Six problematic things that (mostly) white people say

 

 

Everyone seems to have an opinion on Colin Kaepernick and his actions surrounding the national anthem. Kaepernick has helped start a national discussion on the question of how Black people are treated by police officers in our country, by first sitting during the national anthem at 49er games, and then moving to kneeling. In his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

More athletes have joined in with Kaepernick, and while many people supported them, many more have been critical and disapproving.

I started writing this in response to Dabo Swinney’s comments but since then, I have seen lots of other people posting similar comments to his. So instead of singling him out, I will instead call this “Six Problematic Things (mostly) White People Say.”

“This is disrespectful to our military personnel and people who have served in the armed forces.”

The flag and the anthem represent far more than our military forces. They stand for our entire country and all the citizens in it. Kneeling, or sitting, or standing with raised fist in order to draw attention to the way that many citizens do not enjoy the same equality of treatment is not criticizing or demeaning the contributions and service of our armed forces. It is calling attention to the fact that many do not experience “freedom and justice for all” in the way that our principles as a country proclaim. It is calling for people to notice, understand, and empathize with the situation, and to work for change where we don’t live up to the phrase “the land of the free”.

I have seen people “disrespect” the anthem and the flag by paying attention to their cell phones, eating snacks, arranging their seats, talking to their friends, etc., many times. I have never seen any uproar about that, even though it is far more widespread, and has no higher purpose or concern other than it was what that person wanted to do. It is their right to ignore the flag and the anthem, as they choose; it is the right of these athletes to exercise their right to free speech as regulated by the Constitution, to kneel, sit, or stand with raised fist.

[Side note: the national anthem has been criticized as having a racist third verse, in which Francis Scott Key lauded the death of slaves. I realize that we do not sing that verse, and most of us are unaware of it; however, it gives further weight to the choice of those who would desire to not sing it or give honor to it.]

“It’s not good to use the team as a platform; he should call a press conference instead.”

“He is just an entitled entertainer. He should keep his mouth shut, since he has been successful.”

How is calling a press conference *not* using his team or his stature as a football player as a platform? And isn’t it a good thing to use one’s celebrity/resources/place in the public eye to draw attention to issues that you think need it? Sports figures do this all the time, for all sorts of issues. The entire NFL does it during October for breast cancer awareness, for example. Celebrities (whether they are experts on a subject or not) go to Congress to testify about things that they think need attention, with the hope of getting some results. Philanthropists donate money and hold fundraisers and use what privilege and opportunities they have to bring attention to needs. We seem to think that it’s okay for those issues. We laud people for using their time and resources to help those who do not have the same resources. So why not on this issue? Why shouldn’t those with a platform draw attention to the problem of the disparity of how, in far too many instances, people of color are treated by police officers ?

The point of a protest is to get people’s attention. If no one pays attention, then it is not an effective protest. Kaepernick got people’s attention, and got them talking.

“This is causing division.”

Kaepernick’s protest is not causing division, but rather exposing the divide that already exists.

“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. “

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speaking of MLK….

“Martin Luther King, Jr. would be appalled. He never did anything like this.”

Many people like to appropriate MLK now, with little to no understanding of what he said when he was alive. He promoted peaceful demonstrations, but he also understood the hopelessness and rage that gives way to violence. He himself was committed to non-violence, and yet he was killed by violence. Since so many feel free to speculate on how Dr. King would act and what he would say, were he alive today, I will offer my opinion: he would be deeply grieved that we have gained so little ground in the struggle against systemic racism. And while there has been individual progress in many individual lives (which people like to point out as proof: look at Oprah! Look at all the black athletes! Look at President Obama! Things are so much better!), there is still deep systemic racism that affects Black people, not the least of which is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias of police forces against people of color. (This list by Vanity Fair gathers in many studies and analyses of data that demonstrate this.)

But don’t take my word for it. Let Dr. King’s words speak for themselves.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham [edit.: or  Charlotte or Ferguson or Baton Rouge or… ]. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails so express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative. –Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

And here are his thoughts on not-so-peaceful demonstrations:

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” -Martin Luther King, 1968

­“It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.”

