On Being White

Black. White. Racism. Privilege. Riots. Guns. Crying. Invisible.

I’ve been wanting, for several weeks now, to blog about the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I’ve wanted to formulate statements about the hidden wound of racism and the invisible norm that is whiteness. But I haven’t written anything. I’ve barely been able to speak about the tragedies that have recently (and not so recently) swept our country. Other than posting commentary that I found helpful, I have remained silent.

I’ve been silent, mostly, because I haven’t known what to say. Should I talk about the alarming statistics about police violence towards black males? Maybe I should discuss the overall militarization grasped by a country that is dictated by fear. Or better yet, I should highlight the unbearable “Christian” response to those on the margins who are being overlooked and executed. I’ve heard it said that Jesus cannot breathe.

For countless hours, now, I have rolled many, many thoughts around in my brain. I’ve been angered and have experienced deep sorrow. But every time I’ve come close to formulating a response, I’ve felt as though everything I want to say has already been said by those who can say it much more poignantly.

Today, I decided to revisit a paper I wrote for my racial healing course. The paper was entirely about my whiteness. So, instead of pouring out information that has already been discussed, I would like to share some words about my white skin. If you have never explored your own whiteness, or blackness, or yellowness, or redness, I cannot more strongly suggest that you delve into the race that has (whether you admit it or not) deeply shaped all the aspects of your life.

 

I know that I am white. I never remember not being white. As far as I can recall, I’ve always understood that my skin is white and I’ve known that some other people have skin that isn’t white. I didn’t care much about the color of my skin, or even think about it often. Sometimes, when somebody would tell me that I danced like a black girl or my grandfather would make a joke about race or I saw a picture of a black Santa Clause, I would think about skin color. During those times I would become more aware of race, but I rarely thought about its impact on my life or its power to define me and shape me.

But whiteness has shaped me. It has played a role in my personal formation and the formation of the many communities and systems in which I participate on a daily basis. My family is white, my college and grad school were white, my church is primarily white, my religion is white (or has become so in America). My president may have black skin, but my government is white. My music might not be white, but it makes white money. My spouse is white, but is our relationship? Perhaps our relationship isn’t white, because it definitely is not invisible.

Whiteness has, in an invisible and (up until now) unidentifiable way, pushed me into a corner where I desire to abolish my white privilege and transcend my white guilt, but also to a frustrating place where I lack awareness about how this healing action may begin. On the following pages I narrate a journey that explains how whiteness pushed me into this corner, how I’m currently wrestling with my whiteness, and how I hope for healing action in the future.

I shall begin with a narrative of racial memories. While I surely cannot recall every instance when whiteness had a grip on me, I can call to mind many occasions which informed my conceptions of race, privilege, oppression, normativity and my own whiteness. I considered myself a racial norm boundary crosser, but my extremism was sheltered within the confines of a generally loving and kind family. While I crossed many vocalized and silently suggested boundaries created by my family system, my radicalism was likely unapparent within the greater systems of my school and community.

Several of my friendships in elementary school stood in opposition of my cultural narratives (as a middle class, white American, living in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the early 90s). In the fourth grade, my best friends at school were Lynette Garcia and Rosa Osorio. I don’t recall thinking it was weird or out of the ordinary that my friends were Latina. However, I can’t remember ever hanging out with them outside of school. Perhaps children primarily socialize outside of school with other children in their neighborhood (the majority of my neighbors at the time were white), or maybe I only spent time with children whose parents knew my parents. Whatever the case, my socializing at school was racially diverse while my socializing at home was predominantly white.

As I began to get more involved in athletics, my friend circle expanded to include black teammates. I remember a time when I asked my mother if one of my black teammates could spend the night at our house. The answer was no and I was frustrated and hurt. I honestly cannot recall my mother’s reason for rejecting my request and it may have simply been that the house wasn’t clean or it wasn’t an appropriate night for a sleepover (my mom was not a “friends are welcome anytime” type of mom). However, I remember I had very particular sense of frustration that day, perhaps even an awareness of injustice. I recollect an awareness of intolerance and judgment that scraped at my sense of goodness and fairness. I cannot say for sure whether or not this judgment was solely due to race, but I can be almost certain that race shaped the overall perception that my mother had about my teammate and her family.

In high school I went to homecoming with a boy from Mexico. Well, I’m not sure if he was actually born in Mexico, but his family was from there, and he spoke Spanish and he looked Mexican. My parents didn’t seem to have a problem with my date, but my mom was a bit worried about how my grandmother would respond. My Mamaw is, hands-down, one of my favorite people on the planet, due in part to her loving kindness. She was incredibly kind to my homecoming date, but I know my choice to accompany him stretched her formulations of racial appropriateness. I’ve realized that, even though my grandmother has never expelled crude racial remarks, her seemingly naïve and “cute” comments about non-white people are paternalistic and damaging. The running family joke is to designate that black people are “nice and clean,” because my grandma always felt it necessary to note the upstanding nature of her black coworkers or acquaintances, as if we would assume they were cruel and dirty if she didn’t make the proclamation. We always found this habit very comical and would reference it often. I wonder if we laughed because grandma seemed so kind, naive, and well-meaning while sounding ridiculous, or because a refusal to laugh would cause us to sit in the unbearable awareness and tension of racism.

