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Posts Tagged ‘white guilt’

Almost ten years ago, I was a new teacher in a mostly-white, private Christian school. Most of my courses were American literature, but in my youth and zeal, I decided to take on a number of electives. One of the new courses I taught was Speech and Debate. It had been but a year since 9-11 and many of my students wanted to give speeches on issues related to terrorism or war. Knowing this, I decided to have them read an essay that pertained to racial profiling, hoping to round out their understanding of current events. The essay was written by an Arab man, but it was written in the 1980’s at the height of American hijacking fears. All of my students wrestled with the author’s point-of-view, struggling to balance their limited sound-bite-fed knowledge of national security issues against his account of being profiled, an obvious act of injustice. The kids were starting to break down some of their preconceptions about race and privilege and were genuinely open to confronting the derailments that traditionally held them captive in conversations about race.

I was excited and wanted to see more of this. In one of my English courses, I had students read an essay written by a black man on the same topic. He spoke of having to cross the street to avoid walking directly behind a white woman. But, unlike my debate students, these students immediately balked at the author’s account. They called him “paranoid” and insisted that he was making too much of things. One of my students, one of the only black members of his class, turned around and addressed his white classmates. He told them about how his mom encouraged him not to wear hats or hooded jackets in a store. He had been educated to keep a low profile and to maintain a respectful tone in the face of authority figures who would not do him the same courtesy. My students listened and empathized, but there were several who remained skeptical that racial profiling was a persistent problem in America, or even an injustice at all.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought about those two classroom situations. Like many of us, I had a visceral response to the news. The anti-racist in me felt helpless and hopeless in the days that followed. Tope’s post on the subject slayed me. As did Jim Vance’s honest and heartfelt editorial commentary on “The Talk” on our local news. I was reminded of my student’s courage in informing his white peers and I began to hope that perhaps we had arrived at a moment where white folks could “get it” when it came to racial profiling, gun violence, or being a perpetual target.

Call it slacktivism if you will, but I started posting everything I could find on the subject on Facebook. I deliberately chose articles that were well-researched or editorials that provided a clear, truthful, but winsome perspective, hoping that my white friends would join the call for justice in Trayvon’s killing. I even sought out faith-based commentary from a pastor, thinking that would appeal to my white Christian friends who remain ignorant of their privilege. A few friends at church told me that the things I was posting “made me think.” I got a couple compliments from unexpected people about the articles I’d posted. Still, I was doubtful that these ideas were taking root. In the anti-racist fight, even in my own prejudiced heart and mind, it’s often one step forward, two steps back.

It’s been a couple months now, and most of the talk on this topic has slowed in my Facebook news feed. Occasionally, a friend will post something as the case against George Zimmerman moves forward, but there is no longer a frantic flurry of commentary on the case as there was in those early weeks. Just recently, I began to see a new conversation on these topics emerge among some of my friends. Unfortunately, the discussion about race, injustice, vigilantism, etc. has been derailed by two common white complaints:

1) White people are killed and no one makes this big a fuss about it.

I saw this sentiment expressed in conjunction with a blog post about the shooting death of UNC student Eve Carson.  The blogger writes:

Was she profiled? You bet she was. Eve was profiled as a Rich, Blue -Eyed, Blond Haired, White Girl. Were there protests, marches and outraged politicians speaking out for her? Did Barack call her family?  Why is it about race only if the victim is black? Why aren’t we outraged when ANY kid is murdered? As a nation, have we been silenced by a politically correct whip? Lets’ be outraged about all murders, all racism, every injustice.

Let’s just ignore the mistaken timeline for a minute (Obama took office in 2009 and Eve was killed in March 2008) and focus on the thrust of this post.  Eve Carson’s murder garnered national attention. Her killers were brought to justice. At no point has there been any implication that race was a motivating factor in her killing.  In fact, her assailants claim they planned to rob her but killed her when she got a good look at them.

Anyone who watches daytime television can tell you that the media and our politicians make a huge fuss about it when a white person is murdered. Even more so if the person is young, female, and attractive by society’s measures. (In that case, the victim is likely to become the center of a Lifetime channel biopic.)

