Racism is not “Their problem”…and other musings

I have been appalled by the recent events in my nation and, far from being a complicit silence, I’ve been sitting with my discomfort as a white man and listening first. But, because silence = death, I cannot remain silent forever, or it does become a complicit inaction.

Those of you who know me, know that my seminary education at the Iliff School of Theology in the mid 90s was formative in my understanding of justice, peace, and ‘how to protest effectively.’ It was part of the curriculum and the cornerstone of that curriculum was a course in Religion and Human Transformation taught by Dr. Vincent Harding, a confidant, friend, advisor, and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can get a sense of what it was like to talk with Dr. Harding from this interview with the “On Being” project where he discusses his essay, “Is America Possible?”

Dr. Vincent Harding. [image description: a black man with round glasses and grey short hair and beard. He has an expression of serious concern.]

Dr. Harding’s influence on my activist-scholar lineage is one of the reasons my two primary responses to everything I bear witness to since March (and before) has been:

1) employing as much liberationist pedagogy in my classrooms that is contextualized with all the trauma aware care I can muster. Eduction is power, wisdom to use it is action.

2) ramping up my involvement with The Poor People’s Campaign through involvement with the Deaf Poor People’s Campaign contingent. The original vision for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and the 6 week takeover of the National Mall as Resurrection City was MLK, Jr’s response to the emergence of tactics we are seeing used by the economic elite and the powers of our nation today. Martin was murdered before he could ignite this movement, but Ralph Abernathy and of host of others, including Dr. Harding, saw to it that it came to life. The current movement is a revival as, although advances were made in 1968, things have gotten worse, much more worse, than they were then.

[image description: graphic logo of people on a protest march atop a black background with the text “Poor People’s Campaign” on the left and a yellow sunrise background with the text “A national call for moral revival” on the right.]

Racism is not “their problem.”

In protesting at the Iliff School of Theology (against the institution’s own racism), I obtained a button that has been part of my ‘protest collection’ ever since. Although I’m not sure where the actual button is after many moves and many marches, the content remains in my head. It simply reads, “Racism is not ‘their problem.'” These were a staple of white students protesting institutional racism at Iliff during my last year under the leadership of students of color. It articulates the fact that racism, white supremacy, and all the attendant evils are, at their root, something white people have made, and white people must work to dismantle. The work of anti-racism cannot be simply on those who bear the burden of the effects. As Black Deaf people are telling us…they’re tired.

[image description: a YouTube link to an ASL rendition of the Black Lives Matter poem “I’m Tired” a young African American woman wearing a yellow shirt with short black hair stands before a background with shelves an various small items.]

After graduating from Iliff and joining the Baltimore Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church, I wore this button (among many others) during a rally in DC that was organized as a part of our Annual Conference meeting. Bishop Felton E. May had chosen “Holy Boldness” as a theme and was pushing us as a body to use our meeting not just for business and worship in a nice hotel, but to get out into the city where we met and do something with our presence. People of color took note of my button and tacitly nodded their understanding. White people were another story entirely. I soon discovered they were reading the button as saying, “Racism isn’t a problem for them,” rather than seeing it as a response to the typical white dismissal of, “Well that’s not my problem.” When I was confronted by some white people at the rally, I clarified the meaning and, on more than one occasion, was chastised for being ‘controversial and divisive’ by bringing up racial differences and assigning responsibility instead of promoting unity and working together.

This is the sort of white liberal racism that leads to things like Amy Cooper, an otherwise textbook white liberal who sees herself as well meaning, to weaponize calling the police on a black man, Michael Cooper, who was simply asking her to leash her dog in the Brambles as was posted all over the park. It’s also the kind of privilege liberal white people, such as myself, have to guard against in times like this and not simply ‘turn away from horrible things’ and keep on going on with our lives. We have to commit to anti-racism anew each time. Our friends who do not enjoy such privileges simply cannot turn away.

On Rage

Larry Kramer died last week. He was a figure during my time at the Iliff School of Theology too. Although he was miles away in NYC, the ACT UP movement was strong in Denver in the mid-90s as the literal “dying days” of the movement were focused on 1) care of those dying, and 2) overturning Amendment 2. Amendment 2 was a voter referendum that would bar any city or government law designed to specifically protect the rights of LGBTQ people. A confusing ballot wording led to a state Supreme Court ruling that threw out the referendum. But, as the linked article from Westword in 2017 states, those fights are also being refought.

[image description: a black and white photo of Larry Kramer at a protest. He is a white man with receding hairline, round glasses, wearing a t-shirt that says “silence = death” with a triangle above it. His expression is emphatic and he is getting in the camera’s face.]

