I’ve been challenged recently to hear that some of what I’m sharing on Facebook is experienced as hurtful or polarizing. I’ve been thinking deeply about this, trying to sort it out, and want to share some thoughts.
I think part of what’s happening is that it is hard to stop racism. Racism isn’t just about the system out there: the US government, global imperialism, etc. The system is also inside us. Which means at least two things are happening when we talk about race:
1) Power is being challenged/changed and it doesn’t feel good.
When my friend Kathleen Saadat answers the question, “where do white allies fit in?” by saying “if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me,” white folk may feel OUCH. From my point of view, what I see Kathleen doing is resisting racism (in general and within the question).
She’s resisting the racism that happens when black people take care of white people by making us feel good about ourselves. If she had answered with “here’s what you need to do,” whites would have added that to our task list and felt good about being able to help. And that would perpetuate the problem. Because that helping is how racism works…if the struggle for black liberation is only (or primarily) the task of black people, and white people pitch in here and then but never challenge ourselves to change how we’re part of the system, then the system within us continues.
Because we are the system, changing the system means changing ourselves…changing something inside us. For me racial justice work is spiritual work, transformation work. An ouch is an invitation, an opportunity to sit with feeling hurt and reflect on my feelings without getting defensive and shutting down and blaming or shifting the conversation elsewhere. When I feel confused (which happens often), it helps me to pray or meditate, to notice how I’m afraid and remember that I’m loved, and to try to let go of not making mistakes and figuring it all out.
2) I think another thing that’s happening is that whites are being judged and judging ourselves. Another article I shared recently by Rachel Hackenburg was in the format of the “dear white people” letters making their rounds on the interwebs. Setting aside obvious rudeness and name-calling (never okay), I’m curious about the ways our feelings are hurt reading these. Many of these, like Rachel’s piece, are judgmental.
As we start to realize that we are the system – the system lives within us – we name, label, distance and judge that part of us. White folk are trying to find a way to call other whites to accountability for what we’re doing wrong and to stop doing it. This is hard because what whites are doing wrong is so deeply embedded into our way of being in the world that it feels like we’re being told we ARE wrong: our approach, our ideas, even our questions are bad.
That’s not true. White people are not bad people. We’re beloved and worthy and complicit and well-meaning. We’ve learned, at a very deep level, a way of being in the world that perpetuates an injustice we want to stop. So we feel stuck. We feel afraid that talking about race means confessing a bunch of sins we haven’t committed, or even worse, sins we committed against our will and are powerless to stop.
But even if we feel despair, it isn’t hopeless. I promise. We can do this. We ARE doing it. Our discomfort and hurt feelings and confusion are evidence that we are engaged with the conversation, and if we can not take it too personally and sit with it, it will get easier. It will get easier to be uncomfortable and confused and hurt, because we’ll remember that power is changing and we are the system and so we are changing and change is HARD.
I whole-heartedly believe that it is possible to talk about race and be loving and kind. I know this because some incredible mentors in my life have been (and continue to be) kind to me when I am excruciatingly vulnerable, when I ask well-meaning but racist questions, when I make mistakes.
My friend Vanessa Timmons says our spiritual task is to meet change with the best of ourselves. Let’s bring our best. Let’s be kind and courageous and forgiving of mistakes and committed to challenging injustice and dismantling racism.
I’d love to talk more about this, privately, or publicly on facebook or my blog, so that we can learn together.
Yours in love and struggle,
Last weekend as I left the house for church, I slowed down because the boys at the end of our street were playing basketball.
They stood back as I passed, and a racial epithet – one my father used frequently through my childhood – leapt into my mind. Annoyed at myself, I pushed it away, thinking as I did so that the “boys” were actually young men. Thinking of them as young black men made me nervous, a white woman paranoia that I’ve learned to name as racism. Pushing THAT thought away, I thought of Ferguson, and felt a wash of shame and despair.
Then there was traffic, and my worry about being prepped to teach Sunday school, and my thoughts moved on, until Monday, when I walked into the ladies bathroom at work and heard an unexpected noise. It took me a long minute before I realized that the sound was a breast pump: a female co-worker in the wide stall at the end of the row was pumping her milk.
I’d been holding it together in my new job until that moment. It’s been three weeks since I left my daughter at home to work full-time. Her absence is a deep ache in my body. The first week I felt so disconnected, like I was in a dream living someone else’s life. That has faded, but I still have a strict two minute limit on tears.
But in that moment, it hit me hard: the ache for my daughter, and immediately on the heels of that, I thought of Mike Brown, of Mike’s mother, and all the people who love him. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod:
They are killing our children. Our children.
Heartbroken, I cried in the bathroom, letting the whirr and hiss of the pump cover my sobs. Eventually I stopped, splashed water on my face, readjusted my armor and went back to my desk. I need to keep this job.
On the drive home that night, I let myself think about them again: first my daughter, and then Mike. I remembered the bit I know of history, and it felt like this. I know where my people are, in that picture, I know whose side my ancestors are on. And I thought:
We are killing our children.
And in that moment, I was suddenly so F—ING FURIOUS I could barely drive.
