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I’m just going to warn y’all right now that this is a post about reality TV.  And also it might be a wee bit snarky. Just to be clear.

So I was watching the Season 2 premiere of The Fashion Show a few nights ago (why yes, I am a sucker for cheesy fashion reality shows).  I was all set to enjoy some pretty clothes, laugh at some truly hideous clothes, and be entertained by overblown egos and petty bickering.  Oh, and bask in the unmatched fabulosity of Iman, the co-host and more or less the star of the show.  And all of that happened, but not without considerable irritation and swearing at the TV on my and my husband’s part.

Iman, as you might know, is from Somalia, and is one of the few black models to make it big in the fashion industry.  The first challenge for the designers was to create a look for her, inspired by her career and life story. One of the designers, Mike, apparently decided that the only relevant fact about Iman’s life is that she’s “African” and decided to create a dress that would “honor her African heritage.”  Well.  Perhaps you see where this is going.

That was warning sign number one.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when Americans, and especially white Americans, start talking about the heritage and culture of the entire African continent as a monolith, odds are something deeply ignorant and possibly very offensive is about to come next.  This case was not the exception.  Mike went on to identify “safaris” and “wild animals” as part of Iman’s “heritage.”  Because when you think of Africans, obviously wild animals and white tourist attractions would be the first thing to come to mind.

It got worse.  He summarized Iman’s life story as  “leaving a tribal background and coming into the modern world.  Apparently, knowing someone is originally from “Africa” means that you can deduce their life story without having any shred of actual information about their history.  Funny thing is, Iman is the daughter of a diplomat.  She has a degree in political science – from, *gasp*, an African university (yes, we have those! amazing!).  She speaks five languages fluently.  But nevertheless, leaving “Africa” is what introduced her to the “modern world,” whatever that means.  And “African” automatically means being of “tribal background” (of course there’s the huge issue that the standard Western narrative of “tribal” Africa is fundamentally racist, paternalist, and colonialist to begin with).

Then he went on about how he was designing with “African tribal motifs,” but making them into a “more sophisticated dress.”  Because African = unsophisticated.  And because he magically knows something about what “African tribal motifs” look like.  Which part of Africa? Which tribes?  Doesn’t matter!  And the dress he designed, my goodness.  It wasn’t a bad looking dress, but the concept behind it was breathtakingly arrogant and offensive.  It was sleek and polished in the front – representing Western modernity and sophistication, you see – and the upper back was a halter made out of thick knotted rope – “representing the restrictions” of Iman’s native culture or some such rubbish.

It was kind of astounding to hear this dude who obviously doesn’t know the first darn thing about ANY part of Africa pontificate about how backwards and restrictive “African” society is.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’ve heard countless similar comments like this since I first moved to the States at 8.  Many Americans are convinced they know something about “Africa” because they’ve seen huts and starving children and wild giraffes on TV (for the record, to the best of my recollection, I have never in my life seen a wild giraffe, or a wild anything that wasn’t a dog or cat.  The only giraffes I saw in Nigeria were at the zoo.).  They assume all Africans are from rural, tribal contexts (and assume quite a bit about what it means to come from such a background); they assume we all have little or no education or real “culture.”  Because education, art, and cities are all things that Africans can’t have, at least, not without Western assistance.  As Dodai put it over at Jezebel:

When using Iman as a muse for their collections, the contestants used words like “exotic,” “wild animal,” “jungle” and “tribal.” If only I were fucking kidding. Yes, she is from Somalia. But do you know what the city of . . . Mogadishu looks like? It looks like a city. The winning design was a leopard print dress, but Isaac Mizrahi made sure to point out that it won because it “celebrated her figure” and not because animal print is for black people, who are animals from Africa.
Not only are these ideas about Africa and Africans woefully uninformed by any real knowledge, they’re also incredibly arrogant, and as Chimamanda Adichie points out in the talk below, dangerous (transcript).
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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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We’ve mentioned Kenneth & Mamie Clark’s famous “doll tests” a few times here on the blog, e.g. in Cayce’s “Reversing Racism” post and my post about the movie “Good Hair” and internalized prejudice.

Anderson Cooper recently revisited the Clarks’ doll tests on his CNN news show. For those of you who missed it, here it is. (I know the numbering looks out-of-order, but this ordering made more sense to me.)

Note to white parents: Your kids are not growing up “colorblind” and if you want to help them overcome racial prejudice you’ll need to have explicit conversations with them about racial attitudes and interracial relationships.

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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 Nikki pointed out in her post earlier today we occasionally get negative comments from folks who would like to put “racism behind us.”  Often such admonitions come with commendation for the leaders of the “original” Civil Rights movement (as if that were something that had a definitive starting and ending point in human history).  We are told that the work of such leaders (particularly Dr. King) is over, that the goals have been accomplished.

Yet while admiration for Dr. King is well and deserved, he was not the only one who dedicated his life and lifetime to human rights.  Many of us white folks know Rosa Parks and Dr. King, but names like Medgar Evers, Ralph Abernathy, and Ida B. Wells are not part of any history curriculum we’ve ever studied, and no one’s going to mention Malcolm X because his rhetoric and ideas at times, frankly, scared us.

One of our best defenses as white folks is to point to leaders of color we admire.  To show that we, too, know about the struggle and had we been there, unlike our fathers, we would have walked with those people across that bridge in Selma.  But oftentimes, as we attempt to exaggerate our understanding, to presume that we, like the Civil Rights leaders we can name, have overcome racism, we reveal how little we really know about any of it.

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more about “Glenn Beck criticizes John Lewis for …“, posted with vodpod

FYI, check out the man in the photo linking arms with the “unidentified nun” (photo Dartmouth University School of Religion):

May all of us be slow to speak and eager to learn.

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So in more of the buffoonery that is the American media, Chris Matthews steps up to the plate with this one:

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And in a classic case of colorblindness/missed opportunity, colleague Rachel Maddow not only allows Matthews to take pride in his “commentary” but refuses to in any way correct him:

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From the insightful interpretation of these events from Ta-Nehisi Coates (emphasis mine):

The “I forgot Obama was black” sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth. It allows the speaker a luxurious ignorance–you get to name people (this is what black is) even when you don’t know people. In fact, Chris Matthews didn’t forget Barack Obama was black. Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white.

Fortunately, not all of us white people forget so easily.

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A recent conversation with Nikki reminded me of these bits from Margaret Cho’s standup. Apologies in advance for the explicit language.

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more about “Roles for Asian Actors (Margaret Cho)“, posted with vodpod
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more about “Part 2“, posted with vodpod

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