Category Archives: Race and ethnicity

How Close Is The Past? And What is the Speed From Slave to Free?

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m reading some stuff on Emotionally Health Spirituality that interestingly enough talks about our past as a very present influence on the way we behave and interact in the now. At one point, Scazzero says  a Biblical viewpoint on the notion of family includes three generations, which would mean, a ready understanding of the word “family” would date back to the “mid-1800’s”! It talks about generational curses, addictions, patterns of behavior, etc. And this is great stuff for us to be unpacking for our emotional health and diagnosing why we have a “gut-level” un-examined way of pathological behavior and attitudes in our current relationships. Part of emotionally healthy spirituality is to recognize these patterns of behavior and  unravel some of these knots so that the gospel can fully take root in us. Whereas some couples have been “following Christ” for decades superficially submit their lives to the propositions of salvation and transformation, they don’t do the work of becoming emotionally healthy –that is to live a fully examined life before Christ and thus, do not allow the Spirit to do the deep work of transforming them. Scazzero is quick to say  emotional health and contemplative living are key to the revolutionary faith that Jesus promises.

Agree? Disagree?

If you agree, let’s push this one step further. I’m also reading this book called “Black and Free” by Tom Skinner, and here’s something  I want to juxtapose to the Emotionally Healthy stuff I just referred to above. If you disagree, they don’t necessarily connect, but if you do agree with the above, then this is perhaps helpful in unpacking the lack of health in the larger African American community. Just an insight, not the full solution.

Beginning with chapter 2, entitled “Why Do They Fight?” I’m going to take a few excerpts from Skinner and bring us back to the question, what does emotional healthy stuff have to do with reconciliation? Or as I’ve put in the post title, how close if the past? and what is the speed from slave to free?

What leads to gang warfare? What makes people in Harlem, Watts, the south side of Chicago, the east side of Detroit, the south side of Philadelphia, or the Hill district of Pittsburgh get involved in this kind of thing?  And in particular, people across the world are asking, ‘Why do black people riot?’…And to understand better the frustration and bitterness that fosters gang wars and riots, we have to look beyond the slums themselves. In fact, we need to go back some three hundred years — to when the first slaves were brought to the United States. They were imported from Africa via the West Indies….

Those who did survive were sold on the auction block. The plantation owners and farmers bought black people as easily and disinterestedly as they would buy a draft horse or a milk cow. To the planter, a black person was just another animal to be used on his farm or plantation. They were bred at the whims of their master. Whenever their master felt there was a need for additional slaves, he merely selected a healthy male and healthy female and he head them cohabit until a child was conceived…On and on went the pattern, so that within ten years a slave male could have sired more than hundred sons and daughters, but never really have the privilege of fathering any of them…There was no family life; there was no culture, no discipline set up as far a as home was concerned during all the there hundred years that black people were enslaved in North America….

After the Civil War, President Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation, and the slaves were set free. After three hundred years of captivity, the black man was suddenly a free individual. He was told, “Now that you have your freedom, now that you have been emancipated, you must assume responsibility as a human being. You must now become a responsible citizen.”

They turned to this man who was bred like cattle, who perhaps did not even know his children, and asked him to raise his family! Three hundred years separated the black man from life in a family culture. he had never been show or taught what it was to have family responsibility, to be the head of his own home.

Overnight, the black man was told now that he was a free man he must live according to the culture he served and by their standards. Suddenly, he was taught that he must live with one wife and raise and teach his children.

Children who never knew what it was to have a father were suddenly told they must honor, obey and respect their parents.

Skinner goes on to unpack the difficulty of emancipation not in a vacuum, but in the real pressures of the South and as the Black community began to spread out across the country, but just within the context of reading Scazerro and Skinner back to back, I was struck by some of the ramifications this would have on the African American community. When I speak to my more privileged friends, one of the things they are quick to point to is the continuing struggle of the family unit in African American communities to build a healthier system; they cite the high rate of incarceration, and even when not in prison, I have heard more than once that Black men are the weak link in the chain. But when put up against the backdrop of emotional health (which Scazzero would be quick to point out, even our churches don’t give much vocabulary or awareness to), the struggles to be a man who knows how to father and how to be a husband would be extraordinarily daunting. To be emancipated without a narrative of healthy would still be setting one up for failure, no? Or is the past simply the past?

