Rejecting Whiteness

There were four of us guys in the van. Driving through a neighborhood of Dayton known for money. Racist money. Don’t read that as a castigation of people who live in the neighborhood. Like most other places where we Americans lay our heads, there is a mix of people. Good people and bad people. Giving people and taking people. Privilege and responsibility. But this neighborhood has a history and scars.

Four of us. Three Black. And me.

“You don’t really want to be caught on the side streets here after dark. You will get pulled over.” I advised. One guy responded: “We need a White person in the car.” A second looked back at me in the rear seat and said, “Not you, Aaron. You Black.”

We all laughed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart swelled. I felt a not insignificant degree of pride. And why that is the case is complicated.

Cultural appropriation is real. It is damaging. It is insulting. And sometimes, it is literally deadly, like when Whites take the intellectual or creative property of a person of color and monetizes it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the artist. Read about the history of rock and roll. Black artists saw their creations repackaged and made palatable for White America; record companies and managers got rich; artists like Elvis Presley, even though he personally despaired of the inequities, made millions off the creations of Black writers and musicians, many of whom died in penury and obscurity.

I’ve written before (and before and before and before) about issues of race and Whiteness. I feel like anyone who knows me and wants to actually follow my philosophy and theology needs to read my blog. And I think it is fair to say that; I have grown tired of having the same conversations around Whiteness. I am exhausted by White fragility. And that has become clear to some people. As a result, I have been called divisive. Exclusionary. Angry. It pains me to hear this, and believe me I have done everything I reasonably can do to make people who accuse me of this to feel heard and listened to. To me, the problem is that I just won’t say, “We can agree to disagree.” If you want people of color to simply stop talking about their race or experiences and just see everyone else as “the same,” I’m not going to say I’m okay with it. People have the right to their opinions, yes. But your right to your opinion does not mean I have to stop talking about mine because your feelings will get hurt.

I just spent the week with fellow doctoral students at United Theological Seminary. We heard from Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, Pastor Roz Picardo, incredible men of color who are bringing the light of Christ into the world in loving, positive, affirming ways. Each of them took time to talk with me or pray with me, to encourage me and ask about what the Lord has laid upon my heart. Yet, I know that each one of them, pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop or in the wrong situation, they could die. Sure. Any of us could. But their chances are much, much higher. Seriously. Click on the hyperlinks and check out these men and what they are doing. It is incredible.

I attend an amazing seminary.

I have locs. I wore a zoot suit at my wedding. I’m loud and wear wild clothes and shoes. As I write this, I am listening to Miles Davis. My favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee. James Cone’s God is Black changed my life and my theology. I’m the only one who is not a person of color in my cohort, including the mentor. United’s doctoral studies student body is predominately non-white. I feel completely at home and have never been given the stinkeye. In other contexts, I have been accused of being a wigger. Of wanting to be Black.

And, honestly, I guess that’s kinda true.

I hate the concept of Whiteness. I hate what it represents and what it has done. I hate how it has attempted to homogenize complicated and different European and Scandinavian cultures into some boring amalgamation that is also violent. Destructive. There are very few places left on the earth where this insidious creation has not imprinted itself. It has pervaded my faith tradition. It violates those of others. It necessitates something like Black Pride. Latinx Pride. Native Pride. No culture or group should have to shout and scream that their cultures or lives matter. Whiteness does that. Whiteness causes that. And I want no part of it.

But I can’t just pretend that I’m not “White.” I am. I reject the label, but not the consequences. Not the reality. Not the responsibilities that come with the privilege. And I will use my privilege until I don’t have it anymore.

I use that line a lot. Recently, someone asked me what I meant by it. “Well,” I said. “I see three ways I lose it. One, I end up in prison because of justice work. Two, I die. Three, the culture changes and it no longer exists. And if I can only chose two out of the three that I think will actually happen, I know my decision.”

It’s not that I want to be Black in that I want to change my skin tone. I don’t. I love my parents and my family. I am deeply proud to be my parents’ son, and that includes being fiercely attached to my Irish and Finnish heritages. And the way that I choose to be American is heavily influenced by African-American history, culture, religious practices, intellectual contributions, and entertainment. I don’t want to be color blind. I love African-American culture and attitudes; the fierce ways that love and faith are expressed; how laughter is often loud and raucous, smiles quick to come, individuality encouraged.

