White amnesia

Yesterday, an African American CEO in my city asked me to attend a fundraiser for his nonprofit, the Boys and Girls Club. I respect him. I love the work they do for children. I would love to support it. And at the same time, my household budget is tight right now – two kids in college, two mortgages, my own student loans, you know the story. So I told him no, I can’t afford it.

This morning, I woke up realizing, although I do not have money in my personal budget right now – I have access to money. I know other (white) people with money whom I could ask to help. I even have a discretionary account my church funds, to help with needs in our community according to my judgment. On one level I knew this. On another level, I forgot, feeling like “I have no money.”

My white amnesia leads me to think of myself as an individual, operating separately from the systems I can easily access.

A year ago, I had another case of white amnesia.

I learned that 70% of the children are on free lunch at our neighborhood school, Schenk Elementary. (A child receives free lunch at school if their parent/s income is near the poverty level.   There’s a direct connection between nutrition, learning, and child development.  My immediate response was, what can I do about that? What can my church do about that? We don’t have any money – which is true; the budget was operating in a deficit.

But I decided what I did have access to was people, and leadership. So I gathered a group of neighborhood pastors to talk about the problem. One of them knew the school principal. He came to our meetings. We all invited volunteers. Some were retired teachers. We put together a plan to go grocery shopping, pack bags of nonperishable food items and feed the children on weekends.

How did we fund it? Once I got over my white amnesia, I realized, we all had access to money. One church held a jazz and bluegrass concert in the parking lot, and neighbors gave donations. Two churches had endowment funds, and wrote grants. Another pastor and I asked the city foundation for money and got $15,000. Two churches wrote proposals and received grants from their broader network. We told the story, and several other churches (outside our neighborhood) took offerings and gave us money. I don’t even know how to do a kickstarter. We all had access to money. We went from “having no money” for this neighborhood problem, to having $30,000, five congregations sending volunteers to feed 110 children every weekend, all school year.

This makes me ponder, what other instances of white amnesia do I suffer from? Where am I blinded by thinking of myself as an individual, with a limited budget, and limited power, instead of thinking of my access to money, power and privilege, which I could share?

But also, these experiences give me hope.  As the writer of Hebrews put it, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  Because I’m getting over my white amnesia faster. As I sit with my intention to participate in healing an unjust society, and my personal feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, the Holy Spirit reminds me what you and I, and all of us, can do together.

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Having an affair with white supremacy?

In some countries of the world, it is considered normal for a married man to have an ongoing extramarital affair, one that everyone knows about but just doesn’t discuss, and hardly even notices. When I learned this I was appalled. For those on the inside of that cultural dynamic, it’s normal; for me on the outside, it’s clearly wrong.

At Urbana 2015, African-American pastor and activist, Michelle Higgins, told the American church the same thing:

“We’ve had a historic, ongoing ‘extramarital affair’ with the idolatry of white supremacy”, and it’s appalling and wrong.

Is she right? And if she is, are we appalled? Or as white people are we so “on the inside” of a cultural evil that it just feels normal, and so we don’t even notice? I think she’s right, and I want to share my journey of coming to terms with my participation in white supremacy.

I have spent the past year regularly failing in cross-cultural leadership. I consider myself a very cross-cultural person. I was an African-American studies major in college, and then moved into a all Black and Latino neighborhood for the next 17 years of my life. But as I was thrust into leading empowered leaders of color in the fall of 2014, I was failing right and left. While my failures were numerous, the one I’ll focus on is when I was a part of leading an ethnically diverse group of staff, and our leadership team ended up featuring only White male leaders and their perspective on urban ministry. It took the leaders of color approaching me and my colleagues, asking for space to vocalize their frustration, for us to address the issue and take responsibility for our failure.

What? “C’mon, Scott,” you may be saying, “that’s just not that big a deal.” Articles have been written recently, in fact, suggesting that millennials of color are too sensitive to “micro-aggressions.” After all, they’re “micro”, right? They just need to get over it. “Slavery ended 150 years ago…get over it.” If you haven’t thought it, you’ve heard it.

White supremacy is an intense phrase. For most of my life, growing up in California, in a very diverse community, it has conjured images of unintelligent, poor, white rednecks pulling bed sheets over their heads and burning crosses on black folks’ lawns. But the term has been evolving in recent years to a more comprehensive understanding. Today, when activists use the term, I take them to mean that white supremacy is any way that white people or culture are made to be supreme or ideal. That could mean overt racial violence, but it usually means something far less obvious. I believe there were many things wrong with my leadership in this instance: here are two.

