Friends, I’m very excited to have collaborated with Theocademy to bring you this new series Love An Other: the Bible’s Call to Unity, Justice, and Equality. This first installment sets the intention for what we hope to achieve with this series, in which will be talking about the sociological practice of “othering” and the Christian’s responsibility to eradicate it. Watch for more videos in the coming weeks, and subscribe to Theocademy’s YouTube channel for other inspiring series. I pray this series blesses you and your conversations!
I’m a southern girl who grew up around guns.
My dad is a gun owner and has been for longer than I’ve been alive. He has a concealed weapons permit in his state of residence. He goes to the range regularly and sometimes practices with his pellet guns at home. I grew up with a respect for and a healthy fear of guns. If I knew nothing else, I knew they were not toys. No one in my community ever looked forward to using them on an actual person. That was almost unthinkable, save for the rare and unfortunate time when someone broke into your home in the middle of the night (which the deadbolt and security system were often sufficient to prevent). I was always surrounded by gun owners who were responsible, law-abiding, non-violent, and respectful of the power they wielded, so I know folks like this exist.
Yet, the suggestion that more “good” people should be armed in order to stop the “bad guys” is problematic, and I’ll tell you why: none of us are “good.”
Nope, not a single one of us. Not you, and not me.
People can exhibit an incredible amount of altruism and goodwill. But we’re also prone to prejudice and we too easily misunderstand each other. Case in point, in November a Tennessee woman pulled a gun on a man who’d only approached her to ask if she had a lighter. He didn’t want to rob her. He wanted to smoke a cigarette. He never came closer than 10 feet from her, but two seconds after asking her for a light, she brandished the gun. In her fear and misunderstanding, she aimed the gun at him, which, if fired, could have easily hit the bystanders behind him who were loading their merchandise into their cars. Even after being arrested and learning that the man was not threatening her, she remained defiant and insisted she was within her right to “protect” herself. In her words, “This guy is the bad guy and I’m the one in handcuffs walking away.” (For what it’s worth, she is white, and the man was black.)
I’m troubled by the quickness to label the stranger a “bad guy.” It’s not guns that scare me. It’s the white imagination, which cost Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and Jonathan Ferrell (and nearly James Crutchfield) their lives that scares me. And not just the white imagination, but the hegemonic imagination, in which Christians fear Muslims, in which white people fear people of color, and in which citizens fear immigrants. That the president of a Christian university can encourage his students to arm themselves and get concealed carry permits in order to “end those Muslims before they walk in” frightens me. That we can ascribe the behavior of a few within another social identity to the entire group, while dismissing the violent acts of those in our own social group as “lone wolves” deeply disturbs me. That the ways in which we “other” people to the point of wanting to take illegal and immoral measures to keep them out of our space has me shaking in my boots.
In 2015, I see a recklessness and a disregard for the life of other people that I simply did not see among the “responsible gun owners” of my childhood. I’m not saying it wasn’t there. I’m saying it’s too easy to witness these days. The whole world seems to have gone mad.
Theologically, anyone counting themselves as “good” is problematic for me. I think of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who’d kept the law his whole life, only to have Jesus tell him that only God is good (Luke 18:19), and be confronted with his own inability to completely follow God in every area of his life. As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I’m reminded every time I worship that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and that we all share in that need. There is no one who is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Therefore I find it especially egregious that a Christian college would lift its own ranks as “good.” Theologically, we should know better than that, because our Bible tells us so. What’s more, if we fancy ourselves as “good,” then, because we often deal in dichotomies, someone else has to be bad. Who are the bad guys? The people who are not like us. The people who are not among our ranks. Even if they never bother or offend us they’re still anathema because we’ve counted ourselves “good” and them — by virtue of their opposite nature — as bad. If I’m different enough from you, you get to decide I’m “bad” — and God help me if you’re armed.
Nope, none of us are good. But, ironically, I think understanding that could go a long way in forging peace.
Why I was comfortable around the gun owners I grew up with is because every one of them knew what could happen if they abused their weapons. They checked themselves. They knew their own fallibility, and that if they weren’t careful they could do a great deal of harm to themselves and others around them unnecessarily. They didn’t really want to shoot anyone. They knew they could if the safety of their family depended on it, but they never went out looking for the opportunity. They were more afraid of violating the law and betraying humanity than they were of the nondescript, theoretical “bad guy.” Leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. are unrecognizable as responsible gun owners to me because they tell their people to get guns for the express purpose of using them on others. If there’s any good reason to have a gun, this ain’t it.
