Category Archives: Race

Lovers or Liars?

I recently completed my final report for the Louisville Institute.  These generous partners in ministry awarded me a grant to study the sociopolitical construct of race, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm and why persons fear Christian community.  I visited Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  It was Clarence’s “demonstration plot.”  He would create his own world, challenging segregationist laws in the 1940s.  The community was intentional, sharing in a fair wage and a common purse.

The farm was bombed.  The business was boycotted.  The members of Koinonia Farm were ex-communicated from their church.  Because they loved their neighbor, their African American neighbor at a time when it was not socially or politically advantageous to do so. Clarence is my kind of Christian.

So, I set out to learn as much as I could in the year and a half I had allotted.  I registered for conferences, signed up for workshops, ate fellowship meals, had tough conversations.  I asked hard questions of myself and those around me.  I dug deep and nearly scraped the bottom of my soul.

I conducted interviews and read a small library of books about the sociopolitical construct of race, intentional community, the life, work and witness of Clarence Jordan on Koinonia Farm, multi- cultural/ cross- cultural ministry, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I took copious notes, wrote extensively, preached the message of community faithfully.  I even redecorated my office in D.C. to reflect the work that had reshaped my life.  It was all about community- building.

I was being transformed, emphasis on the I.

In the end, the results were not what I expected.  No statistic or story could have prepared me for the narrative that would emerge.  Long story short– Christians are afraid of Christian community.  While there are those who would point to those who are doing it right (“See, we’re not all bad.”), there is a long and troubling history of Christians in North America who do not follow Jesus in the way of love, who refuse to integrate socially with persons of other cultures, who refuse to integrate their faith and life.  As it was during American slavery so it is now.  Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, European Americans are shamelessly able to oppress others while claiming to espouse the liberating words of Jesus Christ.

Call them what you will.  It makes no difference because at least they are white.  And in America, whiteness pays.  It pays to play.

It must be said that those who agree to the conditions of whiteness (that is, the oppression of other cultural groups so that they might have privileged access to wealth, the land and its resources) are a serious impediment to the healing work required for reconciliation in the Church.  You simply cannot build an authentic Christian community where whiteness and its interests are at the center, if socially colored white people do all the leading and none of the following, if they control the resources and determine the ministry emphases, if they influence the votes to ensure that it always goes their way in business meetings.  Because the identity of whiteness is protected at all costs.  Put above the cross of Christ, who persons are as white people and as the model citizens for the world in appearance, behavior and conduct is to be defended.

But it takes the place of Christ’s body and his work.  Or, is it that there are those who think that their body is his?  The work of race is complete in these cases, swapping out Christ’s body for their own, deifying their flesh and nullifying the work of his.

To be sure, this is not a matter of identifying with Christ’s body or doing what he would.  This is proof that America’s created identity of whiteness is wedged in between the cross and the crown for many European Americans.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are at odds but there are those who believe that they are one and the same, that if you have seen a socially colored white person, then you have seen God.  Skin “color” long associated with good and evil and used to determine the heathen/ barbarian/ uncivilized versus the civilized/ cultured, the same is true for the Church in North America.  The social coloring of skin separates the righteous from the unrighteous.  It is not a matter of separating goats and sheep but “white” people and all the other “people of color.”  The Church has a color line.

Christians, who claim to be made in the image of God, live in and through racialized identities. They create segregated sacred spaces, somehow walking in the footsteps of Jesus while avoiding marginalized and oppressed people who are victims of race and its progeny.  The theological disconnect could not be more obvious.

Persons will close ranks and churches will close up shop in a community that is experiencing cultural change before it will integrate.  They will take their Bibles and believe somewhere else.  Christians need for power, all while worshipping an all- powerful God, cannot be underestimated. The impact of colonialism, American slavery and its other versions of domination continue to determine and influence the ways in which we relate to each other.  And even for persons of faith, they cannot get the colonizer out of their head.

John said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (First John 4.20).  In my estimation, there are only two choices, only two kinds of people.  Love is the deciding factor.  Because you cannot love God and not love everyone that God has created.  It is a package deal.  Take it or leave it.