I don’t know why this is such a durable saying; perhaps because it has some truth, and perhaps because it rhymes. (We love a good simple truism that rhymes.) But there’s a problem. While it is true that racism is a sin problem, it is because it IS a skin problem. If that weren’t the case, it would not be called racism. There wouldn’t be anything to call it, because it wouldn’t exist. The “sin problem” IS the problem that people have with other people’s skin.

Let’s apply this saying to other social ills.
“It’s not an abortion problem, it’s a sin problem.” So…we shouldn’t work to change laws/policies regarding abortion; instead, we should only focus on people’s hearts?

 

“It’s not a sex trafficking problem, it’s a sin problem.” So….we shouldn’t try to rescue those who are being sexually trafficked and abused, but instead just try to change the hearts of those who are buying their services/pimping them out?

 

“It’s not a child/spouse abuse problem, it’s a sin problem.” So…we should allow people to beat on their spouse and children, and just pray for their hearts to be changed?

 

Racism is both individualistic and systemic. While we do pray, and communicate with individuals and try to change hearts, we also work within systems to correct problems and root out the issues within existing systems—just as we do for all of the other social problems.

“I support their right to protest, but it’s the wrong place/time/method.”

Honest question: what would be the right place/time/method? Because it seems like people are never happy with a protest, unless it does not disrupt them in any way, shape, or form.

This is one of the most peaceful types of protests that one could do. It does not disrupt the game. It does not prevent people from doing their jobs. It does not remove anything from anyone.

It gets people to think about injustice in the United States. It may offend some of your ideas or beliefs. But that is what it is meant to do. As stated above, a protest is meant to elicit a response. It’s meant to point out a problem, and get people talking, thinking, and acting on what an appropriate solution to the problem might be.

I am glad that Colin Kaepernick has used his privilege as a highly talented, highly paid professional athlete to shine a light on the continuing problems that we have in our criminal justice system. I support him, and all others like him, who are willing to sacrifice money, reputation, and the adulation of fans to help their fellow human beings in the quest for equal treatment under the law.

 

 

 

 

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Agree or disagree: Christians and Black Lives Matter

I have a confession to make.

I don’t agree 100 % on everything with my husband.

Shocking, right?!?

Most of you are thinking, “Well, of course you don’t.”

And yet, I am able to live with him, love him, plan things with him, discuss things with him, work on mutual projects together with him—even in the midst of some real disagreements.

So why is it that some seem to have the idea that if you agree with someone about a lot of things, but disagree with them on some things, that you can’t work together or support one another?

Following a December talk that Michelle Higgins did for the Christian college ministry Intervarsity at their Urbana 15  meeting, there was some grumbling.  Higgins seemed to support, and encourage the church at large to support, the Black Lives Matter movement. The pushback seemed to indicate that since there are some issues that the original Black Lives Matter founders would differ on than traditional, orthodox Christians, that there should be no support or acknowledgement of the movement or its aims. Otherwise, we might be wrongly grouped with them.
I believe this is wrong. And I believe it comes from both an unwillingness to understand the impetus of the movement, to listen to the reality and the pain, and to look honestly at both the history of much of the black experience in America, as well as what is happening currently.

The implication in the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is the word “too”. Are those who say it  saying that only black lives matter? No; there is a perception that black lives do not matter as much as white lives; they do not matter as much as police lives. This perception is backed up by the continual parade of black people being shot and killed by police, only to have the outcome be that no charges will be brought against the offending officer–even in the most egregious, blatant cases. What are we to think? The simplest conclusion is that black lives have less value to society at large. “Those people” are lazy, don’t have jobs (never mind that part of this is the systemic issues that have been brewing for decades), don’t respect the law or its officers. They deserve to die—even if it’s just for playing with a toy gun or looking at an air rifle in a Walmart. (Compare that to how white people are treated when they openly carry guns. FYI, Ohio, where Tamir Rice was shot and killed for possibly having a gun, is an open carry state.)

