Pea Soup and Brene Brown

Read the book. It's way better than the movie.
Read the book. It’s way better than the movie.

I always picture “shame” like the pea-soup green fog that descends on the town of Chewandswallow in the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 

It kind of rises up inside of you and hovers around you like an icky blanket and of COURSE every rational human being would want to avoid it. You’d be crazy not to.

I want to avoid it. Even just writing that sentence makes me want to hide under a blanket or take a shower. Shame is just such an icky feeling.

I want to avoid it so much, that sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to things that are true. If I feel like some part of what that person is saying somehow implicates me, my armor goes up and I try to run away as far as possible.

Especially when it comes to conversations about race. If there’s one thing that no kind, decent human being wants to be called, it’s a racist. (There are some other people out there who maybe wouldn’t mind being called a racist, but that’s a whole different story). In the US, we immediately picture ourselves being lumped in the same category as the KKK, cross burning and all. In South Africa, we think of the atrocities committed under apartheid, the police interrogations, the shame of having the world hate us, and we want to flee the other direction.

We do not want to be called racist.

And I think that’s a problem. It’s not that we don’t want to be racist. We don’t want to be called racist. We don’t want people to think we’re racist. How much do we really want to be people who are not racist?

On the surface I always say, “Of course I don’t want to be racist! I’m not racist!” But I definitely want to avoid the horrible squishy feeling that comes up when there are conversations about privilege. And my built-in anti-shame mechanism can prevent me from hearing truth, because I can’t get past my own feelings.

And when I’m listening to black friends share their experiences of racism, or talking about some systemic injustice their dealing with, whether it’s in the academy, or in their interaction at a restaurant, I oscillate between two different reactions. On the one hand, the pea-soup-fog of shame is descending and I just want to cover my ears and run away. Or, I want to immediately jump in to the story and share some kind of anecdote that will completely disassociate me from “those” racist white people who are nothing like me. On the other hand, this disassociating myself from “those racist white people” is a process that requires some pretty crazy racist white people to exist. I need those crazy racists so that I look okay, and the focus isn’t on me. As long as there are still people who will kill black people in churches, no one is asking me hard questions about my unconscious biases, or the systems that privileged me. And I’m safe, because I can avoid shame for the moment.

But, there’s concrete evidence that shows white people in South Africa are still privileged.

  • In a 2006 and 2010 study conducted in KZN (controlling for class-based discrimination), almost 1 in 3 black people will be discriminated against in booking holiday accommodation.
  • White people continue to occupy the highest living standard measures in South Africa, (73% of white people are in the highest two groups, and none are in the lowest groups). (Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Study, 2014).
  • Black/African people make up 41.2% of the educated post-school population yet only 21.1% of managers are black/African. The percentage of black/Africans is even smaller in highest level management and CEO positions, where 69.2% of management positions are held by white people (a reminder that we white people are only 10% of the population). (Institute of Race Relations).

There’s hard evidence of racism in America today as well… evidence about how often black kids are convicted for the same crimes that white kids just get a warning for. Evidence about how the police treat people that they pull over. Studies that show there’s still discrimination in hiring and admissions processes. A history of racism that trapped some people in cycles of poverty and other’s in an upward spiral of privilege (but I haven’t just finished a masters in that, so I don’t have tons of studies at my finger tips. But you could watch this TED talk) that references several.

But as a white person, it’s really hard to hear things like this. It’s really hard to hear, because we have this pea-soup fog of shame that hovers around statistics like that, and since we don’t want to walk into that shame, we don’t want to listen to those stats, or hear those stories.

“That can’t be right!” our gut anti-shame mechanism tells us. “That’s only one side of the story. They’ve got to be slanting that somehow.”

Because if those stories and stats are true, it means that we’ve got to walk through that pea-soup fog. Because the truth is that I don’t have to let the shameful things about my heritage or my people group, or my social group define everything about me. But if I really want to be someone who isn’t racist, if I want to be for racial justice, then I’ve got to be willing to take the plunge to work through that process.

Even if it makes me uncomfortable.

Even if I don’t like what I hear.

I love Brene Brown’s stuff. She’s a shame researcher, but her focus is on whole-hearted living– connecting with others, having meaning, and being vulnerable. All the wonderful things that happen when we take a risk and step into discomfort and are willing to listen and grow.

(You should watch them all, but the link above is a FANTASTIC one on this topic. She’s so funny and I wish I was her. In this talk, in a side comment, she says that conversations about privilege are so difficult because of shame. But she has great comments about how to process shame, to be vulnerable, embrace discomfort and be fully alive).

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging more about race stuff. And I’m inviting to you journey with me. Don’t let the shame– real shame, or the specter of shame- keep you from engaging. Be brave. Watch Brene Brown. Or at least read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  🙂

A Poem for Mandela Day

The Sharnbrook team from the UK was able to be a part of Mandela Day (Madiba’s birthday and a day of community service here).They partnered with a local school in Sweetwaters, and together with the gogos (grandmothers) and mamas of the children in the school, we repainted almost the entire school. In the media in SA and the US right now it seems everyone is cynical about race relations. Current events have shown both of our countries have a long way to go in terms of really reconciling, listening, learning and altering unjust systems. But I also think that because these problems are so huge and overwhelming, that doesn’t give us a right to sit around being cynical and assume it’s someone else’s job (like the government) to fix things. In little ways we each need to take responsibility and do something towards listening, reconciling and working for justice every day. Here is a poem I wrote about it (warning: it contains a word that some cultures find offensive). I have linked in articles on the current events mentioned within the poem. I’m not much of a poet, but maybe you’ll like it. 🙂

 

so they say there’s yelling about some kid named Trayvon

that the system beat up on

in the US of A

so they say there’s people throwing crap on

the airport in Cape Town

because of the DA

so they say the family can’t agree on

the land he should be buried on

in the R of SA

and all the blacks will just kill the whites anyway.