My parents recently quipped about my grandmother’s latest racial crack. Apparently she was a bit surprised to find that her newest doctor was black, and when commenting on him, she first stated that he was black (she probably whispered the word black) and then recanted with, “Actually, he was brown.” I have no idea what she was indicating and I can imagine her curious, gentle voice making this claim. My parents thought this remark was uproariously comical and while I wanted to laugh alongside them when they shared, my recently tumultuous conscience was gnawing at my insides. I wanted to shout that her ignorant racism isn’t funny but I also desired to snicker at her unsuspecting reasoning about her doctor’s skin being brown instead of black. Is it okay to laugh at my grandmother’s benighted racial commentary or should I be disgusted and embarrassed? Her statements might be funny if they weren’t situated within a generational foundation of racism and white privilege. Or maybe that foundation makes them funny, or at least comical in an endearing way, because she’s trying so hard to be kind to and make sense of people she was taught to abhor, while attempting to break out of a narrative that pains her in an indescribable, unknowable way.

Just several weeks ago, at family Thanksgiving dinner, I attempted to explain the invisibility of the white norm. I told my cousins that we don’t have to ever think about being white. We don’t wake up in the morning and wonder if anyone will mistreat us because we are white. We are not afraid to put our hands in our pockets while shopping or wear hoodies in nice neighborhoods. I reinforced my argument by noting that when we explain a white person, we may mention what that person is wearing or what that person does for a living or a character trait of that person: “The man over there wearing a red shirt.” “A really sweet woman at work.” “There’s a doctor who lives down the street.” However, when we describe a black person, the color of that person’s skin becomes the main signifier: “This black lady at church.” “A friendly black man lives down the street.” “The black guy over there.” My family members began to ponder my statements and the conversation seemed to dissipate. Several minutes later, my grandfather took a seat at the table. He began to tell a story: “There’s a black lady at work…” On the faces around the table I noticed startled looks of confusion and awareness.

At this point my paper began to weave together parts of my story with texts we were reading in the course. Later, I will post some texts that really helped me to begin exploring my own race and race relations.

To my white friends, I know that I will not be able to change your political or religious views, but I do ask that you examine your own whiteness, that you allow yourself to see the invisibility of the white norm. I often times try to think about what it would be like every morning to wake up and look in the mirror and realize that I am black in white America. Just think about it. Politics and platforms aside, just think about it.

An Anthem

I’ve been withering. It’s been a forlorn withering, one where I feel myself deflating. Deflating but also swelling. I’m very close to ejecting an enormous mass of jaded exasperation.

This mass sits in the pit of my stomach and stretches to just behind my eyelids. Sometimes, I have difficulty thinking of nice words and sometimes my eyelids sag to hold in the temper that my eyes cannot hide. Nobody wants to witness the obscene! Keep it in, dear. Mind your manners. You know how a healthy, productive citizen behaves.

Well, fuck it. I’m tired of not saying fuck. I need to say fuck more.  Fuck those fucking haters.

When you’re a dreamer who stops hoping, what does that mean? That means the status quo has won, the bureaucrats have conquered, the institution has stood and the fear-mongers have shouted their harrowing cry of victory.

No. I will not wither to a passionless point of despair. I will write. I will dance, dammit. I will tell you when I cannot read the news about Ferguson or the United Methodist Church or the stalwarts of privilege without getting so fucking angry that I want to punch all of the crusaders of oppression in the face. But I wont punch anyone in the face. I’m in to non-violence. Really, I promise.

I will dream dreams about tiny house villages for the homeless and giveBack Friday (instead of Black Friday, get it?) and small pockets of rogue Jesus followers who subvert the expansive and twisted pillars of the nationalized, white-washed, politicized empire that we call Christianity.

I will get married to the woman I love and you will not stop us from oozing joy. You haters with your silly rules about who can thrive and who is sentenced to death.

And I will cry, sometimes. Because the world can be pretty sad.

So excuse me, dear friends, as I breathe deeply and shout fuck as often as I want. You see, justice and transformation aren’t always pretty. Passion cannot be sanitized.

Let it be so and let us keep it real.

Am I supposed to be happy?

This particular rant is brought to you by my good friend Jerry, who asked an intriguing question on his Facebook wall: “Do you think Jesus was happy during his ministry?” I left the thought alone for a while, knowing that I owned neither the time nor the focus to handle such a quandary. However, the post kept popping up as more and more theologians and professional Jesus followers loaned their thoughts.