BLM at its core is a movement to get the larger populace in America to acknowledge that black lives have historically (and currently) not mattered as much as white lives. This has been true across all aspects of our society–economically, educationally, in our justice system, and in social acceptance and treatment. The stain of slavery that powered our country economically for 200 years has not been easily removed; its effects have seeped nearly everywhere, with governmental indifference and racial prejudice slowing progress. There have been some gains, to be sure. However, systemic problems grind on. The recent increased visibility of unequal treatment of black people by police and the justice system has helped the swell of the demand for fair treatment and an assurance, backed up by action, that black lives do indeed matter. To believe or to act otherwise is contrary to how God views all humankind. He created them all, and created them in his image. They are worthy and worthwhile, based on their personhood, made in the image of God. Christians, of all people, ought to support the general movement, because the movement is primarily about affirming the value of the lives of people of color.

“But there are parts of the platform that I disagree with, vigorously! I just can’t support this, with these issues.”

While blacklivesmatter.com is the “original” group who started agitating for change in the past couple of years, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has grown to be a far greater, more widespread movement and slogan. The phrase has come to be identified with the belief as expressed above: that black lives have been treated as if they do not matter, and that this needs to change. Just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s had disparate groups that had different approaches and even different philosophies as to how change should happen, they were all part of a larger movement for an integrated society in which black people were afforded equality, both in essence and in opportunity. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., worked in different ways than those of Malcolm X. King was an integrationist and promoted and practiced nonviolence, and advocated civil rights. Malcolm X, a black nationalist, espoused use the use of violence in defense of blacks and freedom, and advocated human rights. They both contributed to the overall progress that was achieved.  Understanding and appreciating the achievements of the 1960s and the expansion of democracy as a result of the ‘60s struggle, requires seeing the contributions of Malcolm and Martin together, and that the two of them are “related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements–complements in one necessary and symmetric whole.” (Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: The Motive Force of Change in America)

There were many people, both black and white, who didn’t agree with everything that Dr. King, or Malcolm X, or other black leaders in that day, did; but they supported the vision and the progress of civil rights, in spite of that, because they saw the overall goal as being one they could support.

I believe that there is something similar going on now. One can support the idea and the movement of Black Lives Matter, without supporting every single “plank” in the official BLM platform. ( One good idea would be to read it, first, before reacting.) One can disagree with parts of Campaign Zero without throwing the whole idea out the window (again, read what it entails before forming an opinion). One can listen to Michelle Higgins’ talk at Intervarsity, and try to see that there might be far more agreement than disagreement, so long as a defensive attitude is set aside.
Listening to black people and their experiences should be our starting point.

It’s okay to support a larger idea, without agreeing with all the people who support that idea. We do this already with many groups we are a part of. For example, do you identify with a political party? Do you agree with everything in that party’s platform, or what they stand for? Are you a member of a community group? Are you 100% on board with everything they support and stand for? What about your church? I know of many folks who are a part of, and support, a church, but don’t necessarily agree with every aspect of every doctrine or practice (for example, people who are not paedobaptists but happily attend and are even members of a Presbyterian church).

Perhaps the best example of this is the cooperation between pro-life Protestants and Catholics. These group disagree on some major things that are related to the issue at hand (for example, the use of contraceptives), and yet they are able to work together on the larger issue of eliminating abortion, and supporting families.

If we can do this with other causes and groups, why can’t we do it with the larger cause of Black Lives Matter?

I see this as the civil rights movement of our day. Will we join with, support, and use the resources we have to work toward a Biblical view of all people being created in the image of God and worthy to be treated in such a way in all aspects of life? Will we be co-belligerents (as Francis Schaeffer said) with others who are working to repair and renew the broken down system that has contributed to the plight of so many people of color in our nation? Or will we be like the white clergymen of Birmingham, who chose to withhold their support from Dr. King, because of a disagreement over his methods?

The decision is before us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shift in perspective

There is a trail behind my house, where I often take the dog. Sometimes I go a short way one direction—just long enough for him to “do his business”—turn around, and come back; sometime I go a short way in the other direction. And sometimes, I walk the entire loop. Two whole miles (it’s hilly! Don’t judge me 🙂 ). Usually I turn to the right when I am going to do the entire loop. There’s no particular reason for this; it’s just become my habit.

This morning I decided to go to the left instead. And, although I have walked this path many, many times, I was surprised how different it looked to me. Familiar landmarks were not so familiar from this perspective; I noticed details on the plants, trees, and trail that I had never noticed before. The pond came upon me suddenly, instead of the leisurely descent of the path toward it from the other direction.

