I hope that you are not offended by my opening salvo, but one of my favorite shows on Netflix is “Dear White People,” and it seems rude not to write back. However, I am not here to be as flip and funny as that show. For instance, there will be no take-downs of shows that made me laugh so hard there were tears and snot running down my face. I hope and pray there will be no “white people are weird” moments, because I agree with you. I’m just here to talk about yesterday, and what it means for our collective futures.
I have said many times that no minority has the capability to be racist. Prejudiced, sure, but not racist. This is because racism is clearly a top-down, systematic, institution. No minority has the kind of power to create such a thing.
Though I would never compare my own struggle to yours, I feel so much empathy and sympathy toward it. Even though I’m as white and nerdy as they come, I am a woman and a lesbian, two things that have worked against me my entire career.
The one shining moment of equality that I’ve ever experienced was in Texas, of all places. I needed two forms of ID to get my driver’s license renewed, and I realized that I only had one… my old driver’s license. And then I remembered that I had a copy of Dana’s and my domestic partnership license from Oregon in my backpack, and I asked if they would take that. There was the usual “let me ask my manager,” but then they said “yes.”
I’ve also experienced some truly cringeworthy moments, the white people are awful moments that we share- the difference being that people can immediately tell that you’re black. They can almost immediately tell that I’m female. But knowing I’m a lesbian is just conjecture until I come out to them. It is not the same, but I hope that we can share some common ground.
For instance, when I was in high school, I told one person that I was a lesbian and two hours later, the entire school knew. One of the percussionists in my orchestra used to hold up Playboy centerfolds where the conductor couldn’t see them and whisper at me to look in his direction. It was mortifying, and it went on for days.
Later in life, I had a boss who spent 30 minutes talking about her children. She said, “I know you’re not going to have any, so I guess you can talk to us about your cat like that.” She also forced me to wear make-up because she said that I always looked like “I didn’t feel good.” Believe me, I was much more comfortable in my own skin without makeup, because while I am not androgynous, I’m not a girly girl, either.
When I was a teenager, I worked at an early childhood daycare center. They didn’t know that I heard them say I shouldn’t be around children, but they didn’t know if they could fire me for that. Over the next few weeks, there was a concerted effort to make me look incompetent instead.
Another story from my junior year in high school was that I had who I thought was a fantastic English teacher, and she would ask me to do things like help her with bulletin boards. I felt safe enough to come out to her, and after that, she had me transferred into a different class.
I realize that the last few paragraphs seem like I’m trying to make this entry all about me, but that is not my intent. I am trying to say that I will always be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, because if I have had these experiences, you have stories that are 80 times worse.
Yesterday, while the verdict was being read on Derek Chauvin’s case, police shot and killed a 15-year-old girl. She had a knife and was not only lunging at another girl, she lunged toward the police. What I will never understand is why lethal force was necessary in that instance. Perhaps the police could have used defensive moves to take away the knife. Perhaps they could have used a taser to get her to drop the knife altogether so that they could get her into custody alive. She would have stood trial and probably done some time in juvie, but at the end of it, she would have been able to come home to her parents. Shooting four bullets at her was not, and should never, be the answer.
It should be known that the police are also trigger happy with white people, but the reason the Black Lives Matter protests are so important is that the police act as judge and jury in the moment and decide the punishment is death at a rate far greater than they have ever done when white people commit a crime.
Timothy McVeigh is a prime example. He blew up an entire building in Oklahoma and was taken alive to jail. The important part here is that though he died at the hands of the state, it was a jury’s decision. No police officers decided to kill him in that moment, at the site.
We can also add Dylann Roof to the mix. He killed nine people at a Charleston AME church, and was taken alive- even given Burger King on the way to the police station after a manhunt that lasted two days. He did not receive the death penalty, but life imprisonment. So, even though he will never live with his family again, they will get to come and visit. And again, he got to stand trial. No one in that manhunt decided that they were responsible for punishing him.
Getting caught stabbing someone is the least of our worries. Let’s start with the idea that black kids and adults can apparently be killed for holding anything. A toy gun (Tamir Rice), snacks (Trayvon Martin), and it was a cigarette that provoked the white cop’s ire in the Sandra Bland case. Worse, black people don’t even have to be holding anything. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging through a park, though not by the police- by white supremacists in Georgia.
So now we’ve arrived at the part where it’s not just the police. It is all white people, clearly some more extreme than others. Most white people would not identify themselves as racists because they aren’t physically or emotionally violent towards minorities, particularly black people.