First, by being a member of a team that chose only white male speakers, and going along without saying anything, I passively participated in perpetuating the assumption that the white male voice is the ideal, normative one. This was true during slavery…I was letting it continue as an unquestioned assumption. Second, by not addressing the issue until the staff of color spoke up, I was leaving those under my charge to have to push back against authority in order to advocate for themselves. As a Christian with a value for servant leadership, this is horrifying to me. Yet there I was doing just that. Why? Because as a white person, it worked for me, and the ethnic homogeneity didn’t bother me that much. I was one more white leader forcing leaders of color to come my cultural direction, with no explanation or apology, just an assumption. Based on these two issues alone, it is not unfair to describe my leadership as sending the message that the white voice is the best one—the central one, the normative one—and if you’re not white, you’re on your own to find your place somewhere on the periphery of God’s story. In other words: white people and culture are the ideal and the center around which all others should relate. That’s a message of white supremacy.

Here’s what makes it more insidious. We tried to get speakers of color. Not just token folks to diversify the stage, but real leaders with real things to offer. But they weren’t available. And at the end of the day, our leadership team ran out of energy to keep picking up the phone, and we settled for the same-old-same-old. We didn’t go out and try to perpetuate white supremacy…we fell into it by settling for the speakers we could get. The idolatrous “affair” gave us pause…but didn’t bother us enough to break up with what we were used to.

This is one personal example of my participation in white supremacy. But if we scale it out to the reality of white Christian leadership in America, doesn’t this story happen all the time? The “good intentions” are often there to learn from leaders of color. But in the details, in the failed efforts, in the shallow lip-service to God’s multi-ethnic kingdom, we end up going with the status quo—whiteness replacing God as the center of our leadership—and it doesn’t bother us enough to dig deeper and do something about it. This is still true when we bring in the token leader of color without letting them change us in any deep way.

And here we come to the center of the issue as I see it: while racial justice literally means life and death to people of color in America in 2016, we white people can afford to have it remain in the realm of good intentions that we rarely have the energy to follow through with all the way. So we keep on keeping on. If 1 Corinthians 12:26 is true—that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer—then this isn’t a minor oversight, but evil neglect and self-protection.

That was me. I think that’s the white American church. I think Michelle Higgins is right—we’re caught up in the affair—and most the time it doesn’t seem like it bothers us very much.

Kelly’s ‘being white’ testimony

Kelly's Photos-5I grew up seeing myself as “a good white person.” My parents set me on this path. They intentionally sent me to ethnically diverse public schools so I could learn cross-cultural skills. I prided myself in being inclusive and speaking up for the outsider. In fact, in high school, I was so excited about the essay I wrote for the Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest, explaining why being colorblind was the solution to the pain of racism in our world. I was shocked when I didn’t win. It became the low point of my entire high school experience. Wasn’t making friends with people of all ethnicities the end game? What was I missing?

In college, God used InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, some wise friends, and some of my personal failures to show me that my view, though well-intended, was limited from his greater picture of true reconciliation.

Freshman year, I was so excited to learn my first roommate in college was African American. We quickly took to being friends. One evening we stood in line together at the dining hall and a white employee came over and suddenly accused my roommate of being a thief because she had an extra token for the lockers in her pocket. (We all had extra tokens. The lockers never worked. It was far more efficient to carry a spare). Before I even realized what was happening, my roommate burst into tears and ran away. My close friend just experienced real racism and all I did was stand paralyzed. Her white friend did nothing to stand up for her. It was the first time I realized colorblindness wasn’t the full solution. My roommate’s experiences were so different than mine, because of her ethnicity, and to ignore that reality and be nonresponsive to blatant racism, only contributed to the years of her having to endure pain alone. I didn’t know what to do with the weight of guilt I was experiencing, both from my silence in the moment and from realizing that maybe I’d been wrong my whole life. I only knew I was not going to let that happen again. I would be the good white person and stand up for my friends.

