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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Interruptions

The elections don’t seem to be talking about race unless a Black Lives Matter protester challenges a candidate.  It’s business-as-usual until there’s an interruption.

Not too long ago, I got a text, “a teenager was shot”five minutes from my church.

Suddenly, it wasn’t a normal day for church work. I jumped online to figure out what was happening. He was biracial, and unarmed. The cop was white. Seemed like the teenager was using, and his friends or family had called the police because of his unusual behavior. They hoped the police would calm him down. The young man’s name was Tony Robinson. His friends were taken into custody – for what, I wondered?  Everett Mitchell, a Black pastor and Attorney, had also spent the night at the jail house trying to be present to represent Tony’s friends as they were interrogated. Videos showing the officers keeping him out.

The police officers in my church were pretty silent on the whole thing. “We have to let the DOJ figure out the facts.” I felt this wasn’t enough, and yet I was really unclear about my part. I live in a college town, mostly white, and it’s a pretty normal thing for college students to get out of control – drunk, high, or just high on life. Our police officers usually know how to talk them down. I had to preach about it all. Preaching to a mixed race congregation, which includes police officers, challenged me. You can listen to that sermon here.

A variety of pastors and rabbis had gathered to figure out what to do when the police report and D.A.’s verdict would be released. Tony’s friends and family asked us to come pray at the place he was shot. So we did, standing on the street, streaming the news on our phones. Tony was shot seven times, heart, head, hands. The D.A. did not indict Officer Matt Kenny.

There we are, an interfaith, interracial group of faith community leaders, and an interracial, mostly no faith group of grieving friends of Tony Robinson. They walked out in the street and sat down. I was so moved by these young grieving friends protesting. I had been praying about how to advocate for them. So I said to the clergy, “let’s help,” and I took a position standing, in the street while the police watched from several blocks away, and the clergy and NAACP elders gradually circled around the students and young people. I suddenly felt, this was why we came, to be available to God in this place. When the first car came, I walked over – dressed in my clericals – and said “these kids are upset because their friend died, would you mind driving home another way?”11011778_10153272134990040_3252115450266268083_n

I’m left with the question, how much am I willing to be interrupted, and do something different, because our systems are failing young people like Tony Robinson. “What’s his name?” they kept shouting. “Tony Robinson.” Why does a nineteen year old have to die, for white people to be interrupted?

Talking about racism, gently (part two)

I was recently teaching classes on “white identity in an increasingly multi-ethnic world,” and a lot of people asked me different versions of how to talk to other white people about racism.

“Help, how do I (a white person) talk to my racist family members?”

“How do I (a black person) talk to my white peers?

and the “Guess who’s coming to dinner? question” about interracial dating, and racist family members.

Let’s go back to our real teacher, Jesus. Christina Cleveland points out he connected “with every type of person – consertavie theologians, liberal theologians, prostitutes, divorcees, children, politicians, people who party hard, military servicemen, women, lepers, ethnic minorities, celebrities and so forth… inviting them to be a part of his group and work together…” (Disunity in Christ, 37). If you read the gospels closely to see how he interacted with people: the dialogues he had were individual and respectful and offering his love. He looks at people, he really sees them in their situation, and he offers an authentic relationship.

But at the same time, some of those people wanted to grow and follow him, and some of those people wanted to kill him. Mark is the fastest gospel to get a sense of this, but around chapter 9 (the transfiguration), Jesus understands that some people want to kill him and he begins to interact with them differently. He never gives direct answers to his enemies. He tells stories (not his own personal stories, but parables… with biting points). He asks questions to make people think. And to his students, privately, he explains everything. He taught us, love our enemies.

Let’s use that model on the topic of interacting with whites who express racism.

I understand this to mean, firstly it depends who’s the “I” talking. An Asian or African American person, an indigenous person… if you’re trying to communicate with a white person about race, follow Jesus’ model and figure out who you are dealing with. What is their context? What is their experience around race? You probably will want to say different things to a white supremacist than to a white person who wants to learn and grow into your ally. If you think there’s space for some growth, then consider, what of your own personal experiences to share. But if not “don’t throw your pearls before swine” Jesus counseled.