In fact, I’ve rarely seen an Amber alert for a child of color. That’s why organizations like the Black & Missing Foundation even exist: to publicize missing and endangered persons of color because most of the time, the media won’t do it. There is a racial disparity in the way criminals and victims are portrayed in the media.

Eve Carson’s case got the attention of morning shows and talk shows far beyond the scope of local news coverage. Her campus and her town rallied and held vigils. Her killers were apprehended and convicted.  There really is no fair comparison to be made between that case and Trayvon’s. If anything, Eve’s story illustrates by contrast how little we collectively care about a murder like Trayvon’s.

That leads me to the other derailment I’ve seen floating around on social networks:

2) White people are now the target of violence because of the case. We are threatened and should be afraid of retaliation.

Richard Land, prominent spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention made me glad I’ve left that assembly when he said recently on his radio show of black leaders, “They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965.”  Land offered a pseudo-apology for his comments in a public letter written to the current SBC president:

Richard Land, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to SBC president Bryant Wright to express his “deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding” his comments may have caused.

“It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life,” Land wrote, according to a letter released by Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news agency.

This, as the convention prepares to elect a new president, likely Rev. Fred Luter, who would be the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fearful white folks first point to the New Black Panthers’ offer of a bounty for the capture or death of George Zimmerman as evidence that whites are collectively in danger.  (The New Black Panther Party is unaffiliated with the Black Panthers). They will mention Spike Lee’s attempt to tweet Zimmerman’s address.  Lee apologized for the tweet, having inadvertently tweeted the wrong address, and legally settled the matter with the affected family.

I saw this derailment employed alongside the story of a white Orlando man who was severely beaten by a group of young black men.  The family of the victim claims that Matthew Owens was beaten as part of a retaliation for Trayvon Martin’s death.  Police investigating the crime reported that the dispute between Owens and his chief assailant has been ongoing, and while racial slurs are hurled by both sides, the beating was in no way related to the Trayvon Martin case.

This derailment is one of many historically used to create fear in white people.  Time and again in our history, we have learned about the threat that black men pose.  This derailment says, for black folks to see justice, white people will have to pay: reparations, loss of status, even loss of life.  As white folks, we cannot acknowledge the wrong in Trayvon’s case, much less right it, because to do so endangers us all.

It also diverts the attention from what was clearly a race-based crime onto other crimes in which white people are the victims.  We’re more comfortable with that narrative than we are with a story that allows us to see ourselves in a man holding a gun to a young boy’s head.

As white people, we can continue spinning tales about how people of color are out to get us, coming for our stuff, eager to disrupt our way of life.  Or, we can do better, we can do good, and choose to see the injustices that still exist in our country: including the one perpetrated against young Trayvon Martin.  We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color, confess the truth about societal structures of sin, and call for justice.

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…asked a young man of Tim Wise.  h/t Sociological Images and sister Tope for bringing this video to my attention.

**poster’s note:  For more on this subject, check out the sidebar of our Derailment Series or click on any number of the tags associated with the issues of privilege, guilt, and beginning as an anti-racist.

And because Nikki is a quick-draw on the commenting, here’s the transcript:

Questioner (off-camera): Um, as a white male, should I feel guilty for the sins of my fathers. I affirm that they exist, but should I feel guilty for them?

Tim Wise: No. You should feel angry. And you should feel committed to doing something to address that legacy. It’s like, for instance, with pollution, right? We think about the issue of pollution. Now none of us in this room, to my knowledge, are individually responsible for having belched any toxic waste into the air, or injecting toxic waste into the soil, or done any of the things… we didn’t put lead paint into the housing, you know?

Individually we’re innocent of that. But someone did that stuff, and we’re living with the legacy of it right now, or in this case might be dying with the legacy of it, getting ill, right?.

So it isn’t about feeling guilty about what someone did, even if you were the direct heir of the chemical company that did the pollution, but it is about saying, all of us in the society have to take responsibility for what we find in front of us. There’s a big difference between guilt and responsibility.

