Do you know what I realized last night? During elementary, middle, and high school, I only had ONE teacher of color. Yep, Señora Batts, middle school Spanish teacher, was a Latina woman. Other than her, I cannot think of a single instructor, band director, principal, coach looked like me. Even at Texas A&M, I can only think of a handful of professors who wouldn’t identify as white. I have literally never had a Black teacher. Ever.
It took me 30 years for that to click in my brain.
From the moment I was born, society has told me that I am great; that I matter. Media told me I was great by having really popular shows, movies, books, news anchors, music artists that all had people that mostly looked like me. All of my pastors, doctors, dentists, Girl Scout Troop Leaders, bosses, presidents, congressmen, mayors, essentially everyone who was a leader in my life, was also white.
History classes and books and museums didn’t necessarily stray away from the bad things that white people, my people, did (Andrew Jackson owned slaves? OH, NOW I’M UNCOMFORTABLE) but they also found a way to explain it to comfort me (But he really loved them and cared for them. WHEW, THAT WAS A CLOSE ONE. I ALMOST FELT BAD ABOUT THE HISTORY OF MY PEOPLE.)
(Seriously, check out The Hermitage Museum in Nashville. I walked through it like this
Here is a quote about one of the slaves that A.J. was allegedly close to: “Despite the seemingly close relationship between Hannah and Aaron and the Jackson Family, Hannah and her daughter Martha fled The Hermitage to Nashville to gain their freedom during the Civil War before the enslaved community had actually been freed.” They make it sound like the Jackson family were completely bewildered over why someone would want to be free. Those mean old slaves! They were like family! The tour of the actual museum is much worse. They do some really excellent mental gymnastics to calm the discomfort of any white person who feels tension about the realities of slavery.)
It almost seems like society has been built to protect my feelings and make sure that I never have to feel uncomfortable. Princess Beth.
I never asked for this and I don’t necessarily want things to be this way. The “systems” that benefit me were in place way before I hit the world but I still benefit from them and that makes me complicit. (I like the way this woman describes racism as a moving walkway that we’re all on. Even if we’re standing still (and not actively running towards racism, racist systems are pulling us anyway.)
The flip side of this is that there are people who, from the moment they were born, are told that they don’t really matter. They almost never see someone who looks like them on TV or in books, and, even when they do, it’s often a caricature of the people they know and love- it’s not real life. Any leaders that look like them are few and far between. They notice the difference between their old, falling apart school and the new shiny one down the street that’s attended by mostly white kids. The history books, when they talk about these people, almost always paint someone else in a better light, even if those better-light people were doing the conquering, the killing, and the discriminatory legislation-ing. When they ask for these things to be changed (“Hey! The Washington Redskins name is offensive to us as Native Americans.” “Hey! We would really like it if white people didn’t use the n-word, even as a joke, because there’s kind of a history there.” “The jokes about Mexicans being drunk people with mustaches who yell alot in broken English are really getting old.”), they are told that they’re asking too much; they’re being too politically correct; they need a thicker skin. These people, who rarely see themselves represented well in society at large, get a much different message about their worth than I do. What’s equally as bad, I also pick up on that messaging about them. (I’m great; they aren’t so great).
It almost seems like nothing about our society protects their feelings and bodies.
This is the core of what white supremacy really means (I also linked to an article that has a more academic definition). That my feelings, my body, my opinions matter more than someone else’s. I know that the term “white supremacy” feels inflammatory, because we all associate it with the KKK. But the white supremacy that I’m talking about is much more subtle and, because of that subtlety, much more dangerous. It’s hard to name it, see it, root it out, even within ourselves.
Lydia Bean of Faith In Texas explained white supremacy in a leadership meeting this week that I felt was a very clear description of how it works (and what we can do about it). She talked about societal narratives.
In dominant (white and/or rich and/or powerful) society, here are some of the dominant narratives. If you’re a member of a dominant group, this doesn’t mean that YOU have to believe every one of these and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
- We live in a post-racial society. We don’t see color. Everyone is treated the same. Racism, if it exists, is an individual sin issue, not a systemic problem.
- Poor people are lazy. All they have to do is work harder and then they can be successful.
- There is nothing wrong with the justice system. All police are here to help us. Due process is fair and unbiased.
- When it comes to jobs and college admissions, race is not taken into account. Affirmative action unfairly affects white men.
- Political-correctness is stupid. People need to get a thicker skin.
- All children receive the same education, regardless of where they live (or, conversely, rich children deserve to receive a better education).
- Women are emotional and not logical. This makes them not fit for leadership.
- Black men are dangerous. Black women are angry, “ghetto” single mothers. Most Latinos are undocumented leeches of the system. Muslims want to take over America and enact sharia law. Native Americans, if they are talked about at all, care about teepees and arrows.
- We’re in America. We should only speak English. People who don’t speak English aren’t American and need to learn it.
Those are things that are said, often, in multiple different ways in our society. TV, news, movies, politicians, children’s books, Red Cross posters. Okay? So the dominant culture holds these things to be true.
Here are the counter-narratives offered by people that exist outside the dominant group. If you’re a member of the dominant crew, these might be hard for you to read through. You might feel tension. Please push through it.
