That Saved a Wretch Like Me

US Civil Rights leader Will Campbell

We’re heading into the bloodiness of Holy Week in just a little while. Good Friday looms at the end of Lent, this horrible black, silent day where we actually contemplate the slow suffocation of a Palestinian Jew on a cross. Uh, depressing. I’d much rather skip it and get to the chocolate Easter eggs on Sunday. Continue reading “That Saved a Wretch Like Me”

An Uprooting

lent.jpgIt’s Lent. It’s a time we in the church make time and space for God to uproot things in our lives, so he can plant something good.

We start out by admitting our frailness, and our propensity to be bent along the lines of a broken and sinful world around us, instead of walking in the straight and life-giving path of life in the Spirit.

We receive ashes, slashed grey on our foreheads, and we’re told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are fleeting. You are frail. You will fail.

One of the most difficult and most obvious truths I learned the first time I went to counseling back in college was: “It takes work to be healthy.”  Continue reading “An Uprooting”

Nation Building: Our country, not “this country”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY.jpgI’ve been out of the loop on the #Zumamustfall campaigns that spread across South Africa at the end of last year calling for the removal of our corrupt president (protestors are pointing to things like Nkandla, the mansion Zuma built with tax payer money- protest chant is simply “Pay back the money!”) I’ve been out of the loop because I’m in America, and I’ve been out of the loop because the articles that my black South African friends are sharing on social media aren’t super supportive of the movement. Yes, many South Africans across racial lines want Zuma to be held accountable, agree that the ANC is becoming complacent with their power–using it for themselves (the few) rather than to benefit the many. But the biggest critique I’m hearing is that these protests are springing up because Zuma sacked the finance minister and that put the Rand in a downward spiral and the best way to get white South Africa to turn out to protest is mess with the economy. When poor people are out there protesting about the rising cost of food, but the Rand has stabilized, will white South Africa still be there? Continue reading “Nation Building: Our country, not “this country””

Ok, so I’m racist. Now what?

One of my favorite books, specifically aimed at a Christian audience, that takes social science research on groups and identity, and applies it to churches. Go buy it here!
One of my favorite books, specifically aimed at a Christian audience, that takes social science research on groups and identity, and applies it to churches. Go buy it here!

There’s an article going round on the Huffington Post right now, talking about how racism isn’t just having prejudiced feelings towards people, or saying nasty things about people of another race. It has to do with a bigger system that shapes the way the world works, and who has access to privilege and power, and who does not. If we think racism is only about saying mean things or personally hating people of another race, then we don’t ever stop and question a bigger system— and we can actually feed into that system. For white people who read that and were like, “Yes! Agreed… okay, so…and now what?” Here are a few ideas of ways to concretely tackle some of these issues. I have not come up with these ideas myself. Most of them come from other smarter people than I am. Also, I realize that I often talk in black/white language, but racism affects many groups in the US and SA in different ways- Asians, Latinos, Indians…it’s not just a black/white thing.

First, don’t be the boss. When it comes to fighting against racial injustice, there’s a massive need for white people to get involved—racism is our problem, it’s everyone’s problem—but we really don’t need to run the show. This happens in the States, and I’ve seen this happen All. The. Time. in South Africa. Us white guys are used to being the boss. If we think we’re doing a great job of including black people in decisions we’re making about making black lives better…uh, that’s already a problem. If we find ourselves thinking things like, “I’ve hired a black assistant pastor, so now our church is diverse!” that’s probably a problem. We can’t be running the show and co-opting people onto our team to make it more colourful. Whether it’s churches or work places or anything. Listen. Go join someone else’s team. Submit to black leadership. Find a mentor.

Listen & Learn about race and racial injustice.  I feel like I’m a stuck tape recorder on this one. I love what Christina Cleveland has to say on this topic to leaders, “Within the family of God, members of oppressed groups should not have to mount a social justice campaign to be heard.” Of any group, Christians have some of the strongest and best motivations for listening to the ‘outsider’ and oppressed. Let’s reshape our structures in our churches and workplaces so that members of oppressed groups can be heard loud and clear. Let’s educate ourselves on the issue as well.

Become a white ally. The term that people use in America for white people who want to help end racism is “white ally”. You don’t experience racism first hand, but you ally yourself with people who do, and join their cause. Janee Woods has a great article listing 12 very practical things you can do to be a good white ally, from learning how modern racism is rooted in a history of racism, to getting active in your community around policing issues, to advocating for change in the criminal justice system. Read it! Several ideas of hers I will be expanding on, but she has lots of wisdom here.