Guilt is what you feel for what you’ve done. Responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are, right? And so if I see a set of social conditions that have been handed to you, and which not only did wrong by othrs but elevated me and give me advantage that I did not earn, it’s not about beating myself up, I’m not responsible for that having happened, I’m not to blame for it, so guilt is totally unproductive

But in order to live an ethical life, to live ethically and responsibly, I have to take some responsibility for the unearned advantage, which means working to change the society that bestows that advantage. It’s not guilt, but it is responsiblity. It’s no different than looking at the issue of pollution or if you became the CFO of the company, you wouldn’t be able to come in and say, “I intend to use the assets of this company, and I insend to put them to greater use, and I intend to use the revenue stream we’ve got going, but that whole debt side of the ledger? No, I’m not paying any of that because I wasn’t here when the other person ran all that debt up. You should’ve gotten them to pay it before you gave me the job. Now I’m here, and I’m innocent.” We would realize that made no sense.

So isn’t about innocence and it isn’t about guilt, it’s about responsibility, that’s something we all have to take. White folks have to take it, people of color have to take it, uh, men and women have to take… everybody has got to take it, because we’re living with… if we don’t do it, no one does it, and it doesnt’ get done. We’re the only hope we have.

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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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Today I read an incredible guest post over at Macon D’s Stuff White People Do that almost killed me.

The author, a blogger named IzumiBayani, describes himself as “100% Japanese, 100% white, 25% deaf, oppressor and oppressed,”  and in his post, he works around a theme that attempts to understand, instruct and encourage white men who want to participate in the work of social justice.

Because we talk a lot on this blog about struggles against institutional white privilege, some visitors may have come away feeling that we are anti-white people or anti-white men, in particular. I am not anti-white people.  I am a white person.  And I am definitely not anti-white men.  I am the daughter of a white man.  I am married to a white man.  I am raising a white man.

Recently, a friend who is serving a year as a missionary in Chicago told me about her initiation through that program into the world of racial justice.  One of the first books she read (a book we highly recommend here at ID), was Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? My friend told me that in her mission house, one person struggled most with the implications and the expectations the book raises.  That conflicted missionary was the only white man in the house.  He felt what many of us feel, guilt, hopelessness in the face of injustice, fear of stepping out into a community filled with people of color who, because of his race and gender, might dismiss him as being “like the others.”

In my last post on the debacle over a “Black History Month” menu, I confessed that my husband and I had been having long discussions about the situation.  Many times I am challenged by his experience as a white man to explain my opinions on these subjects in such a way that he can access my ideas and appreciate where I’m coming from.  I often get angry with him and wish he would be as passionate or as convinced as I am about certain things.  And in those moments, I forget how much work he puts into trying to figure all of this out.  I forget the obstacles that unearned and unsought privilege places in front of him as he seeks to engage in these things.  I forget to show grace and patience to someone who is willing to support me and join me in this work.

We’ve talked on the blog before about how we white folks need to be patient and understanding when people of color distrust our efforts.  For me that’s often a no-brainer.  I can see the need for that more clearly.  It’s harder for me to see what privilege does to the privileged because I am one of them.  The injuries racism inflicts on people of color is visible to me.  What’s often invisible is the injury done to me, my husband, my kids in how racism shapes our attitudes, our lifestyles, and our capacity to love and serve all people (including each other).

White men who participate in racial justice are willing to go through repeated initiation, to be inspected and suspected even when they have pure motives.  They are willing to walk in situations where everything society has imprinted upon them tells them they should feel threatened.  In small, microcosmic ways, they are taking up a cross of vulnerability and rejection that people of color have borne for centuries in the larger context of American society.  As IzumiBayani says of his white friend, Ecrib:

I don’t tell Ecrib this often enough, but he needs to stay humble. No one is asking him to lead us out to the promise land. In fact, he can’t be a dominant leader in a social justice movement because of his identity. This space is for PoC and to some extent WW. He can support, but he can’t lead. That invokes the White Savior Complex. White male arrogance can easily ruin his credibility and get him thrown off the boat.