Racial Reconciliation, Identity, and Emotional Health

Works of reconciliation don’t necessarily stir the emotions and none of the workshops I’ve attended or training materials I’ve read seem to correlate the two. But as my friend and colleague, Dante Upshaw, is a huge advocate for Emotionally Healthy Church and Spirituality, recently approached me about the possibility about working on a project tying the two together, I picked up Scazzero’s books again and began reading. Then I came across this passage in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality:

One very helpful way to clarify this process of growing in our faithfulness to our true selves in a new way is through the use of a new term: differentiation. Developed by Murray Bowen, the founder of modern family systems theory, it refers to a person’s capacity to “define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the pressures of those around them..”” The key emphasis of differentiation is on the ability to think clearly and carefully as another means, besides our feelings, of knowing ourselves. Differentiation involves the ability to hold on to who you are and who you are not. The degree to which you are able to affirm your distinct values and goals apart from the pressures around you (separateness) while remaining close to people important to you (togetherness) helps determine your level of differentiation. People with a high level of differentiation have their own beliefs, convictions, directions, goals, and values apart from the pressures around them. They can choose, before God, how they want to be without being controlled by the approval or disapproval of others. Intensity of feelings, high stress, or the anxiety of others around them does not overwhelm their capacity to think intelligently. I may not agree with you or you with me. Yet I can remain in relationship with you. I don’t have to detach from you, reject you, avoid you, or criticize you to validate myself.

MR Peter Scazzero. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash A Revolution In Your Life in Christ (Kindle Locations 850-858). Kindle Edition.

In a multi-ethnic context and a diverse society, this notion of differentiation is an important pushback to assimilation and the colorblindness that is promoted by many. This is the connection that keeps the tension between mono-ethnic and multi-ethnic churches vibrant and generative.

Cain Train Tryin’ To Maintain

Unless you have been living under a rock this week I am sure you have heard about the troubles of Republican front runner Herman Cain.  I really have no comment on the man’s politics as this is not a political blog.   What I have been fascinated by in this whole episode is the racial angle.  It is a classic representation of the flexible modern racial identity.  Self proclaimed hip hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen has stated that “being black is incredibly random.”   What does he mean by this?  Mainly that there really is not a predictable pattern to it. In the 21st Century the black identity can be incredibly paradoxical as well as slippery.  Cain’s posture in this episode is a great case study.

Let’s rewind to a little over a month ago.  Cain gives an interview to CNN where he states that “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.”   Concerning African Americans and the struggling economy he said, “They weren’t held back because of racism. People sometimes hold themselves back because they want to use racism as an excuse for them not being able to achieve what they want to achieve.”  This is post racial thought at its finest.  He is the black candidate with really no black constituency, which is not a shock with comments like these.

Now lets look at this past week when the news broke of the sexual harassment accusations.   Almost immediately the post racial GOP candidate plays the race card, answering columnist Charles Krauthammer’s question as to whether race had anything to do with the attacks by saying in part “I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it.”  Not a very post racial answer.  Cain is now experiencing the whole problem with taking a post racial stance, which I’ll define as the belief that in today’s world it is no longer useful to look at life through the lens of race. When one takes such a position it makes light of the complicated and bewildering reality of race in America.  It is ironic that when Cain finds himself in his first tough spot of his campaign his post racial world view goes out the window and out comes the race card, right off the top of the deck.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide why he is playing it.   But I will say that playing it in this situation is ambiguous at best.

One of the most dumbfounding experiences of my ministry career is when I heard a influential black pastor address an audience of close to 2,000 white pastors on the topic of race taking a post racial posture.   At the end of that sermon I was very nervous about how this man of color with tremendous influence was framing the issue of race. I can’t imagine how someone of color could even take such a position, but its becoming more and more common.   Bottom line is being post racial is operating under a flawed root assumption that it is possible for human beings (in particular Americans) to operate out of a space that isn’t racially influenced.

His observations concerning race were accurate in terms of his theoretical positioning of race not being biologically-based and that operating from racial lenses has caused many ripples of hurt, harm, and pain throughout the world.   Also, his theology on the subject was fantastic.   However, here was my main concern with his message.  Preaching from a post racial posture allows too much wiggle room for people, especially Christians, to claim racial innocence.  Operating under the premise that race does not matter anymore has the potential to be extremely dangerous as well as impractical.