So, Christians, if there is hatred in your heart for your brother or sister, the one you won’t speak to, who you dodge at the grocery store, whose food you don’t like though you’ve never tasted it, whose clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in, then you are not a lover but a big, old liar.  John is pretty clear that there are no little white ones.  There is no question about it.

Canada’s prime minister reminds us that it is not “a whole new world”

A picture has surfaced of Justin Trudeau, now the prime minister of Canada, wearing “brown face.”  To offer a comprehensive description, he also has a brown neck and hands at an “Arabian Nights” themed event back in 2001.  He is a 29 year old teacher– not a student– at West Point Grey Academy.  It’s a group pictured in a yearbook.  Sound familiar?

It’s at a private school and a private party, which only adds to my questions regarding the private lives of public figures, namely politicians.  They are supposed to represent the best of us.  They promise to represent all of us.  But, time and again, we are reminded that they only represent some, who don’t want to be lumped in, grouped with or counted as part of us.  No, all persons other than those socially colored white are mere costumes to be worn on special occasions, dressed up in on holidays and for one’s entertainment.  It is part of a masquerade.  Because the only real human being is the one underneath it.

And we have yet to peel back that layer and examine why persons continue to use the flesh of others for their amusement, why some hues warrant hubris and others our humiliation.

Why do human beings who share the same flesh and bones continue to make dressing in black or brown face an option on an Arabian night or any other?  Why not question yourself as you smear the paste or cream on your face, neck and hands?  What do you see when you look in the mirror when you are finished, when you have transformed yourself into the so- called other who is actually your sister and brother?  What do you find so funny about it?  Where is the humor in it?

And I cannot ask how would you feel if it happened to you because it won’t.  In fact, persons from other cultures who “act white” are applauded, promoted and pointed out as fine examples, the right way to be a human being.  Whiteness is a bully so you make fun of those who are not in your color click.  Still, where do you think this is going when you mock the image of another human being, who had no choice in their skin’s hue, same as you?  And really who do you think you are?

I ask again, “Who do you think you are?”  Your skin will wrinkle and rot in death the same as any other.  It does tear and bleed the same as mine.  It does bruise and swell upon injury.

But then there is this belief in the color white and its immunity.  It’s only social.  The sociopolitical construct of race is not even skin deep.  It only goes so far as the society would allow it and as the people in power would have it.

Trudeau has apologized. “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better and I didn’t. I’m really sorry.” He didn’t think that the photograph was racist but he does now.  But, because someone else pointed out or he has a different perspective?

At 29 years old, he still didn’t know any better?  He didn’t consider it racist in 2001.  But he darkened his face while at Jean Brebeuf High School.  He was pretending to be Alladin at the annual dinner but this time, he was Harry Belafonte.  And then there was that time when he is wearing blackface back in the 1990s.  This one is on video.

Once, twice, three times a racist.

There is no need for a history lesson, diversity training, an apology tour, a dialogue with persons from the communities you have hurt, a town hall meeting on race relations, a new movie featuring two people from opposite sides of the track who crossed to the other side to find some sort of paradise in this divided world.  And stop apologizing.  Words are not enough.

Trudeau and others like him can talk a good game.  But, eventually it is revealed that nothing has changed, that progressive is but a name, that in private, they have no intentions of co- creating a whole new world where all are treated equally.  It’s just more of the same old racism.

Don’t touch my hair

I’ve had to say this in church, at a so- called multicultural, we are the example of inclusion and God’s kingdom come to earth one.  “Don’t touch my hair.”  After compliments, hands uninvited reached forward to finger my tresses.  “It’s so soft,” she said.  Her response revealing much and undoing more of a potential relationship than she could ever imagine.  Her ten digits reached forward and created a boundary.

She would never get that close to me again.  We would never see eye- to- eye.  Because she was inspecting me now, examining my hair as if it was completely strange and foreign and intriguing.  It’s not.