Several years later, a viral YouTube video came out from a white UCLA student that was incredibly racist towards Asian Americans. Here was my chance to redeem myself. I would not stand silent this time. But as I gathered students to pray and rally, my mentor stopped me and said, “Kelly, how about starting with your roommate, Amy? (who was Chinese-American)? You need to work this out with her first.” Work this out?! There was nothing that I personally had done wrong towards Amy. I would NEVER say the things that student said in the video. But one thing I had been learning from Amy was that while I saw myself as an individual, she saw herself, and me, as a part of a people. So my voice, as representative of white people, would have power in her life. But I wasn’t racist. The last thing I wanted to do was to identify with this white student in the video rant. Confused, I went to Jesus and asked him. He said, “Kelly, this is not about you proving you’re good. Through Jesus, you are already good. This is about my compassion towards Amy.” So, despite my discomfort, I said to Amy, “Amy, I want you to know, from the voice of a white person, that those words in that video are wrong and evil. I’m so sorry that her disparaging words about Asians are the same words you’ve heard your whole life. Would you forgive us white people?” To my surprise, Amy burst into tears and said, “I have never heard any white person say that before, and it is so healing. Thank you.” Our friendship has been so much stronger from that point forward.

When the “Black Lives Matter” movement began, I remembered my lesson with Amy, and wrote a poem in which I again identified myself with “us” white people, for the sake of healing. I read the poem to my mom, who always was so proud of my poetry. But this time she shocked me. In anger, she burst out, “Well if black people are having such a hard time, why don’t they just go back to Africa!” I ran to my room and cried for four hours. Why would my mom say that? To assume that black people could just choose in and out of the systemic injustices that were birthed by centuries of slavery and racism from our ancestors, or to tell them they have no right to express their anger and hurt, is horrible. And this was coming from my own mom, from the one who taught me how to be a good white person.

What my mom said after that was profound. “Kelly, I have no idea why I said that. I didn’t mean that. I think I just felt afraid and attacked.” Fear runs deep in our family. My mom and I stood in our kitchen and repented of fear: Fear of being criticized and attacked, of being called racist, of losing power, of not being in control of what’s happening in our world.

It was in that moment, that I realized I couldn’t redeem myself. I would never be the “good white person.” Because, like my mom, fear and shame had power over my life and I couldn’t fix that on my own. I tried silence. I tried activism. Neither worked. I needed power from outside myself, from Jesus, to rid me of my fear and my guilt.

Since that moment with my mom, God has been using both of us to bring change in this world. My mom has been speaking up to her friends and coworkers about how racism is still a problem. She even gave me permission to share this vulnerable story as a way to bring healing to others. God is giving me some national platforms to teach about race and redemption. But I am no longer motivated by fear and guilt. My activism is motivated by compassion, joy, and hope. I am not the “good white person.” I am redeemed by Jesus.

Paula’s story

Hi, I’m Paula… I grew up in Papua New Guinea.
Paula in PNGI’m the blonde on the left, with one of my sisters, and some of our neighbors.  Most people don’t know that about me, most people can’t relate, but it affects the way I see life. My parents and grandparents were Christian missionaries, and taught me to be colorblind… about race, and to really notice culture.

I grew up among evangelicals, and I always had a lot of questions. Even when I was young I was concerned about following Jesus, including people, and participating in what God was doing in this interesting, multi-cultural world we live in. Because my family were missionaries, we moved a lot… about every 18 months, all told. Every time we moved, we changed churches, whole denominations. Functionally, I grew up with a strong faith but no ecclesiology.

At college, I continued to experiment with my faith community commitments… one year I attended an entirely African American Baptist church (except for me), and another, “bedside Baptist” and “mattress Methodist,” the Jesus People, Mother Theresa’s nuns, the La Salle St. Church in Chicago, and a white Episcopal church. I feel in love with the Episcopal way of following Christ. Some of the things I most value are a sense of continual conversion, beauty in the liturgy, building and music, a sense of mystery and willingness to inquire, historicity, and a deep graciousness I find among most mainline Christians. I also valued the fact that the services were far less personality driven than my experience with evangelical and non denominational worship. But I continued to move, and continued to experience different churches each time.

Then one day I fell in love with an African graduate student, whose father was Roman Catholic and mother was Anglican. We compromised and both became members of the Episcopal church. Tragically, that marriage did not last, because of domestic violence. The healing journey after that marriage ended gave me the opportunity for a lot of personal learning about intersectionality, cycles of power and control, forgiveness (which I differentiate from reconciliation) and non-violence. I also became a single mother of two biracial kids (1 and 3) in a city which is arguably the worst place in the country to raise a black child.

