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Posts Tagged ‘contrition’

A week or two ago, I had what we Southerners call a “hissy fit.”  I had been watching the news on several networks and read many different outlets all reporting on how Glenn Beck and his flock were descending upon the Capitol in droves.  A friend sent me a video of interviews with folks who came to D.C. to “call the nation back to God.”  Most faces I saw in the crowd were white.  Every interview I saw or read was with a white person.  Many of them were decrying the political agenda of our sitting President.  Some of them were calling him a racist and saying it was time to take “our” country back.

In my fit, I sat down on several occasions to write a blog post about this phenomenon.  I considered it from many angles.  I started writing about how I’m not one of those white people.  I started writing that those people don’t really get what my God is all about.  I started writing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees and thinking up all kinds of Bible verses that I would hurl back in an effort to halt the parade of hatred and ignorance on TV that whole weekend.  I started to write any number of those things and then deleted it, choking on my own anger about it all.

Then one day, last week in the car as I was fuming about everything I’d seen, with no one to call and vent, one of my favorite musicians, a contemporary Christian music artist named Sara Groves, intervened right there in the middle of my minivan.  She sang:

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are
I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story

I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

And that’s where I decided to write this post.  You see, I could write those other things—about how white people suck; how, collectively, we don’t get “it”;  how as much as I want to not be one of them, sometimes, I am them.  I know that story and many of our readers here at the blog know that story.  It’s familiar and it usually ends badly.

But I want to “add to the beauty,” not just recount the ugly.  So how does one “tell a better story”?  Well, while I believe in the power of shining a spotlight on horrible things, it can’t be all we do.  I believe we’re right to curse the darkness; but, sometimes we get so used to seeing in the dark, we need to adjust our vision.  Rather than focusing on a very vocal and seemingly prominent group of haters, I need to remember that great cloud of witnesses—past and present—who can encourage me forward and who tell me to not lose heart in fighting against racism as a white person.  I need to look at those success stories of white people who turned things around or made some small difference.

I need a redemption story.

I need a story like that of William Wilberforce—who took on a nation of generational slaveholders using his position of power and privilege as a white man to end the British slave trade.  I need a story like that of Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, abolitionist and feminist.  I need to read about Father Bartolomé de las Casas—who Kate featured in a Columbus Day post—a man who got it wrong in many ways but came to oppose the torture committed against Native people during colonial conquest.  I need to meditate on the life of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who was interned for aiding Jews in escaping Nazi persecution during the Holocaust.  I need to know about and remember the sacrifices made by Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwarner, two Jewish men martyred in Mississippi for helping to register black voters during Freedom Summer.

I need to hear from teachers like Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise who make our privilege visible and call us to a better white identity.

I need to get my hands on and my head around stories like those of Chris Rice and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—men who forsook their own privilege and the comfort of a homogeneous faith community to live out integration in the all-too-rare situation where white people act as integrators.  Both men explore how their faith in Christ informed and guided their decisions toward anti-racist activism and communal living in their autobiographies: Rice’s story focused on his life as a young man living in the 1980s and Wilson-Hartgrove’s is a more contemporary example from the last 10 years.

Rice’s story is particularly compelling for anti-racist Christian novices as it is almost a primer on the efforts and leaders of the evangelical-side of movement since the days of the Civil Rights era.  Rice describes how he and Spenser Perkins formed a hard-fought friendship and took up the second-generation mantle handed them by John Perkins.  He also shares with painful honesty his struggles to come to terms with his own sense of privilege, entitlement and authority in the midst of a strong black community.  Wilson-Hartgrove is an affirming example of what those of us just now getting involved in anti-racist work can do and how far we can come if we let God transform our thinking and our lifestyles to make us agents of reconciliation.

That day in the car, as the CD moved on, I was still stuck thinking about what Sara Groves had said.  I thought about Glenn Beck and those like him who enjoy derision and division.  I kept coming back to my anger over these things even while I had decided that I want to tell a better story with my life.  Groves had an answer for that, too.  In her song, Kingdom Comes she says:

When anger fills your heart
When in your pain and hurt
You find the strength to stop
You bless instead of curse

When doubting floods your soul
Though all things feel unjust
You open up your heart
You find a way to trust…

When fear engulfs your mind
Says you protect your own
You still extend your hand
You open up your home

When sorrow fills your life
When in your grief and pain
You choose again to rise
You choose to bless the name…

In the mundane tasks of living
In the pouring out and giving
In the waking up and trying
In the laying down and dying

That’s a little stone that’s a little mortar
That’s a little seed that’s a little water
In the hearts of the sons and the daughters
The kingdom’s coming

None of this is easy, friends.  I haven’t been at all this anti-racist stuff for long, but I’ve been at it long enough to know some things get easier, but that’s when God sometimes presses in to challenge us and call us to do even harder things.  In those moments, if all I can offer is a little obedience, sweat and mortar, I’m doing my job.  I’ll remember our white anti-racist heroes, like my white friend Ashleigh, who has in the last year, been awakened to anti-racism and is cultivating a deep passion for justice and reconciliation in her own life.

