John 19 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a Roman citizen. Like most others in his community, he did not have the rights of Roman citizens. You might say he was undocumented. He could not vote, hold office, or make legal contracts. More importantly, if he was found guilty of breaking Roman law, he could be punished in ways no citizen was ever subjected to. He could be beaten and tortured. Also, unlike a Roman citizen, he could be crucified. And he was.
Hanging on that cross, knowing he would soon die, his thoughts go to those he would leave behind, particularly his mother, Mary, who would be left with no one to care for her. So Jesus makes custody arrangements. He tells his mother “woman, here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” This is how Jesus’ community survived persecution, by taking custody of each other.
We also live in a two tiered system of laws, one for US citizens, another for non-citizens. Non-citizens do not have the same legal and rights as citizens, even less if they are undocumented. Unlike citizens, undocumented immigrants can be “detained” meaning imprisoned, for long periods of time for no other crime than trying to seek asylum from poverty, violence and war. Unlike citizens, they have to report to ICE as frequently as three times a week. Many have to wear ankle monitors. And, of course, unlike citizens, they can be deported.
Knowing they can be deported at any time, they must make custody arrangements for children they may never see again, through power of attorney or legal guardianship. Right this moment, across our country, many immigrants are saying to a relative or friend “if I am deported tomorrow, behold, this is your son, This is your daughter.” Then they are turning to their children and saying “my beloved child, if I am deported tomorrow behold, this is your mother. This is your father.” That is how their community survives. They take custody of each other.
So, my beloved Christian family, as mass deportations happen in our country, as families are torn apart, as people who have lived among us for decades are forcibly removed from what is often the only home they have ever known ? Will we look the other way, telling ourselves they are only “illegal aliens” or will we start to see them as God sees them? Will we hear God say to us “Behold, this your son. This is your daughter. This is your mother. This is your father.” Will we take custody?
Dear White People,
Maybe this will sound strange to you, but I think the time has come for us to collectively mourn the end of white supremacy, not because it was anything less than evil, but because it did do something for us and unless we can let that something go, we will never be able to work to dismantle it.
As a nation, we tend to suck at lamentation. Admitting to feelings of grief is only allowed under very narrowly defined circumstances. It’s OK right after the death of a loved one and for a limited, very limited, time afterward. We are expected to “get through it” on schedule. When grief shows up unexpectedly years later refusing to follow the path we prescribe for it, insisting on its own unpredictable rhythms, we do not make space for it and treat the mourner like there is something wrong with them for not getting over it “on time.” Similarly it is OK to publically lament acts of violence against “innocents” like children or “honors students” with as yet unsullied reputations but once we enter the murkier waters of life where less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people harm other less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people our sense of pain and outrage is pushed aside. We need that simple binary of “good” and “evil” in order to respond. The same works for warfare. If “our brave soldiers” die, we mourn them. When the “enemy” dies we do not. Those are the rules. Only when that which we all agree is good is destroyed by that which we all agree it evil do we permit ourselves to feel the pain of loss and admit to it. Even then, our public rituals of mourning are limited to the “right occasion.” Again, grief has to follow the rules.
Except it doesn’t. Grief is complicated. It happens when it happens. Time does not limit grief. Neither does appropriateness and, yes, people grieve over the loss of that which is evil just as much, if not more, than we grieve over the good because the awful truth is, we often benefit from evil and really don’t like for those benefits to end and, yes, we DO feel grief when they do. Ask any good psychologist about why it is that people have such a hard time giving up harmful behaviors. It’s because, as dysfunctional as these behaviors may be, people do get something out of them. Which brings me to the usual topic we talk about here – white supremacy.
Every time I post a “Dear White People” letter in which I suggest we, as white people, need to change in any way I get angry comments about how I must be “self hating” or how I am the “real racist” for suggesting that any of us are racist. It seems the worst thing a white person can say to another white person is “You are racist.” How dare I call you racist! How self loathing I must be to say that I am racist too! The beat goes on. It is utterly predictable (which means, dear reader, if you are about to send me such a comment please be aware that you are being predictable).
What is behind this outrage? I think it is a weird and lethal cocktail of shame and fear and grief. Deep down, underneath all the demonic systems of oppression and dehumanization that have become so normalized we don’t even see them, we still have enough humanity to know that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, lynching and everything that went into making it all seem OK – which frankly is a whole hell of a lot of “Christian” theology – is really, really, really wrong and deep down we ARE ashamed of ourselves and our race. But we dare not admit it because that is like saying we are bad people, that God must hate us, that we have no self worth. We can’t be “self loathing.” Heaven forbid. So we stuff all that shame into a box of denial and label it “stuff that happened many years ago that my ancestors had nothing to do with” and keep on stepping. Except we don’t. The shame is still there and we fear it will show up again, like when some smart ass preacher brings it up on her stupid blog.