Enough of your voice in my head, Father.
Enough of pushing away kneejerk paranoia and shame about feeling it.
Enough of there being nothing I can do.
Haven’t I learned, at least a little, that the way to meet shame is with courage and responsibility?
WE are killing our children and we had better well f—ing stop. RIGHT NOW.
What is my church doing about this? Who do I know in Missouri, do I know anyone, who could I call?
I let the fury carry me into plans and actions, and I wondered:
Why did it take me SO LONG? A week of reading the news on facebook, late at night after my daughter was finally tucked into bed, but none of it really penetrating, none of it connecting with my heart, moving me into action.
Maybe I’m preoccupied…new job, big transition. Maybe I’m desensitized…there have been so many deaths, not only from police violence but the war on Gaza’s children, the refugee children at our borders. And maybe it is uncomfortable and easier for me to act as if it isn’t my children, our children, who are being murdered.
This post is to help me remember to stay connected, to stay present, to not let change and privilege lull me into isolation.
How are you responding to the systemic racism of police violence? What helps you stay connected?
We recently celebrated a Thanksgiving service at my church. As we sung our way through several hymns, I felt more troubled than grateful. The words to the classic Christian standard Great is Thy Faithfulness stuck in my throat. I couldn’t sing: “all I have needed thy hand hath provided…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
My stomach clenched, my spirit rebelled. I wondered bitterly about people, many of them members of my community, who don’t have all that they need. Is God unfaithful to those people? And what about the ways that God’s so-called provision or bounty or harvest are used as cover words to mask oppressive systems of inequality built and maintained through institutionalized violence, theft and betrayal?
Recently I attended a teach-in at Portland State University on the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving. We watched the video The Truth About Thanksgiving. I learned about the enslavement of indigenous peoples and a Thanksgiving “celebration” in 1637 that included the murder of over 700 men, women and children, about which the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford later wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood…and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands.”
As I sat in church and watched my young daughter join the other children in listening to a story about the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans, I worried.
I worried about the story we are re-creating with each telling.
I worried about how we praise God for providing for “us”…who is the us?
During my thesis research, I learned much from the work and writing of Rev. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University. Dr. West argues that white dominance is perpetuated when we ignore racial realities, “pretending they are not relevant in certain kinds of social interactions, like the dynamics within Christian worship services.”*
She asserts that “racialized understandings of ‘us and them’ can be strongly conveyed in prayers about those who are ‘less fortunate than we are’ or projects to reach out and help ‘them’.”**
So, for example, in our prayers for thanksgiving, how do we distinguish between the blessings that we receive as beneficiaries of a legacy of genocide and colonization and the blessings that we receive as “children of God”? How do we reinforce an “us” as aligned with the “pilgrims” and a “them” as aligned with those indigenous “enemies”?
Language matters. It reinforces and remakes reality. Is PILGRIM – a word which means a penitent, humble traveler seeking Spirit – really the right word for a group of invaders, murderers and thieves?
How many of our hymns, our prayers, our common liturgical language reinforce not only a particular view of the Holy as a god who sanctions the invasion of promised lands and murder of that land’s inhabitants, but a view of ourselves – Christian churchgoers – as innocent inheritors of the “bounty” of God’s blessing?
If we claim, as my church does, to advocate for justice, then we need to busy ourselves with the work of reconciliation. Many indigenous people today celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, a day of “remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”
I believe that A Day of Mourning is not for indigenous people alone. We who are Euro-American descendants need to mourn the crimes of our ancestors and actively work for an end to racism. We need to critically examine our language and the romantic stories we tell about pilgrims: about the size of their boat, the nature of their courage, or the pureness of their intent. Continuing to tell the story as we have been is an act of racism, but we can change the way we celebrate, and the stories we tell.
*See Dr. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 117.
** Ditto, page 118.
(My daughter’s birth day was Monday, but this post has taken me three days to write.)
Today, July 15, is my daughter’s first birthday. I want to write her a letter filled with tenderness and joy. Instead, as I sit down to write, all I can think of is Trayvon Martin and the verdict announced this weekend.
When I first heard of Travyon Martin’s death, I remembered this poem by Audre Lorde. I’m not shocked and outraged at the verdict. I’m persistently furious and deeply ashamed.
When I presented my thesis last month, I opened by asking: “why does a white girl care about race?”
And I answered, after giving my family history, with this: “Because these crimes (murder/genocide/hatred) were committed in my name and to secure my future, as a white woman, a German, and an American.”
I feel that again today. When an act of racism is committed, it is the responsibility of all white people to take responsibility and respond.
Tim Wise rightly says that our white children cannot be innocent or naive. We, white parents, need to teach our children.
There is so much for me to celebrate today: my daughter’s mischievous, intelligent smile, her persistence in distributing the contents of the lower kitchen cabinets, her loud and relentless joy at seeing the kitty cat, her laughter.
A friend recently asked me what I loved most about this, my first year of motherhood. An image immediately sprang to mind: I love the way my daughter buries her face in my neck. (Our daughter has a happy personality and loves meeting people, but on the odd occasion when she is either over tired or afraid, she clings to my body to shelter her.)