Stay informed. Change your media. Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help for people in South Africa, except BrettFish’s blog (awesome stuff related to race here), but I know a few more in the US. Many of these are specifically from a Christian perspective. Here is a link listing some of the top blogs written by Christian people of color in the US, and many of them focus on racial justice issues–and even if they don’t do that constantly, you can be sure when something happens in the news related to race, they will “pause their normal programming” to weigh in on it. (This link is, yet again, thanks to Christina Cleveland. If you haven’t read her book, do that, too!) Because I’m lazy, and don’t want to subscribe to hundreds of people, I generally look for people who are good content curators, and retweet/post links to other people. Two of the best I have found for that is the blog “By their strange fruit” (@BTSFblog) and @CarisAdel.

Share your voice.  The sad thing is that sometimes a white voice will be heard before a black voice will. This is wrong, we need to work to change that, but it’s reality. So use your voice to make space for black voices. Don’t be afraid to share about racial justice issues in your sphere of influence. Talk with your friends and family, your pastor, your school board. Speak in places where a black voice just won’t reach yet, and introduce people to new black voices.

Be willing to look at how economic & racial privilege are linked, and then make choices about your stuff. You don’t have to just go with the flow. Since the system is giving white people economic privilege, you can share that privilege, rather than horde it. For example, we were given a car to use for the next two years because our family is awesome and generous with their stuff, but also is able to be generous because of a history of privilege. So I can just take that gift and say “Score! More room in my budget for holidays!” or, I can figure out a way to give my money/time towards making it possible for people who don’t have that kind of privilege to get access to material possessions. Mine your social privilege for others. Make connections for people getting jobs. Tithe on major purchases (like a house) into organizations or groups that are working on getting people access to affordable housing*.

In South Africa, learn the majority language of your area. In the US, racism is really tied into slavery, but in South Africa, racism and colonialism are still very linked. Part of that means that if you’re an English first-language speaker, the system is built to privilege you. You can read more about that on a blog I wrote here. Also, based on feedback from that post, I want it to be clear that learning isiZulu is not some kind of magic “get out of jail free card.” There are plenty of racist people in South Africa who know isiZulu. But anyone who is committed to racial justice in KZN and hasn’t seriously made an attempt at learning isiZulu is missing something vital. In the US, you could learn Spanish, or the language of the most recent immigrant community in your area.

In the US, advocate for reform in the criminal justice system. Read a book like “The New Jim Crow”, which explains how our criminal justice system is whacked. It explores major inequalities (like how most drug dealers are white, but most people in prison on drug related charges are black, or how when a black and a white teenager are caught with the same amount of drugs, the white teen will get off with a warning and the black teen will serve time. It also talks about how possession of drugs as a felony means that people are never able to rebuild their lives after serving time on a drug charge, because of “the box” asking people to check if they have ever been convicted of a felony on job applications….) Obama is the first US president to ever visit a federal prison and speak out about this issue (see it here), and if you’re looking for a way to advocate around these issues, here’s a link to some organizations.

Advocate for better education for everyone, everywhere. As one guy has argued, we could be totally pragmatic about all this and forget trying to help white people come to terms with understanding racism. Instead, we could just focus on changing things “on the ground”- like improving education, ending the war on drugs, providing contraceptives etc. I don’t see this as an either/or, but a both/and. Especially because as a Christian, I see justice as holistic: oppressed and oppressors experiencing wholeness that comes from working together to make our world better for everyone.

Some more resources for understanding privilege:

Ok, your turn– what are some other good resources you know of to help white people join the cause of racial justice in both South Africa and the USA?

*Note: There are a lot of structural, big picture economic reforms that many people are advocating for in South Africa that could help the vast majority of people who are stuck in material poverty due to our racist history of apartheid. I think as a white person, a lot of our gut instinct is fear, panic, and immediately rejecting the very notion. Instead of that, we should educate ourselves about these proposals. Even if you end up being against large-scale change instigated by the government, you’ll need to offer a thoughtful alternative. You’ll also have a much better leg to stand on if in your personal life you are willing to live generously, sacrificially, and in a way that empowers others. 

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.  🙂

What my car break-down taught me about racism

The traitor. It's a Chico. We call it Chico. We're great at coming up with car names
The traitor. It’s a Chico. We call it Chico. We’re great at coming up with car names

First I need to explain my experiences with cars so far in South Africa. I started out with Skedlemba, a sweet little Ford, possessed by a spirit that cut the petrol (gas) at random moments. And no matter how many times we took him in (and I mean, it was quite a few), they couldn’t really figure it out. I was towed in probably four or five times by my patient co-workers (once, the tow cable broke three times on the way to the mechanic and so we coasted then pushed the final few meters!). Then, David and I were blessed enough to buy our own car and this one is possessed by a spirit that controls the starter. Sometimes, it perkily starts right up first thing in the morning and we’re zooming on our way, and other times it needs a push start. (We lent it to our brother-in-law for a few months, only to find out he had been “coasting-starting” for a month! Luckily we live in a hilly area). We finally got the starter replaced, and everything had been hunky-dory until Monday. We had no milk. We had no, well, anything, in the pantry. But I was going shopping after dropping David off at school (so I let him use the last dribbles of milk for his cereal), and off we went. Until halfway up the hill to town the car started losing power. And then it died.