But I know I’m not Black. I can shave my beard, cut my hair, cover my tats, and close my mouth. Well, theoretically I can do those things but anyone who knows me will attest that Aaron doesn’t shut up easily. And Aaron is gonna do Aaron.

I’ve got a couple dear friends who are designers. They run a rad shop in YS I will be blogging about at some point in the future, but I’m pitching a T-shirt idea and if you think you might want one, comment and let me know. I think if we can gather enough interest, we might be able to get it done. The shirt will say: “I’m not White.”

The great thing is, almost everybody gets to wear it. POC can obviously wear it, and it might spark some interesting conversation. But the thought of White people wearing a shirt saying “I’m not White” is provocative. It makes a statement. I don’t accept that label. At all. I now check “other” and write in that I identify as Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. While there are no genetic tests that can “prove” this, genealogy and family lore lead me to believe the chances are good enough that saying so is not appropriative. The beard and locs honor my ancestors and the culture that is part of my heritage.

But when it comes to understanding myself as an American and a Christian, rejections of Whiteness are most authentic to me. For me. And while I try not to judge those who embrace Whiteness or see things differently than do I–and I certainly try to show respect–the notion that my speaking about these issues consistently and loudly is somehow divisive will simply not fly. I will not sit down. I will not shut up. I lead with love, but love does not always speak words you want to hear. Love isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes love is about feeling bad. And I don’t mean that as suggesting persons should feel bad about themselves: I mean that love is sometimes about making us feel the bad that results from our impacting someone else in a negative way.

Racism is real. We have major, important changes to make. We are in the midst of another Civil Rights movement and I plan to play my part, to do what I can when I can with who I can for as long as I can. I will make mistakes. I may not see them, but if they are pointed out I will respond and make changes. I will apologize. I will try to see my error first next time.

But I will not ever stop. Not until I’m dead and gone or racism has given up the ghost.

This week has been amazing. I love my cohort and I feel filled with the Spirit of God. I’m going to enjoy the rest of this day that the Lord hath made by taking a nap while snuggling with a cat. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

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To the Imams Khan: I Have Sacrificed Nothing

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Like a vast majority of Americans who are not terrible people and have a soul, I watched the appearance of Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan, the parents of fallen U.S. Army Captain Humayun Kkhan, a patriotic young man who lost his life owed to the reckless policies of the Bush Administration, with tears in my eyes. Anyone who questions if the American dream is still alive need only look at these dignified, proud people who understand what true political oppression feels like. Looks like. They know what it means to go to another country and seize opportunities, such as Mr. Khan has done as an attorney. As their son did as a soldier deploying and redeploying as called upon by his country. And the image of Mrs. Khan, standing silently but proudly, wearing a hijab, providing strength for her husband as we imagine she has done for family all her life, is now seared into the American consciousness. Watching them, I felt proud to be an American. I don’t say stuff like that a lot. False patriotism is ugly. I have sacrificed nothing for my country. I am not a veteran. I have taught at private institutions. My community service and work is not a sacrifice. It is a great joy. A privilege. My religious freedom is not as the result of anything I have done; it has been given to me. While I am a lifelong, dedicated pacifist I have friends who are Marines and soldiers in the Army; sailors and Air Force. Veterans and active duty. One of my dear friends’ father is a retired Air Force Colonel. Another friend lost her brother in Afghanistan. I live a stone’s throw away from the second largest AFB in the country, and there are armories to the south and east. I know lots of people who have sacrificed by serving in the Peace Corp or Teach for America.

I have sacrificed nothing.

The splenetic, infantile responses of the Orange Baboon are a perfect illustration of what is going on in this country right now. Really, if we are honest, it has been going on for hundreds of years. Rich men who never serve a day of their life in the military continually decide to send our volunteer forces into impossible situations with suspects motives to seeks amoral outcomes. See also: History. Drumpf, who is woefully unaware of geopolitics, including dangerously inaccurate statements about Crimea and Ukraine, claims that he has made sacrifices by working hard, creating jobs, and building “great” buildings. One is reminded of his statement that his love for the differently-abled community can be seen in his spending millions of dollars to

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comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sacrifices abound.

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We cannot ask for a better situation to demonstrate the macrocosm through the microcosm. Here we have an immigrant family who are fiercely proud of their adopted country; who raised a son with a sense of devotion and service that I have never even approached; who laid bare their own pain and suffering out of concern for their fellow citizens, to offer as an example an American who never would have existed had The Donald been in power when the Khans left Pakistan; who passionately used as their defense for having such fundamental questions about Drumpf’s qualifications, knowledge of the fucking Constitution of the United States. And as John Oliver has said, it seems the first time that noble document has been used as a middle finger.