I’m for common sense gun control measures. I don’t think one should be able to purchase a lethal weapon without a background check. I don’t think one should be able to get a gun online as easy as one could get a book from Amazon. But that’s only part of the issue. I’m not scared of guns. I’m scared of the proliferation of guns coupled with the increased othering and demonizing of Muslims, immigrants, and people of color. I’m scared of people who have convinced themselves they are the good guys, because that means they’ve made someone else the “bad guy” who must be eradicated. When people are told to arm themselves, it’s not for the purposes of recreation — you know, just in case you should drive past the range on your way home from work. We’re telling them to be ready to kill, and giving them dangerous criteria for who they need to take out. How do people like James Crutchfield survive the imaginations of the prejudiced, paranoid, and packing?
I write this from my room at Montreat Conference Center, energized by what has been a challenging, convicting, affirming, and motivating “teach-in.” Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda commemorates the 50th anniversary of the civil rights giant’s visit and address to a packed Anderson Auditorium fifty years ago (the videos of the speech are on YouTube in four parts). I heard from heroes this week: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Bishop Yvette Flunder, Charles Blow, Rev. William Barber, and Rep. John Lewis. Sunday, we will hear the word of the Lord as delivered through Bishop Vashti McKenzie, which this former AME eagerly awaits.
But the beauty of this weekend hasn’t been without its curiosities. Many of my colleagues were taken aback at the police presence at Montreat this weekend, which, apparently, is not the norm for conferences here (I was a Montreat virgin up until now, so I had no point of reference). But the most inane of them happened during Saturday afternoon’s worship service.
We remembered the Charleston Nine and were invited to call their names as their photos appeared on the screens. One by one, we spoke of them, “Cynthia Hurd. Say her name. Susie Jackson. Say her name.” We said each of their names, a litany that proved emotional in ways that surprised many of us. I struggled through tears to say their names, as did others. The memory of the massacre is hardly far removed.
As the final name was spoken and the screen dimmed, I heard a loud voice boom out over my left shoulder:
“Dylann Storm Roof! Say his name!”
He was mid-sentence when I turned to my left to see who had said it. I saw him standing in the pews: Ed Loring.
I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Was this part of the remembrance? When it finally registered what he’d said, I immediately noticed the groans in the crowd and the look of disgust on my colleague and friend’s face. Yes, that just happened. Dylann Storm Roof, for whatever insane reason, got a shout-out during the remembrance of the people he targeted and killed because of the color of their skin at an event dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Social media being what it is, the reaction was swift and broadcast to the world.
“This is why the work ain’t done,” a friend wrote.
My first interaction with Ed Loring was — interesting. I found him to be quirky, animated, and passionate. Obnoxious with his outbursts, yes, but I’d hardly call that a crime. This, however — this odd, puzzling, and even inflammatory outburst (from a person with a storied history of social justice work, at that) left me aghast. I had to hug a colleague from Charleston who came up to me after worship and expressed how upsetting it was for her. Some of the people in that auditorium were connected to the Charleston Nine and Emmanuel AME Church personally. An AME Bishop who attended Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s funeral sat in the front row during this very worship service. Montreat’s checkered history with regard to race wasn’t too far from the consciousness of many of us in those pews. WTF was Ed Loring thinking?
I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know what point he was trying to make. Frankly, I don’t even care. It’s disturbing that someone who has been on the so-called “front lines” of racial justice could be that daft in such an emotionally charged moment. What’s worse, he had people — white people — coming to his defense on social media.
“He wasn’t praising Roof. He spends his life fighting for these issues. He didn’t mean it like that.”
Yes, I should hope he wasn’t praising Roof, especially since there is nothing to praise. Especially since he has dedicated much of his life to the cause of social justice. That doesn’t mean what he said wasn’t insensitive and/or bat**** crazy. He might have been trying to make a point, but he failed at it spectacularly. Admit that. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t get a pass for doing dumb stuff just because you’ve proven yourself to be “down.” You don’t get to do further violence –intentional or not — to already-hurting people in their presence just because you claim to love them and fight for them. That amounts to nothing more than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.
“I was right there and I didn’t hear that at all.”
Let me say that I, too, was right there, mere feet away, and I heard exactly what he said. The White friend and colleague sitting next to me heard exactly what he said. The singers on stage heard exactly what he said. My friends from Charleston in the back of the auditorium heard exactly what he said. How did you not hear it? Furthermore, why are we wrong because you didn’t witness it?
