a blog about waking up, staying present, and taking action

Mourning the Crimes of Thanksgiving

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.”

Source: http://nearemmaus.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-genocide-and-reconciliation-with-native-americans/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?

Rev. Dr. Traci West

Rev. Dr. Traci West

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?

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

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.


Beloved Community is Our Only Security

shutterstock_106922246community(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.

Shelter

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”).

Security

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.

White theologian Rebecca Parker talks about growing up isolated, alienated by the false innocence created by her religion regarding race and her culpability in racism.

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.

Presence

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.

Bodies

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.

 

 


Cultural Baggage on Spiritual Journeys

BaggagePart 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.

forestMaybe 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!


Checking the ‘Race’ Boxes

Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.

While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.

What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.

Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority.  Isn’t it important to be visible?

I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”

If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?

As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.

After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.

What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.


Raised to be White

While I’m writing about white supremacy in Christianity for school, I’m also caring for our baby daughter (now nearly seven months old). So as I’m reading about how we become white, I can’t help but think of how she is becoming white, even at this young age.

We talk about gender in our house and how we influence that for our daughter Elena, from the proverbial pink and blue blanket dilemma to baby nail polish (not yet), ear piercing (maybe) and fluffy dresses with layers of crinoline (yes!). We’re intentional about ethnicity, from celebrating the German-American traditions of my family to learning Spanish, choosing bilingual toys and embracing Elena’s Latino heritage.

When she’s older, I will teach Elena that race is a socio-political construct, a tool of white supremacy, and not a biological fact. But until she can understand “socio-political construct,” what else am I teaching her? How am I passing on to my daughter MY white superiority in ways I don’t recognize?

I wonder about things like:

  • Entitlement: these are “your toys,” “your kitty,” “your car”, “your house”, “your park”
  • Superiority: “you are the smartest girl ever!”, “you are the cutest in all the world”, “you are the best”
  • Centrality: The children in the book of poems I loved as a child are all pale-skinned, except for one brown boy. We have a book “Baby Colors” that teaches colors and has children with different “colors” of skin. How do these images reinforce race as a “biological fact” and white as “standard”?
  • Borders & Intimacy: We move through the world together, mama and baby. I know Ellie can feel how I relax or tense around strangers, how I am “too friendly” (in the way that white people are) with brown-skinned babies and their parents. All those unconscious ways I am white, I am teaching it all to her, without using words.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but my intuition says that I need to ask these questions. I’m aware, too, of the class status that gives me the free time to notice, ponder, and write this while still making it through the day.

I am, of course, concerned with making sure that our daughter sleeps, eats, plays, poops, cuddles, sings, and has all her physical, emotional and spiritual needs met. But one of those spiritual needs (in my world view) is the need to be whole. And I increasingly feel and know that whiteness is soul sickness, and I want my daughter to be healthy and free.

What do you think? Are there ways pale-skinned people can raise our kids to be less white? How do we do that?


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