A different view of the very same trail—walked from a different perspective.

When we think about race relations, this is what we need: a view from a very different, unfamiliar point of view—theirs.

I grew up in a small, very white town in the Midwest. My husband (who grew up in the same town) and I can only recall one black person in our entire community: the guy who had a shoeshine stand in the lobby of one of the professional buildings downtown. (Yes, I realize how racist and stereotypical this sounds.) I did not know his name, or anything else about him. Nor did I give him, or what his life must be like, much thought.

It has not been until the past few years that my seemingly benign (yet absolutely neglectful) ignorance of my fellow black citizens has been challenged. My eyes and heart have been opened to the real racism and oppression that continues to be a reality in our 21st century culture here in the United States– both in individual hearts, but also baked into our systems: economic, social, educational, and judicial.

I know that I only see a small sliver of it. But I want to know more, to be more aware, and to be a part of a change that will work toward solutions to these centuries-old issues.

How does this happen? How can I shift my perspective on my trail?

I can start by listening.

In my last post (which has been awhile ago, but check it out if you haven’t read it), I wrote of listening to others better, and trying to understand things from a different point of view. How do we do this, this “listening” to others?

The first and most obvious way is the simplest definition of it—we sit with people. We let them tell their stories, without pre-judgment or defensiveness. This applies to everyone we come in contact with: friends, co-workers, schoolmates, neighbors, and family.

This is difficult for us, mostly because we are self-centered creatures, and prone to think mostly of how we perceive things, how things affect us, etc. It takes real work and persistent effort to listen and empathize with another.

In the case of listening to people of color’s experiences and feelings, it starts the same way—sitting with them, being with them, and listening to their stories.

But what if we don’t know any people of color? Many of us live in areas where there are few to no black people, or any race other than whites. What do we do then?

My first suggestion is to look carefully at whether your geographic are is as “white” as you perceive it to be. Often we self-segregate with those with whom we identify, and with whom we feel more comfortable. That may happen through our choice of neighborhoods, churches, clubs, and groups. It’s fairly normal—but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. All of us could do some stretching in this area (myself definitely included). If you do not have any friends that are of a different ethnic group than you are, you have some work to do.

In the meantime, there are additional ways in which we can stretch ourselves. Nonwhites have been telling their stories for a long time, for those who have been willing to listen; through their oral histories and writings, we have access to their experiences and their thoughts. I confess that I have been woefully undereducated in these stories. It has not been until the last few years that I have sought out and read works by black authors: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander, to name just a few. Through reading their words, I am able to listen to their experiences, their thoughts, their concerns, and their cries for justice. I can listen. I begin to understand, in a small way, experiences that are so unlike my own.

I listen to my black brothers and sisters through films as well. Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”—these help us to see another viewpoint, to hear another story, told by those whom it has affected the most. Music is another avenue for listening. I am not as well-versed in this, but I have benefitted from listening to and reading about Kendrick Lamar‘s music, and his commentary on what it is like to be black in America today (graphic language warning if you listen to his music).

Note: I am not saying that we must all agree with absolutely everything that these artists convey (you don’t agree with everything you read or see that is conveyed by every white person, do you? And these authors and artists don’t always agree with everything the others have to say, either). I am saying that we need to expose ourselves to other ways of thinking about things, especially if we have formed opinions about groups of people or about current or historical events, without having a full view of or a framework for what has happened/is happening.

In an effort to seek out a more fully fleshed out history of black folks in the US, I recently read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. I was only vaguely aware of what the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era was like. The reality was far more horrific than what I had imagined, as a system of convict leasing and debt peonage (pseudo-slavery) sprang up that was as bad as the slavery that had been “abolished”. Blackmon is not black himself, but in this book, and the subsequent PBS documentary based on it, he has given a voice to the thousands and thousands of “freed slaves” who endured systemic oppression well into the 20th century. The effects of this abusive system are still with us in black communities today. We have come far, but have so very far yet to go.

I have much more that I want to read and listen to and mull over and act upon, from black authors and bloggers, and from Native American writers and histories as well (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is high on my ‘read next’ list).

