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?

 

We’re Not Allowed to Laugh

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They started appearing almost the instant Donald Trump “humbly” accepted the nomination of the once proud Grand Old Party to which my grandparents were lifelong members (except for my beloved grandma who voted for Obama twice). The tweets. The FB posts. The IMs. Usually this is my favorite part of both conventions: the witty, urbane, deeply educated comments from my wide circle of friends that includes rocket scientists, professors, pastors, teachers, nurses, welders, writers, actors, artists, dancers, photographers, retail workers, business owners, managers, lawyers, diplomats, economists, and trust fund babies. I count Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Democratic Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists among my friends, at least the ones with whom I remain in digital contact. We squabble, but over the years I’ve managed to weed out the most obstreperous on all sides and am lucky to have a pretty awesome FB and Twitter feed.

There was no congenial jocularity last night. No moments in which we could reach across the proverbial aisle and type in response, “If this candidate wins despite my voting for someone else, I known I can support a few things in the platform; I’d prefer to not have this president, but I understand why others do.” Even my staunchest Republican friends were either silent or posted about deep pain in watching their political party hand over the reigns to a grossly incompetent narcissist who all but promises martial law, racial profiling, mass deportations, foreign policy chaos, and economic recovery (despite the relative strength of most major markets and indicators).

My night went a little something like this: I tried some attempts at humor.

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If I do say so myself, that is kinda funny. Chuckle-worthy at least. Then I saw a post from a friend who came to the country as an refugee, is Muslim, and has children. He wrote that before his family escaped Iran in 1979, there were similar promises for purity, strength, security, and elimination of undesirables. I stopped chuckling. He has family who are not citizens but who understandably do not want to go back to Iran.

I tried an intellectual approach.

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Rather astute, if I do say so myself, and at the time I felt rather proud of myself for having such a sweeping grasp of historical geopolitics. Then a friend reminded me of the homeless man who was beaten by Trump supporters for being an immigrant, an action Trump refused to denounce. Intellectualism also was not successful in keeping me at a distance from the shitshow unfolding before the world.

I tried sarcasm, the last refuge I could see that might keep me from a total surrender to despair.

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As Trump struggled to pronounce GLBTQ+ and promised our community protection from a “foreign ideology,” a not-so-coded reference to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, which has yet to be connected to Islamic extremism, into my feed came this Advocate slideshow about the trans* persons who have been killed this year. Crap. Sarcasm wouldn’t work, either.

Righteous indignation at the baffling ignorance being trumpeted as strength and leadership seemed the next logical approach:

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As the balloons fell down upon the assembled crowd all I was left with was this:

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The song selection seemed so meta I reasoned it had to be unintentional. Certainly neither Trump nor anyone in his clusterfuck of a campaign could be witty enough to chose the song as a slight to states like my own, which loudly and proudly cast delegate votes for Gov. John Kasich, who has been disastrous for Ohio but seems downright Churchillian in comparison. No way, I thought, that this was a pointed jab at Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse Trump the penultimate night of the convention. No. Way! Right? And it certainly couldn’t be pointed at the American people, could it? A message to the so-called “moochers and takers,” to use House Speaker Paul Ryan’s verbiage, and the “losers,” which Trump believes includes Republicans who dare to disagree with him. That couldn’t be what we just saw, right?

Right?

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Right.

A friend of mine who is a scholar of dystopian literature and one of the sharpest thinkers I’ve ever known, usually is able to pull me out of Chicken Little mode. But even he was almost speechless and described himself sad, noting that Orwell was not writing a political handbook. Alas, we have found ourselves in Oceania. War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Ignorance is strength. One has to wonder if Trump wins the presidency, will yearly conventions be held in Cleveland? If so, one can only hope that it one day hosts international criminal court proceedings to bring to justice the regime that we are on the precipice of putting into place by so-called democratic means.

Finally, it pisses me off that this is exactly what Trump wants. He desires his supporters to feel emboldened and justified, and he wants to imbue with fear those of us who do not view the world in an infantile “winner and losers” rubric that most people shed by kindergarten. He wants us to believe his dark, ominous, wildly inaccurate claims and depictions of the United States. He wants to play upon White fear and insecurity; label as enemies immigrants and Muslims; and celebrate as wisdom ignorance of such gobsmacking depths that even Jules Verne couldn’t imagine the bottom.This is how we will make America great again.