I’m hoping that over time, I’ll be able to look on angry scenes like the one I saw on the news the other week and say as Christ did from the cross, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Until that day comes, I pray that when I look upon the horror stories our world has to offer, that even as I rail against them, I’ll be mindful that all of it is only the prelude to a better story: a kingdom coming.

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This case is a perfect example of what’s wrong with our national discourse on race.  There are lot of problematic dynamics at work here.

There has been a firestorm of criticism over the administration’s handling of this situation, and rightly so; I’ll get to that point later in this post.  But I think the first thing to note is that edited clip was part of a campaign to prove the existence of anti-white “racism” in the NAACP.  As it turned out, what Breitbart framed as racist speech was actually a message against anti-white prejudice, and a story about a woman who learned through her faith and her work with the rural poor to overcome that prejudice in herself.  The woman we were supposed to condemn as a racist turned out to be someone who has dedicated her life to working with the poor of all races, a person whom the supposed victims of her racism immediately rushed to defend.  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is the best Andrew Breitbart could do.  The fact that he had to go to such lengths to “find” an example of NAACP racism – that he had to concoct evidence of this by using a clip doctored to mean the opposite of what it actually meant – says volumes about the tenuous nature of Tea Partier criticisms of the NAACP as a “racist organization.”

Secondly, I’m struck by the false moral equivalence, again, between anti-white prejudice from blacks and anti-black prejudice from whites.  Many on the right insist on the fiction that our national history of state-enabled discrimination and terrorism against blacks has nothing to do with black prejudice against whites, and on the complementary fiction that white fears of and prejudices against blacks have any rational basis.  Sherrod talks in the video about how she grew up in a GA county where African Americans were murdered and lynched by whites with impunity, and got away with it.  Her own father was murdered by a white man in front of three eyewitnesses and was never indicted.  To use the same term and moral language to describe, on the one hand, Sherrod’s onetime suspicion of and antipathy towards white people, and on the other, the irrational fears and prejudices against black people of some members of the Tea Party (examples: calling Obama a witch doctor, or accusing him of wanting to institute white slavery), is a misleading and false moral equivalence.

This is also a story about the unproductive and misleading ways in which we frame having racist attitudes as a reflection on one’s character and moral state.  When doing or saying something racist, or being a racist, is equated with being a bad person, it makes it impossible for people to have honest conversations about their own racism, even if it’s past racism from 24 years ago.  It makes people believe that racist attitudes – no matter how far in the past, no matter if one is acknowledging them in an effort to move beyond them – are feelings they have to hide at all costs, and therefore makes it impossible to combat these attitudes.  This is something that both anti-racists and people who derail conversations about race can be guilty of.  The character assassination of Shirley Sherrod is only the latest volley in a battle between the NAACP and the Tea Party Movement about racist elements in the latter organization.  Supporters of the TPM have responded to the NAACP resolution calling on their organization to denounce racist elements and speech in its ranks as though it were an accusation that the TPM as a whole was a racist organization, and had as its mission to further racist ends – in other words, they have responded as though the TPM were being accused of being an evil organization, rather than organization that had some morally suspect elements (for example, Sarah Palin: “The only purpose of such an unfair accusation of racism is to dissuade good Americans from joining the Tea Party movement or listening to the common sense message of Tea Party Americans who simply want government to abide by our Constitution . . . All decent Americans abhor racism. No one wants to be associated with any organization that is in any way racist in sentiment or origin . . . Thankfully, the Tea Party movement is not racist or motivated by racism.” ht Racialicious)  Similarly, the NAACP responded to the edited clip of Sherrod as though she were a bad person whom they had to denounce and distance themselves from.