It’s hard for white guys.  And some of them don’t deserve it.  But that’s how racial injustice works.

IzumiBayani asks this at the end of his post:

what can we as PoC’s and women do to balance staying safe and giving dominant identities a chance?

I’d invite you to post your responses to this question here AND at the original blog.  My answer is to love them and let them come.  To allow them to get it wrong from time to time and correct the well-intentioned with truth and gentleness.  To give them a place to be angry about what this system has done to them by making them oppressors by default.  To encourage them to go out and reach the very audiences that they can influence because of their privilege.

My missionary friend told me that the other man in the house, a man of color, kept repeating to his grieved white friend, “YOU are not racism.”  I love that.  I’d add to my own white men, “but in Christ, like all things, you can OVERCOME it.”

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Last week, NBC got its share of heat for a fight, that like many before it, started in the cafeteria.  For years, cafeteria chef Leslie Calhoun had advocated for a special menu to highlight Black History month.  When NBC finally granted her request, the result was this menu:

...and I totally get black love for Aquafina (beats Dasani, any day).

The photographer? Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer for Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” show band, The Roots (arguably one of the best parts about Fallon’s show, but I digress).  Questlove took the photo with his phone and posted it on Twitter with the caption: “Hmm…HR?”

NBC/Universal responded via tweet, of all things:

@questlove http://twitpic.com/11d07s – The sign in the NBCU cafeteria has been removed. We apologize for anyone who was offended by it.

When The New York Post first featured the story, it did so under the punny banner, “NBC’s Lost Soul.”  The comments on Questlove’s Twitpic range from

I really don’t see anything wrong with this. I am African American and the only thing on here that I don’t eat is Jalapeno. People need to relax, we have bigger “fish to fry”. -Amadii

I don’t usually call my grandma racist for cooking me soda bread on Saint Patrick’s Day. -martinamelia

It’s pretty thoughtless. It’s like saying, “See, here’s something good that came out of slavery! We’re all good now, right?” -utterlycharming

New York Magazine called the situation “a Saturday Night Live–worthy farce about liberal racial oversensitivity.”  The commentary at NY Magazine’s Daily Intel reported that, according to Calhoun, after the first shot was taken of the menu:

“The next thing you know, people were taking pictures of the sign and asking all the other black people in the cafeteria if this was racist. They said that it wasn’t.”

That’s awesome. Especially since the black population at NBC is only around 11 percent countrywide, and so we imagine everyone bombarding like the one guy who happened to be in the cafeteria with questions, like, “Hey, black person. Don’t you think that’s racist? Aren’t you upset? Don’t you think you should be? I mean, you understand why this is offensive, right?”

Comedian Wanda Sykes took NBC to task in her appearance on The Jay Leno Show (it’s still called that, right?):
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Questlove has since posted this statement about the controversy (emphasis mine):

when i saw the sign i have to admit….i was DYING. like literally LMAO!!! maybe it was juxtaposition of the words: collard & history, jalapeno & honor, fried, black and nbc?? maybe it was the acculturative stress of having 28 days for this food that represents you but come march…pot roast for life kid!

whatever the case, I found this funny and when I find something funny I like to let the world in on the joke (twitpic anyone??). in NO way did i ever think that this was some cruel insensitive joke on behalf of jeff zucker and his comrades at nbc (the cafeteria isn’t even owned or operated by nbc).

I kinda get where leslie calhoun (our culinary rosa parks) was coming from; fried chicken as a fragrant, tasty, honorable metaphor for the struggles and accomplishments of america’s black masses.

The problem is..in the blogosphere, things can take on a life of their own. “online journalists”, site commenters, even comedians (see wanda sykes on leno) have now taken my snapshot of leslie’s missionary zeal and retooled it for their own racialized – “let’s bash nbc for their conan sins” – flogging mission. my twitpic was just me poking fun, a Questlove still life that was clearly intended as a joke. what’s even funnier: race issues in post racial america. potluck anyone?????