I continued my commitment as a lay Episcopalian, while professionally, I spent two decades as the program director of the Urbana Student Mission Convention. In my tenure we went from 95% white and male to 55% white 45% black, brown and biracial (attendees and presenters), with 40% female presenters.   I used my position of power and influence to create massive systemic change.

  • I collaborated with multiethnic leaders outside my system: Black and Latino pastors, Native American theologians, Asian missionaries … people who were living out excellent missiology in their own cultural context.
  • I recruited and hired staff of different cultures and races than myself.
  • I created collaborative multiethnic teams; we worked to create a culture where every ethnos brought their gifts.
  • I listened to these partners (internally, staff; externally, leaders), promoted their ideas and helped them succeed in our system.
  • We prayed together, a lot.
  • I called other white people in power (usually men) to make important changes, giving voice, money and influence to people of color.  Usually, this required my persistence.
  • We raised significant amounts of money for scholarships for historically disadvantaged students and pastors; they were distributed by trusted leaders of the same racial background.
  • I developed trusting partnerships across cultural and racial lines.IMG_1731
  • Almost every time we took a significant step forward, it became obvious to the people who had been excluded what we needed to do next. Rather than take this personally you didn’t notice how far we’ve come!), I learned to take these evaluative conversations as an opportunity to learn.

The most recent decade, I have served as a solo pastor, or parish priest, in the Episcopal church, now at St Luke’s, in Madison, WI.  I have been the first woman solo pastor in both of my churches. My family continues to grow and thrive, including my biracial children, who are now young adults.

 

Doug’s story

 

IMG_5411The Schaupp side of my family came over from Germany in order to flee Napoleon as he invaded invaded Southern Germany. We Schaupps were grape farmers, from a small town called Neckartenzlingen. I can trace that side of my family thanks to the enormous family Bible that they brought with them from Germany. Our entire family tree is scribbled into the front of the Bible. Once when I was reading through this genealogy, I noticed that next to the name of one of my ancestors it was written, “Killed by an Indian.” I paused. I wondered, “How many Indians did my family kill?” It was a novel thought for me to to consider the other side of the story. Were we heroes in the rugged west, or we were perpetrators?

I grew up in Chinatown in San Francisco until 4th grade. I loved eating dim sum. And I loved setting off fire crackers. There were great quality and quantity of both in my neighborhood. In 1976, we moved to majority white Palo Alto. In Palo Alto, I blended in with the racial status quo of the 1980’s. I laughed at the racist jokes of our day. In fact, I retold them freely, promoting the stereotypes within each one. I didn’t think anything of it. Meanwhile, I also had some friends from other ethnic groups. Again, I didn’t think anything of it. I was meandering along with the blindness of my time.

When I got to college, I panicked a bit when I got to my dorm room Doug's IDand I could not pronounce the name of my new roommate. I had never seen the name Khalil before. (Khalil turned out to be a great guy.)

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots blew my mind and my worldview.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_Los_Angeles_riots
I had no answers for the anger. God used the riots to begin to open my eyes to the complex dynamics of race and ethnicity and culture. That is how Sandy and I ended up in an African American church for three years. That was a “detour” on the journey of my life that has changed me forever.

Looking back, which “practical steps” were most powerful in God changing my life?
My African American roommate freshman year, which was not my choice.
Landing myself in an InterVarsity chapter that used a cross-cultural lens when teaching the scripture, again not my choice.
Having a Korean-American friend, who became my girlfriend and then wife. I realized that marrying her was marrying into her family and also into Korean culture as well. This was my choice.
Letting God use the riots and some great books to change my life. My choice to read and lean into the paradigm shift that God was leading me through.
Joining the Black Baptist Church in Santa Monica. This was the point of no return for me. I embraced crossing cultures as a “normal” part of following Jesus. And I embraced the journey of what it means for God to redeem by white culture.
Starting Race Matters at UCLA. In the mid 1990s, influenced by Fudge Ripple by Washington and Kehrein, our staff team started our own versions of multiethnic conversations. (The first hour was spent in ethnic specific groups, tackling a difficult issue. The second hour was spent as a whole multiethnic community talking through the topic together.) By creating this structure, we thus paid attention to our connectedness as a reconciling community in ways we never had before. I was transformed by these conversations, and by learning to lead complex conversations, not avoid them

How about you…what are a few practical steps that you have taken which turned out to be the most pivotal in your journey?