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I felt proud because I see, in a small way, that we are inching closer and closer to fulfilling the maxim that all persons are created equal. A Muslim couple who still speak with accents, proudly and courageously challenging the odiousness that is passing for GOP policy positions. And, of course, the response is no longer a surprise. The asshat with “one of the great temperaments” reacted like a foul-mouthed parrot that has learned how to tweet. And, seriously. What the hell is with that sentence construction? One of the great temperaments? I must have missed the day in school in which Ms. Davis, the legendary history teacher from my high school alma mater, went over the Great Temperaments. As I am a man who likes to know things, I spent the morning doing deep research on the Great Temperaments (one cannot recommend enough the seminal work of Monsieur Derriere-Chapeau) and I found rare footage of Trump’s noble forbears:

I have written before (and before and before) about the darkness and irresponsible vision of the country the GOP nominee is presenting. But I am asking people to look very closely at what is happening: Drumpf wants to be president, but he can’t even fulfill the most basic tasks. He will send armed forces into areas of the world he knows nothing about, and will be unable to comfort the families when our heroes return in boxes. The man is a walking id, as I’ve said before. He is a blight on humanity.

But I’m about solutions. Positivity. Rejecting Trump does not happen just at the ballot box, it comes with the actions we engage in each day. Because this is what we are facing:

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This was left on a female friend of color’s FB post. I reported it and alerted my friend, who is out of the country. But this is what Drumpf is stirring up. We can be reactionary and go into word battles with them–which, actually, can be fun, so go ahead an inundate them with tweets and posts–but we can also engage in action. And that’s what this post is ultimately about. I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Khan have been our Imams. They have presented to us a challenge.

Pastor friends, Christian friends, friends who teach Sunday School. Join me. Join me as I continue to teach the children of First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs the Five Pillars of Islam. I connect each pillar to Christianity, highlighting similarities and differences, but they are learning about Islam. We are then going to a local mosque, and in return we will invite members to come to the church. My hope is that we can become sister communities, coming together every year to share. To support. To love one another. I’m asking you to do the same, or to do something to connect the congregation you serve or attend to a local Muslim community. It is time to make sure that as many microcosms as possible shift. That this be the end of a major politician being able to stoke fear and xenophobia.

The Khans are doing their part. Are you doing yours?

 

Fragile While White

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Let’s begin with the assumption that White fragility is real because it is. I’ve displayed it, given into it, defended it, all on the path toward recognizing it in me and in others. I have derailed conversations into being about placating my hurt feelings; I have unknowingly privileged myself in spaces meant to counteract cultural privilege; I have co-opted the experiences of others in order to spit racial malapropisms with righteous indignation; I have shown up to protests and tried to insert myself despite not having been part of the planning. I have had some hard, sometimes harsh truths spoken to me and reacted badly. Getting woke is a journey, yo. Keep showing up and keep learning. That’s my mantra.

The first step toward better allyship for me was disengaging my personal emotions from critiques of systems. I stopped hearing “White people” as “Aaron Maurice Saari.”That meant disentangling myself from the false sense of allegiance society had made me form with my “whiteness.”See above about getting woke. I still feel pangs of discomfort sometimes, but I have learned that it is inappropriate to voice those discomforts in spaces designed to refute the damage of white supremacy. Biting my tongue helps me hear more and speak less. That’s another mantra.

The second step was understanding that there are some spaces in which my presence will be a detriment or a detraction because I am a White man. Yes, it sucks. No, I don’t like it. But I get it. And my dislike of this is not important. People of color are not responsible for making me feel comfortable about their needing space and time in ways they determine. Our response as White people cannot and should not be to decry these spaces and efforts, but rather to work on dismantling the systems that necessitate such spaces. If we don’t like it, let’s create a country in which it is not necessary. Until then, we need to step back and follow the lead of those who suffer the oppression and fear rather than trying to tell them how to react to their trauma. Another mantra: not my trauma, not my timetable.

