Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

While I am certain I’ve been guilty of this in the past, one of my new pet peeves is white people who quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support positions he would have found offensive.  White people love to pretend his “I Have A Dream” speech with its color blind references to black and white children holding hands was the pinnacle of this thinking.  It was not.  If anything, it was one of his more gentle and measured speeches, missing some of his more pointed opinions on racism and white supremacy.  He was being polite.

Ironically, one of the more common ploys of racist white people is to critique black voices today with the words of Dr. King.  They will quote some snippet from a King speech and say, “If Black Lives Matter would only adopt the non-violent, non-confrontational approach of King, people (meaning themselves) would be more likely to listen to their complaints.”  Such complaints remind me of something Jesus is reported to have said two thousand years ago.

In the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in the shedding of the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”

Those words seem especially applicable to my experience in past couple of years.  If what Jesus says is true, we are far more likely to honor the words and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today than our ancestors did during his day.  Unfortunately, if what Jesus says is true, how we think and respond to voices of color in our day is probably synonymous to the hostility with which our ancestors responded to Dr. King.  We are them. Whether we realize it or not, we treat the prophetic voices today with the same apathy, disdain, resistance or anger with which our ancestors responded to the Civil Rights movement.

We saw this exposed a couple of weeks ago when many white people expressed moral outrage at a Muslim congresswoman – Rashida Tlaib – who said of the president, “Impeach the Motherfucker.”  I saw this dynamic at work after a Black Lives Matter protest in 2017, when many of my white peers were critical of chants of “Fuck the police.”

I mention those words intentionally, with the same intent as the words of Dr. King, or Rashida Tliaib or Black Lives Matter, to provoke us to think more deeply about what is truly offensive and what is really about silencing the voices of our present prophets.  According to Jesus, every generation says, “If we have lived in that day, we would have not taken part in the silencing of the prophets” even while silencing the prophets of their day.  Whether in Jesus’s day, during the 60s or today, these two things are certain.  Prophets always speak in a way that provoke.  Those in power always critique their tone.

Middle class whites are the people in power.  We may not be the 1%, but nearly everyone us is in the 5%.  We are the oppressor or at least the chief beneficiaries of oppression in this world.  We haven’t owned slaves and we may not have directly mistreated people of color, but much of our wealth was passed to us by ancestors who did.  We may not directly act to diminish the lives of others around the world, but we live in a country largely built on the exploitation of others.  So perhaps we can have some sympathy when the oppressed find our complaints about civility suspicious.

Let me be clear. Politeness is a privilege of the powerful and a requirement – by them – for the powerless. When the oppressors, or the beneficiaries of oppression, complain about the use of profane words, this is less an expression of moral outrage and more a defense of the status quo.  What really offends us?  The profanity or the exposure of an injustice we’d prefer to ignore.

Indeed, the complaints of the oppressor about tone and civility are always hypocritical, self-serving and ethically suspect.  The scribes and Pharisees were so offended by Jesus’ rhetoric.  After all, he called them the equivalent of Motherfucker.  That doesn’t mean his accusations weren’t valid.  Too often, our complaints about tone seem designed to distract attention from the legitimacy of an identified injustice.  We act as if Congresswoman Tlaib’s use of a profanity somehow justifies and excuses the treatment of Muslims by this administration, or that tolerating one profane chant by Black Lives Matter levels the scales after four hundred years of racial abuse.

Or, if we’re progressive, we argue strategy.  We complain that the profanities are counterproductive, that this approach allows people to discount a just cause.  We advocate for politeness, patience and process, never considering the possibility that they choose their words precisely because they’re tired of years of having their more measured complaints discounted.  While complaining strategy, we might want to examine the effectiveness of our own strategies.  Critiquing the emotionally passionate expressions of the oppressed might not be the best approach.

One of the first lessons in de-escalation training is too never tell an emotionally enraged person to “calm down.”  Indeed, to do so is to almost guarantee an even stronger emotional response.  Asking someone to calm down is more about our discomfort than their need to be heard.  The proper response to strongly expressed emotion is to reply, “I hear and share your sadness and anger over past and present injustice.”  An emotionally charged person wants to be heard and understood and not critiqued.