Why is his outburst not being categorically rebuked? Why are you trying to gloss over it? Actually, these are rhetorical questions. I already know why, because something along these lines happens too often to people of color when they give their testimonies and point out injustices and insensitivity.
This conference has been life-giving to me in that it has been so honest, at times brutally so. The lament, the confession, the acknowledgment of our country and our church’s need to repent of and dismantle racism — they’ve all been necessary and overdue for us to say. So many of us are on fire after hearing Bishop Flunder call us to repentance and lives of discomfort for the sake of justice, or hearing Rev. Barber urge us to get up and organize in our own contexts. We have confessed corporately our complicity in these systems of injustice. But clearly that was an abstract confession for some people, because the same ones who’d confess with their mouths would turn around and continue to perpetuate bigotry by defending this behavior and redacting the testimony of the folks who witnessed it.
We certainly don’t have to make Ed Loring the ogre of the world, but he’s not even the most problematic one in all of this. It’s the ones who are caping for him, who are quick to issue a salvo of excuses and condescendingly let the rest of us know we’re wrong about him, who are most disturbing. If you can’t even sit with this outburst and name it as wrong, then how much more are you able to sit with your own well-meaning-but-idiotic faux-pas? What does this weekend of confession and turning away from the evils of the past even mean to you?
The work surely ain’t done. Surely, it ain’t.
Some weeks the sermon thesis and text come fairly easily and early in the week. Sometimes they take a bit longer. Sometimes you think you’ll preach on one thing, then something happens (like the massacre of 9 people in a church) that makes you crumple up what you had and start anew. Then there are some sermons that literally do not come until Saturday, mere hours before you have to preach it. Yesterday’s was such a sermon.
My soul was waiting for Bree Newsome, though I didn’t know it.
If you didn’t catch wind of the news, Bree is now famous for using a harness to scale the 30-foot pole from which a confederate flag flies over the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. As she scaled the pole, touched the flag’s hem, and snatched it from its connectors, she could be heard echoing David’s words to Goliath, saying to those below waiting to apprehend her, “You come against me with hatred, oppression and violence, but I come against you in the name of the Lord!”
Like many preachers, I use a lectionary — the Revised Common Lectionary, to be exact. I once balked at the idea of being beholden to a set of readings every week, but I later found using a lectionary to be a powerful discipline. Also, I’ve seen week in and week out God’s providence in that the scheduled readings always seem to have some temporal truth to speak to power. The thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B was no exception, and darned if the unnamed woman with a hemorrhage didn’t give us what we needed to unpack Sister Newsome’s prophetic protest.
Her reaching for that piece of cloth, for me, invoked the image of not just the physical gesture of the woman in this week’s pericope, but her longing as well. Like that woman, black folks are bleeding out. Our blood is being spilled in churches and on the streets by police bullets. Our communities are hemorrhaging as men, women, and youths are funneled into prisons that make money off of them. We feel that bleeding. Bree felt that bleeding and thought if she just reached out with a small gesture, God would meet her and her community at its place of need. And I imagine that she, like the woman with the hemorrhage, was surprised by the power drawn out by such a seemingly small gesture.
In Mark 5:34, Jesus reassured this woman, who was now panicking because did something she socially had no business doing — she was “out of order” — that her “faith” made her well. The Greek word for “faith” in this text is πίστις (pistis), which can also be translated as “faithfulness.” We’re not just talking about a passive belief that one privately holds unbeknownst to anyone else, but an active movement toward what one believes to be so. “Pistis” in the sense of “faithfulness” means that your money is where your mouth is. It means you’ll do something, you’ll work for something you believe in, and you’ll do it consistently, tirelessly — faithfully. What we saw in the civil rights movement of the middle of last century was pistis. What we saw in Bree’s tiring climb up that pole is pistis. It’s belief alongside action and dogged determination. May we all embody that same relentless pistis in the work that is still before us.
Black churches are being burned left and right after the massacre in Charleston. Shamefully wide disparities in wealth between Blacks and White persist. Black women are three times more likely and Black men are six times more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts. We will undoubtedly hear of yet another unarmed Black body perishing with impunity for her or his killer too soon from now. But somehow in Bree’s reaching, in her pistis, we felt in our body that we were healed — if only for a moment.
As we reel from the horrific news out of Charleston, SC, in which nine people were killed and others wounded after a gunman opened fire during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, the details we’re gathering in the aftermath all suggest that this was a hate crime. According to eye-witnesses, the shooter was lobbing accusations and generalizations about Black people and declared that what he was about to do (i.e. kill innocent worshipers) was necessary.