We, as white people, particularly white Christians, have gone on like this for a very long time. As long as we were in the majority in our nation it sort of worked. But what happens now that we are headed toward an era where we are no longer going to be the numerical majority? What happens when brown skinned people start to outnumber us? What happens when, to make matters worse, brown faced immigrants who practice other religions like, oh say, Islam keep coming to our shores? Some of us seem to be dealing with this anxiety by voting to “make America great again” as if there was something truly great about our past which was lost and can now be found and saved, a time when white, Christian, Americans were the “good guys” providing a moral example to the world which, due to our goodness, we were destined to rule, a time when we could tell ourselves that our economic strength came from “hard work” not ill gotten gain, and when we were God’s chosen people. Of course that is a fiction, but it is a fond and beloved fiction that we did get something out of. We got to feel “great” and lots of us really long to feel “great again.” It is so tempting to want to build a really big wall around our “greatness” so that we can at least hold onto it a little while longer, so we don’t have to feel this encroaching sense of vulnerability that comes with change.
The problem is, our own scriptures warn us about this sense of “greatness” telling us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co 1:27 NRS) The only greatness we can hope for is the greatness of shared vulnerability, of admitting to our foolishness, and a willingness to be weak just like everyone else. It is time to come down off our self made pedestal and join humanity. There is real hope in that. Shared, human, vulnerability leads to real love, the only true greatness there is. We can get there.
But first we must admit that we are grieving a real loss, which is hard because, while we may have rituals for lamenting the loss of something good, there are no rituals for lamenting the loss of an evil we liked. I am not even sure how we do this. I am just convinced that we must. Instead of dealing with our anxiety by building walls and embracing imperial “greatness” let’s deal with it by admitting we ARE anxious and we do grieve.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived a sense of specialness from white supremacy and we are sort of sad to see it go.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we really enjoyed it when whiteness was a synonym for goodness and it hurts to realize it is not.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived comfort from the idea that God’s love was tied up with white Christianity, the flag, and mom’s apple pie in a way that did not really apply to anyone else except our special selves.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we can’t even admit to how truly evil white supremacy was and is because we still gain from it.
Maybe if we can at least admit to how vulnerable we feel and lament the end of an evil we liked, we can finally begin to actually repent of it and be on the way to a whole other kind of true, and sustainable, greatness.
Sisters. It is time we talked. We just elected someone to be our president whose racism is so obvious that the KKK is now marching in celebration. The polls all said he would not win. But he did. The polls said white women in particular would vote against him. We did not. That means a bunch of us lied and said we weren’t voting for him but, once we were alone in that voting booth, we did. We voted for an admitted sexual assailant over another white woman who could have been our first female president and many of us did it in secret.
Why? I hear all kinds of explanations. Hillary is so bad. Emails. The economy. The dems don’t listen and so on and so forth. I could argue against each one but I won’t because deep down I don’t think any of these reasons are real. If they were, we wouldn’t have done this thing in SECRET.
When do we do things in secret? We do things in secret when we want to present one face to the world and another to our community and even to ourselves. We hide our racism under white sheets, social masks, coded language, and voting booths. We are so good at hiding our racism that we even hide it from ourselves. We say we are electing a KKK endorsed candidate DESPITE all the hateful things he said about people of color not because of it. We use the language of “greatness” and “unity” without considering who it is that will pay the price for it. Even when faced with a “not PC” candidate who “tells it like it is” meaning he is OVERT in his own racism, we still pretend he didn’t just say what he did. We still find a way to vote for the racist without making it SEEM like we are racist ourselves, often believing we really aren’t. Sometimes we do it by playing with language that makes it possible to BE racist without being CALLED racist or even thinking to ourselves privately that we might BE racist. Others just lie.
Well guess what. As a white woman, I am calling us out. We just did some really racist shit. Racist, racist, racist and yes, I just cussed. Oh my.
Why do I think this happened? The best explanation I can come up with is the way so many of us have been socialized to think about black men. Dating back to the era of mass lynchings and probably sooner, we were told black men were predators wanting to rape us and that our “virtue” and “womanhood” needed protection. I remember when I first became a police officer and white men wanted to get me off the job by trying to scare me by pointing to the “dangers” of the job, they almost always used the language of “What are you going to do when confronted by a BIG, BLACK, MAN?” When men are trying to get us to cooperate with the patriarchy by setting up boogie men, it’s never white assailants. It’s this mythological “big, black, man” that keeps us in line, obedient to the “nice, white, men” who perpetrate it in order to maintain dominance. We don’t like patriarchal dominance. That’s why many of us identify as feminist.
But even when we are feminist-fighting patriarchy, we still don’t fight the racism that lies within ourselves and our movement. From the beginning white American feminism has been racist. The first wave of feminism (the suffrage movement, Seneca Falls etc.) explicitly rejected black women. When it was apparent that the right to vote would either come first to black men or to white women, the white suffragettes were quick to betray their black sisters. Check out the history of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as it relates to their treatment of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. That is the side of our movement we don’t like to look at, but desperately need to, because we never overcame it. We, white feminists, are still in the business of betraying our black sisters.