I, of course, have my own take on these events and have exhaustively argued with my husband and myself about the implications of such a “celebration” of black history.  I think there are many layers to this and to ignore any one of them is an injustice and a reduction of the complexity that is our nation’s history with race.

So lay your own layer on me: what do our readers and my fellow bloggers think about all this?  “Liberal oversensitivity”?  “Another example of institutional racism”?  “Black on black crime?”  Let’s dish.

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So I’m late coming to the party on writing about this film, but since I finally got a chance to see it on my Christmas vacation (thanks to some free grandparent babysitting), I’m hoping my tardiness will be excused. Watching the previews for the movie made me almost cringe. It seemed to contain both cliches and sappiness, and I try to avoid both when I invest precious box office dollars and two hours of my life to movie-going. Add that hesitation to the numerous devoted praises for the film I heard coming from middle-aged white women, and it took me a few weeks to actually work up the will to go.

In case you’re on a media fast or have just been tuned out to anything non-holiday related, The Blind Side is based on a true story of the transracial adoption of a football-star-in-the-making by a wealthy, white Christian family.  As with any film that tries to capture the history of a family, there are inevitable short cuts that reduce the members of that family to simpler characters.  But when artfully done, characters, even those based on real people, can be numerous and still retain a dynamism that makes them believable. The Blind Side did not accomplish that, despite a decent representation of seasoned players (Sandra Bullock, and even Kathy Bates) in the cast.

The unfortunate part of the film’s failure on that count is that the most truncated character is, wait for it, the black kid. My husband summed up Michael Oher as “that big guy who walked around sad for most of the movie. Every time you see him, he’s sad-walking. Walking sad in the ghetto. Walking sad at the new school. Walking sad into the laundromat.” We’re told by Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, that Michael has changed her life, that having him around has made her happy. But we have no idea why.  When they go shopping, he picks out horizontally-striped rugby shirts to the bemusement of the family.  This little footnote is, sadly, given to us as one of the dimensions of his character.

We are told who Michael is entirely by other [white] characters.  There is only one scene in the film where he demonstrates anything other than utter gratitude and love for his new family, and the scene is short-lived as the conflict is all-too-quickly resolved in such a slick manner that I wonder why they even included it in the movie. Michael, in many ways, is portrayed as a phlegmatic, gentle giant, a defender of the Tuohy family without much else to think about or do through the course of the film.  Some commentators have expressed the concern that the use of such a trope might invite the stereotype of the magical negro or even the eunuch, whose only purpose is to aide the white characters in their development.

Michael’s challenges are often oversimplified and understated.  He has a hard time in school, but thanks to an observant science teacher and an at-home tutor, he finds his way past his reading impediments.  Deeper problems are treated likewise.  While the film doesn’t shy away from having a drug dealer use sexually graphic language to threaten Michael’s white sister, in describing the sexual activity Michael was exposed to as a child, the script has Michael describe his experience at home as “mom did drugs or other bad stuff.”  While Leigh Anne is portrayed as imperiled when she drives through the ghetto (even though she’s armed, or so she tells the drug dealer who threatens her: she’s a member of the NRA, she pats her purse), Michael is depicted as invulnerable.  In one scene he is surrounded by gun-wielding criminals and as they pull their weapons on him, he sweeps them away with almost supernatural (say, magical?) physicality, warding off an attack with his bare hands.

The story takes place in the South, a setting that creates its own implied social and racial dynamics, and I expected the challenges of transracial adoption to be amplified by that fact.  The  film does try, showing Leigh Anne behaving as a white ally at different points identifying as Michael’s even when it costs her relationships with her rich, white “friends.” She also takes the initiative to seek out Michael’s absentee mother for her blessing before arranging for his official adoption, even though the state wouldn’t extend her the same courtesy or dignity.  Time and again, she travels into Michael’s old neighborhood, braving whatever discomfort or insecurity she might feel in that setting.

