The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

Monica Hesse, a columnist for the Washington Post, published an insightful piece about racism and sexism today, “The Point We’re Missing about BBQ Becky and Her Sisters.” Click on the link to read.

She makes two fundamental points:

  • using hashtags to jeer at, and make fun of, white women who call 911 to report alleged suspicious behavior by black men is a denial of the serious racism involved,
  • and it also signals sexist behavior in that the practice of creating “cute” nicknames when referring to the women–because white men who do similar things are rarely, if ever, labeled this way.
Monica Hesse

Monica Hesse

I urge you to read her post about these points–especially her iteration of the role of white women, especially in the South, in creating the “black sexual predator” who destroys white female purity (this system was of course created by white men to keep black men in line while many of the white men sexually abused black women).

But I also encourage you to reflect on her interaction with the young black teen on the D.C. Metro. His instinctive, self-protective action in the face of transit police boarding the train is very revealing, and all too common and necessary for the survival of young, and old, black men.

The “isms” are often, probably always, tangled up together. Part of our task is to untangle and name them, and change our attitudes and behaviors. Hesse helps us here.

 

 

 

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson

Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

BlackkKlansmanThere is another new film to match with Sorry to Bother You, the creative work I have written about previously (see earlier posts, Sorry to Bother You, When Do I Use My White Voice, Scraping More Paint, Unlocking the Trap–Part 2, and Part 1).

The new one is BlackKKlansman, the latest Spike Lee offering. And those two films are parts of a trilogy of recent films about racism/white supremacy, the third being last year’s Get Out (some would add a fourth, Blindspotting, but I have yet to see it and so don’t comment here). Sorry to bother you

Every white person, and others too, should see all three to learn more about our racialized heritage. Each of these works probes and unpacks truths about the reality of white supremacy/racism in the United States today—instead of reifying that reality as films have done for so long. 

Get OutI can already sense some white readers saying, “Not this again. Do we have to hear more about something we did not cause and do not like?”The answer is yes, of course, because we have a role in changing the system. 

There is so much to write about this film that tells of the true story of the first African American Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (played brilliantly by John David Washington, Denzel’s son). In simplest terms, he wanted to be a cop. The film has us believe the chief wants to hire him, but at the same time he is not just sure what to do with him. So his first assignment is to the Records Desk, getting files for other officers. There he encounters considerable racism, especially one deeply racist, white supremacist cop. 

What Stallworth really wants is to be a detective, and he gets a chance to go undercover at a rally of the Black Student Union of a local college, an event headlined by Kwame Toure (known to the police and much of the white world as Stokely Carmichael). 

Of course, if Stallworth had been white, he would not have been given that assignment. Yet, it is on this basis that the story unfolds. It is here also that a romantic attachment begins, one that will reverberate in many ways throughout the film. 

Black Klansman A MemoirThe plot is taken pretty faithfully from Stallworth’s book. Black Klansman: A Memoir (2014), although dialogue is the creation of Spike Lee and others. And Lee adds important background in showing scenes from the deeply racist silent film, Birth of a Nation, as well as news footage from last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA (including the remarks of the President about “good people” on all sides. 

I have thought quite a bit about what I, as a white person, gain from this film, and what I think other white people could also receive. 

Adam Driver and Washington in BlackkKlansman

The team: Adam Driver and John David Washington

First, is the intimate portrait of evil within the KKK (and the wider white nationalist supremacist movements), especially as they are uncovered by Stallworth’s white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played with incredible power by Adam Driver). Part of that power comes from Zimmerman being Jewish. Indeed, I was left reeling during the scene where he disagrees with other KKK members who claim the Holocaust is “fake news,” by claiming it did a good thing by wiping out Jews—and his newfound allies are supremely satisfied that he really gets the truth. 

it is the use of language that kept me riveted, and helps me see how white extremists continue to bury their vile views in acceptable language. 

When they succeed, they delude not only themselves but also the rest of us. In this film, members of the Klan are schooled to never use that name; instead it is “the organization.” The local Klan leader seeks to put a pleasant face on the group (undercut by others who relish in virulent language), and David Duke (Topher Grace), the storied leader of the Klan nationally is portrayed as a mild, well-mannered leader who hates no one, just wants white people to live among themselves without the presence of Blacks or Jews or others. 