Our attempts to silence the complaints and profanities of the oppressed are akin to the rapist who demands his victim, “Shut up and enjoy it.”  While it might be strategically expedient for the rape victim to comply, a lack of resistance is not a moral requirement, especially when this passivity may be interpreted as permission and presented as such in a court of law.  Christine Blasey Ford was required to be polite and measured in her complaint of sexual assault while Brett Kavanaugh could be aggressive and ugly.

This is the paradox for the oppressed.  When the oppressed complain loudly, vehemently and even profanely about injustice, they are often criticized for their tone, even while those who patiently and politely advocate for justice have their absence of aggressiveness interpreted as a lack of urgency.  Dr. King understood this dilemma well.  Listen to his provocative words.

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”   

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” 

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

These are the words for which our ancestors rejected and ultimately killed Dr. King.  Note that they did so even though he spoke no profanities.  In actuality, the ability of people of color today to call the President a Motherfucker and tell the police to Fuck off may be a sign of progress rather than incivility.  What King had to say in the private, they can finally say more publicly. The oppressed have enough power to challenge the privilege of politeness, to demand that we listen and really hear.

Let me be clear.  Those of us for whom life has been privileged have no right to police the tone of those who’ve experienced oppressions we do not understand and for which we are partially to blame.  When we do so, we deserve their curses.  The swampy morass from which we condemn them is not the moral high ground we pretend.

After nearly sixty years, I have learned at least one thing.  When I encounter strong expressions of emotion, I do not focus on the words.  I try to listen for the deeper pain and loss those words represent.  I remember an often ignored story about Jesus.  Near the end of his life, when the forces that would kill him were gathering, he walked by a fig tree and reached up to pick some fruit.  Unfortunately, figs were out of season and he found none.  Jesus immediately cursed at tree.

I like that story.  It’s so human.  Though we don’t know what profanities Jesus used on that day, we do know this.  It wasn’t about the tree.

Jesus cursed in response the religious people of his day, who were more concerned about proprieties than poverty and injustice.  Jesus taught us that some things deserved to be cursed.

When Rashida Tlaib cursed a President who has systematically sought to marginalize, denigrate and harm Muslims, she was being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

When Black Lives Matter protesters curse the police for their systemic profiling, harassment and even murder of black folk, they are being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

Dr. King said it this way, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.  He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

When we are critical of those who curse in response to evil and oppression, we are not being good Christians or moral giants, we are scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites.

We’re being Motherfuckers and we need to stop.

Some things deserve to be cursed.

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When Rape Was Legal

When Rape Was Legal

I’ve spent the last five years studying the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States.  There was much I didn’t know.  I read of the brutality of industrial slavery, something far different than the “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of slavery from my childhood.  I discovered – that when it comes to freeing black people – the Civil War was a splendid failure, that the plight of blacks in America was even uglier after the Emancipation Proclamation.  I learned one black man or woman was lynched every week during the one hundred years after the Civil War.  I uncovered countless stories of white violence and oppression.  After five years, I thought I could no longer be surprised by the moral depravity of white America.

I was wrong.

This past month, I’ve been researching the role of rape in sustaining slavery and racial oppression.  It’s a dimension of slavery seldom discussed – today or in the past.  In 1861, Southern diarist Mary Chestnut wrote, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.” Chestnut called this reality “the thing we cannot name.”

Unfortunately, one hundred and fifty years later, the rape culture of white America still remains largely unnamed.  If white women report high incidents of racial assault and harassment TODAY, what do we imagine was happening during a period of time when white men had absolutely no checks upon their ability to sexually assault and harass women of color?  If Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened men of his generation, repeatedly raped his slave, Sally Hemming, at the age of 14, we can safely assume the less enlightened were doing the same or worse. This unbridled ability to meet every sexual whim may better explain the resistance of white men to ending slavery than the often-offered economic incentive.  For most of American history, it has been legal for a white man to rape women of color.

While rape has been a common experience for many women, the plight of enslaved women was especially horrifying.  In her book – At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – Danielle McGuire chronicles this often-ignored aspect of the black experience.  She argues persuasively that ALL enslaved black women could expect to be raped and sexually assaulted from an early age, that their parents and husbands could do nothing to protect them and that in those instances where women resisted that the punishment was swift and harsh.  She exposes rape as a common strategy of white men for increasing their wealth – creating children they could eventually sell or monetize.  She documents growing evidence that some enslaved mothers would kill newly born daughters, unwilling to bring them into a rape culture they found so horrible.