It’s very troubling that there’s no space in public discourse for people to admit to being wrong about having racist attitudes.   Think about it – our government is run at the highest levels by mostly white people in their 60s and 70s, people who grew up in a segregated America where open racism was the norm.  The odds that none of our elected officials have harbored or struggled with racist attitudes, now or in the past, completely beggars belief.  Yet it would be political suicide for a politician to admit to having such attitudes today, and inadvisable to even admit to having had them at some point in the past.  We have a basic inability to acknowledge as a country our history and its effects on how we relate to each other, and this has a a chilling effect on race relations.  Sherrod is another innocent casualty of – as Eric Holder has put it – our national cowardice and dishonesty on matters of race.

My friend Stacia pointed out that Sherrod is also a casualty of our sound bite society, where reputations are made or destroyed over clips and excerpts that are easily manipulated through editing and taking things out of context.  Breitbart and whoever sent him the clip have manufactured a national firestorm out of a doctored version of events.  Shirley Sherrod’s career of helping poor and disenfranchised farmers, and her story of how she overcame her prejudices, have been reduced to a 3 minute clip intended to assassinate her character and malign the work of the NAACP.

I’d add to this point that we need as anti-racists to think carefully about whether it’s always productive to call for someone’s firing or resignation when they say or do something racist.  It shouldn’t necessarily be the case that someone should lose their entire livelihood or reputation for that behavior; this should depend on the nature and severity of the behavior, and how the person responds to having their offensive behavior pointed out to them.  Otherwise we play right into the idea that racist speech or behavior is something that only “bad” people do, and that a person’s entire character can be accurately assessed by one moment in which they do or say something offensive.  (To be clear, this is a general point and less about Sherrod – if her out of context comments had in fact accurately described how she did her job at the USDA, her firing would have been completely justified).

To say that the initial responses of the NAACP, the USDA, and the White House were disappointing would be a massive understatement.  It was unspeakably unprofessional of USDA officials to pressure Sherrod without giving her so much as one day to explain herself or have the situation reviewed.  This treatment and the White House’s defense of it were acts of utter cowardice.  I’m left wondering why the Obama administration is so terrified of allegations of racism that it’s willing to throw all notions of due process or waiting to hear all the facts out the window.  Are they that afraid of conservative allegations of racism?  Do they have so little confidence in their ability to convince the public of their commitment to Americans of all races?

The NAACP has said that they were “snookered” by maliciously edited video.  Well, they were, as were the USDA and the White House.  But the question is, why were they so easy to snooker?  And why were they so quick to throw Shirley Sherrod under the bus?  The President and VP have been bending over backwards to defend the Tea Party Movement against charges of racism, despite a well documented history of problems with racist speech at the highest levels of the TPM; yet they were lightning quick to dismiss an individual black woman over unverified charges of racism.  This is no coincidence; this is a story about the privileges that whiteness, maleness, power, and status confer.  The TPM is an influential, well-connected, mostly white organization, backed by popular pols and associated with white disaffection with the direction of the country; the administration is terrified to touch them.  A lone black woman like Shirley Sherrod, though, is apparently an appropriate target of withering criticism and disenfranchisement by the NAACP, USDA, and White House.  Make no mistake, this is a story about the perceived expendability of black women.  In this case they made the serious error in judgment of assuming Sherrod would slink away quietly.

Even in the wake of the revelations that the video clip was misleading, many conservatives are still claiming that this incident shows that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – in other words, that Sherrod and other NAACP supporters can be racists just like TPM supporters. I keep coming back to the irony that supporters of the TPM are for the most part Christians, like Shirley Sherrod, who say they believe in the possibility of repentance and the hope of redemption.  The difference between Shirley Sherrod and her TPM critics is that Shirley Sherrod owned up to her sin of racial prejudice, and repented of it.  She gave a speech at an NAACP meeting calling her listeners to the same repentance, to forgiveness of a society and government that had deeply wounded them, and to embrace reconciliation with all people.  Meanwhile, the TPM’s response to allegations of racism has not been to examine themselves and repent as necessary, but to point fingers and call for the heads of people like Shirley Sherrod – a woman they could have seen as a example of the redemption they say they believe Christ offers.

Shirley Sherrod should be held up as an example and hero for us all.  She could have continued just “doing enough” for white people and feeling hatred for them, and felt justified in doing so, given all had been taken from her, her loved ones, and her community by white people, with the support of a mostly white government.  But she chose not to.  She chose to love.

