When Do I Use My White Voice?

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.

Whose Land Is It, Anyway? Part 3

Baalbek,_Holy_Land,_ca._1895.jpg  wikimedia org
wikimedia.org

[A continuing exploration of the painful situation in Israel/Palestine; see two earlier posts, “Whose Land Is It Anyway? and “Whose Land Is It, Anyway? Part 2]

Land, for many, if not for most, people can be a loaded term. In one sense, it is ground beneath our feet, the ground on which our home stands or the ground on which we raise a garden, or the ground on which our town or city stands, or the ground of our state or nation–a physical “thing” of soil and rocks and sand and muck.

In another sense, however, it is something less tangible and more emotional–and thus very powerful. Land is for many not only about where we stand or sit, but where our heart, our soul, feels at rest and even at peace (while guns may be firing all around us). Land is home, that is, a particular piece of land, a particular patch of ground, is home, is where we belong.

Private_Road_Dead_End_Landowners_Only_Sign_large.jpg  salagraphics com
salagraphics.com

And because we belong there, it is easy to begin to believe, to know, that that ground, that land, belongs to us, belongs to me and the people with whom I identify and among and by whom my identity is forged and maintained. Of course, land in the tangible sense is finite, there is only so much land on the globe, and it cannot expand. Thus, it often comes to pass that we, or some others, say, out of what seems like necessity (because there is not enough room for everyone), “if this is our land, then it cannot also be their land.”

As I wrote in Part 2 of this series (see link above), this became the situation in the United States as regards the conflict between European settlers and their offspring on the one side and the native peoples already here on the other.

There is another story about land and conflict that is well-known, and powerfully formative, for many of us, namely the mission of the ancient Hebrews to take possession of the land they were promised by their God. It is a story that begins with Abram who becomes Abraham as he follows God’s direction and whose son and his sons and beyond them get the people to Egypt where, alas, they become slaves. And then their God, the God whose true name is not to be said by humans, called Y H W H (Hebrew has no vowels, but often pronounced YahWay, more or less, and often written today as Yahweh), best translated from the ancient Hebrew as “I AM WHO I AM” (see Exodus 3:14-15), seeing their oppression and distress, told them to leave Egypt and go to a new land, a land of milk and honey. This is the Exodus, as inspiring a story as any people could want, the story on which other oppressed peoples have grounded their own struggles and journeys for liberation ever since.

Exodus route a possible way lds org
One idea of the route of the Exodus lds.org

The Hebrews wander for 40 years and many die. Many also are born. It is this people, those who were slaves in Egypt and their offspring, who, without the leader who brought them out of Egypt, enter the new land, their land, the land promised by their God.

There was a problem however. People were already living there. So, according to biblical texts, the Hebrews were told, by God, to drive them out, to make room for the keeping of the divine promise. These peoples, maybe native to the land or maybe they too came from somewhere else and claimed the land, were often called Canaanites (and there were other peoples as well).

According to the Book of Joshua, the Hebrews under his leadership bested the Canaanites, killing many of them and driving out the rest to settle in other locales. This is the same Joshua who led the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the slaughter of all its people.

archaeological dig alluae ae
alluae.ae

However, much of this story is now in doubt. Archaeologists have dug extensively throughout the region and there is good reason to doubt the historicity of much of the conquest. It is even possible that those we call Hebrews who came into the land were people already living in Canaan. And it seems clear that many of these Canaanites were incorporated into Israel (seemingly totally “melted” into that pot without retaining any part of their previous identity).

Of course, facts discovered by later scholars do not eliminate the power of the narrative to shape history. Most of us read biblical stories without intellectual and historical companions at hand. And we have to remember that land is more than ground, that it also is the emotional, filial and familial, and national, bonds buried deep in the ground–and that history is more than facts.

Robert Allen Warrior pbs org
Dr. Robert Allen Warrior pbs.org

In view of the persistent power of the narrative, some Native American liberation theologians, most notably Robert Allen Warrior, have raised issue with using the Exodus story as a master narrative, or template, for the liberation of oppressed peoples. He writes,

…the narrative tells us that the Canaanites have status only as the people Yahweh removes from the land in order to bring the chosen people in. They are not to be trusted, nor are they to be allowed to enter into social relationships with the people of Israel. They are wicked, and their religion is to be avoided at all costs. –from Warrior’s essay, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians”

canaanite_tribes soniclight com
soniclight.com

Why is this so important to Warrior and other native writers? As people descended from those living on, thriving in, this land when Europeans arrived and began their push to own all that land, they see themselves as Canaanites. Thus they see not only liberation but also conquest, with themselves as the conquered.

As we go forward on this journey of wrestling with the contemporary question of Israel/Palestine, “whose land is it, anyway?” all the layers of that ancient story (and the subsequent historical archaeology discoveries)–and the interplay of liberation and conquest–must echo in, and touch, our thoughts.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Whose Land Is It, Anyway? Part 2

My focus in this series, Whose Land Is It, Anyway, is Israel and Palestine. However, I do not come to this concern as a blank slate. I have history, we all have history, some of which does not directly involve this holy and sacred land in the Middle East.

For me, there is other holy land, too–as a citizen of the United States, there is the land comprising the 50 states.  For people in other nations, they may well consider the land of their nation holy.

In fact, all land is holy, part of the divine Creation of which each of us is a part. Without the land of the earth to stand on we would not be.

Massasoit commons wikipedia org
Massasoit commons.wikipedia.org

The native people European explorers and settlers encountered in the Americas knew this truth in a deep and powerful way; it was a core belief on which they all lived. In fact, they rejected the idea than anyone could own land to the exclusion of others. The land belongs to all.