But the film deals exclusively in those extremes: glorious white wealth versus desperate black poverty.  One moment in particular for me served as a metaphor for what was missing in the movie.  Michael and the family are out for a fancy dinner.  As the family leaves the restaurant, he returns because he recognizes one of the waiters.  He says nothing, but goes back inside.  “Where’s Michael?”  The family turn and sees through a window that Michael is embracing a waiter.  They stand outside watching Michael hug the man and when he comes outside, we learn the man is his brother that he hasn’t seen since they were separated by social services as children.

As they drive away, Leigh Anne says she’d like to meet him sometime.  While Leigh Anne can go out of her way to sit next to Michael’s mother on her couch in the projects, for some reason, she cannot bring herself to go inside the restaurant to talk to a man who is clearly important to Michael and say, “Hey Michael, who’s your friend?”  Here she’s introduced to a character who doesn’t appear to need rescuing, and so she stands looking in from the outside, uncharacteristically reluctant to intrude on the scene.

While I am troubled by elements of the film, I am not prepared to classify it as a “white savior” story.  There are kids that need loving homes.  For some kids, adoption, even transracial adoption, is a form of rescue.  And that is not a bad thing.  It sounds like that was the situation for the real-life Michael.  But even if those are the circumstances that create a family in the beginning, building a family is a lifelong process and the challenges and conflicts that are part of that process shouldn’t be glossed over for the sake of making movie-goers feel good at the holidays. I have no doubt that what goes on in the real-life Tuohy family is much deeper than what I saw onscreen.  It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t even get a microcosm of that up there.

The Blind Side fails because it tries to prove the humanity and dignity of a kid from the ghetto by focusing entirely on the family that took him in and reducing him to a flat, uninteresting character that Sandra Bullock brought home from school one day.  With a few football drills and a couple suburban road humps along the way, we’re all fine and post-racial at the end.  Race. Family. Faith.  Community. It’s just not that easy.

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Kate did an excellent post last month called A Beginner’s Guide to Anti-racism for White People and from the looks of things, it’s getting a lot of reads.  It’s a terrific resource for learning more about the fundamental definitions of race, racism, white privilege and for discovering the vast amounts of reading material on the web and in print.  I would also remind our readers (especially those new to the blog) about our Reading List tab at the top of the page.  We’re constantly adding to that page, so if you have recommendations or want to find out more about what we’ve been reading, check it out.

Family business aside, I wanted to address a couple things I’ve been thinking about lately on the issue of white identity development.  So many of us white folks don’t really think much about race.  We know there are racial issues and tensions, but we can generally avoid most of that messiness because it is possible to live lives that are, at least at the conscious level, unhindered by societal racism. But once that veil of “colorblindness” has been lifted, we start to see and feel the pain that our own privilege has cost others, namely people of color.  And that awakening can be a painful prospect.

We’ve already talked a little about white guilt, but let it be said again that guilt is not the goal.  The goal is genuine repentance and contrition. Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it this way in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

These feelings of guilt and shame are part of the hidden costs of racism. (p. 94)

Moving from a place of ignorance or indifference into a place of awareness and activism is a challenging process.  For me, it’s reminiscent of the call that all Christians are given, to join in suffering for the sake of the family-building work of the Gospel.  If we as believers plan to be a part of real racial reconciliation then there will be a cost.  And as white people, much of the cost will come in the form of unsettling, discomfort and an overturn of the status quo.  For people of color, the costs are still there (like having to trust white people’s efforts toward anti-racism), but many of those costs have already been imposed by society in one form or another.