Of course, we don’t have to speculate about what was happening to enslaved black women.  We have the accounts of escaped slaves about their mistreatment and sexual abuse.  As Mary Chestnut noted, everyone knew this was happening.  Indeed, Frederick Douglas made it one of the centerpieces of his speeches, reminding his northern listeners that his own birth was a product of rape.  Douglas made it clear that the immorality of slavery was not some philosophical abstraction, but a state that justified a multitude of immoral acts.  The slave that was seen as an economic tool was also seen as an object of sexual gratification.

The 1850 criminal trial of a black girl named Celia graphically illustrates how the rape of women and children of color was understood.  Bought by Robert Newsom at the age of 14, Celia was routinely raped by Newsom over the next five years, resulting in the birth of a child.  At the age of 19, Celia finally defended herself and killed Newsom.  For this act, she was charged with murder.  At her trial, though no one disputed the brutality of Newsom’s behavior, she was found guilty and hung by the State of Missouri.  The message from this nationally renowned case was clear.  Raping an enslaved person was legal.

Unfortunately, what was deeply ingrained in the American white male psyche – the sexual objectification of black women – did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, like lynching, rape was a commonly used weapon to enforce white supremacy and power throughout the one hundred years of Jim Crow.  In 1944, Rosa Parks – a decade before refusing to give up her seat on the bus – led an effort to arrest and convict six white men – Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble – for gang raping a black woman by the name of Recy Taylor.  Parks and others gathered irrefutable evidence of the crime, including testimony by the rapists.  However, two Alabama grand juries refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor, who died in 2017, never saw justice.

Yet when I speak of being surprised by my recent research, it is not the rape of enslaved women or the injustice of Jim Crow courts that shocked me.  Though it probably shouldn’t have, what I found most difficult to believe was that the first conviction of a white man for raping a woman of color was not until 1959 – one year before my birth.  In what is considered a landmark court case, four white men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – were convicted of raping Betty Jean Owens in the state of Florida.

I name these men intentionally.  “The thing that cannot be named” must be.  These men represent millions of white men who raped black women and children.  Indeed, it is likely that most white American families have rapists in their genealogy.  That they did so in a time when this behavior was ignored or excused is irrelevant.  That the behavior was taboo to discuss is evidence enough of its immorality.

When white people blithely suggest that black people need to get over the past, we do so because it allows us to ignore the shocking and the horrible.  Many black women today have been victims of a culture that defined their rape as a white privilege.  Many white men today, whether they realize it or not, were enculturated to see black women as sexual objects.  Acknowledging both of these realities is a necessary starting point in racial reconciliation.

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

I remember the first time I heard slavery identified as America’s original sin.  I was sitting in Rufus Burrow’s Christianity and Social Justice class in seminary.  The person listening to those words in 1988 was a much different person than I am today.  I was a conservative evangelical Christian raised in a rural white community in Southern Illinois.  As such, I remember my shock at both that assertion and its use of a theological concept I still thought sacred.  I wish I could say it jolted me out of my apathy toward racial injustice and into an exploration of racial history, but that would take an encounter with a three year old black girl in 2010.

This week, I stumbled upon an article about the recent death of James Cone, the most famous black liberation theologian in American history.  Honestly, until I read the article, I’d completely forgotten Cone and his once shocking accusations.  Cone wrote, “White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message.  Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology, but a theology of Antichrist.” Rereading those words thirty years after first hearing them, all I could say was, “Amen.”

Though I’m no longer religious and long ago concluded the Biblical idea of original sin was rather ridiculous, I think Cone’s use of the analogy is powerfully provocative.  Indeed, the idea of slavery as an original sin whose fruits and consequences have been passed on from generation to generation – in both white and black communities – seems more reasonable and defensible than the idea of evil originating in a man and woman disobeying God and eating an apple.