BlackKKlansman Topher Grace

Topher Grace as David Duke (some of his best action is on the phone talking with Ron Stallworth)

Critic Naomi Elias writes, “In his slickest salesperson voice Duke says that he agrees with people who say that “America is a racist country” — but unlike the black Colorado residents using the phrase to call out the racial profiling and police brutality they experience, Duke argues America is racist because it’s “anti-white.” This willful misuse of the word “racism” allows him to reframe oppressors as victims and vice versa.”

Of course, more people than David Duke use this kind of language reversal to make themselves and others in their groups into victims. We can see this in a certain President of the United States. 

“Alt-right” is a seemingly harmless way to describe people who are white supremacists and nationalists, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, white racial purists, and its proponents have brilliantly succeeded in getting much of the mainstream media as well as ordinary people to use the term. It even sounds lively and avant-garde, like alt-rock and alt-weekly newspaper. 

Alt-rightThis echoes the efforts in the 19th Century (and yet today) to claim that the South was only fighting for states’ rights not slavery. This also echoes how many white people say, “I’m not racist,” meaning they do not use the N-word or other ugliness—even as they help perpetuate structures of race-based oppression. 

Organizations, business and otherwise, even churches do this sort of thing when they talk about diversity and inclusion while never linking either to our white-dominated national (and global) heritage that remains alive and well. The goals are commendable but they tend to work “feel good” emotions—valuing everyone equally is a worthy goal, but that will not happen until we take our boot off the backs of those unlike ourselves. 

We have much to learn about ending the ugliness of the KKK and allied hate groups, and even more to learn about how to undo our denial of what our fellow human beings go through every day. That requires taking the blinders off. 

cant we all just get along Rodney King

The plaintive cry of Rodney King, viciously beaten by police in Los Angeles in 1991–how are we doing 27 years later?

This is much harder than trying to get people to “just get along” better. It requires that we pay close attention not just to good intentions but also to dangerous, damaging, destructive outcomes. In simple terms, I mean paying attention, and proactively working to correct the reality of outrageous levels of incarceration of Black and brown people, the high rates of poverty within Black communities, “food deserts” and lack of health care in minority communities, etc. 

The usual practice of denial and dismissal is shown by the action of the Chief of Police who tells Stallworth and Zimmerman and the other officers who have been supportive of them to bury the files. Thankfully, Stallworth wrote his book, and Lee made his film.

We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away until we face it, name it, recognize our role in it, repent, change our ways, and make reparations. 

Start by seeing this film (and the others mentioned above). 

I have now seen “Sorry to Bother You” (see previous post, “When Do I Use My White Voice?“), a film that in my judgment is a powerful commentary on white supremacy and capitalism—and a superb creative achievement.

There are so many powerful, often disturbing moments in the film that is hard to know where to begin. 

So I will begin with something that happened to me as I sat in the theater watching. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, while the screen images dominated the room, I also saw, in mind’s eye, faces of African American friends and colleagues in ministry (clergy and lay people). I felt a sense of awe at how they navigated the white dominant world we share. These are people of considerable achievement and strong personal character, wise people, clear-headed people, who have made a difference in my life. 

At the time, I did not know what to make of this moment. Then, in a conversation with one of those people about the film, I shared that experience. They said, “Oh yes, we, people of color, and not just Black people, are used to “commuting” between the worlds of our own lives and the white social system that insists that we find ways to conform if we want to both survive and thrive.”

Commuting.

In linguistics, this also is known as “code switching.” Check out this video, “Is ‘Talking White’ Actually a Thing?” to learn more.

I teared up, realizing I had never thought about the price this dear friend and colleague as well as so many others in my life, and everywhere, have to pay. White supremacy is revealed by that necessity. But it also is confirmed in its power by the very fact I, with some real background in studies of racism and whiteness, had never had to think about what they go through. 

Talking WhiteHere are some parts of the commuting map: white voice, white mannerisms, paying attention not only to using the best English but also body language, and tone of voice and even volume. That does not even begin to deal with subject matter—how this friend and others are aware of just how far they can go in describing the pain and anger they have to carry, not only for themselves but also for all the other people in their family, social or religious group, neighborhood, professional orbit, and the world. 

All this is revealed in this film through the experience of Cassius Green (powerfully performed by Lakeith Stanfield–certainly deserving of Oscar consideration). This young African American man needs a job. He finds it working for a telemarketing company. His job interview was very odd because it seemed the company would hire anyone. Later, I realized that this signifies how little they think of their employees. Cassius was just another cog in their master profit wheel. 