For those of us white people making the journey into anti-racist activism, we have to honestly assess if we are prepared to take these steps.  For some it will be a no-brainer.  They have intimate relationships (friendships, spouses, parents, children) that depend on their willingness to endure racism alongside a person of color.  But for many of us, it has to be an act of the will.  We have to choose to engage and to step away from the dominant influence of our culture.  It is at this point that we may experience a deeper level of internal conflict.  Tatum again:

This new awareness is characterized by discomfort.  The uncomfortable emotions of guilt, shame, and anger are often related to a new awareness of one’s personal prejudices or the prejudices within one’s family. (p.97)

True repentance always requires some sense of grief over the wrongs committed.  This may be more intense if we realize we have been perpetrators of racism. But the way to move through this is to lean into it.  To seek forgiveness.  As Christians we hold tight to promises like that in 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

However, humans may be less open to imparting forgiveness.  People of color may be less trusting of well-intentioned white people because of past disappointments.  Lois Stalvey writes about these obstacles to forgiveness in her memoir:

I could never resent the tests [of trustworthiness] as some white people have told me they do…to me the longest tests indicate the deepest hurts…At times the most poignant part of the test is that black people have enough trust left to give it.  Testing implies that we might pass the test.  It is safer and easier for a black person to turn his back on us.  If he does not gamble on our sincerity, he cannot be hurt if we prove false.  Testing shows an optimism I doubt I could duplicate if I were black. (quoted in Tatum, p. 105)

Obtaining forgiveness will likely require time and commitment on our part in order to withstand the scrutiny of those who may be distrustful of our motives.  Nevertheless we must ask for forgiveness if we have insulted someone or otherwise inflicted pain.  The cleanest way to get through the discomfort of being wrong is to admit it, apologize, try to make right, and move on.

At any of these points, there will be temptation to turn back.  White privilege is called privilege in part because it makes life easier for white people.  Even if we are members of an alternatively oppressed group (women, etc.) we still enjoy the advantages of white privilege.  Paul Kivel states in his article entitled I’m Not White I’m Jewish

To some extent my gut-level response as a Jew is similar to the “I’m not white” response of other white people. When the subject is racism nobody wants to be white, because being white has been
labeled “bad” and brings up feelings of guilt, shame, complicity and hopelessness.

Yeah, who wants any of that?  Tatum illustrates the level of sacrifice white people may be asked to make and the pressure for anti-racist whites to regress and assimilate with a story from one of her students.  This young man is hopeful that he can make a difference but is also plagued by persecution (from close friends, peers, and family members) and fears he may not have what it takes to stick with his convictions in the long run:

It’s easy to see how the cycle [of racism] continues.  I don’t think I could ever justify within myself simply turning my back on the problem.  I finally realized that my position in all of these dominant groups gives me power to make change occur…It is an unfortunate result often though that I feel alienated from friends and family.  It’s often played off as a mere stage that I’m going through…By belittling me, they take the power out of my argument…I don’t want it to be a phase for me, but as obvious as this may sounds, I look at my environment and often wonder how it will not be. (p. 100-101)

It’s not hard for me to sympathize with this guy.  Bearing witness to injustice and working to rectify that is a high and difficult calling.  With every, “lighten up, we’re just playing” or “don’t be so sensitive,” we can be discouraged. And we should be realistic about our own potential for failure here.  There will be times when we wished we’d said something.  Or wished we hadn’t.  There will be times when we let ourselves or others down.  There may be times when we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle and the whole world is against us. So why not give up or just go back to the other team?

At those points in my life when my own fortitude has faltered, I am compelled to return to the strongest example of courage and love I’ve known:

[Jesus told them:] In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.  John 16:33

It’s also important to keep our struggle in perspective.  Most of us will never be martyrs over this (though there have been white folks who lost their lives in these battles, too).  Many times I’ve heard it said in a church or among friends that it would be easier to die for Christ than to live for Him.  I don’t know if that’s really true (I personally don’t have a death wish) but sometimes it can feel true.

There are white people who have gone before us.  And there are white people working with us now.  White people can join people of color in this good work.  Beverly Daniel Tatum encourages us again:

Though it can also be ‘complicated and lonely’ [for white people,] it is also liberating, opening doors to new communities, creating possibilities for more authentic connections with people of color, and in the process, strengthening the coalitions necessary for genuine social change. (p.113)

I would add that for those of us who are believers, there is also reward in knowing that we are participating in the invitational work of building God’s kingdom: a kingdom where, when all these struggle have come to fruition, great multitudes from every nation, people, and language will live peacefully together, accepting and loving one another and joyfully worshiping God.

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