It’s just hair, same as hers though a different texture.  And it is hair seen for four hundred years in America.  So, why the surprise, the intrigue?  It is no mystery.  And why does she still not feel the need to ask, “May I touch your hair?”

Because her tilted head is bewildering to me.   She doesn’t really see me as a human being.  Because in America, there is a history of inspecting African bodies during American slavery on auction blocks.  Because her touch in this way triggers that ancestral, deep in my bone, drilled into my head memory.  “Don’t touch my hair.”

It is a necessary declaration, a reminder of the change in my position, that sadly needs to be stated again and again.  It is a portion of my Emancipation Proclamation.  My body belongs to me.  I am and will remain free.  These attempts to touch my hair are more than finger pricks but little deaths, small entanglements, bondages, links fo chains.

It is habits like this one that have yet to be unlearned by so- called white people who are not really free of their strange desire to oppress, to lay claim to other human bodies.  Some are able to hide it in their speech, but the body memory of oppression and dominance lives on.  It is acted upon when they reach out without thought for repercussion to touch hair that doesn’t belong to them, to violate personal boundary.   It is not merely a bad habit but the strange character of whiteness.

And this would not have come to mind if not for the pictures of Executive Director Sally Hazelgrove of Crusher’s Club touching the hair of two African American young men.   It is made worse because the organization is funded by the National Football League, which has recently come under fire for its partnership with Shawn Carter as persons believe it circumvents the social justice work of Colin Kaepernick.  With school scissors in hand, she is cutting off their hair, their locs.   Hazelgrove shared the pictures online and one was captioned, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”

The pictures have since been deleted but when asked by The Washington Post about cutting the men’s hair off, she responded, “I did not think about the ramifications.”  And therein lies the problem.   African American hair has long been viewed as problematic, difficult and unattractive– by European Americans.  In fact, it is only a problem because these beauty inspectors say so.  The natural hair that grows out of African American heads has been used to determine academic performance, gainful employment and other social success rates, which is why so many women chemically straighten their hair or wear wigs.  Still, the leader of an organization that serves African American youth, picked up a pair of scissors and touched a nerve.

Hazelgrove shouldn’t have touched his hair because it implies that she defines beauty, that her kind of beauty determines a “better life,” that this “better life” is based on appearance, that his mere appearance is troubling and starts on top of his head, that goodness and beauty go hand in hand.  The scissors in her hand represent a total disconnect from African American culture, its heritage and the history of defiance against socially colored white hands.  That’s what she is touching.  Hair and habits are not synonymous.

That’s why race is all wrong– because it would have you and I to believe that hair, threadlike strands growing from our head and face, arms and their pits, legs and toes, hair that we pluck from our noses– determines who we are.  Seriously?  My hair doesn’t speak for me and if you touch it, you will never really or truly or fully hear from me.  So don’t touch my hair.

The history of our days

On this day in 1955, a fourteen year old African American boy named Emmett Till from Chicago, Illinois was killed in Money, Mississippi.  I know his story by heart; it was the first one I learned on domestic terrorism and mob lynching when I began my personal study of African American history.   He went to visit relatives, a kind of summer vacation and was accused of whistling at a socially colored white woman.  Sexual harassment, rape, whistling at a so- called white woman are all the same for these domestic terrorists and all common themes in the murder of African American men.

Emmett’s death spoke to the historical and hysterical fear of cross- cultural relationships despite the common knowledge of the rape of African and later African American women by their European American oppressors, the “tainting of the pure white race” and the myth of inherent inferiority for those socially colored black.  The two were never to meet, mingle or mix.  Death was not considered a high price but the necessary cost of admission to race and its capitalist superiority complex.  It was deemed necessary to maintain these pseudo- distinctions and color- coded divisions.

Emmett– not his murderers– had crossed the line for whistling at her.