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What Would I Have Done?


Can you believe that this agency gets work?  The five year old in me can’t stop gigglin’. 

I met James Farmer when I was eleven years old. I participated in a walkout over the Persian Gulf War in 8th grade (which I don’t know if I would have done as an adult, but I am still a committed pacifist). I’ve been involved in some form of activism to a greater or lesser extent for most of my life. But I have always wondered what I would have done had I lived through this:


Or this:


I have written about the six degrees of Godwin’s Law within online and political discussions, but it seems obvious that the Trump/Pence ticket will provide an opportunity to answer both questions simultaneously. What will I do? To be sure, there are incomplete comparisons between Trump/Pence and Hitler/Mussolini. Hitler had a clear platform that focused on promoting Aryan supremacy and eliminating all other political parties. We have two parties in this country, and while they are both beholden to corporate interests and corrupted beyond description, there are salient differences. Click here to do your own comparisons. But with the nomination of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, we see a political marriage of two extremists much like history saw with the signing of the Pact of Steel in 1932. Mussolini, some historians argue, was not as extreme as Hitler in terms of antisemitism; recently published documents suggest that he was fiercely anti-Jewish. Either way, he did nothing to stop the spread of Nazi policies throughout Europe. Mussolini first influenced Hitler, but by 1940 Hitler was clearly the alpha. Their relationship (along with participation in the Spanish Civil War) shaped Europe and pushed the world toward war.

So how does that relate to now? Donald Trump will say anything to get elected, even if that means contradicting himself within minutes. Mike Pence, though, is a committed hard right Republican. Seriously. Go down the rabbit hole with that last link. The man is terrifying for women, GLBTQ+ communities, POC, and basically anyone who does not adhere to his extremist views. While Trump is clearly a narcissistic opportunist only interested in advancing his brand, Pence is pure ideology. Trump has sent a signal to the Evangelical and Tea Party folks that they will have a place at the table. Trump has sent out the WASP-signal.

We don’t have to wonder, friends. A time of accountability is upon us. But here’s my pledge. I am going to be about hope and love rather than fear and hatred. I will not back down from confrontations and will not be silent because I am concerned about physical safety, but I will not allow the extreme beliefs of others impact my life to such an extent that I do not live as fully and as joyfully as possible. I am committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and if you read this blog you know how my faith functions.

I’m also going to support others in the things they are able to do; not all of us have the same call, the same gifts, the same responsibilities, the same contexts. Let’s affirm each other in the parts that we are able to play, and not push unrealistic expectations on others or ourselves. If LOVE WINS, as we often say, that means that it wins now. In this moment. It is not a goal to which we aspire, but rather is a philosophy we embody in what we do and how we relate to others.

We’re all in this together! Now watch this gorgeous man and feel better about the world

Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

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*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉
 

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.

White Rage

For the past few years, the media has been reporting on the anger of White men. And make no mistake, there are plenty of White women who hold the same views; Juan Williams argues that they are even angrier. I’m a White dude and I’m married to a White chick (a term with which she self-identifies), so just based off of our lives on paper (pastor married to someone who runs a small business; massive student loan debt; live in a Republican heavy county), you’d imagine us something like this:

Tea-Party-Rally-2010-J.-Scott-ApplewhiteAP-640x480 Now it is time to play everyone’s favorite game, “Can you spot the spelling and grammatical errors in the signs?”

But of course, we’re not. Neither of us feel caught up in the zeitgeist that is gripping so many who feel that we need to take our country back, who believe President Obama has made the country racistwho believe politically correct culture is weakening our country,or who regard the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist organization. In fact, we believe the exact opposite. I’ll stop writing on behalf of my dear wife and just stick to my own ideas, but when it comes to “White” America we’ve got cred. We have White people in our ancestry as far as the eye can see.