Ironically, in my discussions with my white peers about our racial history, I often hear the same language and arguments that eventually led me to abandon the idea of original sin.  Where is the justice in holding people guilty for the sins of their ancestors?  Shouldn’t each person be judged solely on their own behavior?  Isn’t it obvious that children are not born sinful, but are rather socialized into evil?  Shouldn’t our focus be in working for goodness and justice now, rather than on some mythological explanation of past evil?

There are two ironies here.  First, many of those arguing against any white culpability for racial injustice and inequity are also firm believers in the idea of original sin.  They, rather than I, should be arguing that white people can’t escape the taint of past sin, that we pass those sins and their consequences on from parent to child and that redemption and liberation can only come with repentance and reparation.  James Cone is correct.  When it comes to racial issues in America, if you are a theologically consistent white Christian, you should be a champion for white responsibility and reparations.

The second irony is more personal.  Though I long ago abandoned the idea of original sin as a good explanation for human evil, I find the idea of slavery as America’s original sin far more compelling.  I do so not from a theological perspective, but from a sociological one.  While children have to be taught to be racist, this indoctrination is passed on from generation to generation in systemic and unconscious ways.  These rationalizations originated in the need for white Americans to justify the obvious horrors of slavery.  In this sense, white people pass on the taint of defending slavery.  We also pass on the economic and social benefits – money and power – that originated in slavery.

I know how much white people want – when it comes to slavery – for the past be the past, to focus on working for goodness and justice now, rather than on acknowledgments of past racial injustice.  We want all that happened to black people to be forgiven and forgotten. We want to be freed from the burden of past transgressions.  To use another religious concept, we want redemption.

James Cone suggested such redemption cannot come easily.  He wrote, “I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

According to Cone, the lynching tree offers us a singular opportunity for both black and white people to understand their past.   In those trees, white people are forced to confront their past and present accommodations with racist evil and black people are reminded of their courage in the face of that racist oppression.  Like with the Christian cross, something horrible becomes a symbol of responsibility, reconciliation and redemption.  I suspect Cone was pleased with the recently opened National Memorial to those who were lynched.

However, having said all of this, I’m conflicted.  In my opinion, white American Christianity is unlikely to play a significant role in bringing racial reconciliation.  As an institution, it has been far more complicit in perpetuating and defending racism than challenging it.  If I had thought most Christians were serious about the liberation of the oppressed, I might still be one.  Like the prophets of old, I think James Cone was largely preaching to the wind, only remembered and honored after his death.

On the other hand, Cone’s reclaiming of commonly accepted Christian imagery reminds me of what the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, concluded.  He wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”  Our myths, religious and otherwise, tell far more about our societal psyche than our history.  They are the ways in which we communicate and interpret our lives together.

Something evil happened on the day the first black person was brought to America in chains.  That moment forever altered American history.  We cannot change that history, but we can choose the mythology we use to understand our shared past.  Will it be Confederate flags or memorials to those who were lynched?  Will it be “Gone With The Wind” or “Twelve Years A Slave?”  Will it be the Puritan work ethic or recognition of the labor of millions of enslaved black men and women?  Will it be the colorblind society or the multicultural nation?  Obviously, I think one set of myths more helpful than the other.

Understanding slavery as America’s original sin could help both whites and blacks put into words something we have so much trouble talking about.  It uses images and ideas we all understand.  It acknowledges a terrible past and explains our present difficulties. It reminds us that racial oppression twists both the oppressor and the oppressed, damaging all of our children.  It offers us a culturally honored solution – acknowledgment of injury, repentance and even forgiveness.

Since 1865, seven generations of white Americans have failed to adequately address the evils of racial subjection and discrimination, adding insult to injury, perpetuating rather than repairing damage, increasing the debt owed to people of color. We’ve passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren, postponing the day of reckoning, hoping all will be forgotten.  If Cone is right, until we see racial hostility and indifference as an ugly inheritance, we will pass it onto the next generation. If America’s original sin was slavery, it is long past time to liberate both white and black people from our shared curse.

We need to be free, free at last.