What the preacher was missing is race is a cultural reality.  Cultural reality is just as relevant to the formation of our worldviews as the theological.  This is because culture is the space in which we form our values, attitudes, and beliefs about life.   There is no way race will go away because culture will never let it go away.  The lens of culture is permanent, and therefore the correction is not (in my opinion) to operate under the root assumption that race does not exist.  People then can say “well if it doesn’t exist, I don’t have to acknowledge it.”  And if you don’t acknowledge it, then there is no practical way for correcting the sin of racism.  Race does exist – culturally.

To take a post racial posture is an example of racial bargaining, a term used by many scholars who observe culture.  Racial bargaining is what we do (especially Christians IMO) to put ourselves at ease with the topic of race. This diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being Christian in a racially guilty society.  Here is a quote from scholar Shelby Steele:

“Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain — and feel affection for the bargainer — because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist.”

This is a strong statement.  However, I challenge you to not have a visceral reaction to.  Read it, analyze it, think through it, and pray on it.  Then make a decision about what this scholar is saying and how it intersects with your faith.   I have to wonder if this sermon would have been as well received if the audience was 95% African American, as opposed to 95% white.   I know of several situations where diversity efforts in Christian ministries have been derailed because of post racial posturing.

Our world is not colorblind as it exists  in full living color. Understand the differences, act on the commonalities, and let’s move forward.

If You Spoke Up, I Wouldn’t Have To

I have been called the “Angry Asian” on more than one occasion. I have earned looks of contempt from both Asian American brothers and sisters who feel as though I lack the patience and long-suffering of my forerunners and from brothers and sisters from other races who feel as though the mention of the “race” is like looking into the mirror and saying “bloody Mary” three times. Dang it, David, we were so close to making sure she was gone for good! It’s like trying to pick up after a three-year old, “Hey I just cleaned up over here. Can we keep it clean for one minute? PLEASE?!”

But if I get taken to task for asking a question about race and theology or race and the American church, it has an unusual effect. For one, I think there is substantial data out there that supports there are consistent differences in the experiences of people that correlate strongly to race. And I think they affect the way we look at church and continue to segregate ourselves in ways that are delusional and make the body of Christ look less unified to a world that is unified around money. At least they can boast a unity that we seem to have trouble with, albeit we tend to comfort ourselves with the verse that we cannot love both God and Money. We assume that we worship God properly as though it had no relation to our neighbor, and if it does, we need only change our neighborhood until we find neighbors worth loving. So in bringing up these issues, the rolling of the eyes or the “here we go again” look I get from my other brothers and sisters has the effect of making me feel like I’m crazy. Or that I’m misinformed. Or that I am making problems in the church rather than really buying into change.

But my point is that just this week, I came across an article that Asian students experience more bullying in school than any other ethnic demographic. Or did you know that Asian American teenage girls experience the highest rates of depression?

Or that Asian American youth experience the highest rates of suicide?

But if I say the church is complicit in this. That even our multi-ethnic churches are too busy celebrating diversity rather than casting out these demons. That many evangelicals shying away from the subject of race or dismissing it as liberal brainwashed victim mentality is hurtful and demeaning.  I’m just dismissed as angry or being antagonistic to our Christian unity, but I ask you, if I didn’t bring these issues before you, would you have brought them before the Lord and the church? If you spoke up on these demons terrorizing the part that is not your body, I wouldn’t have to. If you value me as a brother at all, then don’t dismiss me and other people of color as whiners about a broken system who throw out the race card or bluff as though this were all a figment of my imagination. If I didn’t speak up on these issues, would you have?

No Seriously, Put That Mask Down

It all started with this link about a campaign against ethnic costumes for Halloween, entitled “We’re a Culture, not a Costume.” The subtitle line reads, “This is NOT who I am and this is NOT okay.” You can see the one on the left and they have variations including a Native American, Latino, African American, and a Muslim holding up pictures of others dressing up as their ethnicity/culture for Halloween.

I posted the link to my Facebook page on Halloween day. No second thought, no real hitch in my giddy up, no undies in a wad, nothing. Just posted it. Thought it was great. It makes perfect sense to me.

And then a very thoughtful fellow Asian American female blogger, Letitia Wong, throws out this question, “why isn’t there a poster of a young man with a photo of a white redneck costume?”