I realized pretty early in my life that so-called White men have probably caused more death and destruction than any other “racial” and gender group. I wrote yesterday on the myth of whiteness and how pernicious it is. There comes a time in each White man’s life–at least if he is thinking–when he has to realize that he has been pushed and shoved into a certain identity. Everything around us informs us that we are important, even in the most dire of circumstances. While money is the ultimate divider in this country, race and gender are huge as well. Laws have been codified giving us the “right” to touch and violate women. We are taught that our gaze does not need to be controlled, but rather that women who wear revealing clothes know what they are doing. That they are asking for it. That it is for our benefit. As White men, we are taught that all the “founding fathers” looked like us; that we are the creators  and the innovators and the masters of all we survey. Anyone who tries to challenge that is seeking to usurp what is rightfully ours. Our notions of freedom become such that any slight inconvenience or redress to us is an assault on our God-given liberty. We are taught that our feelings are more important than is the oppression of others; we are fed and many of us believe a narrative that the sins of the past have no bearing on the present. We are encouraged to be defensive and to hear any criticisms of structures that benefit us as a critique of us as persons. As though they are attacks on us individually, and we are provided venues in which those views are repeated, held into the light, and are manipulated by self-serving politicians and religious leaders who tell us that the enemy is everyone who is not like us or refuses to act in ways that we deem acceptable.

So, White men, we should have rage. We should have rage exploding from our every cell because we have been sold a bill of goods. I cannot tell you how much time, reflection, prayer, anger, agony, frustration, and embarrassment I have had to undergo in order to get woke. How many POC had to take time and energy to assist in my education. How much of a waste it has been to mentally dismantle this shit that should not exist in the first place.  Think about this, guys: things could be different. I believe that most of us want everyone to have equal opportunities. Most of us want schools to be better, neighborhoods to be safer, prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, gender, bodily ability, etc to be erased. We’ve been taught to believe that other people want to punish us for the work of our ancestors; that the culture is shifting against us, despite the fact that the country is for us; we not only have to fight against this narrative, we have to change it. We have to continue to educate ourselves about the structures and systems (legal, economic, political, educational, penal) that promote white supremacy, and to work toward either transforming or eradicating them. Our rage should be against not only a system that keeps others oppressed, but also a system that brought us up with such a skewed view of the world. A system that made us racist without our consent, without our volition, without our desire. A system that gives us not only a backpack filled with privileges, but also a backpack filled with toxic shit that destroys lives. It perverts worldviews.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way if we reject. It. Sadly, I don’t see it going away in my lifetime. But maybe within my niece’s. If we do the work. If we take this opportunity, here and now, and rise up against the ugliness that is Donald Trump and talk to one another. The anger many of us feel is from fear. That’s what monied interests want; our continued separation and division makes money. It sells advertising on news shows. It supports toxic publishers who churn out hate-mongers like Ann Coulter. Many of us want to replace this system with something more equitable. And I am not saying that I have all the answers. But what I am saying is that we in the so-called White community have to talk to one another. We have to address the ways in which supremacy culture impacts us. That also means talking to people who have bought in to the lies, but who are reasonable. People who honestly do not harbor hatred or prejudice in their hearts, but who do not understand how racist structures undergird everything in American life.

One privilege we no longer have is the privilege of silence. That’s it. Over. Finished. Each one of us, in our own ways, have to seriously address these facts. Especially those of us who ask communities of color to refrain from violence. We can’t do that if we are not placing our bodies and lives on the line, too. It means going into areas that are hostile to us and holding difficult conversations. It means calling out racist language and behavior in our presences. Silence is complicity. Silence is privilege. Silence is death.

Recovering White Supremacist

Fellow White Dude,

It sucks to be told that you’re racist. Or misogynistic. And at times it seems totally ridiculous and feels like a personal attack. I get how it can seem like people are asking you to be guilty for something you never did, and to apologize for simply being a White man. You might also be surrounded by other White men, maybe your Dad or your grandfather, who are telling you that it used to be different for us. That our way of life is under attack. Maybe not. I’m not here to speculate about you, I’m here to tell you about my own journey and how I came to realize that I was a part of White supremacy culture.

Before we get started let me say that I am not judging you. I’ve been where you are; I’ve felt that I was under attack and that people were expecting me to feel guilty or ashamed of being White. Nobody worth paying attention to thinks that, brother. They just want us to get woke. And that’s why I’m here. Because I went through a process of awakening and I know some of the emotions that arise. I’m here to walk with you, to support you, to help you work out some of the stuff. Because we can’t ask POC to help us with this, at least not with the heavy lifting; they have their own work and education to undergo. We can meet with them further down the line. Until then, we can be really honest about how some of this stuff makes us feel.

Now, let’s deal with this term White supremacist. You probably think of this right away, no?