Kramer was a bombastic and fierce fighter for those he loved and lost. Everyone was dying and no one was talking. His benevolent rage, as the New Yorker article linked above puts it, was a hallmark that many misunderstood. He was famous for his unapologetic truth in the public sphere and his fierce connections to people in private relationships…and sometimes he directed both to the same person, as he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci. As I see Dr. Fauci once again navigate a public health crisis under an administration that seems more than fine with the deaths of those who are dying, I can see the dynamics of Kramer’s relationship with him echoing into this pandemic.

Dr. Pamela Lightsey [image description: an African American woman with copper skin and short hair wearing a bright pink shirt and some black leather bracelets standing in front of stained glass windows. She has her arms crossed and head tilted with a friendly but inquisitive smile toward the camera.]

Another voice on rage that I value is, Dr. Pamela Lightsey. Her recent post on “Sweet Anger” is unapologetically honest about the value of black rage in this moment. Her follow up post “Where Have We Heard This Before?” is worth reading as well. She writes with a fierce love for her people and community that recognizes that while, yes, a lot of the triggers to violence happening in Minneapolis and other cities are being instigated by white provocateurs, a narrative of the ‘peaceable negro’ does not do service to the raw honest emotional rage that needs to be recognized and expressed.

She’s a friend of mine and someone I worked hard to get the funding to bring to Gallaudet to speak with our community and meet with our students of color. It was worth ALL the wrangling with administrators to find funding and scheduling hassles to see her engage with students during a dinner with the Keeping The Promise program. As we’re friends on Facebook, I read her posts with a sense of wonder at times at her ability to so fiercely love. She can be calling out someone she’s blocked (or tolerated and not blocked) for something they’ve said or done and then in the comments on that post, see someone she’s not seen for awhile and there’s a moment of, “Honey! How are you. I love you all. How are the family and when can we get together?”

Kramer and Lightsey remind me of the role of rage and the kind of rage that is rooted in a fierce love that has grown through a time of deprivation, marginalization, and brutality.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [image description: a black and white photo of an African American man in a dark suit standing at a rally in front of numerous microphones. He is speaking forcefully and pointing his finger to the crowd.]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on urban rioting from a speech to the American Psychology Association in 1967 point to an understanding of how the evils of systemic poverty, discrimination, and militarization lead to these moments of rage. And that they are less about property and more about prophecy.

Now what?

While sharing some of my own thoughts and musings here, I do want to recognize something my friend and former student, Victorica Monroe asked her white friends to do on social media– recognize my white privilege.

(p.s. Victorica is one of the most exciting young educators I know. The link above is to her consulting business. If you’re involved with Deaf education in any way from shaping classroom experiences to inviting speakers, give Victorica a click and reach out.)

White privilege looks like this:

I have privilege as a white person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it…

I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis).
I can sell CD’s (#AltonSterling).
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones)
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
I can go to church (#Charleston9).
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott).
I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
I can run (#WalterScott).
I can breathe (#EricGarner).
I can live (#FreddieGray).
I can ask someone to put a leash on their dog when it is required in the public park we are in (#ChristianCooper).

White privilege is real.
Take a minute to consider a Black person’s experience today.

This list is far from complete, and far from over.

This is a time where the president of our nation wants to return to the days of Bull Connor and set dogs loose on people and engage in things that past presidents used as a pretext for war such as using the military on citizens of his own country.

This is a time when the police are militarized to the point where their first response to a protest is to line up with all their military gear developed for use in armed combat and chuck tear gas canisters into crowds with no attempt to simply contain and direct the protest along a predetermined path.

This is a time when we can record and disseminate widely what has gone on without being seen for decades and centuries. This is also a time when the same social media tools can sow confusion, turn narrative, and distort meaning that dilutes the the transformational potential of such documentation.

In addition to using my classrooms for liberationist pedagogy, and involvement with The Poor People’s Campaign, I’m seeking to do more of of the things from this 2017 post on what white people can do for racial justice.

I’m also trying to put the words of people of color out there for you to read throughout this post. They’re saying it better than I ever could.

But I do recognize that my own journey from the casual racism of the white world around me growing up to someone making a commitment to anti-racism began in many ways by seeing other white people pointing toward what people of color were saying, then sitting to listen.

So I’ll shush up now and let you read the links.

Oh and…Trevor Noah dropped this recently that’s worth watching and sharing.

[image description: A link to a YouTube video with Trevor Noah, a black man with short hair, and light beard wearing a green shirt. He has a stern look on his face. On the left is white text over a black background “George Floyd and the Dominoes of Racial Injustice. The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah.”]

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