My third step was shifting the onus of education from persons of color to myself. When I was younger and just beginning to come into my activist identity, I asked a lot of questions of my friends of color in very appropriate ways because we were already incredibly close. One of my dearest friends is Native and Latina, and her work and witness has been an incredible inspiration to me. Half Pint (as we lovingly call her) has been a strong force of education in my life, and also a collaborator on justice work. My mistake was translating that relationship into one I can have with any person of color. I unintentionally asked others to be my bibliography or to educate me at times in which they were focused on other things. Half Pint helped educate me as a friend and as an organic part of our relationship; I blurred the friendship and advocacy line with a couple people in which it was inappropriate to do so. It happens, but when we recognize it we should seek to stop it from happening again. Another mantra: you will make mistakes.

The fourth step was to let go of guilt. Seriously. Most people worth listening to are not interested in guilt. But this also means rejecting narratives that seem to be aimed primarily at creating and stoking guilt. I am a person who lives with bipolar disorder. I am a person who has always been deeply emotional; while I have learned to live with conflict and holy tension (the notion that two persons can hold disparate views but maintain a loving relationship, generally with a belief that this is what God calls us to do), words can cut me deeply. I certainly understand that my education is ongoing, and that being woke doesn’t mean I am not complicit in racism. Final mantra: guilt is garbage.

This brings me to a point that may be hard for some non-Whites to hear, but I need to be honest about my lines and to encourage other Whites to do the same. I will not be called a rapist. I will not be told I engaged in genocide. I will not accept the idea that whiteness is a construct that needs to be torn down, but not before said construct is used to minimize and ridicule me for the sins of people to whom I have no connection other than the fact that I am “White.” Am I part of the system?  Yes. Did I go into slave quarters and rape women? No. I didn’t. And saying that I and others did then claiming White fragility when I object will not fly. We aim to grind systems into the dirt, not people.

Granted, these experiences most often arise online any more but they are there. They need to be addressed. Part of dealing with the issue of White fragility is curbing angry, loaded, prejudiced statements on all sides. Dealing with White fragility is understanding that the answer is not expecting people to be completely devoid of emotions or reactions when unproductive things are said. The answer IS calling out false accusations of White fragility.

For Whites, we each need to take responsibility for our own education and seek to help other Whites understand privilege and supremacy culture. What we don’t have to accept are vitriolic, charged statements that reduce people. We get to be experts on what it means to be White in our own contexts, and the ways in which we are able to affect change. I have White friends and colleagues who hold pulpits in Klan country. People who are trying to transition entire communities that have deep, significant ties to entrenched racist culture and structures. We have to trust them to know best how to be a force for change without unduly alienating him- or herself from the community, and thereby losing a place of authority or respect. Sorry, but a 22 year old African-American activist from Detroit is not going to understand how a 47 year old woman from the hills of Georgia should handle teaching her all White congregation about white supremacy culture.

It is important to say that when our feelings get hurt it is not always White fragility. And saying that it is does nothing to help advance true dialogue and understanding. It is important to say that we all are intersectional; we all come with both baggage and experience, ignorance and wisdom. It is important to say that a movement toward transformation cannot be based upon one group always being told what to do and how to do it. Certainly, White persons (as I noted above) have work to do as individuals, and I am doing what I can to help facilitate that, but I urge non-Whites to be pointed and careful with the charges of White fragility. I am seeing it used to diminish and dismiss the legitimate feelings of others.

I’m going to remain fragile. Because I am broken. We all are; we all have fissures and cracks. We all want our heads stroked and to be told that it is okay, even when we know that it is not. My fragility is wedded to my compassion and my sense of justice. My fragility is born of lament. Of pain. What I won’t do, though, is bring my fragility into discussions and spaces where it is not playing a role. I will continuously check myself, analyze my behavior, be aware of my body, of the loudness of my voice, of the ways in which I comport myself, especially in spaces where I am a guest or there simply to show support.

I think a vital necessity of the movement that is happening now is that we remember no one is an expert on someone else’s life and experiences. We have complicated, multifaceted factors that shape people’s lives, from race and gender to religion and sexuality; from bodily ability to mental health; from environment to education. Many of us had little to no control over many of these for our formative years. We are now witnessing extraordinary events that require multiple generations to work together. A times, I see incredible hubris from Millennials and regretful patronizing from Boomers and Xers. But I also see collaboration and cooperation, a resistance to that which seeks to divide us. I have much more hope than I do pessimism.

As always, I write this out of love and a desire to make the world a better place. And I might be wrong about a few things. Chances are, I’m wrong about a lot. But I think I am right about some things, too. And this fragile person is doing everything he can to remain strong. Let’s all help one another in that journey.