Klan-in-gainesville

The problem is, too many of us who are White stop here and think that as long as we are not burning crosses we are not White supremacists. That we are not part of White supremacy culture. But we are. This is what acceptable White supremacy looks like:walsh

You may not see it now, and I’ll be honest that it took me years of reading, studying, listening, and getting beyond my own defensiveness to see it. It appears to be a patriotic, tough-talking post that places a value on police lives and is meant to fill with dread those who would assault our public servants, right? But look at the language. Can you imagine what would happen if an African-American member of Congress told a White president to “watch out”? Examine the assumptions embedded in the language: “Real” Americans are not those who would say “Black Lives Matter.” No. Real Americans are ones who go after “thugs,”a label disproportionately applied to non-Whites, even in similar situations. And look at that threat of violence. Real America is coming. Does that mean the military is going to be unleashed on citizens? How will they know the Real Americans? Could it be skin tone?

Ever notice the difference in media coverage for a sports riot and an uprising in response to injustice? That’s White supremacy right there.

How do we get here? Look at what we’re taught from an early age: that the United States began as a way for people to escape religious persecution. We celebrate Thanksgiving Day, and from the time we are 5 we have internalized the ideas that Pilgrims and Indians were great friends, terrible lies that make us resistant to the true narrative. We learn almost nothing of the wholesale slaughter of Native persons. Few of us read A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (click here for full text) until college, if at all. More of us got a brief unit on Native Americans, maybe with a trip to a local site, and then went home to play cowboys and Indians while we wore cardboard mockups of sacred regalia and imitated cries we do not understand. We celebrate Columbus Day, which is cast as Italian pride, despite the incredibly long list of atrocities perpetrated by a man who got lost and “discovered” America much like I “discover” pizza in my neighbor’s fridge.

God knows, most of us don’t do this with malice. Nobody’s saying we do, at least nobody worth listening to. We do it because it is what is modeled, what is accepted. Check this: We grow up being told that America is the land of opportunity, but the issue of slavery is rarely, if ever discussed seriously. The Civil War itself is being redefined in textbooks to teach us that slavery was not a central issue. And we’re told that we should care about this because our white heritage is under attack. But this is a lie: over half of the European immigrants that came over during the colonial period were indentured servants. Freedom and opportunity were for the wealthy. That is how the system was built from day one. Is this what we are supposed to be loyal to?

But lemme ask you, man. What is it that makes us “White”? Skin tone? My wife is White, but her skin is olive hued, to such an extent that she has been mistaken for Asian and Middle Eastern. Her family is from Hungary. My father’s family is from Finland. My mother’s, Ireland. Very different places. Very different customs. Very different histories. And woe unto anyone who calls me a Brit. Nothing against the British. I have good friends who are Brits, but I’m an Irishman, thank you very much. Until I’m Finnish. Until I’m American. What the hell is this “Whiteness” they are talking about?

It is a fiction, broseph. And I know this sounds like conspiracy stuff. But there are entire university departments that study the creation and impact of Whiteness.  It arises around the 17th century as part of the slave trade, but it has devastating impacts on the development of American capitalism and society. The lie of White supremacy was used to manipulate and control poor Whites into accepting their place in society because at least they were better than n*****s. For centuries, the poorest White lady in the county could walk downtown and the wealthiest Black man would have to take off his hat and step off the curb. If he didn’t he would be killed. The most downtrodden White man could get drunk and hang a Black man for fun, and get away with it by telling the police that the man looked at a White woman wrong. I know, it sounds wild and conspiratorial. But money is the root of all evil, and this business of whiteness is a cash cow. Seriously, that link is a mind blower man. And this one will help you see the various ways whiteness has been studied.

This happens by defining personhood within the law. Let’s hope that the American educational system hasn’t totally failed you and you know that only landowning White men were able to vote until 1850, and that African-Americans were counted as 3/5 a person, not so that they could have rights but so taxation and legislative numbers could be figured out. Think about this: the very foundation of our Bill of Rights did not apply to anyone other than land-owning, White men. But not all White men. Not Poles. Not Italians. Not at first. Not until they started to buy into this notion of White supremacy which passed as assimilation. Americanism was code for non-ethnic Whiteness. Look at our television shows. I Love Lucy is an attempt at Leave it To Beaver with a fiery Cuban. Think about it, man: by the time most of us White men hit the age of 18, we have always assumed that we are the norm. Ads and television are geared toward us and disproportionately represent us; women are told to emulate what we like; other races and cultures are measured against us as a beauty standard, whether we want it or not. In terms of social progress and protection, we “White” men have been at the top of the list even when we weren’t. There’s never been an example in the history of the United States in which White men (again, this designate should piss us all off) have gotten a right after a woman or a non-White person. The system was built for us. Kinda. More for us than anyone else, but more for the making of money than anything else.

