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Staying Connected When Our Children Are Dying

Ferguson MarchLast 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.
Heart is a Muscle - from blacklivesmatter.tumblr
Enough.
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?


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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.


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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.

 

 


‘Art’ as Violence against Black Women’s Bodies

The image of a white woman laughing as she slices the genitals on a cake of a black woman’s body went viral yesterday. As the white woman (Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth) cuts into the cake, the head of the Black woman (Afro-Swedish man Makode Linde in blackface) screams in pain and the white people laugh.

There have been a variety of responses including:

Plus a variety of comments, from men who complain that male circumcision is just as bad [I can't even respond to this] to men who laud the “art” as “genius” for revealing the white elite at their most gruesome.

My own response was immediate: This is sexual violence against Black women. To applaud this as art is to dismiss the reality of violence against Black women and the way that this public performance reinforces violence to Black women as normal. There’s racism and sexism both, but the sexual violence in each is what I see.

I think that Kenyan artist and activist Shailja Patel is right to label it a “pornography of violence”.

The Crunk Feminist Collective, a WOC group, asks if the artist bothered to ask women survivors of female genital mutilation what they thought of his work.

Womanist blogger Renee Martin had a strong response that I want to quote here:

Cutting into a woman’s body even symbolically is violent. To watch as these White women laughed and consumed cake, supposedly out of concern for a problem that does not happen to them, belittles the struggle to end the horror of FGM. The fact that the cake is a red velvet cake underscores the violence as the red symbolizes blood. Hasn’t enough Black blood been spilled in the name of White supremacy and patriarchy?”

“I felt pain looking at that cake. It leaves me speechless and unable to articulate the hurt. That this was done by a supposed liberal group of White women comes as no surprise, because there is a long history of White people claiming to be concerned with the plight of people of colour, even as they work to support and strength White supremacy.”

I’ve been working on a paper about Hagar and Sarah in the biblical story and thinking about relationships between Black and white women. I’ve been thinking about how white women betray Black women. I’ve been thinking about how white and Black women can be (and are) not just friends or allies but lovers.

I can’t get enough “academic” distance to see this as art, because the mutilation of the body of a woman is violence. As a lesbian, the image of a woman’s body isn’t just a reflection of my own body, but is the image of my Beloved. And as a white woman, I have to see myself in the minister’s body, too, in her hand on the knife, and ask: what would I have done? what am I doing?


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