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As mentioned in an update to our previous post on the Prescott Mural controversy, after local protests, the Prescott school district has withdrawn their request that the mural be lightened, and both the school’s principal and the Prescott district school superintendent have publicly apologized for asking that the faces of the children be lightened (video below).  I loved that their apologies were clear and to the point, and didn’t involve any excuses, blame-shifting, or minimizing – just simple statements of “We made a mistake” and “we’re sorry.”  How often do we hear apologies like that from public officials anymore, not least about racially charged issues?  Kudos to them for being to admit a mistake and taking steps to correct it.  And kudos to the residents of Prescott who stood up against racism in their city! (h/t Huffington Post)

Meanwhile, Steve Blair’s comments (transcript here) about the mural have led to significant public criticism, his ouster from his show on a local radio station, and calls for him to resign from his position as a city councilman.  Unfortunately, Councilman Blair has responded to the criticism of his comments not by taking some time to think about why they were offensive, but by repeating a number of his most problematic comments, taking the opportunity to make even more racist and privileged criticisms of the mural, and painting himself as a victim who was just trying to defend his city and “stand up for what’s right.”  Because, y’all, complaining about the prominent featuring of a child of color on a mural is a matter of moral integrity.  Take, for example, Blair’s defense of himself in an interview with the Prescott eNews (below, h/t Reappropriate), or his statement to the press on the controversy (video here).

Blair’s view is that he was fired simply for “asking a question.”  The closest he comes to making any apology for his comments is that “the question probably was poorly worded, and in retrospect, I also admit that it was probably offensive to some,” and that he “made assumptions and then . . . took an unfounded leap of logic” that the mural was supposed to be “factual, [functional, and] representative of the community here in Prescott, AZ.  And being a number cruncher in my business, I automatically assumed that the larger figure equated to the larger number of the demographics.”  Huh?  Not only is that a seriously weak sauce apology, it doesn’t even make sense.  Would Blair really have us believe that he thinks public art depicting people is necessarily some sort of statistical representation of a city’s population?

It gets stranger:

“The mural is a big change for a historic red brick building so many of enjoy [sic] over the years.  That, along with the scale of the boy central to the art, is startling at first blush.  That was my mistake.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, before I made the comments about the mural at all, I should have come down to speak with the artists, find out for myself what the mural meant, and what it was all about, because I still don’t believe the community knows what it was all about.  For the record, nobody has come to me once to say, “hey Steve, let us explain the mural to you, and what it means, what the designer and the artist intended.”  That might have helped educate me in what I obviously needed to know to help prevent such notoriety that we’ve had in this community.  Instead, others have made assumptions, and jumped to conclusions on their own.  They assume because they asked the question, that I was a racist and bigot.”

That right there is a mess of white privilege.  Blair assumes not only that his startled and confused reaction (to put it nicely) to the mural should be validated and taken seriously, but also that it’s the job of other people to educate him about what the mural means – including what it “means” to have a child of color prominently featured on the mural – and why he shouldn’t disapprove of it (“I want somebody to tell me why I should like that.  That’s what I want somebody to tell me.  Why should I like that?”).  He assumes that because he doesn’t know what the mural’s message is, neither does the “community,” and that because he wasn’t involved in the process of approving the mural design, neither was the “community.”  One has to wonder whether for him, the “community” means the white residents of Prescott who also “can’t stand” the word “diversity.”

As Reappropriate points out, as a city councilman, Blair should have been involved in, or at least aware of, council votes to approve other eco-themed mural designs by the same committee of artists, so his complaint that decisions were made without the approval or knowledge of the “community” rings hollow.  And if he was truly in the dark about the mission behind the murals, one would think a city councilman could at least pick up his local newspaper and educate himself about it.

The bottom line is, Blair and other residents of Prescott, objected to the presence of a child of color as the central figure in piece of public art, because of the (perceived) race of that child.  That’s racist.  And as for questioning why ethnic minorities should ever be depicted in public art?  That’s privilege.

Councilman Blair, you may not be a racist or a bigot.  But when you demand an explanation for why a person of color should be prominently featured in public art and and imply that depictions of POC should be completely absent from public art, what you say sounds racist.

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I should add, “from our governor” to the title of this post.  For those of you who live outside Virginia, you may or may not have heard, in a grand example of what we Southerners call “back-sliding,” Governor Bob McDonnell hath declared April is now Confederate History Month.