He fits into their money-making system because he needs money. They need him to make them money and he needs them to make his. The filmmaker, Boots Riley, has, in interviews, made it clear that he wrote and directed a film to focus on both racism and the ways it is linked to capitalism. 

The title of the film reflects how Cassius begins every call, but it is at the same time an evocation of the system of whiteness that insists that “we” not be bothered to hear the cries and anger of people of color. Over the years, I have heard people say to me, and others, “You may not want to hear this, but . . . “ then going on to describe something I, or another, did or said that was insensitive or worse. Sorry to bother you. 

But the power of whiteness is much bigger than denial and refusal to hear or see. It also involves setting the rules for how people of color are to not only speak but also act. There are codes, and they have power. Cassius shows us at a party, thrown by the owner of the company he works for, that there are times when Black people are called upon by white people to perform their blackness (he is taunted until he does rap for the assembled white people, something he really doesn’t do well).

He also discovers through his seat mate in the office (played by Danny Glover) that his white voice on the phone is not exactly how white people sound, but “what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” In other words, it is a caricature designed to avoid causing discomfort for white customers. And Cassius learns to do that so well (in the film it is a voiceover by actor David Cross) he becomes highly successful, and thus a favorite of the corporate hierarchy. 

PerformingBlackness performing whitenessWhat this says to me is that whiteness is a performance, not only by people of color but also by white people. This is especially so in the worlds of finance and various professional and public environments. And of course, there are always class distinctions. The brilliance of this film is that it shows us all of that.

In that sense, this is a film that unsettles us, white people, both because of racism and capitalism. Indeed, historians, especially Edward E. Baptist, show us that from the very beginning of our national experiment, capitalism and white supremacy/racism are inseparable (see his The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).  

What we see in the film are the high costs that people incur as they seek to rise financially—not only Cassius, but so many others. I won’t give away the many creative plot twists that make this film so distinctive, but I can say that we are shown how the alliance between corporate greed and personal need is disastrous for real people. There is violence in the film, although not the sensationalized violence we so often see of shootings, car chases ending in gruesome death, and the like. Indeed, it shows us how easy it is to become more beast than human as the pressure to succeed accelerates. In that sense, most everyone is a victim of a system designed to squeeze humanity out of the willing and the unwilling.  

I urge every white person to see this film—it will challenge you as it seems to go over the top at times but if you stay with it you will find deep wisdom. 

A final note: I have entitled this post “Sorry to Bother You,” because of the film and because I realize, given how few people in my intended audience for this series of posts that began with “Unlock the Trap – Part 1“ on May 4 seem to notice and how even fewer ever respond. Many of the white people in that audience probably wish I did not bring any of this up. Sorry to bother you. 

Actually, I am not sorry. 

Frankly, if we, “the relatively conscious whites” James Baldwin wrote about, do not let ourselves be bothered and challenged, things will never get better. Indeed, the power of white supremacy and capitalism, working together, just becomes more sophisticated, more lethal, and seemingly more hidden all at the same time. There are winners, of course, folks at the top seemingly, but even they pay a price. I for one want to stop paying it. 

I hope you will join me on the journey. Feel free to write me at RevDrRobin@comcast.net if you would like to share more dialogue, or post your thoughts on this page. 

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.

I watched an hour-long program on MSNBC recently, “Everyday Racism in America.” Here’s the link if you did not see it.  I urge you watch it, even before you read another word here. That tells you, I hope, how valuable I perceive this video to be.

everyday racism in America MSNBCOne reason I feel that way is that the concept of “everyday” racism is most likely difficult for many to grasp—many white folks, that is.

The stories told during the program were not just the dramatic ones we know from police shootings and other violence, but more about how ordinary human encounters with white people, police yes but also neighbors and fellow shoppers and many others, too often turn out to be painful and angering, if not dangerous, for the person or persons of color who are involved. This is part of their daily living, their everyday lives, in the United States of America. They have to live each day knowing, yes knowing, something ugly can, and probably will, happen.

michael-hayesSometimes, police or others get it right, as here  in a news report about a young Black businessman in Memphis, Michael Hayes, but the initial action—a white woman calling police about the man at a boarded up house across the street, and continuing verbal outbursts even after the police verify his identity and his legitimate purpose in being in her neighborhood—is very common and at least painful and often dangerous for the person of color.