And Black people remain numb.
I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.
I remember when the news out of Ferguson, MO first came to us. I heard White friends and colleagues encourage each other to sit in a posture of listening. I honor that listening. I honor the desire to be in solidarity through understanding. I honor that they wanted to avoid any semblance of saviorism.
White allies, I thank you for your thoughtfulness in this regard. Now allow me to be your stopwatch; Time’s up.
A colleague of mine summed it up perfectly on Facebook today:
At this point, I’m not interested in your listening. I think the danger in this listening posture is, while it seems like the mindful and conscientious thing to do, it can also be far too convenient. It’s a great way of doing nothing. For the sake of finding the right action, you take no action instead. We have had the benefit of years — centuries, literally — of thought, narrative, scholarship, literature, film, fiction, non-fiction, and discussion to help us all understand these issues. We’re the most connected and information-overloaded that human beings have ever been. We can transmit entire books to our hand-held devices. Class has been in session. The school bell as now rung.
Many of you have been on it for some time now, working in solidarity with people of color. You have been in the trenches from the beginning (or your beginning). I don’t discount you, but I also caution you to not be self-congratulatory. You’ve left some folks behind, folks who call themselves “allies.”
I have a love-hate relationship with that word, ally. I find too often it’s a self-appellation, and one that is often unearned. We should apply the same rule to it as we do to nicknames. You can’t give yourself a nickname; other people give it to you. To give it to yourself comes off as pretentious. It’s the same with self-proclaimed “allies.” I know you mean well, but what about your life demonstrates that you walk in solidarity with others who experience life differently from you because of their skin color, legal status, or sexual orientation? Please don’t call yourself my ally if your uncle’s racist jokes go unchecked in your presence. Please don’t call yourself my ally if you say something insensitive, I call you on it, and all you can do is brush it off and say, “Girl, but you know I love my Black people!” Don’t do it.
I love my colleague Laura Cheifetz’ vineyard laborer analogy on Ecclesio today. Whether you got in the game early or late, it’s important to simply get in the game at all. But, if I may use an idiom that we often say in reference to the product of the vine, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Some of us are long overdue for our break, while others have yet to clock in.
Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.
I’m reflecting on my time at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago. I feel odd calling it a “conference” (because NEXT Church is much more than that), but the National Gathering is, for me, one of the few conferences that makes me not want to miss a single second of any offering, any workshop, or any worship service. It’s a welcomed jolt of creativity, innovation, and inspiration during a time in the liturgical year when we church workers often feel like we’re hamsters spinning on our wheels; running frantically to nowhere.
This year’s National Gathering had no short supply of epic moments. With over 600 in attendance, it was the largest to-date — and I wonder whether we’ll soon outgrow being able to host it in a local church! We were all together hearing from Diana Butler Bass when word came of the ratification of amendment 14-F to our constitution, effectively allowing for the marriage of same-gender couples. The reaction to that was just, well, take a look:
But right out of the gate and at the very beginning of the conference, I was surprised and impressed by NEXT Church’s acknowledgment of our denomination’s lack of diversity and failure to have and/or sustain the difficult conversations about race. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman presented a thought piece and answered some thoughtful questions on what we have done, have failed to do, and can do going forward in the work of reconciliation (or conciliation) and inclusion. Disappointingly, a workshop for the same day that planned to further these conversations didn’t receive much interest during conference registration, but a lunch-time conversation and a revival of the workshop ensured the work would continue. I was happy to see that, and though I’d signed up for a different workshop, I still participated in the lunch-time conversation. Bruce Reyes-Chow‘s Wednesday IGNITE presentation was insightful, inspiring, but woefully short (I totally wanted more!). And one could look out at the crowds and see this was probably the most diverse lot that has ever attended the National Gathering.
NEXT Church, you’ve encouraged me in the knowledge that these things aren’t flying under the radar. They aren’t just important to a few of us. They are of significance to the whole Body. And now I hope to encourage you to continue the work.
This year’s gathering was in Chicago, a city that is painfully segregated along racial and socio-economic lines. Next year’s gathering will be in Atlanta, which is a city with a strong African-American population and a strong income disparity — again, along racial lines. It is a city instrumental in the history of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Please acknowledge this in crafting next year’s message. I grow so weary of hearing our denomination talk about decline as if we are victims. The truth is, when compared to the demographics of the whole country, the PC(USA) is both whiter and richer than the nation of its setting. We’re not struggling as much as we think we are. Where we struggle is in adapting our model for ministry and accepting that ordered ministry and church/mid-council spending and operations will have to make changes. If anything is threatened, it’s our privilege, but for those of us who never had it, that’s not exactly cause for panic.
