Life with Jesus / race

Dear White People, We Need a Book Club

I went to a community meeting a few months ago where we went around in a circle to introduce ourselves and, as part of the introductions, we had to identify our preferred gender pronouns. Now, as an evangelical white girl from West Texas, I was obviously an outlier here, but thankfully, I have enough progressive friends that I had heard of this. For those of you that don’t know, google it- I promise, I’ll be right here when you get back.

As they went around the circle, I got nervous that I was going to mess up the wording somehow, like I was going to say, “Hi. My name is Beth and my preferred gender pronouns are ‘sher'” and then I would have sat there with a stunned, horrified look on my face. The group was so lovely and accommodating that they probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. They probably would have just called me “sher” for the rest of the evening.

“Reggie, can you hand this to sher?”

“Quiet please! Sher has something to share with the group.”

Thankfully, I made it through okay and they used she and her appropriately for the remainder of the meeting. Being around people that have to specify their preferred gender pronouns, much less even knowing what they are, was an entirely new experience for me. I called my dad on the way home; I talked about it with Alex. They had never been in meetings where they had to share their preferred gender pronouns. I didn’t call them to make fun of people who use PGPs, I didn’t need to gawk or scorn. I just needed to process with people who came from the same place I did, who knew why I might be nervous or off kilter a little by my first experience with it. The experience stretched me, in a good way, but processing it with people I felt comfortable around was a key part of that stretching.

***

I’m starting a book club. Well, ‘book’ is probably too narrow. Let’s call it a “media club” focused on racism, both systemic and personal. The end game is a group of people who know and understand what racism, who can see it, who have the language to describe it, and who have some idea as to what they can do to alleviate the problem.

Oh, and the target audience of the book club is white people

I can already hear the collective groaning and screaming starting, so let me address all of the things you’re about to ask in a question and answer format. I promise we’re all going to live through this guys, okay?

WHOA, WHOA, WHOA, weirdo. Why on God’s green earth would white people talking to each other be the answer to this? Aren’t people of color the experts here? What the heck are you thinking?

Okay. I totally had that reaction too when I read about this idea of the racial caucus. BUT, let’s hear what Beverly Daniel Tatum has to say about these kinds of groups in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

“While of course there is value in cross-racial dialogue, all-White support groups serve a unique function. Particularly when Whites are trying to work through their feelings of guilt and shame, separate groups give White people the “space to speak with honesty and candor rarely possible in racially mixed groups.” Even when Whites feel comfortable sharing these feelings with people of color, frankly, people of color don’t necessarily want to hear about it.”  (p. 111)

Basically, when white people become aware of racism, there’s alot of…feelings. Understandably, I think. It’s like you’ve been living in unicorn land and all of a sudden, you’re punched in the face by the realization that living in unicorn land makes you complicit in a system that has been oppressing people for hundreds of years.

“White tears” is one of these typical-omg-i-just-learned-that-I-might-be-kind-of-a-racist reactions (here’s a VerySmartBrothas explanation of white tears– with examples!) Other reactions include: white fragility, anger, confusion, guilt, helplessness, shame. Tatum (above) explains the process that white people must cycle through in order to understand (and deal with) their own racism. It’s a process basically, and it can be an ugly one.

A group of white people who are trying to work through this together means that people of color don’t have to deal with white tears or guilt or shame. In talking about this idea, someone in this podcast (which should be required listening for white evangelicals) says that we can’t expect people of color (hereafter referred to as PoC) to have to explain “what it feels like to have our boot on their neck”. It’s not up to PoC to help white people understand how they’re racist. Certainly, some PoC will educate their white friends and colleagues, but that is a gift they’re offering us, not something we’re entitled too from every PoC. To be clear, PoC do not owe us conversations and education on race and racism.

How is this going to be structured? How is it going to work? 

So, there are plenty of PoC who have been generous to lend their voices and experience to help us understand and see racism and how it affects those around us. I’ve basically created a syllabus, with different topics

  • Privilege/Intersectionality/Laying the Foundation
  • Fetishization/Micro-aggressions/Representation
  • Mass Incarceration/School to Prison Pipeline
  • Economics and History of Racism
  • Police Brutality and Black Lives Matter
  • Racism within the Church

Each topic is carried by a book and then supplemented by blogs, movies, websites, facebook pages, twitter hashtags, you name it. The idea is that we will enter spaces where PoC are already talking and teaching. I don’t want this to be purely academic. We don’t need to just study racism; we need to hear about it from the people who are living with it. Certainly, we need the terms and the framework to understand and process racism, but I think that hearing it, seeing it, is what really moves us to action.

So, we’ll take, say, 1 or 2 months (six weeks? We can decide as a group) to work through all the materials for a topic. We will have a facebook group where we can answer questions and discuss things that we’re reading and those discussions will probably set the itinerary for our in-person discussion when  we meet. The meetings will be to process what we’ve learned and call each other out on stuff. The end goal is actionable knowledge here- learning about racism in such a way that we can speak to it when we see it happening.

How will you make sure this isn’t a room full of white people sitting around patting each other on the back for how “woke” they are?