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit (leader of the Wampanoag in what is now Rhode Island; despite this quotation, he did sell land to the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony to keep the peace)

Against this vision of common wealth, resources shared for the good of all, immigrants from other places arrived, many of them wanting to create a new life very different from their former ones, including the real possibility that they could finally own land on which to live and even work. No longer would only a few rich, often titled, persons own land, but everyone, or at least many, could own land, too.

westward expansions of US solpass org
solpass.org

There were inevitable clashes, the newcomers wanting what the natives already had, namely land, and the natives sensing a threat to their ability to continue to live in traditional ways. And as the numbers of immigrants swelled, so did the demand for the land.

What began on the east seaboard became inevitably a push all the way to the west coast, from Atlantic to Pacific. In between were many battles, even real wars, between the increasingly dominant power of the U.S. Government and a land-voracious society on the one side and increasingly desperate native tribes and leaders on the other.

American Exceptionalism 1872 painting by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn com
“Manifest Destiny” painting by in 1872 by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn.com

Manifest Destiny, the belief that not only could the United States conquer the entirety of land between the coasts but also was called to do so by divine Providence, became the rallying cry. This nation was understood to be ordained to take possession of all it could see between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Land became the commodity and the native people who sat on it became the victims of an overwhelming power, forced to retreat on to reservations where they were told they could keep their native customs (of course, it is not easy to be a hunting and gathering people without large expanses of land).  Most of the time, the promises made to the natives were not kept, certainly when those promises got in the way of settlers claiming the land they wanted.

Today, Native Americans struggle to retain their identity, some still living on reservations and others integrating more into the wider society.

American Indian and Alaska Native Lands in the US one of many feathers com
oneofmanyfeathers.com

And the land? It is still here, more polluted in many cases, and much of it far more densely populated (as well as much still open space) and all of it is “owned” by someone–according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Report in 2007, about 60 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned. The Federal Government owns 29 percent of the land base, mostly in the West. State and local governments own nearly 9 percent, and Indian trust land accounts for about 2 percent.

The natives never claimed to own it, but they did claim to live on it and from it. Many no longer live on reservations and are part of the majority society (even as many of them retain identities as native peoples). But the part on which they can live in community more as their ancient teachings guide them is very small.

Whose land is it, then?

The answer seems simple: those who control access to the land own the land.

And yet rarely, if ever, was a full and fair price paid to the natives. They may not have wanted to sell, but perhaps we could claim some moral high ground if we finally paid what we said it was worth.

I leave this very simple version of the story at this point, inviting the reader to reflect on the value of land and people, and how we are called to live in peace with all.

How can we find peace standing on holy, yet so often bloodied, ground?

 

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrimage Home

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness
flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5
pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map
simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map
potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.

Of Bombs and Massacres

Political rhetoric often gets in the way of facts, not to mention reason and logical thought.

Ted Cruz
Texas Senator Ted Cruz bbc.com

Texas Senator Ted Cruz–wanting to establish his bona fides  as the toughest of the tough against ISIL–proposed “carpetbombing” the terrorist group into oblivion, suggesting that with enough bombs the desert might glow.

However, Cruz misuses the term “carpetbombing,” when he suggests not that we level the ISIL capital but rather bomb where the troops are. This is not carpetbombing–it is targeted bombing, which the United States and its allies are already doing. Carpet bombing is what the United States and Britain did to Dresden, Germany in World War II, flattening the city and its people.

Dresden one year after the bombing
People boarding a tram in Dresden one year AFTER the bombing that left the city mostly destroyed. news.bbc.co.uk

Another word for carpetbombing could be “massacre.” As I read about Cruz’s proposal I thought back to two episodes of “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” Jonathan and I watched recently. Entitled “Washita,” it involves a re-telling of the complete destruction of an encampment of Cheyenne by troops led by then Lieutenant Colonel George Custer in 1868.

Washita massacre
hubpages.com

At the time, this battle was seen as a great victory over the Cheyenne, many of whom were resisting being moved onto reservations–and it restored Custer’s reputation as a military hero, ten months after he had been stripped of his rank and command for desertion and mistreatment of his troops.

There is one problem, however. The encampment was entirely populated by peaceful Cheyenne, including Chief Black Kettle who promoted peaceful relations with the government and settlers. The entire camp was on reservation land where the people had settled after being promised safety by the local Army commander. There was a white flag flying from one of the dwellings, indicating a desire to avoid conflict.

Within a few hours of the early morning raid, begun while the village was still sleeping, 103 Cheyenne braves were killed, including Black Kettle and his wife, and many other women and children. Some braves escaped and fought back, but in the end nothing was left.

custer.over-blog.com
custer.over-blog.com

This is how carpetbombing looks up close and personal. Of course, it is demoralizing, one could say terrorizing, to many of those who remain–which is what Custer and his boss, General Philip Sheridan, wanted, in order for more native Americans to move onto reservations.

But it also creates deep resentment and anger in others, which is, I suspect, what such action would produce in the Middle East. The loss of innocent life would be a great recruitment gain for ISIL and other extemist groups.

However, I imagine it would make Senator Cruz, and presumably others, feel good about his leadership skills, believing that toughness is the main ingredient . . . if we are just tough enough, violent enough, mean enough, these ugly people will either cave in or be destroyed.

This is what fear induces, unless it is coupled with reason and intelligence. Public policy rooted in fear, flavored in shrillness and hyperbole, is invariably bad policy, producing reactions and counter-reactions that leave the world in a worse place than before.

Senator Cruz, like Mr. Trump, is well educated–Cruz after all his talk and actions about being a political outsider, is a Harvard Law School grad and served as a clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist–but in his drive to win the presidential nomination seems willing to sacrifice accuracy in speaking, not to mention thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of innocent lives.

Caveat emptor.