Friday, January 27, 2017

Dismantling White Supremacy Begins with Me


Supreme: su-preme (adjective) Highest in degree or quality, ultimate, first, foremost, predominant, highest-ranking. 

When I was in first grade, I had a classmate who had come to our village public school from somewhere in Asia. It was so long ago, but I remember him standing quietly in the background and I remember his name sounded like a food, not a person. We did what first graders in small-town, white America did - we giggled, not because we hated him, not because we thought of him as less-than, but because he existed so far beyond the scope of our worldview. We pulled the corners of our eyes back towards our ears then ran off with him for kickball or tag; he in crisp, cuffed jeans, us in our raggedy hand-me-downs. We liked him. If he'd stayed longer, we might have learned something from him, though our gain would likely have come at his detriment. Tell us everything. Spill your history so we can lap it up. Make us better people.

Kids came and went, passing through the red brick school. The most memorable were those who stood out, marked in some obvious way. We were part of something much larger than ourselves, far above our own blond heads, the drawing in and churning out of those who didn't "fit."

We were Christians. Everyone knew it. An entire town of honest, church-going folks with the gall to sing religious songs in high school choir, steeled by our assurance that no one would protest. We memorized Bible verses at Wednesday night Awana. We sucked barbecued chicken from the bone on Memorial day, following veterans, firemen, farmers, and the marching band from one end of town to the cemetery where we saluted the flag then bowed our heads and prayed.

We tanned our skin to look more like Oprah for a school project. We moon-walked with Michael Jackson, coveting the sequined fingerless glove on the right hand of our lone wealthy classmate. We took what we wanted and objectified the rest, though we didn't quite see it that way. We didn't quite know. Once, on a field trip to the city, I brushed aside the uneasy feeling in my stomach and threw my head back in laughter as a classmate made racist jokes about the city buses and the people riding them.

Later, in high school, one of my best friends was an adoptee from South Korea. I envied her thick hair, her perpetual tan, and the way it seemed she could be scooped up at a moment's notice, cared for and adored. She fit right in with the rest of us, but she certainly didn't blend. When she began cracking jokes about being Asian, we laughed along. In the winter, our basketball team played against the one school in our conference with a black player, and the tension crackled for days. He could dunk. He could play. Once, (we weren't quite sure how,) a game ended with many of our God-fearing fans spilling onto the court, throwing punches.

I wonder now, did that happen at all of his games, or was it just us?

These unspoken beliefs floated on our fresh, country air. We swore we weren't racist, discriminating people. Most of us knew at least one person of color, and our interactions were vastly positive. Yet in our everyday lives, we were simply conditioned to understand that Black was different and Asian was different and dirt-poor was just different enough from our unified, blue-color working class. Catholic was slightly suspect. Democrats could blend in if they tried. Mexicans (as we called them) picked strawberries and tomatoes in the migrant camp ten miles away where we drove, on occasion, to practice our Spanish. We entered what we mistakenly thought was their world, then flipped the frame, believing we were doing them a favor. A couple hours later, we'd drive off to munch on a Taco Supreme and a Nachos Supreme, grateful our morning charity hadn't taken too much of our day.

~

Last week I read several recountings of the White Supremacist who pulled up a chair in a community Bible study, sitting quietly through thirty minutes of reading and discussion. He was soft spoken. Gentle looking. And then he gunned them down, unloading over 70 shells into nine men and women, because of their race.

(Or was it his race that made him load the gun?)

At his core, he believed he was better than them, that he was entitled to their lives.
This is why we call him a white supremacist.

We don't hesitate, the two oily words dripping disdainfully from our tender lips. He is a white supremacist. He is the prototype. He is not us. No. We have never seen anything like him before.

~

I moved away from my hometown after college, though I return every chance I get. My community raised me well. I love it. I'm grateful. But with time and perspective I see the cracks that exist everywhere, if we're willing to search. If I'm inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt, it's that it did the best it could with what it had. It didn't know what it didn't know and maybe, hopefully, it knows much more, now.

But tell me, how could I not have believed my race was somehow "highest-ranking," "foremost," or "predominant"? How could I have seen whiteness as being equal with blackness, when the minimal information I received on other races was most often a biased caricature? Having been raised on a media diet of Small Wonder, Alf, Mork & Mindy, Star Trek and the Jetsons, I had a broader cultural context for robots and extra-terrestrials than People of Color. How could I possibly have known the scope of what I was missing?

