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When Talking About Race Hurts

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,
Liz


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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.


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?


Doing the Work, Part 1

You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.

It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core. 

I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.

But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.

I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?

I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)

“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.

What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?

A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.

My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.

Where does it come from, this need to make it right?

I have to make it better for myself.

I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?

I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.

And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:

Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the

BODY OF OUR MOTHER.

You can’t contain her.

She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.

Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.

None of it is hopeless.

All of it is worthwhile.

Don’t stop.

Don’t be quiet.

Step up, speak out, keep moving.

This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.


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