This. This is the one that keeps me up at night. It’s hard for me to really answer this question until we get into the thick of things, but the easy answer is that we need to keep the mantra, “We’re never really ‘there'” in our minds. There’s always something more to learn, something we need to work on.

I have a couple of friends who have been walking this journey with me for a few years, who can help keep the conversation moving forward, instead of getting stalled out by white tears. Someone suggested that we set concrete goals so that we can see what progress looks like and that is an excellent idea- one I’m still working on how that might look.

All (or a great majority) of the materials that we’ll be reading will be written by PoC. Right out the gate, we’re going to address some of the tricky, subtle, negative reactions that white people tend to have when confronted by racism and so we can use that language and those concepts to keep us grounded as we respond to things we’re reading and watching.

I also would love to have a group of PoC who wouldn’t mind answering any questions the group might have that we can’t answer ourselves. My current idea is to have a facebook group for the PoC who don’t mind answering questions and they could answer questions at their leisure and then I would share the responses with the group.  This group of PoC could be our Board of Directors. (Also, I’m open to any feedback or feelings or anything PoC have to say about this project, the syllabus, etc).

This sounds hard and uncomfortable and depressing. Why would I want to do this?

Let’s talk about “white supremacy” for a second. I know that that term can bring up visions of the KKK and we get scared really fast. But anti-racists use it in a different way than the KKK does.

White supremacy is comprised of habits, actions and beliefs. It is not necessarily reliant on the specific intentions of its actors, practitioners or beneficiaries. Of course, there are “active” racists whose intentions, words, and deeds are meant to advance a racist agenda. However, implicit and subconscious bias, as well as taken for granted stereotypes and “common sense,” can also serve a white supremacist order. Ultimately, intent is secondary to the unequal outcomes across the colorline that individuals benefit from and perpetuate.

from 10 Things Everyone Should Know About White Supremacy

If I asked you to describe white culture, I think it would be hard for you. It’s hard for me! The reason is that white culture is alllllll around us. I’ve heard it described as a “smog”. Think about it- in your day-to-day interactions- how many PoC do you see represented on the covers of the magazines at the grocery store? In the TV shows you like? In the medical professionals that see you? In the staff and administration at your kids’ schools? In the management positions at your work? Do you see the “white supremacy” in this RECENT Red Cross poster?

13516316_10153678184567129_2018054610645941293_n

Here’s the thing. White people often put “racism” in terms of good and bad. The bad people are the ones that are overtly racist- the KKK, the Donald Trumps, if you will. Everyone else is “good”. We don’t see color. Everyone is equal. The rainbow of people. Kids don’t see color.

Unfortunately, that’s unicorn-land thinking; it’s not the way the world works. Even though we don’t intend to participate in a racist system, we do. We uphold it. The system was built for us.  The problem with thinking of racism in terms of good or bad is that the good people feel like they’re immune from the racism. If you don’t intend to be racist, then you aren’t racist. It’s just not true. Even if we don’t want it, the system will continue to operate in our favor.

Unless…unless we take our fingers out of our ears, our head out of the sand, and we start listening. We need to start thinking about impact instead of our intentions. We start using our privilege to knock the system back; we get behind people of color and lend our voice; we challenge other white people when they hold beliefs that uphold the ‘system’.

As James Baldwin said, in a letter to his nephew, “{White people} are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” (emphasis added)

 

You know what? Confronting our racism isn’t fun. It’s not easy. It’s hard for us to be vulnerable. It’s hard for us to allow other people to call us out on stuff. In the long run, dismantling racism means sharing some of the rights and privileges that we’ve taken for granted. It means learning to “share the stage”, learning that we might not have the “right” to speak in all situations, learning that we don’t have all the answers and things do not always have to be done the way that we think they should, maybe losing friends or family when we ask them to consider the ways that they’re upholding “white supremacy”. We aren’t doing this to “help” anyone or to swoop in and change the world like a White Savior. We do this because it’s the right thing to do.

This is a journey that requires alot of grace. Grace for ourselves. Grace for others. We’re going to make mistakes. Inevitably, we’re going to put our foot in our mouths. But fear of imperfection isn’t a good reason to stay away from this discussion.

So, bring it. Bring your confusion, your fear, your anger. Bring your guilt and shame and lack of knowledge about what to do next. Hell, you can even bring your white tears. Bring it all and we’ll deal with it. We can do this. We can push each other forward.

Let’s do this.

*****

I you want to do this, if you think you can commit to do the work (not just the syllabus work, but the emotional work of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and putting your feelings aside), let me know. I know that sounds scary, but I can’t think of one person who couldn’t do it. You can email me (via my contact page here) or send me a message on facebook (here) or comment publicly. If you express interest, I will find you.  I don’t have to know you personally. I live in the north Dallas area, but the group will decide how often we meet and it might be once every six or eight weeks- you could live anywhere near Dallas and still participate. We will try and find a time that works for everyone. I imagine we’ll need childcare- we’ll work it out. We can make this happen.

I’m open to helping lead one of these in Abilene, TX too (sorry, Abilene, Kansas), if there’s interest.

 

 

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