Here’s what sucks. We benefit from White supremacy. We do. It doesn’t matter if we have Black friends. It does not matter if we listen to rap. It does not matter if we have made love to a Black person. We can see every Spike Lee movie out there and we still are products of White supremacy culture. We are part of a system that enslaved Black bodies and built wealth based upon their uncompensated labor. We live on land that was either stolen or secured through genocide. We live in a culture that regards women’s bodies as sexual objects for our amusement, or baby-making machines that must be regulated by men. Mainly White men. How does that make us complicit? Because we haven’t dismantled the system. We may feel outraged by the odd slight to someone we know, but it is too easy for us to simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Life sucks, but everyone’s got problems.” We’re complicit because we benefit from a system that values “White” names over “ethnic” names.

The truth is, we have to make it a priority to read, study, listen, ask questions, and face some hard truths. Nobody is saying that White people don’t have hard lives; nobody is saying that things are easy for us, or that we’re all rich. What is being said, though, and we should listen, is that we are not persecuted because we are White; we are not denied opportunities because we are White. I’d add men on to this again, but I think that’s another conversation. We’ve got stuff to unpack there.

Look, I know chances are that you like everyone unless they are an asshole. Good policy. I follow that, too. But what we cannot do is say that we see everyone the same so others should adopt that philosophy as well. People of color (POC) don’t have that option. Their race and ethnicity is noticed wherever they go. Further, too often when we say we don’t see color we are saying that we see everyone else like us, and if they don’t fit then they are the problem, not us. Think about it, though. That’s kinda true, isn’t it? As a culture, we tend to remove ethnicity from celebrities, and then criticize them when they speak from their experiences of race. Look at what is happening to Jesse Williams, who is being labeled as both too Black and not Black enough.

White supremacy culture is having millions of African-Americans take to the streets, the airwaves, social media, from all corners of public and private life to speak about how racism and prejudice impact them and having their words twisted into being “racist,” which is impossible without state power; White supremacy is pointing at dead bodies and finding excuses or reasons for why they deserved to be shot and killed. White supremacy is a legal system that rarely prosecutes police for shooting citizens, and even more rarely convicts. Non-Whites are disproportionately impacted. White supremacy culture is hearing people say, “Stop killing us” and responding, “Well…”

So here are the mistakes I made: I tried to convince others that I was not racist by inserting myself into spaces that were designed to help POC process, and turned the conversation into being about me. Unconsciously, I asked them to expend energy into assuring me that I am not a racist. I made the mistake of saying I was color blind, therefore negating the experience and identity of others. I told people I didn’t know very well that I was sorry for the oppression of their people, without knowing their background or story. I asked my friends of color to be my bibliographers and teachers. In some circumstances, this was welcomed and nurtured. In others, it was wholly inappropriate. It took time and energy away from them being able to do the work they needed to do in order to affect change. I used the word nigga. Sigh. Yes. I did. I almost didn’t admit this, but what the hell. If you’re still reading you’ve been indulging me and I want to be clear that I am not judging. Really, I’m not. An honestly, others won’t if you are actively working on dismantling the White supremacy in your mind. Because POC have to do it as well; many of them have to shake off these categories and ideas and literally learn how to love themselves. That’s what Black Power really means. It is about love. Think about the contrast our people offer. White Power. That’s about hate.

Dude, I love you and I hope this helps. The links embedded within are a good starting point. This blog is as well, and for those who are interested I can put together a reading list. I recommend locating a Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter around you. If you can, attend the White Privilege Conference.

In closing, let me say that I love this country. I believe in the basic tenets, that we all are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights. But I want them to be true. To be put into practice. For us to be the country we claim to be, that we are on paper. I want my friends of color to no longer feel fear and unease in their country. Because it is theirs as much as it is ours. We have to be part of the solution that makes this a reality.

Blessings,

Pastor Aaron