Tag Archives: Racism

Whiteness and Forgiveness

If you have been strolling through social media land in the last few days one story in particular has caused a range of responses. And, no I am not talking about Washington. I am talking about the trial of Botham Jean’s killer, Amber Guyger. Guyger shot and killed Jean in his own apartment when she entered his apartment thinking it was her own. She had just finished her shift as Dallas police officer.
To be honest, I did not know the trial was underway. I had heard that prosecutors were taking the unusual step of charging her with murder and that she had been fired from the Dallas police department. I finally caught up when videos of her testimony were showing up on my Facebook feed. The still captures from the video showed her scrunched face, red eyes, and running makeup. I don’t doubt her tears. She should cry for what she did, the life she took. Yet, at the same time, I have learned that America’s addiction to White Supremacy feeds on white tears.
So I wasn’t surprised to read that her defense strategy was self-defense. Nor was I surprised when the judge allowed the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine—that one can legally kill when they are in their own home. These are all standard approaches to the questions of violence by whites charged in the killing of black and brown people. Never mind the fact that Guyger was not in her own home, nor was she on duty, and Jean was sitting in his own living room and not threatening her. The judge also instructed the jury that they could consider the lesser charge of manslaughter.
I was stunned, however, when the jury delivered the verdict earlier this week—Guilty, not of manslaughter, but of the primary charge of murder.
In a seesaw of emotion, I was not surprised to see the sentence of ten years with possibility for parole in five.
Then yesterday a video made the rounds of the Brandt Jean—the victim’s brother—giving his impact statement to the court. Both Twitter and Facebook were filled with the image of Jean hugging Guyger and videos clips of his offer of forgiveness.
Like I said, it was a week of seesaw emotions and reactions.
I quickly noticed two general responses to the images of Jean hugging his brother’s murder. On one hand, there was a group highlighting it as a beautiful sign of the power of forgiveness. And on the other, there were skeptics frustrated by yet another sign of the black people doing the forgiving in the face of a system that continues to devalue the lives of people of color. The first group of responses were from white folk and the second from people of color.
Over the last five years I have been on my own journey of understanding the realities of racism in the US. One of the things I have learned from my friend Dr. Drew Hart is to not trust my gut when encountering issues about race. In other words, my instincts and reactions, while my own, are deeply shaped by the wider culture. And that culture has been built on a racial hierarchy that assumes whiteness is normal, objective, and right. In other words, American culture is built on White Supremacy.
Now, I need to step back to define White Supremacy. That phrase has layers of meaning but the dominant one is that White Supremacy is the ideology of bad people who are explicitly racist and more often than not violent. It conjures up mental images of white hoods, burning cross, and skinheads. However, White Supremacy is also descriptive of the social, political, and economic foundations of our culture. It is the system itself, as all of these areas of our shared life have been built on a race hierarchy that puts whiteness at the top. It has been embedded in American culture from the 15th century, and despite hard won efforts to undo its policies and impact, it persists as it every adapts to any such changes.
One particular result of White Supremacy is the dominant idea of white innocence. That is why I was not surprised to read that the judge allowed the self-defense argument and consideration of the Castle Doctrine. Surely, white people don’t just shoot people for no reason (except for the fact that they do). As Robin Diangelo says in her book White Fragility, we assume that white folk are all individuals and as such exempt from the impacts of socialization, especially socialization by White Supremacy. We assume that white folks start not just from the place of innocence, but that we are objective in our understandings of the world and how we see others.
As part of my learning to not trust my gut, I have prioritized the voices of black and brown people when trying to understand what is happening in the news. In reading through the posts about the hug and offer of forgiveness it was so clear to me that my white and black friends were seeing two very different things. On the one hand, white folks were celebrating such a beautiful act of forgiveness, made so plain not in Jean’s words on the stand, but the hug itself. Most of my white pastor friends immediately fixated on the image saying this is exactly what forgiveness looks like, and is possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. On the other, people of color are offering a much more complex assessment. Some named the beauty of the act while highlighting that it is small in the face of the deep and painful effects of White Supremacy in the wider culture. Some push back hard against white folk lifting up Brandt as an example, and challenging us to see how his action is part of the wide pattern of black people having to extend forgiveness to white people over and over again. And still others named explicitly that the symbol of his forgiveness assuages our own white fragility, granting a kind of absolution to our own discomfort with matters of race and the violence of race hierarchies.
So what are white people to do? How should we understand this case, and all its emotional waves?
  1. Seek out people of color to hear their interpretation. Meet them for lunch or coffee and listen. Don’t argue and don’t present another narrative. Just listen. Find black and brown people on social media and read their wise words. Don’t reply. Just soak it in. Don’t stop when you find a person of color who articulates what you already think.
  2. Ask yourself what you are missing. Why do you see this case and Jean’s action so differently from others?
  3. Notice your own reactions, not just to the story itself, but to the insights of people of color. Why are you defensive? Why are you so drawn to the hug and its implied forgiveness?
  4. Pray. Sure, pray for the Jean family. Pray for Guyger. But pray for yourself, that you might see things differently. Pray that you won’t just see these examples of White Supremacy in our culture through white eyes.
  5. Lastly, assess your own understanding of forgiveness. What does forgiveness mean? How can this symbol and story be both a weapon and an invitation?
  6. If you are a white pastor and preaching this Sunday, highlight black and brown voices. Hold space, especially in dominantly white congregations, to truly hear the complexity and struggle of people of color to interpret these events in ways that lead to radical change. Extend the invitation to true repentance and not just cheap grace.
As white people we must begin to see how we expect black and brown people to forgive so easily. We have to acknowledge that our expectations of forgiveness—even framed theologically through the atonement in Jesus Christ—force people of color to do what they may not be able to do, or ready to do. We have to see that a hug and words of forgiveness are not the end goal. Rather, forgiveness in Christian theology is the catalyst for repentance, a literal change of life. This act cannot remain a symbol, something that lets us leave grace in the land of the cheap and easy way out. See that this bit of grace demands a different way of living in this world, not just for Guyger, but for all of us. And we must reassess our theology of forgiveness, understanding that, as Dr. Drew Hart said today on Twitter, forgiveness is not reconciliation. It may indeed invite the longer, and more difficult, work of reconciling white and black people, but in itself the act of forgiveness is not the result but the catalyst. And lastly, that we as white people must submit ourselves to the leadership of people of color. Otherwise, Jean’s prophetic action does nothing to change the current of White Supremacy around us.

