicity. I was being asked to help my organization think well about these issues. A black colleague of mine asked to pray together beforehand. The thought had never occurred to me; this was more serious, more sacred to him. I spent those days admitting I was in over my head. I could tell that the outlooks of my brown and black co-workers involved aspects I couldn’t really grasp. (One such thing was the way they used the words “race” and “racism”.) I’d never felt quite so befuddled; quite so speechless.
I took a few day retreat after this event, and as I was driving to a cabin in the mountains I complained to God, “This is just overwhelming! I have no idea how to think about this.” He answered me clearly (and this rarely happens!), “You’re going to have to learn.”
As I drove south on I-25, a sober resolution washed over me—you’ve done this in countless other important areas of your life, and this will be no different.
There are certain points in one’s life where a refusal to learn and grow is little more than negligence. To not risk the discomfort of acknowledging blindnesses, a form of selfish stagnancy.
I cannot recall where it was that I heard it, but I’ll paraphrase a quote that always pricks me:
We make the Devil’s job too easy, when all he needs to do is make a topic ‘controversial’ in order for us to avoid it altogether.
If race and racism are indeed devil’s wire, we only comply with his wishes through our avoidances. We make his job of dividing and destroying far too easy.
I began incorporating new voices and views into my diet. (An Asian American colleague observed, “You are what you eat.”) Some were Christian voices (Soong-Chan Rah, Bryan Stevenson, Martin Luther King) and others were not (Ta-Nahisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson, Michelle Alexander). Thoughtful voices all.
I began reading articles and blog-postings by non white writers, following them on Twitter, listening in; not just on the topic of racism, but in general.
I kept asking my black and brown friends, colleagues and students to help me understand their stories and perspectives on the world around them. Amazingly, so many were gracious and exceedingly kind. But they all had stories, and not just a few of them. Most would say that the reality of race and racism in our society basically never leaves their mind nor experience. These conversations almost always have the feel of asking permission for access to a deep wound. But they also introduced me to my own wounds and tender spots. Wendell Berry wrote of this in The Hidden Wound,
If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.
I did this in the company of others who were on the journey alongside me. We shared notes. (I’m very much still in the thick of this; learning and unlearning with safe, trustworthy and truthful friends.)
I’ll once again share Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment:
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
Writing is a clarifying exercise for me. Until I write (and write in such a way as to be conversant with others), my thinking remains amorphous; not clear enough to live from. Why write on race? So that I might know what I think by reading what I say—which is really what I’m learning from others. And, as one who has come to appreciate those things I’d once misunderstood and devalued, maybe even have the opportunity to offer my voice across the divide.
The Apostle Paul wrote the following words to the first-century church in Philippi,
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests only but also to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…
If you’ve read Julius Caesar, you know it ends during the civil war Battle of Philippi (42 BC). It was the site of the largest civil war battle in Roman history, and Paul draws extensively on civil war analogies throughout his letter.
Here he frames their attitudes around the mindset of Jesus: “not looking to your own interests only but also to the interests of others.” So when another person indicates that something is important to them, love means understanding it.
If this is true of a few, how much more so with many. If 40% of our country (the current non-white population) share a related experience with the harmful realities of race and racism in our nation, love means listening, learning and acting. Does it not?
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the youngest sister of 4 siblings (Lucy) reports of finding an alternate world through a passage in an attic wardrobe. Her older brother and sister distrust her, and bring the matter to the professor with whom they are staying. After a lengthy discussion, he summarizes,
Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.
My conviction is that when white communities dismiss or discount the harmful experiences of non-white communities in the arena of race—or insist on not interacting with their outcry in the matter—it is a loveless choice; one which compounds the harm. (I think it’s called adding insult to injury.)
When whole segments of our nation convulse and writhe over goings on in our society, love moves like the Samaritan into the messy, costly pain. Love does not cross over and continue on.
I mentioned above that my trusted non-white friends, colleagues and students all agreed that white voices must remain in the chorus on this topic. I’m understanding the why behind this more and more.
From the earliest days of abolitionism (a movement that arose immediately on the heels of the colonial era and the widespread advent of chattel enslavement), through the Civil War and Civil Rights movement, voices among the white populace have played an irreducible role toward the cause of racial justice. There is a position and venue into which our voice has more purchase, and oftentimes we know the vernacular for playing translator between both sides.
As much as anything though, I’m seeing how silence is a way of retreat. When those of us in the white community can’t or won’t name racism or address its damage, it communicates either tacit endorsement or craven betrayal. Most people of color have spent their lives swimming upstream against racial currents. They’ve become adept at feigning indifference and maintaining poise in the face of it. As uncomfortable as it is for whites like myself to confront these societal dynamics—even calling them “evil” or “unjust”—still those affected by them have no such choice. Measures of healing come when we enter into their sorrows and even anger. And though I’ve never once met a person who readily admits to being a “racist”, still we know racism is alive and well. If my own history can be any indicator, it seeps out despite our best efforts.
Maybe what I’m dancing around right now is my own racism; my willingness to prefer sloppy stereotypes over human considerations, to prefer judgement over understanding, to exclude or insulate, to remain willfully oblivious to how I benefit from racial constructs and willfully loath to consider my obligations toward remedies, my own hidden attitudes of superiority and innate deservedness. Maybe I’m learning how to grapple within and grapple without in these issues—whether I’m brave enough to enter further into the rough terrain of longsuffering involvement. I can, after all, still use my racial identity as exemption from all this.
But how can I do so, now that I grasp that this is the wrong thing to do?
And so I write on racism, as I live deeper into this dense thicket. It is only one part of my offering—not without risk, but not by far the most costly. I write in general, because I consider it part of what I’m on the earth to do. I write so that I may understand in the doing. But I also write, because presuppositions and narratives shape the concrete human realities of the world around us, and I would hope to shape them for the better; for the more just.
I think of Martin Luther’s prayerful pronouncement,
…to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.
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