You Are Not Faster Than Usain Bolt

You Are Not Faster Than Usain Bolt

Note to my white self…

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

Usain Bolt is the fastest person in the world.  He has the fastest time in the 100 meters in recorded history, with a time of 9.58 seconds, or about 23 mph.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

If – in a race between you and Usain Belt – you started at the 95 meter mark, you would beat Usain Bolt across the finish line.  This does not make you the fastest person in the world.  This simply means you were able to rig the race in your favor.  Celebrating your victory and mocking Usain Bolt would be ridiculous.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

If you won that rigged race, this would not give you the right to give Usain Bolt advice on running. Telling him he needed to work harder would be laughable.  Telling him he needs to accept the rules of the race would be absurd.  Rejecting his complaints about your incredible head start as sour grapes would be ugly.  Refusing to change the rules would be unjust.

There is no world, regardless of how you rig the rules and celebrate your victory, where you are faster than Usain Bolt.  Such an assertion is insane.  Yet white people make such assertions about black people every day.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Indeed, many black people are superior to you in various ways.  Some are smarter.  Others are more hard working.  Many are more deserving of success and accolade.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Historic oppression has allowed you to accumulate $100 of wealth for every $5 of black wealth.  In society, you always have a 95% head start.  Therefore, you will always be more successful and affluent than a black person of equal intelligence, work ethic and character.  This does not make you better than that black person.  This simply means the race was rigged in your favor.  Celebrating your unfair advantage and critiquing black people is ridiculous.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

When you win the rigged race, this does not give you the right to give black people advice. Telling them they need to work harder is laughable.  Telling them they need to accept the rules of the race is absurd.  Rejecting their complaints about your advantage as sour grapes is ugly. Refusing to change the rules is unjust.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

There is no world, regardless of how the system has been rigged in your favor, where you are more deserving than a black person.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

The primary reason you refuse to address historic and systemic inequities is not because changing the rules is impossible.  You resist because you are afraid.  You are afraid of what would happen if the race were fair.  You are afraid of how much harder you would have to work without your advantage.  You are afraid of rules that truly level the playing field.  You are afraid of acknowledging the ugliness of the game you’ve been playing.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Standing at the finish line with your self-awarded gold medal is not impressive.

It is oppressive.

It is racist.

It is insane.

Beating Up On Black People

Beating Up On Black People

Note to my white self…

You know the rule.

You can say nearly anything about your siblings, but – if anyone else says those same things – those are fighting words.

Remember this rule in your Facebook posts, observations and general conversation about black people. Your opinions on black on black crime, rap music, marriage rates, black people using the N word, teenage pregnancy, the work ethic, entitlement or a host of other alleged issues in the black community are unwelcome.  Keep them to yourself.  You are not part of their family.  You have not earned the right to critique them.  Black people are right to be suspicious and hostile when you do so.

Your insistence on your right to critique black people is an example of white privilege and not of objectivity. When it comes to black people and their behavior, you are not objective. You bring your racist assumptions, indoctrination and prejudices to any encounter with black people and culture. When it comes to the lives of black people and the issues within black culture, YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.  Your opinions are uninformed and therefore evidence of your racism rather than any expertise.

Don’t pretend your critique of black people and culture is out of some deep concern for the black community when you largely avoid authentic interactions with black people and their culture.  When was the last time you attended an event where you were the minority?  What was the last book you read by a black author?  When have you ever had a deep conversation with a black person about their life and experience?  Be honest. Your opinions about black people are not the result of thoughtful reflection and solidarity.  They are often racially motivated, intended to diminish white culpability and blame black people for past and present social ills.

Yes, I know you read an article about some problem in the black community. I know you have statistics and statistics don’t lie.  They can, however, be manipulated.  When it comes to race, the statistics you emphasize say more about you than what those statistics conclude. Even – if by some lucky coincidence – your secondhand analysis of an issue happens to be correct, you are not in a position to effect change and are far more likely to reinforce negative opinions of black people.  Indeed, in most circumstances, you are more part of the problem than the solution.  Black people are completely capable of identifying issues within their community. They do not need your help.

Nor do they need your affirmation. Quoting a black person to corroborate your opinion does not make you less racist.  The opinions of black people vary on nearly every issue.  Choosing one black person – especially one who shares your negative critique of black culture – as your officially sanctioned black spokesperson is a classic white supremacist tactic.  If you’re really striving for objectivity, you will carefully listen to as many black voices as possible.  You will seek some consensus in their dialogue.  You will respect their most common conclusions in forming your opinion.  Even when you do all of this, your opinion is still irrelevant.