 

Mandela’s just a face on paper money,

we can use to buy bread, cigarettes and votes with

and the rainbow nation is just good political rhetoric.

 

Okay.

So they say.

 

But we were there

there with all those mamas and gogos

getting our brown and cream hands sticky

with brown and cream paint

and making the chipped, cracked school walls new again.

I was there in my paint-splattered work jeans

they were there in their rainbow colored aprons

and we were there with paint freckling our faces.

 

And when you can sing Nkosisikeleli with someone

whose voice drowns out your own

and you both want God to bless Africa

and they can laugh at the way you dance

but you can dance together anyway

and then sit because all the laughing muscles inside are tired

and you can share food

and wash dishes

and scrub floors

together

then I say

maybe it doesn’t matter what they say.

 

Because we did have a great party that birthday.

Privilege

A little boy who lives across from where we have our Saturday Kids Club.
A little boy who lives across from where we have our Saturday Kids Club.

Living in Hilton and working in Sweetwaters means I am constantly confronted with my own privilege. It’s not just a matter of working in schools that are understaffed, under-resourced, and under-qualified, when I know I went to amazing schools just minutes away in Hilton. It’s not just a matter of sitting at Life Groups in the back yards of houses that have no running water, or flush toilets.

Sometimes I feel guilty for living in a fully furnished flat in Hilton, rent free, with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. I feel guilty that I have a car (that I didn’t pay for, but someone donated for whoever has my job). My coworkers don’t have cars. My co-workers don’t live in Hilton.

Who knows. Maybe next year David and I will move to Sweetwaters. But right now we’re in Hilton. We think that’s where God wants us to be. Especially for David’s first year of teaching, the stress of living in a 100% Zulu environment, and having to boil our own water to heat it would probably not be the best. But God is showing me I don’t have to feel guilty about the things that he has let me use. I feel guilty when I think about how much stuff I have– but when I think about it as God’s stuff, there’s no reason to feel guilty. It’s his. He can do with it as he wishes.

Last week, my coworker, who stays in Sweetwaters, called to say they didn’t have water. I invited them over for supper and a shower, and to fill up their 10 gallon water-jug. When they got to our flat, I found out they hadn’t had water for 5 days. They were just “bothering” us now, because their 10 gallon water jug had just run out that day. Because we were friends, my coworker was able to get water.

Last week, someone else phoned because his pregnant wife was having trouble, and they needed to get to the hospital. We lent him the car for the day, so he could take her to the hospital and to a follow up clinic appointment. Because he knew us, he was able to get his wife to the hospital.

Today, we were packing for our teens camp, and we needed old plastic bags and newspapers for a game. I was the one who went to dig them out of the recycling bin in our town, because my white face meant no one would bother me and ask what I was doing.

Being white.

Having a car.

Having in-door running water and a shower.

I can feel guilty about all of it. Or, I can see it as a resource that God has given me, and wants me to use to bless others. How are you using the resources God has given you?

Pray this week for teens camp! We are taking 50 teens to the beach for 3 days. Pray for good weather, great speaker, and that the teens would bond with their leaders.

White, Middle-Class, American Slacktivism

College Student with the "boyfriend jeans" Indie look, with a waterbottle and a Fair Trade leather purse texting

So, the problem with being a sociology minor is that I start to see everything in terms of bigger cultural structures. For example, while there are still lots of self-centered, fast-food eating white American college students, there is a quickly growing counter-cultural group of “fair-trade-coffee-drinking-go-“green”-and-recycle-and-wear-Toms-shoes-to-stop-social-injustice” white American college students (see image to the left.) My caption will probably make no sense to you, unless you know a college student like this, or, unless you enjoy the blog “Stuff White People Like” as much as I do.

These college students, with their comfortable upper-middle class lives, like to feel like they are doing something to help the world, and so they change their facebook statuses to raise awareness about stopping child soldiers in Uganda, and drink out of nalgene waterbottles (or at least recycle 50% of their waterbottles if they don’t have a nalgene). They are the kings and queens of slacktivism: doing things to make themselves feel good about helping the world, but don’t have any actual practical benefit.These college students come in the Christian version (they follow people like Shaine Claiborne and David Platt), or the non-Christian version (they follow people like Bono from U2 and Che Guevara). But it boils down to pretty much the same thing.

Sometimes I am scared that I fit into this category too well. I don’t have any Toms shoes, but I do like Whole Foods. And I read more blogs on social justice than I actually engage in it.

Th problem is, the counter-cultural green-fair-trade-social-justice college student is just as self-centered as the fast-food-eating one. It’s still all about me. Making myself feel good for being socially active and aware. How do I know that going to South Africa to work with iThemba is not just one more thing I’m doing self-centeredly to make myself feel better than others?

Thankfully I have prayed enough about working with iThemba to know that this is what God wants me to do with the next step in my life, regardless of how it “looks” to other people. The aim is not to make myself feel good, the aim is to be obedient to God. Working with iThemba is something that God has been shaping me for, and it is a huge blessing that I get to be a part of it. I still think I am going to get more out of it than I actually give–which would still make it selfish, I suppose– but perhaps that’s part of humility: a realization that God’s work is on-going, and it’s bigger than me.

So I guess I am realizing that Jesus lets anyone serve in his Kingdom–even those that fit the white, middle class, social activist college student stereotype.