We are, in many ways, indelibly shaped by our personal history. This doesn't mean change and growth are not available, but like a splatter of ink on a starched button-down, it will require some scrubbing.

There's no sense grabbing a stiff-bristled brush if we can't even see the stain.

~

Another week has passed, and I'm reaching the limits of hope for sweeping clarity to fall upon us. It's far too muddy. When I am expected to disavow her and endorse him, when I'm told I'm too quiet and too loud, when we are all both too political and not political enough, well, I get weary. And I know I'm not the only one.

So many of us are reaching out to grab thin air, trying with the best intentions to shift the momentum of humanity just a smidge. We're marching. Writing. Discussing. We're using our voices for worthy yeses and non-negotiable nos. We are praying. We are holding our children close. We're reading different books. We're shutting our mouths. Finally, we are ready to listen.

Still, I can't help feeling that beneath this passion is fear (of not falling into the "right" camp) and desire (to be seen, to lead, to fix.) There is a time to pray for justice and a time to fight for justice while we pray, but fear and selfishness are not compatible with justice.

I thought the fight was only against uncaring institutions and harmful, fear-mongering leaders. I have known the urgency for a holy war. My heart has sparked at the thought of lacing my boots on behalf of the pushed-aside and talked-over. I have wept for the church to care in meaningful, visible ways.

I'm an child of white, Middle America privilege, unaccustomed to seeing myself as the problem. Before I even pretend to approach these broad, systemic issues, I owe it to a world longing for equity to first recognize and dismantle my contributions to the pain.

It is easy to throw stones at "White Supremacists," to see them as racist beasts with white hats and dead eyes. Of course we are not them. But whether we can accept it or not, we have been quietly conditioned to see whiteness as the default, the Human Supreme.

I invite you to think on this. Peel back what you have been taught, what you simply lived. Mine your history for possible blind spots. Consider that "greatness" was never the reality, or even the goal. Should we acknowledge our real and equal human limitations, we run the grave risk of blending into obscurity and being seen as entirely ordinary. Scary, isn't it?

~


To learn of the Kingdom way is to stare long and hard at the ways we've misunderstood. Though we thought ourselves wise, we are fools. Though great, we are actually quite small. We are not the forest after all, but the seed. There is only one Supreme, one default. He is God, who splits heavens and parts seas and subverts common logic with the cry of a babe. This is very good news.

We were created to kiss the dirt, to exact beautiful change from low places. If we want God to be glorified through this mess we made, we've got to get busy with the right kinds of work.

First up: Repentance.
Second: A posture of quiet learning.
Third: Persistent prayer for fresh Kingdom eyes.
Fouth: Persistent prayer for Kingdom wisdom. (Note: this will reek of foolishness. We have been duly warned.)

From there, we commit to the taxing grind of advocating for life at the macro level, in the folds of our regular lives where our work will exist in hidden places and our deeds will not go public.

We commit to collecting stories of pain and disaster, holding them closely enough to feel their burn, allowing them to change us in ways that don't sacrifice their honor and dignity.

We will do this work for no reward.
We will do this work because it's right. It's our calling.

I don't want to diminish public protest (the language of the unheard), but if we are not honoring all life we have forgotten our place as image bearers of our Creator.

If we are chanting along with the President, "America First! America First!" we have forgotten our place as last and least. We have forgotten the weird way of Jesus.

If we cannot offer solace and refuge to our neighbor* who is terrified and out of options, we have forgotten our place as Christ incarnate.

If we cannot love our paranoid, Trump-supporting neighbor*, we have forgotten our place as agents of peace in these heartbreaking times.

If we believe our whiteness is the answer to anything at all, we have forgotten our place as seeds pushed into the vast garden of God's kingdom.


We are not great or special and we certainly aren't supreme.
It's time to stop pretending otherwise.

We are small, and we have work to do in these low and hidden places.


*Editor's note: These two examples are are specific examples from my actual life and neighborhood. As always, I write from my everyday ordinary life. Simply put - I am often preaching to myself, but anticipating there might be others who relate. I in no way meant that all Trump supporters are  paranoid. (Most of the people I love voted for Trump.) I apologize if this wasn't clear.