We will even turn on other white women if they get too close to black people, particularly black men. That is what I believe just happened to Hillary Clinton. She allied herself with President Obama and paid the price for it.
According to the exit polls, Black women were more than willing to support a white woman for president. They turned up in great numbers to do so. But they were the only ones who did.
We white women made a different choice. In secret.
We took our “souls to the polls” and lost them.
We have to do better than that. Starting now.
Dear White People,
It will probably come as no surprise, but I sometimes (OK often) get complaints about my “dear white people” posts. These complaints are sometimes phrased diplomatically. Other times not so much. But most seem to break down into the following categories. So if you are one of quite a few people who have recently written to me to bitch about my blog, here you go. (Others are welcome to listen in.) :
- Your words make me feel bad Please notice, I NEVER engage in personal attacks. I get piles of hate mail on a daily basis and have yet to respond in kind. This blog is safe space in that respect. Safe space means respecting the dignity and worth of all people and not letting anyone be personally denigrated. That said, there is a big difference between safe space and comfortable space. We are talking about racism here. It is not a comfortable topic. I can only sugar coat my words but so much. If I make the conversation comfortable so none of us white people ever need to feel bad about anything, it will become meaningless. So we need to make a decision. What matters more, white feelings or black lives? I believe black lives matter more than white feelings. So don’t ask me to sugar coat my words any more than I already have and let’s get past the need to feel good all the time and deal with this grown up topic like grown ups. This brings me to the next related objection
- You are trying to make me feel guilty ashamed Actually, as I have said many times, I think shame, or sense of worthlessness as a person, is what STOPS white people from healing from our own internalized prejudices and working to end systemic racism, so no, I don’t want you to feel shame. Guilt is another story. Guilt means recognizing you have done something wrong and need to change it. Anyone with a conscience experiences guilt. Recognizing healthy guilt and taking action to change whatever it is we feel guilty about is called morality. Morality is a good thing. Let’s be moral.
- Not all white people are racist. Let’s deal with some definitions here. Personal racial prejudice = having negative feelings about others based on their actual or perceived race. Some people have more personal racial prejudice. Others have less. Still more are really good at hiding their prejudices. Even more still aren’t even aware of the prejudices they have. I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to have NO personal racial prejudice, but, frankly, I have yet to see it. I know for a fact, I am not there yet. There are still levels of unconscious bias I still have to work on. Systemic racism = social, economic, political, cultural, and other systems that have disparate impact on certain races. We all grew up in a racist world full of racist systems. We didn’t all personally create those systems, but we do all either suffer from or benefit by them and, those of us who benefit from systemic racism, i.e. white people with white privilege, have a special responsibility to be about the business of dismantling racist social systems. So, yes, we are all racist in SOME sense and it is not a personal attack to say so, nor is it shameful to admit it.
- “Not all white people are horrible” First of all, I never said that. In fact, I am pretty sure I have been quite clear that I believe in the inherent goodness of all human beings, including those of us who society deems white. Without it, we would have no hope in the face of such an enormous and long standing national sin as racism. I am also quite aware that we are all in different places in our, hopefully, anti-racist journeys. However, regardless of where we are on our journey, we can still ALL do better. Overcoming racism isn’t just an item on a to do list that you can check off and move on. It is a lifetime commitment. Either you are in or you aren’t and, if you are in, you still have work to do. Furthermore, responding to anti-racist messages with a “not all white people” response is usually a way of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion that really needs to happen whether we like it or not. That brings me to the next objection.
- Saying “white people” is racist because it labels people- “usually these comments come from the “colorblind” set so I will combine my response to this with my response to the related statement “I am colorblind.” No, you aren’t colorblind. None of us are. We are all capable of looking at another human being and making a good guess about how they are perceived racially. If you are trying to say that you try to treat people fairly, regardless of race, that is nice, but it is still not enough. As I have said before, there is a lot more to dismantling systemic racism than learning to be personally nice to folks. If you mean to say race is, basically, an artificial social construct, then I agree with you. It is. But it is a very deep seated construct that has led to the construction of many racist systems and simply pretending it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter to you, won’t make it go away. Furthermore, playing colorblind is not a loving thing to do. If you care about a person, you want to know something about them beyond the fact that they are some abstract humanoid. Part of knowing a person is understanding something about their racial identity and experience.
- Racism is a sin of the past that had nothing to do with me a.k.a. the “I never owned slaves” defense I never owned slaves either. To my knowledge, neither did my ancestors. But I DO benefit from the white privilege that came from white supremacy and, because that is so, I am responsible for trying to change my society. If you are also willing to take responsibility and work for change, I invite you overcome these objections and get to work.
Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,
Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.
Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?
How about this quote? “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.”
So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?
I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.
So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.
James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?