And what ensued is an intense dialogue on my Facebook wall about reverse discrimination, whether white privilege / power is real or contrived, and who’s pulling what speck/plank out of whose eye. Here’s a brief snippet:

David Park Ah I see. But my point is that no redneck has ever been lynched and hung from a tree or had to march for civil rights. No redneck community that I’ve heard of has ever been quarantined for fear of a contagion or had to walk a trail of tears. So it doesn’t quite have the gut punch of categorical mockery to dress up as a white redneck. Does it?

Letitia Wong Of course when people (doesn’t matter what color) dress up as rednecks, it’s racist. It’s as racist as much as any of the posters claim racial insensitivity. Redneck ridicule just happens to be politically acceptable as much as it used to be acceptable to dress in black face and Charlie Chan. Reverse discrimination is just discrimination. As Chistians, helping people to move forward means at the very least putting racist sentiments behind us as relics of the past. Turning around and reliving a pain that for the most part most young people don’t experience (except that we tell them) is just going backwards. I could gripe about the fact that the first racial piece of legislation passed by Congress was to bar immigration of additional Chinese into the country, but what good would that really do to try to be angry at dead people and take revenge on the living? Why should I be offended at that? It is something that happened in the past, and the legislation was overturned. Why should I hold a grudge against people for something that never happened to me but that I identify with only as far as my skin color and race?I’ve heard some pretty insensitive things said about me and my race over my lifetime. Some of it was said in malice, but most was said in ignorance. I don’t think punishing people with political correctness and a false sense of shame (when a costume is just a costume for fun) necessarily has a positive impact when the posters broadbrush and say that any culturally-connected costume is racial insensitivity. If that is what they are going for, then I want to see the admonishment against Redneck costumes as well.
David Park Racial tension is not simply a matter what the other thinks of me. That does not account for the systemic nature of the imbalance of power and its abuse. That is reality. It defines reality. Think about it, this whole poster campaign is trying to bring dignity to cultures as opposed to intentionally or ignorantly put on another’s garb. But if a black person were to dress as a redneck, he would not project a mockery of rednecks rather he would convey at some level self hatred. If a native American dresses like a cowboy there is a sense of irony so great as to be absurd to his peers. That is why minorities don’t exhibit the problem that this campaign is addressing. That is the simple reason why this is not a matter of political correctness or reverse discrimination, the only people group that lacks the wherewithal to don some other culture’s costume on a day that kids become something grossly other, are people who are so privileged and entitled as to have never given thought to how to give other cultures dignity. Do they do so with malicious intent? Probably not but the problem is twofold: it perpetuates the ignorance and insensitivity of the offender; and secondly it makes the offended either internalize the message that they don’t deserve dignity or something we see in the Asian community a lot is a wholesale emulation of the majority. And we have the eyelid surgeries, the skin bleaching, the colored contacts, the nose surgeries, the bamboo ceilings, the rapid assimilation to prove that. It’s not just worrying about what the other person thinks of me, it’s far more real than that. You are right to say what freedom in Christ really is but we also know that God created the ethnos, the peoples of the world. So at the same time we are free from others expectations we also seek God’s intent for our race and ethnicity knowing that those dimensions can carry great missional potential in scripture. I agree we shouldn’t make idols out of it but neither do I think we should God is synonymous with the white American dominant majority.

Letitia Wong
 I think the term you are dancing around is “white power.” While I acknowlege that idea certainly exists, I disagree that we have a systemic imbalance of power that is designed to favor white people in this country. Our litigous society opens up many forms of power, and people use it well, so I can’t agree with the paradigm that our country continues to subsist on white priviledge. That unfairly prejudices all non-whites toward whites and *causes much of the tension, which is frankly more of the same problem that exists in the first place. In my experience, white people in general aren’t racists, and it is unfair to make them out to be.

When Jesus was talking about the kind of faith to move mountains, He wasn’t talking about mountains–he was talking about an entire paradigm shift that encompasses the powers that be. We cannot continue to ascribe racism to a group of people just because they are white anymore than we can say all Asians are nerds.

I stick to my statement that racial tension exists more in the mind as much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think if society were to ever achieve racial reconciliation, you have to first agree that such a thing is possible and then achieve it by changing your own *mindset (the plank before the speck) before the mindset of others. Without doing so, the perceived solutions will always be about power, and someone will always see an imbalance. Our society will be then locked in racial tension forever. When solutions are about our createdness, then we can talk about sin and true reconciliation. This is a problem that is only as deep as we make it.