And if a white person is talking, to our own racist family, our point is basically that we (white people following Jesus, aware of racial and cultural realities) want to live in a world where everybody can be beloved and flourish. Try saying things like: “Grandpa, you know I love you, and I also love [name of non-white person I’m dating]. Are you willing to meet [him/her/them?] I really want to be in a world where I can love you both.”

What to say, to a racist idea or comment? You can find a way to say, “When you joke about [_____] kind of people, I feel angry because I respect many of them.” Or “I don’t agree with you because… I believe God loves everybody.” Use your judgement. We white allies may be able to continue the interaction for a while.
It’s not about winning an argument. When interacting, you and I won’t do much good if we’re just mad at what was said. The space for that is in street protests, not private conversations. You need to pray enough, have enough time to reflect, that you can remember, Jesus acted out of love, compassion and discernment – will this person grow, or do they intend to continue in this violence? Because racism, and systems of racial inequity, are violent.

Well, honestly, it doesn’t have to just be our own racist family – I’m more and more working on following Jesus in his model of connecting with every type of person. The pay off is that we have more friends, more relationships, more love in the world, more flourishing for everybody.

‘Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone. ‘ Colossians 4:3

Talking about racism, gently (part one)

Doug and I intend to approach this urgent topic with grace and gentleness, because we value mutual respect, and treating every person with dignity. Talking about racism is difficult because people have profoundly different experiences around race and so often, we mean different things when we use the word “racism.”

When we say “racism,” often white people mean racial bias, or prejudice which I have considered and acted upon: mean things I as an individual either said, or did against people of color. That’s why we often think or say, “but I’m not a racist.” We’re thinking of ourselves as individual agents. This idea can be extended to groups: think of fraternities singing racially offensive songs, sororities throwing “black face” parties, or uncles telling ugly racist jokes. If we reject those activities, we think we are not racist.

But actually racial bias runs deeper than conscious choice. Figuring out if I am this kind of racist is pretty easy: spend a few minutes taking Harvard Project Implicit tests on line and they’ll reveal our biases. After doing this, spend some weeks noticing my interactions, my thoughts, when I meet people of different races and genders. What are my assumptions?

Thinking about racism as acts of race prejudice ignores the presence of power and privilege. Wonder if you have privilege because of your race, or want to understand it? Take Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or watch her TEDx talk “How studying privilege systems can strengthen compassion”.  But racism operates not only on an individual level, it’s also external, and institutional.

When white people came to this country, many of our families were given land – land taken from Native Americans and Latinos. I went to high school in Texas and learned a historical narrative about the brave settlers (some of whom were my family members). In graduate school, I went across the border and visited a Mexican museum where I learned the other side of the story: about massacres, and systemic displacement. I looked at historical maps showing Mexican territory extending across most of modern Texas, the southwest and California (circa 1820-1840.)    More than a century later, white veterans (yes, my uncles) got help with more education and a mortgage (through the G.I. bill), while Japanese Americans had their property systematically taken from them (look into Japanese internment). Sure, slavery is over, and the Chinese exclusion act overturned, but neither African Americans nor Chinese people received any financial or educational compensation for these systematic evils. These are only a few of the institutional and structural expressions of racism.

The systems which were historically created are now held together by simple structural arrangements System_of_Inequity_Graphic_624_450_90_c1_172_172_85_s_c1_smart_scalelike property taxes: our schools and their quality reflect the property values of our neighborhoods. Instead of slavery and Jim Crow laws, we now have the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.

So these days when I hear the word “racism” I translate “a system of racial inequity.” The clearest way to understand this is the spiral from World Trust “The system of racial inequity has internal and external components, as well as institutional and systematic. It’s held together by money and power and embedded in history, culture and identity.”