We are all products of our environment, our education, and our exposure. We would do well to “walk the trail in a different direction”. If we wish to know truth and to love others in a God-pleasing way, then we should not be either fearful or disdainful of what minorities have to say, but instead seek out their voices.

Listen.

They are speaking, and they have something to say.

It’s just “normal”

I’m a pretty normal person.

At least I like to think I am.
But maybe I just think I am, because I don’t know otherwise.

I was sitting with my children and their spouses around our fire pit, talking about our family’s “culture”. My daughter-in-law shared how she had to acclimate and get used to the “Koenig way” of doing things and handling things when she first was getting to know us.

My thoughts started in this way: ,“Yeah, that would be hard to integrate into, if you were used to a different way.”

And then: “What is she talking about? We are just normal. We do things the normal way.”

As the conversation progressed, she brought up another situation where she had felt out of sync with us.

I said somewhat mockingly, “Great. Tell me something else that I am going to feel guilty about.”

My daughter interrupted me, gently but firmly, and said, “Mom. If that’s how you’re hearing it, then you aren’t listening right. Listen to her.”

I was taken aback, and somewhat embarrassed. But I got the message.

I needed to listen.

Listen, and not be defensive.

Listen, and acknowledge the work it took for my daughter-in-law to integrate and feel a part of this large family who did things in a way that was far different from her family growing up.

Listen, and not make it all about me and how I felt about it.

*****

Our family is not big on expressing emotions in a gush-it-all out kind of way. (We are part German. This may have something to do with it.)

Sometimes, there is a holding back, a pondering of what we actually want to say. A silence, in order to keep from saying something that might hurt another’s feelings or make the situation worse. Time to consider our words.

Or, often, less altruistically, a sly or snarky remark, a sarcastic comment. A silence that signals a grudge, rather than a graciousness.

My daughter-in-law’s family is more of the hash-it-all-out kind of family. Right away, right now.

You can see where there might be some clash of culture.

And why she struggled to fit in and feel a part of things at first.

My son-in-law, originally from Georgia, also ran into some cultural differences, with our family. “Bless your heart”, sweet tea, and a full recitation of when you first met Jesus is not a part of our Midwestern sensibilities.

He went away from our first meeting thinking that we hated him (we didn’t, for the record, and were aghast when we found out later that was what he thought).

We thought everything had gone fine and was just “normal.” Because we are normal. (And right. )
Right?

*****

Listening is hard.

Sometimes it’s hard to pay attention and not let my mind wander. Sometimes it’s hard to intuit what is behind what someone is saying, when their words may not match up to their body language or facial expressions.

But sometimes (often!) it’s hard, because I am busily composing my rebuttal to tell the other person how they are wrong, or getting ready defend my point of view, instead of really listening to the person across from me.
When I stop my own mind-churning, and my trying to figure out how to present myself and my opinions as superior and right, and just listen to others, it’s amazing what happens. I hear what they really are saying, and it affirms the person’s significance.

We actually communicate.

*****

My reaction at the fire pit reminded me of how many people in the majority culture (whites) react when they hear the stories of minority people who are trying to tell about their experiences, and their difficulties in navigating a culture that is different to their own. Ask a white person to describe his culture, and he may say, “I don’t know. It’s just normal. “ Because it is the majority culture, there is no pressing need for him to examine his culture and compare it to those around him who come from a different one. The majority is considered “normal”; he doesn’t have to figure out how to fit in with any other culture in order to live his life.

The nonwhite people around us, however, have a much different experience. They have to be fluent in both white culture and their own culture, if they hope to succeed and thrive; if they hope to get along.

And many times, if they just hope to survive.

The conversation that night reinforced the idea that if I, as a white person, hope to understand and know my nonwhite brothers and sisters, I will have to be willing to listen to their stories.

I will have to be willing to listen to how they experience life, often far differently than my own experience.

I need to be willing to put down my defenses, lay down my fears and guilt, open my ears, listen, and honor their words.

I need to make it not all about me, and how I feel about things.

Listening well to the minorities in our society will not change situations or solve problems in and of themselves. But it will help. It will acknowledge that there are different experiences that we have not had, different issues and influences, hardships and difficulties that have arisen because of both past and current injustices.

It won’t solve things immediately. But it will be a start.