Or are they?
I get that most people aren’t physically violent, but the emotional piece is ever-present and pervasive. Believe me when I say that most of the time, white people do not even realize what they’re doing. They have grown up in a racist system that they can’t even see because it’s always been there. White supremacy is still a problem; extremists still exist. But every white person in America has committed the sin of blindness. I am including myself in that crowd, because the color of my skin still allows me privileges it doesn’t give you.
I can buy a car or a house easier than you. If you buy a nice car or house, the police are more likely to believe it isn’t yours.
Remember when Henry Louis Gates was arrested in front of his own house because when he came back from a trip to China, he found that his front door was jammed, so he and his driver tried to pry it open? The neighbors called 911 and claimed someone was breaking into the house. Gates is one of my favorite authors and has been on TV for interviews plenty. (“Finding Your Roots” hadn’t started yet.) Yet, no one recognized him or believed him in the moment.
If it can happen to a respected scholar, it can happen to any black person in America….. like Amanda Gorman, who had literally just been on TV a few weeks before, and if I remember right, it was a national broadcast (that’s the one joke you’ll get in this piece).
I am heartened by the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, for a very particular reason. He went to Union Theological Seminary after he graduated from Morehouse. At Union, he went all the way to a doctoral degree. He is the antithesis of everything the Religious Right (which is neither) has done to the Republican Party. Instead of living in a comfort zone thisbig by emphasizing fear of hell and damnation, he is letting his votes be inspired by what the historical Christ would have wanted. He is bringing the kindom of God through the soul of politics, which I would support even if I was an atheist…. because his theology is one of civil rights for all, feeding and caring for the least of us, and changing our racial identity as a country, which for a long time has been rightly compared to South African apartheid. He is not trying to convert people to his religious beliefs, just using them to ask himself the important questions.
In “The Black Church” on PBS, Henry Louis Gates paraphrases James Cone’s work in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” I had heard of Cone and the title of his book, but I’d never read it in depth. It struck me where I live.
Gates said that when Africans were first brought to the United States, slave owners forced Christianity on them because there was a lot in it about how slaves should behave (that is a whole different story for another day, but sufficed to say, that interpretation is abominable…. and at the very least, the slave owners should have paid more attention to the master’s responsibilities, the bare minimum for people that misunderstood those scriptures so badly). The slave owners didn’t anticipate that the slaves wouldn’t identify with those scriptures at all, but the man who was beaten and crucified, someone they could indeed understand.
To take it a step further, there is no such thing as competitive suffering. Jesus did not suffer more than American slaves, and to say he did is to undermine you both. Howard Thurman said it best when he entitled his magnum opus “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Martin Luther King, Jr. carried a copy of that book everywhere he went, and he kept it close to his heart- literally in the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
There’s probably nothing that I, a nerdy white lady, can offer you in the way of comfort. However, I believe that these two books might become important to you, even if you are not religious. I will also add a second book by James Cone called “Black Theology and Black Power,” which argues that Jesus’ liberation of both Jews and Gentiles alike was the same message that Black Power was preaching. In fact, you’ll read that it was Malcolm X who shook Cone out of his complacency….. Malcolm said that “Christianity was a white man’s religion,” and it stuck with Cone long enough for him to realize that Malcolm was right. The church universal has a lot of work to do in terms of widening the net and dissociating itself from white supremacy…… going back to ancient missionaries trying to bring white European Christian culture to people who already had civilizations older than theirs.
White, heterosexual, cisgender supremacy has become inextricably interrelated with white church. It’s just more polite. Hidden behind smiles and “bless your hearts.” If there is anything the Trump administration showed me, it is that there are still so many people who would treat you as lesser than just because your skin looks different, and treat me as if I am sin personified. I don’t go to a church like that, but I am wary of walking into any of them with which I am not familiar…. or if I’ve heard the things that go on there.
Any church that looks at the Bible as if God literally had a pen in their hand and wrote it all down is ridiculous to me. It was written in a time and place that has no bearing on our own, in addition to being inspired by many, many people…. some of whom made it into the canon, and some who did not. I look at theology as a lens through which I see everything else, and I have to admit, I did not write that sentence. Marcus Borg did. The best analogy I can bring to the table is a scene from “Shadowlands:”
Harry: I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.
Jack: That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.
I can only hope that the reverse is true with the Black Lives Matter movement… that through the fog, we will carry the light together, bringing along everyone else.