This story, and many from the MSNBC program, and others I read often in the media, have caused me to examine my own history of unconscious or inadvertent, or even intentional or at least obvious, racist behavior.

Recently, while walking our dog, I encountered a group of young Black men, and I was surprised to realize I felt some anxiety. I thought to myself, why do I feel this? They were a group of friends—hard to tell if there were high school or college students, perhaps both—who are enjoying joking and jiving. Then, my mind flashed back to an incident in Detroit from my childhood.

Bleazby's store Detroit

Bleazby Brothers, Detroit

My father and I (age five or six) had driven into Detroit to pick up my aunt (my mother’s older sister) for Thanksgiving dinner at our home in Milford. She worked in the city during the winter months for a gift store (she also worked for them in the summer in a northern Michigan community when the store catered to the many tourists). When in Detroit she lived at a downtown hotel near the store (the picture below makes it look very glamorous).

He parked right in front of the hotel. I waited in the front seat—I think it was 1952 when I was six years old—while my father went up the steps to the hotel to collect my aunt. He was gone a short time.

But in that time, an older Black (we would have said Negro) man opened the rear hatch of our station wagon and started to climb in. I was startled; I am not sure I had time to feel much fear.

My father came out with my aunt, waved to me, and then saw what was happening. He left my aunt standing on the steps while he raced down yelling at the man to get out of the car. When my father got to the back of the car, the man climbed out, mumbling words I could not hear. He left, giving a slight bow to my father.

Madison-Lenox Hotel

This is the hotel, now demolished (as so much has been in Detroit)

By now, my aunt had gotten to the car, and climbed in the back seat. My father sat in the driver’s seat. He asked me if I was okay. I said yes.

My aunt said, “Well, I’m not okay. That is outrageous” (I cannot remember her precise words, but these feel right). “That Negro (I don’t think she used the ugly “N-word” but I am not sure) needs to be arrested. Bob (speaking to my father), you should immediately call the police.”

“Well, Grace” (my aunt’s name), I am not going to do that. I think he meant no harm. It is bitter cold out and he had no coat or hat, only a thin shirt and pants. I think he was trying to get warm” (again, not my father’s precise words, but I think close).

“But,” continued my aunt, “Robin could have been killed. Don’t you care?”

“That’s enough,” my father said, his voice moving into a range I knew meant he was angry. “Of course, I care, and if Robin had been in real danger I would be doing that. In my judgment he was not at much risk. Besides, I don’t want this to create ugly feelings in Robin.”

My aunt started to speak again, but my father cut her off. “We will say no more about it, unless Robin has anything he wants to say.” I remained silent, as we all did the rest of the way home (an hour or so). I remember it was an uncomfortable ride.

Later, my mother asked me how I felt. She said Daddy had told her what happened. I told her I was okay. I don’t remembering acknowledging any fear or anxiety. She told me that neither she or my father would ever let me be harmed. I said I knew that.

I have thought of this over the years. It was my first encounter with a Black person (this is before we moved to the country and had Black neighbors (as I recounted in the previous post). How much has it affected my perceptions and reactions?

As I have acknowledged before, my father showed no signs of racist thinking or behavior (until I learned later about his ugly feelings toward Native Americans). In fact, his actions and comments in this incident are consistent with his voice on the subject of white attitudes toward Black people.

At the same time, however, he never engaged me in any dialogue on the subject, never sought to share one-on-one with me his own views and beliefs. He surely did not prepare me for a racist world.

And my aunt, who I cherished and who was in some ways like a second mother to me, was both a fearful woman and quite judgmental. Over the years, I heard her say some unpleasant things about others—not just Black people but others outside her circle.

So, here I am, a 71-year-old white man (65 years later), feeling anxiety when I encounter a group of laughing young Black men who make space for me on the sidewalk as we pass, even some nodding at me and looking admiringly at our dog.

Will it never end?

And I know the answer, at least for me, is to get it out, admit my prejudices and fears, trace and uncover my history, “scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses” (as suggested by poet Alberto Caeiro in my previous post), in order to undo the damage done to me and to help others do the same. I expect there will be more paint to remove, and I pray I will do it whenever I see it.

What about you?

I repeat my invitation: Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible.  I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net