NEXT Church always leaves me hopeful and encouraged by the way in which the Spirit is moving in our church. I celebrate that more and more we are making room for those who have historically been excluded from the Table. And as much as my heart swelled to hear 14-F had been ratified, I was also sadly aware that ratification of the Belhar Confession still has not happened.
A confession that calls to the carpet hegemony and racist systems that have pervaded the Church — yes, even the Presbyterian Church (USA) — is still sputtering along. At this point, we have had enough presbyteries vote that it could have been ratified already, but yet it sputters.
I would hope that NEXT Church would play an integral role in helping our denomination come to terms with its own past and present prejudice. You’ve started the work, NEXT Church. Now continue it. Be clumsy, but continue it. Make mistakes, but continue it. We cannot be the “next church” authentically without this piece.
As always, you’ve refueled my fire for ministry and given me hope for the future. Thank you, and keep up the important work.
Rev. T. Denise Anderson
“…they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”
The Bible is a book full of uncomfortable language. In it, we find prayers for God to break the teeth of our enemies and pour out anger over them. There’s talk of “evildoers” being thrown into a furnace of fire.
These are the portions of scripture we love to gloss over or ignore in our preaching. They certainly don’t invoke images of hands joined in unity, singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire. They’re anything but romantic and tidy. They’re disturbing. They’re uncomfortable. They’re downright awful.
We’re tempted to explain them away, to suggest why the writers or redactors probably didn’t really mean them.
Except they did. They absolutely said what they meant and meant what they said.
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
These imprecations (as they have been called) are the language of the oppressed. They are cries for justice. They’re cries for vindication. They’re promises of justice and vindication for those who have been targeted, attacked, and abused. Any reading of the text that fails to acknowledge this is naïve and does violence to not only the text, but to the people to whom it was written — to whom violence has already been done.
The spirit of Advent can in fact be summed up by the cry “Kumbaya,” which is an old Gullah saying, meaning “come by here.” These scriptural imprecations are indeed calls for God Most High to “come by here.” Because if God comes by here, perhaps we can be vindicated. If God comes by here, my enemies have to retreat. If God comes by here, then darkness must flee. If God comes by here, then we can finally breathe.
We sit today in the darkness wrought by yet another grand jury’s failure to indict an officer of the law in the killing of an unarmed man. As Eric Garner felt in his final moments of life, we, too, feel suffocated. We feel suffocated by the fact that his killer — who had been sued twice for excessive force, but has managed to stay employed by NYPD — will not have to answer for Garner’s death. We feel suffocated because there is seemingly little to no accountability for the people we are supposed to trust to protect us. We feel suffocated because this incident is not isolated, but is indicative of the widespread brokenness of our justice system.
And suddenly, those passages we often skip because they make us uncomfortable now make sense. They are real. We get them. We may even pray them because we understand that God will always side with the downtrodden, which is bad news only to the oppressor.
No one need be uncomfortable about the cries of the oppressed for justice — except for the unjust, of course. I believe if we have a problem with the Bible’s language of imprecation, it might be because the boot on the neck of the speaker is on our own foot.
Even still, God is patient, not out of indifference, but because all of us need to be redeemed from these systems that oppress and suffocate. There is yet opportunity for all of us to get on the right side of the text and of history. My Advent prayer is that we take advantage of such grace. Kumbaya.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
-2 Peter 3:9
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.
— James A. Baldwin
Last night’s announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown left few if any black folks surprised. We knew better. We’ve seen this play out time and time again. If only that meant it would hurt less.
Let’s be clear: It will never be an easy thing to hear that no one will be held accountable for the shooting death of an unarmed person. It will especially not be easy when the unarmed person is young and black and his shooter is an officer of the law. If you need any understanding of why that is, a cursory look into U.S. history should give you some ideas. These incidents happen far more frequently than you realize, and their specters continue to linger in the psyches of black Americans. It’s disconcerting to know that it simply won’t matter to some people how many degrees you have, how many people respect you, or whether or not you have a family who loves you. To some, you’re a threat — and despite the fact that your pants are pulled up and your diction is perfect, there is nothing you can do to change that.
With that said, I have a request for those who never have to think about these things, but are now all too quick to call for “calm,” particularly in the name of Jesus: Shut up.
Just. Stop. Talking.