Today as I celebrate my daughter, I am thinking of shelter, and all that we need protection from.
I think of the mothers over the centuries who have protected their children with their bodies, their words, their lives. I think of the mothers who have not protected their children. I think of all the children we — all of us, as a community — were unable to save. I think of the ones we — white people — murdered, the ones whose names we forgot (on purpose), the stories we swallowed in silence and denial (“it’s not about race”).
Last week at the Oregon State Hospital, administrators shut down the sweat lodge used by the Native patients and fired the Native American social worker who served the community. The reason they gave? Security. Security.
As I reflect on the Zimmerman trial, what stands out for me is that Zimmerman lived in a gated community. Siege mentality.
Parker describes it as a kind of disembodiment. She says whites fear our own violence, and project this fear onto others.
Thinking about racism and white fear this way, I began to see it as a kind of spiritual illness: a projection of our inability to be grounded in our bodies and to treat the bodies of those human beings who do not share our body with utmost respect.
As I’ve read the furious flurry of online comments on various news articles responding to the verdict, I’ve wondered: Would those people say the same to my face? In my presence? After I called them out, and they could see, in my stance, the hand set firmly on my hip, that I was intolerant of their racism?
And how could I, in the physical presence of Travyon’s family, not weep with grief and shame? How would I not reconsider my quick, defensive words in the presence of their brown bodies, reminding me, with their skin, that it isn’t just about Travyon?
It is about centuries-upon-centuries of the sacrifice of brown bodies to secure a sense of safety for whites. It is the over-incarceration of African-Americans in this country, and the neglect of justice for Native women facing domestic violence and abuse.
Throughout my studies in spirituality and religion, I have realized again and again that our bodies matter. They matter deeply.
Our spiritual quests are struggles to discover what it means to be human, and to live deeply and whole-heartedly so that others may live too. We need one another, not only in a metaphysical sense (interconnection) or in an economic sense (global village) but in a deeply physical, heart-beat sense. We need each other the way we need TREES: to breathe. To exist.
What will my daughter learn from me, a white woman, about black men? What will she learn about fear and protection, security and shelter?
I hope to teach my daughter to love her own body fiercely, and to find security in whole-hearted, respectful connection, rather than in fear. And because my daughter is already learning, alert and watchful in her Mommy’s presence, I nurture and name this for myself:
I resist the crimes that have been committed in my name and to secure my safety. I name them evil and denounce them. And I reach out, open-hearted, to claim the beloved community that is my home, my only shelter.
Part of my current angst is to retrieve and unpack the cultural baggage I have around my spiritual beliefs. I imagine big heavy suitcases covered with the customary black scuff marks that indicate multiple trips through baggage claim. Some of mine probably have tattered “Gate Check” tags because I keep trying to drag them on board while the flight attendants shake their heads and everyone behind me in line sends me poisonous glances.
Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But you get the idea.
I wonder if part of our society’s unconscious racism is that we think only indigenous people have a cultural spirituality. Some wanna-be-native white people natter on about indigenous connection to “the land” (cue the soaring music) and the “ancestors” (pan a shot of firelight) and the “animals” (zoom out on moose, elk, salmon). I don’t mean to minimize the differences between indigenous religion and euro-american religion.
George Tinker says:
Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.
When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet.
(Source: “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians”, Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 105-125)
The thing is, while we need to take responsibility for them, those western/scientific/enlightenment categories aren’t all we white people have. The lie of whiteness is that all white people are the same, that our pale skin strips us of our connection to the land, ancestors, and animals of our origins.
Maybe I feel this way because I have a strong connection to land, more specifically, to trees. I have seen plenty of nice trees in my life, but the pine forests of my Oregon home ring in me like nothing else. I thought I was just romanticizing it until I went back to my ancestral home. Near Gdansk/Danzig, Poland where my grandparents are from, the forests meet the sea. The rhodies bloom among the trees near the house in Lamstedt, Germany where my father was born. My body remembers.
I went to Marienkirche in Gdansk where my Tante Ursula remembers praying as a child. It was nice but it didn’t ring in me. The forests rang in me. The sea rang in me. I am still navigating my way through what this means, but my suspicion is that when we started writing big thick theology books and stopped praying to Our Mother, we lost something. I’m a good Protestant who adores systematic theology. All that organization. Tidy, neat boxes. It makes for good theologizing… and empty prayer and stale worship.
So that’s what I mean about my cultural baggage. My baggage isn’t actually my culture: it’s the veener of whiteness that masquerades as mine. That baggage includes believing that I don’t really come from anywhere or have any place, so it is ok for me to steal someone else’s land or religion or both when land and religion are one interconnected thing. I don’t want to steal, or let my community steal in my name. I want an authentic relationship to land and religion, however messy, complicated, guilty and confusing it might be.
The forests ring in me. The sea rings in me. Mama God knows my name. I just keep listening, letting that sound echo its way through my body, following it back. If I follow it long enough, maybe I’ll find my way clear to a kind of being and believing that isn’t just good for me but good for the world.
How does your culture influence or intersect with your spiritual beliefs and practices? I’d love to hear from you!