I’m telling you, I was convinced we were cursed with an evil car fairy. I honestly wanted to cry at that point, because when you’ve been through so much with a dang car, and put in so much money so that it will work right and it still fails you when need it to come through for you– it’s like a personal betrayal. Not to mention I had not eaten breakfast. So, I’m coasting backwards down this winding hill (luckily there were no cars behind me) so I can pull off on a side dirt road. As I reverse into this dirt road, David starts yelling something unintelligible, and then I realize it’s the word “STOP!” so I stop, but not before our two back wheels are in a HUGE ditch. So now we can’t start the engine and we’re stuck in a hole. We were debating calling the tow-truck (because we would have to take the car in anyway to be looked at) but David, my mr-fix-it-myself husband said no. Instead we called a friend to give David a ride to work.

Thankfully some Zimbabwean petrol attendants were driving by in a bakkie (pick-up), and stopped to help pull us out of the hole with their tow-rope. Hallelujah. Then we coasted back down the hill to our house, David went to school, and my darling friends brought me some milk so I could eat breakfast, drink tea, and finish my master’s thesis analysis chapter.

David returns from school and spends the afternoon poking under the bonnet (hood) and googling things. He can’t figure it out. That night as we’re eating supper, he suddenly says, “Hey, wait, did we drive anywhere this weekend?” “Uh, yeah.” I say. “Like to Durban and back which is an hour away, and then four times to Edendale, and–” Oh. Cha-ching. It hits us: no power= no petrol. David borrowed our lovely landlord’s car, got some petrol and our little car started in a jiffy.

Now, thankfully I like to laugh at myself, and I have enjoyed telling other people this story, but I am always surprised when they interrupt me before the punchline (when I’m describing what happened to us) and say, “Oh, were you out of petrol?” Firstly, I’m annoyed they are stealing my thunder. But I’m also astonished (and frustrated) that SO MANY people thought of that. To them, it was obvious– when you loose power in your car, the first thing you check to see is if you still have petrol. But this thing that is seemingly obvious and simple to everyone else is not obvious or simple to us because of our long and twisted history of car trouble.

Okay, so what does this have to do with racism?? Well… as a white person, when my friends of other races relate an experience where they were the victim of a racist remark, or racist treatment, sometimes I’m like, “Hmm. I don’t think that person was being racist, I think they were just being their normal mean self, because they treat me exactly the same way.” And then I’m tempted to think my friend is overreacting, or seeing race where it isn’t, because it’s obvious to me that it’s not a racial thing.

BUT. There are several things I have learned about this:

1. It very well may be a racist thing, and because I don’t experience racism, or have a history of experiencing racism, I automatically assume the “racist” person is just having a bad day. My context (of never really experiencing racism) means my framework for interpreting other people’s actions does not account for the idea that someone would be acting in a racist way. If my car only ever stops when it’s out of petrol, then when someone is telling me the story of their car break-down, my first thought is going to be: just put in more petrol. 

2. Even if it’s not a racist thing, the fact that my friend is interpreting it as a racism tells me something about her lived experience and that requires sympathy and empathy, rather than me getting all defensive. The reason she interprets something (perhaps a waiter being very slow to attend to her) as racism is because she has been in situations before where waiters were purposefully slow to attend to her because of her race. If my car is always stopping because it’s falling apart and faulty, then when it does stop, my first thought is going to be: here we go again, call a tow-truck not put in more petrol.

The fact is, because of my race, I never really wonder, “Is this person begin racist here? Are they not?” I just happily assume the other person is just a jerk, or slow, and get on with my day. That “here we go again” feeling is what’s important here. Even if the incident is small, what matters to my friend is that it’s one more incident in a long line of incidents. It’s the emotional exhaustion of dealing with racism again and again. And so when she opens up and shares her frustrating experience with me, and I oh-so-helpfully say, “Well, maybe the other person wasn’t being racist there…” that’s not really helpful. I wasn’t there. Even if I was there, I might not have been attuned to what was really going on. And even if I was attuned, and knew 100% that this was in fact not an instance of racism, pointing that out is still probably not the best thing to do. (When people interrupted my wonderful car story to ask me if I had checked the petrol, I did not think warm fuzzy thoughts towards them).

So that’s my how to be a better friend about racist incidents tip of the day.

And on a lighter note… imagine if we had called a tow-truck, only for them to take it in to fix it… and they discovered it was just that we had no petrol. How. Embarrassing. would that have been??! So I’m very thankful for my mr-fix-it-myself husband.