- Colorblindness hurts. It’s denies an integral part of one’s identity and allows people to treat one differently because of one’s color, without any responsibility because the offender doesn’t believe he sees color.
- The American Dream is not within one’s reach, no matter how hard they work. There are systems at play that prevent people from being successful.
- There are many things wrong with our justice system. It is biased, unfair, and targets people based on their race. The culture of policing in America unfairly targets poor and people of color and there’s very little, if any, accountability when things happen that aren’t supposed to. It needs to change.
- People outside the “dominant” narrative are discriminated against in hiring process and college admission process.
- Being “politically correct” means you’re honoring someone’s dignity by respecting their wishes
- All schools are not equal. Children should be getting the same education at public schools, but they aren’t currently. Unequal educational systems are the beginning of systemic inequalities that ensure that we don’t all have what we need to be successful.
- Women are powerful and strong and capable.
- Black and Latinx and Muslim and Native American peoples are as complex, diverse, loving, kind, mean, prideful, humble, selfless, and selfish as the rest of us. When we paint them with a broad brush, we are doing ourselves (and them) a grave disservice.
- America shouldn’t be a melting pot, where one loses their culture in favor of the “dominant” culture. Maybe we should be more like a mixed salad, where we can retain our respective cultures and be respected for them.
I grew up as a dominant narrative person. Nothing on that first list surprises me. Just 5 years ago, lots of things on the counternarrative list would have surprised me and I considered myself a good listener, compassionate, all lives matter person.
The problem is that, unless you’re friends with “people of the counternarrative”, when would you hear it? How would you know how to interpret it or listen to it? The dominant narrative is so loud that it stonewalls and very effectively silences counternarratives, unless you know where to listen.
Here’s an example: When Obama was first elected, there was a big hoopla about Pastor Jeremiah Wright- how extreme and racist and anti-white he was. I remember hearing some of the things he said and feeling threatened. It made me very uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do with the things he was saying. It scared me a little that our new President was purportedly supportive of these things. The dominant narrative about this guy was that he was very, very bad. As a dominant narrative person, I bought that.
Well, at a community meeting this week, I was talking with some other members of the leadership team, who are Black, and they mentioned that Jeremiah Wright was coming soon to a church in Dallas and they were excited about it. I hadn’t thought about him in several years, but my ears perked up. These are good people who love Jesus just like I do. Maybe I should re-examine the evidence here.
Do I agree with everything Jeremiah Wright says? No. But alot of what he does is call out white supremacy and he’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable by doing it. Being around people that I like and hearing them say that some of his message resonates with them has made me reconsider the counternarrative that he’s offering. That would not have happened without being friends with people who are very different than me (that honor me by sharing things like that).
So, what does all of this mean for us (meaning people of the dominant narrative)?
We have to tread very carefully as we respond to things that are going on now. Are we supporting the dominant narrative because it’s right or because it’s comfortable? Are we silencing or stonewalling the people of the counternarrative?
After the Dallas shootings, our neighborhood was awash in blue ribbons, showing support for the police officer community. I wondered, “Where were the ribbons for the anguish and grief the Black community feels after another unarmed man is shot?”
Even subtly, we can embrace the dominant narratives. We must be cautious in our calls for “unity” or “peace”. We must be careful that our calls for hugs and holding doors open and “coming together” don’t mean, “Counternarrative people, please stop talking and go back to being invisible so we can all go back to ‘normal’.”
Do we really mean that we want unity or peace for everyone, including those in the counternarrative? Because, in order for that to happen, that means we have to make room for the counternarrative. We have to actively listen and try to understand, respond, deal with it. That means discomfort, change, some tension until things get resolved. Are we committed to that kind of unity- the long game unity that takes lots of hard work? Or do we just want superficial unity that is easy to achieve because someone is silenced?
No one is asking that counternarratives be the ONLY narrative. I haven’t heard anyone seeking to trade one dominant narrative for another, like the false notion that a person calling for Black lives to matter believes that police lives shouldn’t matter. No, the counternarrative people are asking for equal importance. The dominant narrative leaves them out and they, rightfully, want to be acknowledged too. That ‘too’ is the operative word here.
The dominant narrative is strong and we will go to great lengths to protect it, even within our selves. When it is threatened, WHOA, watch out. It can get ugly (check out this feminist who recently had to deactivate her Twitter account because someone threatened to rape her 5-year-old. That dominant narrative that women don’t deserve equity sure is giving it everything it’s got.) It is fight, flight, or freeze. We have to be careful not to disengage, unfriend, explain it away. We’re not used to feeling tension, because we live in a culture that has been built for us to avoid it. But that tension means something good is happening. It means that the dominant narrative within us is being challenged, rooted up. The tension means growth.
MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” explains this tension perfectly:
My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
One last thing, in what has become a very long blog. My faith informs my activism. I see this process, of laying down the dominant narrative within myself, as essential to loving my neighbor as myself. The dominant narrative within me seeks only to protect itself, its’ comfort, its’ privileges, its’ power. Nothing in that self-protection reminds me of the humility and selflessness of Jesus. I hope to be able to expound on this more later, but, for now, I’m grateful that this journey has pulled me deeper into the heart of God.