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Our Moral Calculus

I have been thinking a lot about privilege, race, economics, and our culture. Some of my thoughts emerge when I catch up on the news, and others come as I read the important work by others more intelligent that I.

However, the news of the recent sentencing of a young white man for the sexual assault of a young woman was the final straw. The conviction carried the minimum sentence of 2-3 years, but the judge gave him six months in the county jail. While I am sure that any time in jail is enough for any person to see the violence of their actions, in this case the rape of a woman, it is all too plain that as a young white college man he was given the benefit of the doubt. And as has been all too plain, that same benefit is not awarded women, blacks, latinos, or sexual minorities.

The struggle for equality in our time is one that in some ways builds on the advances for minorities in the last century while at the same time eclipsing those achievments. For instance, it is all too common to hear a white man say plainly “I am not racist.” Such a statement is probably true (though even saying as much is a recognition that racism is implied), but that very self-perception is based on the idea that racists are easy to identify– or that they participate in explicit and personal actions of hate based on race. Today, however, we are confronted by the myriad of ways racism, misogyny, and fear of sexual minorities is shaped in us by cultural practices that work below our subconscious.

Compare one of the young black men shot on the street by police. Their communities try to rehumanize these young men, saying just what the dad of the young white rapist did– namely that they are good kids, who made a poor decision. White pundits often discredit such stories by saying that the young men were on drugs, but in the case of the white man who was intoxicated it was just a youthful indiscretion. Just because the rapist is a white college student, he looks like he has so much potential. And even the minimum sentence took into account his lack of a criminal record, but still treated the severity of the crime. Because he was white and looked to have potential, he was granted a dramatically lenient six months.

For all of us white men, who are “not racist” or not prone to misogyny, or “not homophobic” we finally have to realize just how much leeway we are granted simply because of our skin color and gender. Not only are we innocent until proven guilty (a luxury many blacks, latinos, LGBT persons are granted in name only), but we are even given the future benefit of the doubt when we are indeed guilty.

We must come to terms, as a society, that we in fact do make a moral calculus that is based on race, gender, and sexual identity. And that calculus, as Drew Hart has named it, is a hierarchical one. White men on top, and the rest fall out somewhere below.

When we employ this calculus, we overlook that sexual predators are more likely to be white straight men preying on children in church than they are transgendered persons lurking in bathrooms. We conveniently omit the fact that the so-called black-on-black crime rates are statistically the same as white-on-white crime. And because white men have such potential in our culture, the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted are attempts to falsely discredit men until a jury finds enough proof to the contrary. And even then, as we have seen this week, even the testimony of the victim, bravely read in court at the sentencing, is not enough to actually enforce the law.

This hierarchical moral calculus, despite our overt assertions to the contrary, instills in us a subconscious story that allows these things to continue. And while we may not be racists, we allow these cultural factors to cloud our judgment, and the same is true in regards to women and many others.

This, to me, seems the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. Many today latch onto Jesus’ words about judging others, but the remainder of the passage are striking. If we are ready to point out the sins of another, the speck of dust in their eye, we must first remove the plank in our own. For those of us who have significant cultural privilege, that plank in our eye is huge. And we have grown so accustomed to seeing the world in those terms, adjusting our perceptions to account for our skewed and fallen vision of the world, we barely notice just how privileged we are. And truthfully, it may not be out of our own doing. As the classical tradition regarding the Fall says so plainly, when humanity sinned against God it did not just affect individuals, it was cosmological. The ramifications of our separation from God are not our personal doing, but are true nonetheless. Sanctification, becoming like Jesus, is the one remedy and it takes work. And at times, like the camel passing through the eye of a needle, is a painful struggle. But just because it is painful does not mean we should cower in the face of significant transformations.

We must change.

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Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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