I asked the question about excluding a “redneck” costume from the poster campaign. The answer I received was just as negative as the negative stereotypes the campaign opposes, and therein lies the problem. We all fall short.

Now if I take a step back from this tit-for-tat, I love how different perspectives are coming out that I had not heard before. We are both children of Asian immigrants, followers of Jesus Christ, and seeking deep racial reconciliation, but man, we can really look at Halloween costumes differently, can’t we? The challenge for us as reconcilers is to make sure that reconciliation is both the process and the destination. I am both part of the problem and part of the solution. My instincts are to absolve myself of any blame, and belittle the other or self-aggrandize, but the power of the gospel is to say, yes, I am part of the brokenness. Yes, I own that sin. Yes, I have racist tendencies and I am skeptical of those in power; but I am dying everyday to myself in Christ in order that there may be a new creation, so that I might know him in the power of his resurrection. By the way, death of the ego, even mild paper cuts to the ego, are incredibly painful so if you’re not comfortable in the process of reconciliation (even in a simple Facebook conversation), you’re probably doing it right.

I Love You CCDA, But We Gotta Talk

Now let me start off with a word of ignorance: I haven’t been around that long when it comes to Christian Community Development Association. I’ve been to the last three national conferences, been a part of a workshop panel, presented a workshop myself, worked a booth there, and been a part of a couple of soirees in the various cities. But yeah I admit it, I’ve only been to three. And let me also say that I “get” it. I like it and I admire it and I want more of it, but I gotta come clean, I do have a little beef with CCDA. I’m not a hater, but I got a few issues.

First off, I admire John Perkins and think he’s a great and godly man, but from the first year I showed up at national conference, I sensed a strong push to mythologize the man and his legacy. It sounded slightly cultish in the beginning and still feels weird when Coach talks about John Perkins the boy who vowed to love his White bullies and when others talk about his story as part of their own plenary talks – John Perkins this and John Perkins that. (Ironically, Perkins doesn’t talk about himself that much, but everyone around him seems to be rehearsing eulogies already).  Now I understand he’s important and integral to the Christian understanding of community development, particularly in evangelical circles. I get that he survived the Civil Rights movement and he’s from Mississippi, I get that, but the projection of the man for some reason makes me feel as though we are forgetting a whole host of other people who have given their lives for the work of reconciliation. We need not make a cult of Perkins just because there is this warped reflex in American culture to plaster someone’s face on a movement and to push the man into the realm of myth. This is dangerous to the movement in my point of view. Mythology about work that is profoundly incarnational and incapable of commodification makes the myth itself (and the object of that myth) a commodity. In other words, John Perkins the man and legend, becomes an idol, whom we all adore but rarely seek to aspire – similar to a Mother Teresa. We make them saints so we can remain pedestrians. Instead of being a path for practitioners to walk through, the myth becomes a sort of ceiling. Granted, I know that much of the ado about Perkins was because he was stepping down from responsibilities and intentionally lowering his profile, but as believers, I think we aren’t doing the movement any favors by wearing Perkins’ visage on our t-shirts and writing premature hagiographies. JP ain’t no JC, I know he knows that but do we?

Second, for as much diversity as the CCDA national conference has, which is awesome by the way. I’m still surprised by the fact that as long as the conference has been running, I only see the tips of the ethnic icebergs. What I mean by that is I feel like the minorities or even the majority represented there are in some cases the “early adopters” (to borrow language from the tech world). You say, of course, these are the people at the front lines of community development! But I say, this is a movement about 30 years old and it’s still only speaking to the periphery of ethnic consciousness? At some point, and maybe we’re getting close to that tipping point, if the tail is really substantive in what it is claiming, it begins to wag the dog. But I don’t see that yet. I don’t see people who are staunchly entrenched in Black identity (for instance, Jeremiah Wright’s crowd) being swayed by CCDA folk. And one of my personal heroes, Soong Chan Rah, I love the man and what he has to say, but he isn’t quite speaking from the heart of Asian American Christianity. Oh no, this is where the fragmentation of even American Christendom renders the potential influence of something like CCDA marginal or ineffective because while I believe in the groundswell of young, socially aware evangelicals, we have yet to really move the needle in our own communities. Which means to me that Christians talk big when no one else is around, but we don’t have as much impact as we dream of having when it comes to diversity as a whole.

Now I know I sound like a hater, but I’m not. These are just the impressions of a relative neophyte. I stand to be corrected, but hear me out. I love CCDA. I rep CCDA. I just gotta get it off my chest.