This is true of progressives as well as of conservatives.  The rule still applies.  If you are an ally or accomplice, this makes you a family friend and not part of the family.  Being supportive of black resistance and empowerment does not give you the right to critique Kanye West, Ben Carson, Larry Elder, Coleman Hughes or black people wearing MAGA hats, even when other black people do.  Even applauding their critiques is suspect.  If you need to quote black people, look for those who are critiquing white behavior. Though most white people know little about black culture and experience, every black person thoroughly understands white culture.  They must to survive.  They are experts on white behavior and culture.

I know you think it unfair that they can critique you, but you can’t critique them. Let me explain the difference again.  Power corrupts. Those in power must therefore be critiqued.  White people are still in power. Any white critique of black people is suspect in the context of these inequities in power. Such critique always tends toward victim blaming.  Whether you realize it or not, your critiques will always be tainted by your need – conscious or unconscious – to sustain your power and dominance.

Progressives critiquing the Blacks Lives Matter movement is a good example of this dynamic.  Many say they want black empowerment, but reject all forms of resistance that do not play by the very rules designed to protect white supremacy.  If you love Dr. King, but reject Black Lives Matter, you don’t know much about Dr. King.  If the societal systems and rules worked for black people, they wouldn’t be protesting.  The Black Lives Matter movement should not merely make conservative whites uncomfortable.  It should make all whites uncomfortable.  Embrace you discomfort instead of becoming a critic.

I know you’re concerned about who will hold black people and culture accountable.  Your commitment to accountability is noble.  It is simply misdirected.  You have far too much work to do in holding your white peers, your white dominated institutions and your white culture accountable for their continued oppression of people of color.  Don’t get distracted.  You can’t waste valuable energy critiquing black people.  Let them hold each other accountable.  They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years without your help.  They can handle it.

Let me say this as simply as I can – verbally beating up on a black person is not a good look on you.

Instead of critiquing someone’s else’s family, examine your own.  Who in your family is still telling racist jokes?  Who is your family is sharing racist memes?  Who in your family continues to repeat racist opinions and rhetoric?  Who in your family is most likely to act out of unconscious bias?  Who in your family refuses to acknowledge white privilege and systemic racism?

If you need to be critical, start there.

 

 

When Compliments Are Racist

When Compliments Are Racist

Note to My White Self…

I did it again.

I offered one of those back handed, racist compliments that expose how much work I still have to do as a recovering racist. Even worse, I did it during a panel discussion at a cross-racial dialogue conference where I allegedly represented a “woke” white person. Here is what happened.

In describing a recent conversation with a black woman, I said, “I was talking with a very articulate black woman…”

Sigh.  I should know better.  I’ve read and even written about this peculiar racist habit.  I’ve explained it to many white people who don’t get it. Describing a black person as “articulate” implies this attribute is unusual and requires comment. Such compliments subtly support the racist trope that black people aren’t articulate.  Fortunately, someone almost immediately called me out on my use of the qualifier “articulate” and I acknowledged and apologized for my racist rhetoric.

I suppose I’ve made some progress. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what I did wrong.  Five years ago, I would have been defensive and objected to any critique.  Today, I’m slightly embarrassed and thankful that someone called me out.  I am also due for a refresher on when the qualifiers and compliments of white people are racist.

Rule #1

Unless a reference to the skin color of a person is relevant to the story, a white person referring to someone as black is usually racist. 

In the situation above, describing the woman as black was necessary. My story was about her experience as a black woman dealing with racism.  The story wouldn’t have made any sense unless people understood she was black.

However, in most situations, noting the race of someone is unnecessary and often motivated by unconscious racist bias.  For example, telling my wife that a black salesman knocked on our door is racist. Informing her of the salesman’s skin color only makes sense if I think she needs to know that specific information.  Though I didn’t do this consciously, I may have been warning her that black men – whom I’ve been indoctrinated to associate with danger and violence – were in our neighborhood.