I had to respond. I concluded, “I’ve been wondering this lately, as well. Because ministry is f-ing hard, and I wonder if I should be happier sometimes. But, perhaps, happiness isn’t always the best way to be happy.”

Let’s be honest, I stole that last line from Judith, who is a wild thing in my favorite movie, Where the Wild Things Are. But amidst her wild, incomprehensible, and insensible jawing, I think Judith might have been on to something.

I’ve really been slopping happiness around in my mind lately. I wonder if I should be happier. Yes, there are times of intense euphoria when all I can do is shout melodies to the angels and wonder if God really meant to impart such blessings on my little life. And yes, there are times of simple contentment when I sit back and smile and jiggle and breathe deeply. But, unfailingly, there are many times of pain and frustration, loneliness and almost debilitating sorrow.

Because, well, following Jesus is f-ing hard. And encouraging, supporting and challenging others on the journey may even be harder. If following Jesus were easy, I suppose everyone would do it, even those sure-in-my-faith-as-the-Pope-is-Catholic Christian folk. Getting out of bed every morning and attempting to convince others (and myself) that it’s worthwhile to stop chasing status and financial security and control and assurance and comfort (and maybe happiness) and some well-laid-out-plan-of-a-shiny-predictable-life-of-blessing-and-an-even-better-afterlife and instead encouraging them (and myself) to follow a radical, dirty, homeless, overthrower of systems, challenger of religion, who was killed for causing too much ruckus and defying the status quo, well, that’s ridiculous.

And it isn’t necessarily making me happy. Most of the time I feel anger; anger at injustice and cruelty and apathy, both within the church and the greater creation. And I most definitely feel anger and sorrow when I observe the ways we kidnap religion as a power play. So I inundate myself with theology and dreams for change and practical solutions for the perils of the world, and, usually, I just end up feeling sad; sad and sort of hopeless.

I often consider if I would be happier if I watched more football or ate more ice cream or took more naps or owned more boots or got more compliments or just gave up the dream and let the world be. Perhaps I would be happier.  But I imagine this happiness would slowly, nonchalantly, penetrate my outermost parts until my innermost yearnings and foolish desires to follow a radical Rabbi were encased in a hard shell of comfort and cut-off from the madness that is God’s unconventional dream.

And well, that happiness looks hollow to me. Enticing, but hollow.

So I plan to keep my anger and my sorrow and my seeming hopelessness. Because what is hope if it can’t stare straight at hopelessness and shout, “I beg to differ!”? What is faith if it can’t stare in the eyes of sorrow and doubt and mangled reality and claim, “This is not the end!”? Perhaps hope is only hope when hope seems least possible. Perhaps faith is only faith when we don’t have any answers or assurance or control. And perhaps happiness isn’t the best way to be happy.

A BIG Announcement!!!

Today is the day for an EXCITING announcement!

So far, we’ve had a wonderful experience as a house church community, journeying together in an attempt to figure out how to radically follow Jesus as individuals and as a community. Just as every person’s story shifts and flows and changes, our has as well. As a community, we feel God moving us toward some exciting new dreams that we hope to embark together.

Wanna hear about these exciting new dreams?

We have a new name that we think is very fitting for our community…. Embark Staunton! As a community, Embark will continue to chase after God’s dream here in Staunton. Instead of meeting weekly in a house, we will meet twice a month at the Groovecat Comedy Studio downtown for worship and discussion. We will also begin to have Dream Parties, monthly gatherings that will allow us to dream about what can be in Staunton and will move us to action! Our monthly mission adventures will continue and we hope to engage more consistent, ongoing community building. We also will hold a group that meets during the week to dig deep together, allowing us to grow as individuals and work toward God’s dream for all of creation.

We will kick-off our new dreams during a celebration on Sunday, September 29th from 5pm-8pm at the Groovecat Studio (217 W. Beverly). If you’ve been a part of our journey, have dreams for Staunton, have questions about Embark or simply love to celebrate, please join us at Embark: A Celebration!

More information can be found on our website, Embark Staunton. We look forward to dreaming with you and seeing what God has in store for this place!

Peace.

Update and An Exciting Announcement is Coming…

Hello dear friends!

I am back from Denver and excited to start/continue some awesome things in Staunton!

Don’t forget about EMBARK the Park this Saturday from 2:00-5:00, it will be a fun event where you can help families in need.

This Sunday we will begin a four week series focused around Nooma videos. Also, we’ve decided to move from dinner-ish food to snack-ish food. So bring a snack to share and at 6:30 we will eat our goodies, watch a video, engage in discussion, share in communion and participate in creative worship. Here is a teaser for this Sunday…

And lastly, stay tuned for an excitement announcement about this community that’s coming your way next week!