In terms of solutions, I would like to see John Perkins’ myth be more open to imitation as opposed to flattery. I know that’s hard to convey at the national conference level. Obviously, Perkins arguably is to CCDA what Steve Jobs has been to Apple, but that succession, that formation needs to happen and be more apparent soon. At the same time, there needs to be a deconstruction of Christian celebrity that runs counter to our culture’s bent to idolize him and even others like him. We need to somehow be able to platform failure and celebrate difficulty and pain with the same gusto as we platform success. We need to be able to see dysfunction and not look away — as Christ did with the woman at the well, as Christ did with Zaccheus; we need to stop looking at wonderful outcomes as always being caused by amazing people. Wonderful outcomes are caused by a wonderful God with ordinary, obedient, and faithful people. John Perkins is a giant in the faith, but God is fine with a John Doe too and CCDA needs express that sentiment, not just imply it. And then, we need to do some more soul-searching when it comes to tackling the subject of ethnic identity and its part in mission. The tension of black/white history in this country is still palpable and it brings power to the redemptive narrative that plays out in CCDA, but the various dimensions — Native American v. White; Asian American v. Black; Latino v. White. These dimensions need a more honest appraisal of how to shake the centers of solidarity within each ethnic enclave. I know that sounds ludicrous in a post-racial society and certainly race isn’t the only dimension, but it gives us a ready-made handle in which to approach communities without leaving the movement to some ethos of “random acts of kindness.” Intentional reconciliation should imply that we have a good grip on our self-awareness and identity. In other words, the more diverse a setting is, the more clear we have to be about what we are bringing to the table. CCDA has that potential but sometimes we are more about the work outside than the work inside. It’s natural of course, to work to meet the needs — but we also have to match our actions with reflection.

Don’t Forget to Represent!

CCDA 2011 Indianapolis was off the chain!

I’ve only been to three of these national conferences, but this one was the most enjoyable by far. Richard Twiss and Arthur Brooks were a couple of my favorite plenary speakers (you should definitely check them out!). Both of them literally had the entire audience of 3,000 breathless at some points in their talks. The focus of the conference was education, but because all the various aspects of society – family, economics, politics, church, and law – all play into the success of education, it didn’t feel myopic at all. What impressed me most however was the strong showing of women in CCD ministries. In comparison with other evangelical conferences that seek to build the body, CCDA is leagues ahead in attendance of women and minorities. It was absolutely refreshing to see that mix.

I was in particular awe of Arloa Sutter, whom I finally had the chance to meet and have lunch with; Jenny Yang, advocate at World Relief; and Dave Buehring, as my personal time with them was both refreshing and inspiring.

Also, I enjoyed a lunch with some fellow Asian Americans who were attending the CCDA conference, and though I love all my Asian brothers and sisters, I have to say I observed something unusual about the Asian Americans there. That is Latinos tended to represent Latino communities and African Americans generally represent African American needs; White folks tended to serve as bridge builders from White communities; but Asians…Asians tended to work in non-Asian environments. I thought it was a fascinating anecdote that many of us simply couldn’t connect Christian Community Development work with our own ethnic communities. What does that say about us? What does that say about our communities?

Just a question. But just wanted to ask what it means to represent ourselves.

I supposed I asked the question last year at CCDA, but I guess it struck me afresh this year.

Take a listen if you like and let me know what you think. Peace.


This morning I watched the morning talking heads analyze and debate The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen report Sunday that Rick Perry brought friends and supporters to a West Texas hunting camp his family leased that was called “Niggerhead.”   I’m not interested in the political ramifications as that should be obvious.  What I was observing was how people were making meaning of the situation from a racial perspective.

There were those who said that it obviously meant that Perry was racist.  Of course the Perry camp said they rectified the situation in an expedient manner, offering up Perry’s record on race to dispel the developing “Perry is a racist” narrative.  Others gave the “those were just the times” narrative and place the whole incident in the accident bin of history, not reflective of the present.   One racial incident with many perspectives.

This and other types of similar situations offer us great insight into how race operates in the post-civil rights era.  Dialogue around such incidents illuminate how in this era discussion concerning race and racism center around what is going on in people’s hearts, not necessarily the incident itself.   In the post-civil rights era racial motivations are murky, sending people on an expedition to find the hidden racial meaning of commonplace incidents.