Often, in my experience, the use of the descriptor “black” by white people is completely irrelevant to the story.  The real motive in describing the person as black is to affirm some racial stereotype.  If you want to read more about this dynamic, I’ve discussed this rule at length in the post – “I Say Racist Things.

Rule #2

Unless the adjective used to describe a black person is pertinent to the story, the adjective used by a white person probably reflects their unconscious prejudice and is not actually complimentary.

Many compliments of black people by white people share a common theme – the black person being complimented is an exception to the rule.  Suggesting a black person is “articulate, hardworking, intelligent, studious, respectful, competent, beautiful, level headed, etc.” is often said with the unstated “for a black person.”  White people compliment the black person because they have had one of their racist stereotypes challenged.  Unfortunately, rather than examining their own prejudice, the white person’s compliment actually serves as a means of reinforcing the racist stereotype – “My opinion of black people is still correct.  You are the exception.”

Additionally, the backhanded compliment allows the white person to think well of themselves.  Why did I mention that the black woman in my story was articulate?  Was my motive to compliment her or to exhibit my graciousness?  This is especially common in progressive circles where white people seek to demonstrate their solidarity with people of color.  In 2007, Joe Biden once described Barack Obama as “articulate, bright, clean and a nice-looking guy.”  While Biden intended his remarks to be complimentary, they were rightly condemned as racist and he later apologized.  While all four qualifiers are suspicious, no one would ever compliment a white politician for being clean.

In my racist assertion, describing the black woman as articulate was completely unnecessary.  Whether I thought her articulate was irrelevant to the story.  She did not need my accolades as a preface.  Her worth was not enhanced by my approval.  If I had simply related her words, the power of her statement would have been obvious.

Rule #3

Describe the behaviors and impact of black people’s actions rather than offering qualifiers and adjectives.

Here is what that black woman said.  She told of how when she arrived in Africa for the very first time, a weight she’d never been aware of dropped from her shoulders. She was suddenly in a place where everyone around her was black, where she didn’t have to fear what the next white person she encountered might say or do.  She spoke of how incredibly freeing that had been, of how her health improved.  After two weeks of liberation, she arrived at the airport to go home.  She described how that burden of living in a white world fell heavily on her shoulders the moment she was greeted by the white flight attendant.

The proper response to such a story is empathy and personal reflection. Thankfully, on the day I heard that story, I did not add to her burden by telling her “how articulate she was.”

Black people don’t need our compliments.  They aren’t waiting with bated breath to see if the white person is going to approve of them.  They know how often those compliments are really insults.  Indeed, the giving of compliments is often paternalistic, implying that black people’s value is directly connected with how much they please the white people around them.  White people need to carefully check this impulse to re-center attention on our alleged superiority and graciousness.

It is usually about here in any discussion of backhanded racist compliments that some white person will say, “Well, if I’m going to have my every word scrutinized, I just won’t say anything.”  Which brings me to my final rule.

Rule #4

Since racism is so deeply embedded in white behavior, it would benefit white people to talk less and listen more.

Not saying anything is often the right response.

Appreciation and gratitude are better than compliments.  When your black waitress provides great service, remarking on her politeness isn’t appropriate.  Leaving a good tip is sufficient.  When a black man does excellent work, complimenting his “competence” is only slightly less insulting than calling him “a good boy.”  A simple “great work” will do.  A raise would be even better.  When a person of color speaks in a way that makes you think or feel differently, there is no need to compliment them for “being articulate.”  Simply tell them that their words made you see the world differently.

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

Recently, while participating in a conference on cross-racial dialogue, I suggested white people need to stop talking about how Lincoln or the North freed the slaves. Since an estimated 500,000 blacks either fought in or supported the Union army, the assertion white people freed the slaves is racist rhetoric.  Nearly as many white people fought to maintain slavery as to dismantle it.  The infusion of black regiments and logistical support were pivotal to the Union victory when war fatigue had led many Northern whites to call for the end of the war and the permanent separation of the nation.  It may be more historically accurate to say black people saved the Union.

In response to my statement, a white woman in the audience, said, “We need to remember blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy as well.” I disputed her claim, pointing out that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy had resisted such proposals as contradicting the purposes of the rebellion and its defense of slavery.  While I was correct about Davis, she was also correct in her assertion. Upon returning home and further research, I learned that a limited number of blacks did fight for the Confederacy, though there is considerable debate over whether they were compelled or volunteered.