Questions? Want to join us (because you’re totally invited)?

Sometimes helping helps. Sometimes helping doesn’t help. Sometimes helping hurts.

My seminary experience and particularly my cross-cultural course have made me extra-aware of the ways we do mission and the consequences our mission has on those we attempt to serve. As far as how to figure out my impact during this trip, I’ve come back to this question many times as I attempt to discern the effects that my presence has had on the AfterHours community.

I believe this topic is difficult for several reasons. One reason is that I’m doing work that has already been set in motion by the community here at AfterHours, so, as a short-term intern, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to actual programming and procedure. A person performing short-term mission or service usually doesn’t have the opportunity to change the mission. I appreciate the mission at AfterHours and would not look to change it, but I realize I would have a difficult time enacting change if I wished to do so.

Since I’m joining others in a continued mission, it’s easy to assume that my presence and my actions aren’t greatly affecting anyone. However, I was reminded today that every interaction can have a significant impact.

Today at the park we handed out lunches to the entire line and had some left over, so we waited a bit since some days we will have friends show up a bit later and ask for lunch. We were down to the last lunch and a man approached and asked if we had anything left. I gave him a lunch and a water and he thanked me with deep gratitude. It seemed as though he was having a rough day but he continued to express his appreciation for our presence in the park. I engaged in typical conversation and without any prompting he told me that he had turned away from God and he began to cry. I learned about his struggles with alcohol and the difficulties within his marriage and his hopes for his wife and daughter. He asked me to pray with him and I held his arm and asked God for good things such as courage and hope and reconciliation. I had a difficult time holding back tears as I experienced this stranger’s sorrow and vulnerability. As he left I reminded him that he’s not alone and I hope to God that I wasn’t lying.

I appreciated the connection I had today but upon reflection I realize that in that simple moment, I held an abundance of undeserved power. In that conversation I represented AfterHours, but I also represented God. A stranger handed me his heartache and I could do with it as I pleased. I could have done so much harm. And I pray that I did more good than not.

We all do the best we can with what we have and what we know. However, I hope that we, the people who try to help others and attempt to follow Jesus, realize the infinite consequences of every helping action and every helping word. I pray that we realize our own customs and ideas and behaviors and morals and truths are not one-size-fits-all. And most of all I pray that God shows up to help a sister out, because damn, helping is heavy and I can’t handle that on my own.

Sometimes helping helps. Sometimes helping doesn’t help. Sometimes helping hurts. I believe the best way for us to figure out the difference is through our presence, our presence without agenda. We can’t assume need, and we cannot know need unless we honestly listen. As ministers, missionaries, followers of Jesus or people who simply want to do good, we must recognize our positions of power and work toward relationships that level the playing field and put us in the place of listener, learner, disciple. Because oh girl(!) do we have a lot to learn from those whom we think we can help!

What have I learned?

Three weeks is a very short time to build relationships and understand a particular context. However, I feel like I have been able to glean quite a bit from the AfterHours communities (those who meet on Monday evenings and those who I’ve met at the park).

First, being in a new place helped to reinforce some things I already understood but had a difficult time enacting in the comfort of my home community:

  • Every person has a story and sometimes the best thing I can do is listen.
  • I must push myself to engage; watching from the sidelines or from a pedestal is easy.
  • Most of the time, simple is better. Ministry isn’t (or shouldn’t be) Walmart.

Also, being in a new situation has allowed me to learn a lot about myself. I’ve realized more about how I function, what my strengths are, what I dislike and my dreams for the future. Thankfully, I’ve also gleaned ideas for ministry at home and hopefully have gained more insight into respectfully interacting with those who don’t have a permanent residence.

I’m hesitant to claim that I’ve learned a lot about the homeless community, since each new friend represents a different story and I’m sure my homeless friends in Denver are different than my homeless friends in Staunton. However, there are some common threads that I’ve noticed during my time here:

  • Many of my friends have mental or emotional illness. It’s hard to delineate the cause and effect; did homelessness cause mental illness or did mental illness contribute to homelessness? But it’s obvious that many of them have not received the support they need and aren’t capable of stability without a lot more support.
  • While some decline communion, a lot of my friends will receive communion in the park. Many of them are quite religious, while others run from the idea of God. Faith seems to take on extremes when basic neccesities are stripped away. I believe I have more appreciation for a theology that claims spiritual deliverance after death; when your life is hell, what else can you believe?
  • I’ve found that most of my friends will never beg for anything, and are really grateful for peanut butter and jelly.
  • Some people are really confused that we give them lunch with no strings attached. Many of the church groups that hand out lunches in the park make people pray or listen to a sermon before receiving food. For heaven’s sake, stop trying to spread the good news and BE the good news.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been required to process my experiences and I have a hunch that if I’m more aware and intentional at home, I’ll learn a lot there too.