It is a significant paradigm shift to comprehend.  For instance in my dad’s era if a black man was lynched for whistling at a white woman the focus was on the injustice of the action itself and there was nothing murky about the racial intentions.   In today’s world most of the time the incident itself is sort of a bystander to the broader debate.   Consider some relatively recent incidents (Prof. Henry Gates/Cambridge Police, Don Imus/Rutgers Women’s team, etc.).  To some these are serious transgressions.  To others they are trivial.  The only people who would have such a debate over a lynching would be maybe Neo-Nazi’s.

The framework of the broader debate centers around the question “does the incident at hand reveal racial authenticity within a person’s heart?”  That is what the talking heads were debating, not the incident itself.  Nobody disputes that it took place or that it was wrong.   I welcome these moments because in my opinion it furthers the conversation about race in America today.

Help Me

I know I’m late to the party, but here are my thoughts on The Help.   For full disclosure you should know that typically movies like this make my skin crawl.  Hollywood has a tired formula of creating movies in which poor, pitiful black folk are “rescued” by good meaning white folk (Blind Side, Radio).  Drives me nuts!  One of the things I loved about Remember the Titans is for once they put the main black character in a position of authority and courageous leadership.

Anyways my wife and daughter both loved the book so their word is good enough for me.   I did see a lot of the tired Hollywood formula, however I did like the display of one authentic truth:  The most effective way to cross racial barriers is life experience.   When people take the time to truly get to know one another as humans it has a powerful effect.   However the other thing that drives me nuts is evangelicals then take this truth and set up an either/or proposition when it comes to race and faith.

Besides viewing race through an idealistic lens they also have tendency to immediately bring it down to the level of individualism, inadvertently giving a pass on societal sins.   The pattern goes something like this:  we can overcome the intentional, debilitating  societal affects of racialization by merely being good buddies or acquaintances.  You can find exhibit A in this blogpost.   In it Natasha Robinson says “The new movie demonstrates that racial reconciliation happens not primarily through speeches and diversity training but through everyday friendships.”

Sistah I hear ya and I am sure you mean well, but no need to set up either or scenarios concerning reconciliation in my opinion.  How about friendships and speeches and diversity trainings, along with other things that actively interrupt racism on both the individual and the institutional level?   After all wasn’t the entire background of The Help about how these women were trapped by their race and gender because of racialization?  That is the context of how the friendships develop.

I am sure they appreciated having some white friends, but the thing that moved them closer to having some options in life besides just being the help was what came out of the friendships, which was Skeeter writing the book and telling their story as an attempt to interrupt the stifling institutional racism of Mississippi.   More Christians need to follow this example, as you’re not truly my friend if you don’t do something to help improve the quality of my life.

What It Means to Be Black

I just read an excerpt from cultural critic and essayist Toure’ s upcoming book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, due out September 13th.   In it he explores the meaning of race for the 21st Century African American.   From the excerpt I think he is entering some treacherous waters as I anticipate he will break some rules of blackness.  In the excerpt I read he already at least broke one, which is “thou shalt always show a united front around white folk.”  He seems to be openly wrestling with the meaning of his racial classification for everyone  to see.  Brave man!

One incident he talks about happened while he was a college student at Emory University.  At 2:30 am he entered into a discussion with some fellow black students concerning always being stuck with cleaning up after a party.  A linebacker sized black man who wasn’t even in the conversation silenced the whole room by shouting angrily “Shut up, Toure’!  You ain’t black!”   He talks about the embarrassment of being charged with being an Uncle Tom and reflects on the racial wrestling that followed.   Good stuff.

As our nation grows more and more racially diverse I think more memoirs like this will surface.  People who are paying attention know that our racial categories are undergoing a redefinition.  My life is radically racially different from my father’s – its not even close.    I remember one day driving around the campus of Miami University on a beautiful summer day with the windows down.  While at a stop light I heard and saw a young white man yell “What’s up niggah!?!”   Be rest assured that if my dad, while growing up in Anniston, Alabama,  had heard this while driving down the street he may have lost his life depending on how he responded.

Not me.  First I recognized the diction – niggah vs. nigger (“niggah” as a term of endearment vs. “nigger” as an insult is a post for another day!)   Looking out the window to see closer who this might be I found out the greeting wasn’t for me at all.  It was one young white dude greeting some other white kids in the car in front of me.  What is the meaning of that?  I have no idea, but I think it is time to explore the implications.