Now, some journalists are calling this move “insensitive,” and some scholars are calling it “obnoxious.”  Conservative pro-life pundit Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on the Washington Post blog:

I very much doubt it was Gov. McDonnell’s intention to cause any offense, and the proclamation mostly consists of platitudes about the importance of studying history. But the failure to mention slavery was a moral and historical mistake…

But this is more than an “oops.”  It’s a direct attempt to appeal to people who believe there is something worthy in the “cause” of the Confederacy.  Comments on Ponnuru’s post attest to those fallacious beliefs:

Yes, slavery existed. Yes ending it was a difficult task for our country. Yes some people fought to sustain that wicked institution. Given all of that I still think that America needs to work toward healing EVERYBODY. Right now white southerns are being marginalized by the folks on the left. I see repeated slurs and slanders hurled in their general direction. It is just plain wrong. Will a confederate history month solve that? Not by itself but it is long past time that we cleansed the wounds, bound them up and began this final phase of healing. so what about the much maligned white people living in the south? Are they not worthy of such healing? We’ve got an out and out reparations advocate about to be confirmed to the ninth circuit.
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During Black History Month who is recognized besides blacks?

Let me again state on this blog, I am a white Southern woman.  I have, at times, harbored bitterness in my heart about the politics of our day.  I have felt left out, ignored by our leaders, and downright angry about decisions made by policymakers at all levels of our government.  At no point in those times, would a Confederate History Month have done anything to alleviate my grievances.  It would have done as it does now, it inflames my grievances.

I would like to tell my governor (a professed brother in Christ, mind you), do not presume to pander to me or my kin by establishing a month-long celebration of everything that has ever been wrong with humanity.  The painful, shameful, and still-nagging history of slavery cannot be swept aside by an acknowledgment that “Yes, slavery existed.”  It did not exist.  It was perpetrated.  It was propped up, established in law, and defended in war by generations of people who directly and indirectly benefited from a labor force created by trading in flesh.

Gov. McDonnell wants to remember the Confederacy, but ignore slavery.  This is especially dangerous in an environment where discussions about slavery fall into the old trap of, “can’t we just let bygones be bygones.” We want to toss aside the atrocities of the period, but celebrate the romance of war, from the perspective of the people who rightly lost that war.  We want to leave slavery in the past, but declare the [old] South has risen again.

There is an insidious root to this week’s proclamation.  Some of my white brothers and sisters earnestly believe that they have been marginalized by some sort of  “reverse racism.”  They feel they have been robbed of dignity and respect.  And on that point, I would agree; they have been robbed.  Holding tightly to a moral evil will steal your civility.  It can hold your children hostage and ransom their righteous inheritance.  Honoring hatred and grasping for power will make you a slave to all manner of unholiness.

So tonight, I ask our readers and friends to consider taking two actions:

  1. Pray for our leaders.  In the midst of the tug-of-war between politics and ethics, many times our leaders fail.  While it’s particularly troubling when those leaders espouse our shared faith, I am reminded of the importance of prayer on their behalf.  The Holy Spirit has a more personal and more constant influence than I can have over a fellow believer, so I’m going to pull a Julia Sugarbaker and offer something like this up:

    One of the things that I pray for, Mr. Brickett, is that people with power will get good sense, and that people with good sense will get power… and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive the people like you in the meantime!

  2. Communicate with the governor’s office.  Let him know, politely and firmly, that this is a mistake and then encourage him to rescind the proclamation with a dignified apology to those who have been hurt by it.  (This may seem like a long shot, but if we all commit to both praying and confronting, who knows!)

***Update: Gov. McDonnell has issued this press release today in response to public opposition to his initial proclamation.  Judge for yourselves if this new addition goes far enough (I, personally don’t).  Resources for communicating with the governor’s office follow:

Statement of Governor Bob McDonnell

RICHMOND – Governor Bob McDonnell issued the following statement today regarding the proclamation of Confederate History Month in the Commonwealth:

“The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of “profound regret” for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery, which was the right thing to do.

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present. The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history. Virginia history undeniably includes the fact that we were the Capitol of the Confederacy, the site of more battlefields than any other state, and the home of the signing of the peace agreement at Appomattox. Our history is perhaps best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder. America’s history has been written in Virginia. We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility. During the commemoration of the Civil War over the next four years, I intend to lead an effort to promote greater understanding and harmony in our state among our citizens.”

In addition the Governor announced that the following language will be added to the Proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

**This section will be added between the 3rd and 4th Sections**

# # #

Office of the Governor

Mailing address:
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, Virginia 23218

Street address:
Office of the Governor
Patrick Henry Building, 3rd Floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219

Phone Numbers:
(804) 786-2211
Fax: (804) 371-6351
TTY/TDD (For the Hearing Impaired):
1-800-828-1120, or 711

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