It was a common charge, included with those recorded by the Equal Justice Initiative like “not allowing a (socially colored) white person to beat him up” as was the case of Jim Eastman in Brunswick, Tennessee in 1887, for “refusing to abandon their land to (socially colored) white people” William Stephens and Jefferson Cole are lynched in Delta County, Texas in 1895, “for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Turner, Mary Turner was lynched with her unborn child at Folson Bridge at the Brooklyn- Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918.”  Thousands of lynchings, perhaps Emmett’s murderers didn’t think that his would matter.  But, they were wrong.  Emmett’s heinous death would change the trajectory of a nation.

Persons said his name and realized that their lives mattered, that if persons could beat and lynch and shoot and tie a child’s body to a cotton gin fan and throw him into the river and not be found guilty of a crime against our shared humanity, then justice was not blind but looking the other way.  It inspired the Civil Rights Movement and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who on this same day in 1963 received the Nobel Peace Prize.  He had a dream: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  But the nightmare of race continues and his children aren’t getting any younger.

Race and racialized identities continue to inspire the lynching of African American men, women and children in police- states for suspected crimes like selling cigarettes for which Eric Garner was choked to death, for listening to loud music as was the case for Jordan Davis or simply walking back to his father’s home from a convenience store like Trayvon Martin.  From chants of “I am somebody” to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living the history of our days.  We are stuck in the past, never to see a brighter day or the light at the end of our tunnel vision because we human beings refuse to stick together.

It should have never happened to Emmett Till but when it did, it should have never happened again.  The struggle to share our humanity continues.  What will you do to change the present on this day?

Questioning our multiple supremacies

Katharine Gerbner writes in Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World that before there was the ideology of white supremacy, there existed what she calls “Protestant Supremacy.”  Gerbner writes about Anglicanism in Barbados what was also true in America, “The Anglican Church in Barbados was exclusive, the domain of slave owners and government officials. … The planter elite believed that their status as Protestants was inseparable from their identity as free Englishmen.  Like their counterparts in England, they purchased pews, memorialized themselves within church walls, and used the church as a place for both punishment and politics. … Unlike the parish churches in England, however, the Anglican Church in Barbados was restricted.  It separated masters from their enslaved ‘heathen’ laborers and marked Anglo- Barbarians as both English and free.  The association between Protestantism and freedom was so strong that most slave owners came to dismiss the idea that their slaves were eligible for conversion.”

How this kind of Christian identity functions and furthers the social oppression and cultural dislocation of people around the world can be considered if you want.  It is not a choice that one simply comes to.  There are no formal directions; it is not something that one simply arrives at.  Instead, you either see it or you don’t.

It is a question for the conscious Christian, those who are aware of the ghastly and grim differences between the Jesus of the New Testament and the practice of Christianity in America in its racialized, hyper-politicized and militarized form.   It is the quest for the dissatisfied with what has been and those who are simply not interested in the cultural projections of what will be.  It’s not trendy or fashion- forward.  It won’t be captured in polls or represented by a politician.  Because it is other- worldly.

It is the work of those who are interested in a faith tested to ensure that it is not self- centered or self- serving.  Because Christianity does not really work for us but it works against us and our tendencies.  If it is easy and causes no complications, no consternation, produces no ramifications that go against social norms, if it does not make obvious the competitions of our flesh, then we are doing it wrong– or not at all.  Faith in Christ leads to crucifixion: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26).

Clearly, I am having my doubts about the expressions of Christianity on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and those I view at their multi- sight locations at various times.  Because if Christianity is serving our purpose or that of society, if there is any word in front of it that aims to define it, describe it, validate it– as if Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection are insufficient– if Christ is primarily used to doing something for you other than the work of salvation, if there is a narrative that seeks to explain God’s plan for the world other than that of Christ, if is not the means and the end, then this is not faith in Christ.

Instead, we are merely Christianizing our belief system, divinizing our top of the pile, king and queen of the hill position in the world,  making pseudo- sovereign decisions about bodies temporary and created before and outside of any system.  This is not apart of one’s identity in Christ.  Instead, it is human, carnal and ungodly.  Because there is no supremacy but God’s in this world or any other– created or imagined.  And if there is some other, color- coded, black, white or otherwise, well then, I have questions.

Because there cannot exist multiple supremacies.