Reflecting on my exchange with that woman, I wish I’d responded differently.  Instead of disputing the facts, I wish I’d asked, “Why do we need to remember that?  How does remembering that some blacks fought for the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today?” I had highlighted the participation of blacks in the Civil War in order to shift conversations that too often portray blacks as lazy and apathetic about injustice, in need of rescue by well-intentioned white people.  Her response, whether she realized it or not, suggested the opposite, that blacks actually found their oppression acceptable. Of course, if I’d asked my question, I doubt that would have been her response. I imagine she would have argued for a fair presentation of history and the acknowledgment of the exception to the rule.

White people love the exception to the rule.  Over the past few years, I’ve had countless white people inform me that there were…

  • Black slave traders
  • Black slave owners
  • Blacks who wouldn’t leave their owners and plantations after the Civil War
  • Blacks who wanted to leave the US and return to Africa
  • Blacks who supported segregation
  • Blacks who opposed affirmative action.
  • Blacks who disagreed on the need for reparations
  • Blacks who voted for Trump.

These exceptions to the rule are always offered as a counter to my descriptions of the brutality and de-humanization of black people through slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism.  They infer I’m exaggerating the seriousness of the problem.  After all, if some blacks were and are content in such systems, they can’t be nearly as bad as I suggest. More disturbing, the exception to the rule implies that – since a few black people were or are active participants in oppression – any critique of white behavior is unjust.  Black people did it too!  Having established this false equivalency, white people can shut down any further discussion of slavery or racism.

Of course, any parent of a teenager knows that arguing an exception to the rule always has one intent – to deflect attention from the rule. The answer to my question – “How does remembering that some blacks fought in the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today? – is easy.  It doesn’t.

Such exceptions only distract us from honestly addressing larger truths, such as the fact that the industrial slavery of the United States was some of the most brutal and dehumanizing in human history.  Does anyone really want to argue that a few blacks fighting in the Confederacy meant black people actually supported and approved of their subjection?  In truth, many of the stories of the blacks employed to assist the Confederacy end with those same blacks fleeing across Union lines at the first opportunity.

Additionally, such arguments fail to acknowledge one of the most damaging aspects of racism – it is often internalized by its victims. Throughout history, there have been blacks who preferred a quiet accommodation with white supremacy than the real risks and dangers of confronting a force that had repeatedly killed those who opposed it.  While blacks should rightly be proud of their ancestors who fought for their freedom, pitting “those who fought” against “those who didn’t” serves one purpose – sustaining white supremacy.

This defense of whiteness is especially obvious in the common white retort that some blacks owned slaves.  While this is true, it is largely irrelevant.  Offering black slave owners as character witnesses for white culture is as ridiculous as believing the marital accolades of a woman with two black eyes. Those blacks who tolerated or participated in oppression were never white allies. They were tragic accomplices in their own victimization.

I’m tired of white people who – when it comes to slavery and racial discrimination – know every exception to the rule, but hardly anything about the rule.  For example, a vast majority of white people do not know one of the most basic pieces of information about slavery – how many black men and women were abducted or born into slavery in the United States?  That most white people know how many Jews were killed in the German Holocaust, but not the number of lives destroyed by the American Holocaust is damning, especially since conservative estimates place the carnage at about 12 million people.  Those who focus on the exceptions are attempting to distract attention from the rule.

Here is the rule.  White people were responsible for the creation of slavery in America. White people de-humanized, tortured, raped, and murdered millions of these enslaved people over the course of 400 years.  Upon their emancipation, white people were responsible for the creation of Jim Crow and systems of racial discrimination that continued to abuse, mistreat and murder black people.  White people are responsible for the continuation of system racism in America today.  The exceptions to this rule are irrelevant.

Ironically, while emphasizing the exceptions is often presented as an attempt at a more complete and balanced historical perspective, it is not. There were nearly 500,000 blacks who actively fought against the Confederacy and a few thousand, at most, who cooperated with it.  That this is the only time white people seem to value the minority viewpoint should end any doubt – our true motivation is to diminish responsibility for a horrific history and sustain white supremacy.