I share with you the concern that no more people are hurt or harmed in the wake of this announcement. I, too, want nothing more than for the cries for justice to not have to share airtime with hurling bricks and incinerated cars. But calling for “calm” and “peace” is a cop-out. Why? Because those are things that are to be worked for. Those are things that cannot come about unless they are pursued. They don’t just magically appear out of thin air. You can’t expect that people will be free of their own personal psychological hell just because you said so.
When you call for “peace,” what you may actually be saying is, “Ignore how angry this makes you. Ignore how injurious this is to your psyche. Ignore how this makes you feel.” Where is the space for both you and them to acknowledge the pain and the re-opened wounds that are results of this? Why offer words when you could offer a shoulder? The community of Ferguson has been over-policed for months, so the last thing they need from any of us is the policing of their feelings.
I want Christians to [re]discover the art of sitting shiva. I want you to take, if not a week, some significant time to just sit with your brothers and sisters who mourn. Don’t preach at them. Don’t condescend to them. Don’t say much of anything. Do listen. Do be with them in their grief. Don’t try to talk them out of it, or cowardly avoid it. Be in it.
Especially if, after last night’s announcement, you didn’t find yourself lingering over your children as you put them to bed, wondering what you need to teach them so that they’re not killed for being threatening.
Especially if, after the announcement, you couldn’t play back in your mind the times you were stopped unjustly by law enforcement.
Especially if last night’s announcement didn’t open up old wounds for you.
Just sit down and shut up.
Then get up and maybe flip a few tables, à la the Prince of Peace himself. Make the peace you so desperately want to appear.
When the film Dear White People came out in limited release here in DC, I and a group of friends made a night of it. We were a diverse lot — black, white, Asian, young, youngish, and young-at-heart — a fairly far cry from the stark segregation of the film’s fictional Winchester University. I thought the movie was beautiful and funny, but it left me with a lot to unpack, much of which I’m still unpacking.
Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the major story arc involves a hip-hop themed party at the predominantly white and wealthy residence hall on campus. We’ve seen pictures of real-life parties like these — young white adults dressed in blackface, wearing Afro wigs, and very deliberately mimicking stereotypical depictions of blackness. In fact, the movie includes a few of these real-life pictures in its closing credits, reminding all of us that what the film was satirizing isn’t too far removed from reality.
And in 2014, it’s still close to it.
Every year around Halloween, we’re subjected to the poor judgment of those who would lampoon a very serious subject and somehow manage to insult an entire group of people in the process. This year, it’s the Ray Rice elevator incident:
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) October 26, 2014
I won’t post others, and there are many, sadly. You can view them here, if you must.
If that isn’t bad enough, I present to you the sexy Ebola nurse costume:
WTF is so “sexy” about a disease that has killed nearly 5,000 people, I don’t know.
What strikes me about all of this is not once do I remember anyone pairing a Riley Cooper jersey with a KKK hood after his infamous tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. I don’t remember anyone wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey while carrying around an apparently inebriated blow-up doll. A cursory Google Image search of either of these things will turn up few results, if any. I guess making light of a talented WR’s racist rants, the sexual assault allegations against an elite quarterback, or depicting that quarterback’s alleged victim in such a demeaning way would have been in poor taste. And it certainly would have been in poor taste.
I just wish Janay Rice and the thousands of Africans who perished without so much as a raised eyebrow from the West had received the same consideration.
I’m curious as to what it is about the pain of people of color that invites the more demented among us to use it as fodder for a good time. What is so amusing about a woman getting knocked out in an elevator that it would move you to caricature her? Why is the line not drawn with her the way it is unwittingly drawn with others? And, for the love of all that is holy and decent, why add blackface on top of it all? By itself it’s insulting to an entire group of people, but in this context it ostensibly connects that group to the kind of behavior you’re lampooning. How can one be so far removed from the widespread sufferings of people an ocean away that one decides to make their suffering a “theme” of one’s holiday decorations?
In 2014, All Hallow’s Eve in America still has a race problem. The victimization of a woman is “funny,” as is the fact that she and her aggressor are black. A very real public threat that has impacted nearly exclusively black Africans and has recently given rise to some of the most vile and xenophobic “caution” we’ve ever seen is also “funny.” Somewhere this week, someone who’s not Asian will put on a coolie hat and a fake Fu Manchu mustache and call it a “costume.” Someone else will wear a Native American headdress and do the same. And I’ll cringe and weep because clearly they don’t have friends — at least not diverse or even good ones.