While thousands protested and marched since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, I was blogging about church unity, worship theology, and young clergy issues.
While in the past 10 days three unarmed black men have been killed by police, I was on vacation.
While an AME Pastor Lamkin was offering support for protestors and was shot with a rubber bullet, I was tweeting complaints about how long it took for an airport shuttle to pick me up from that vacation (a whole 38 minutes, people!).
I am the embodiment of a hard-hitting article on OnFaith with the subtitle:
As white Christians debate who’s going to hell, the black community is already there, and nobody seems to give a damn.
Yup. That’s me.
And yet whenever there’s an LGBT issue in the United Methodist Church or in society, it’s all I can tweet, blog, and update about. I dominate the social media sphere, engage the critics in long twitter streams, champion the leaders and the prophets, and use my bully pulpit to cut through LGBT issues and faith with ease and dexterity.
I don’t get it.
I’m a straight, white male.
Why is it easier as a straight ally to write on LGBTQ issues, but harder as a white ally to write about racism?
Just Sit it Out?
Perhaps I don’t need to answer the question. People are speaking out.
- Bishop Minerva Carcaño is the President of the General Commission on Religion and Race and she wrote a letter. She’s infinitely more qualified than I am to write about Ferguson.
- My African-American friends have been writing blogs or reposting links.
- Even my friend Kenneth Pruitt–who has been tearing it up on Twitter and Facebook–is more qualified as a white dude who lives in St. Louis.
Maybe we all have our roles to play and this one isn’t mine. I can just sit it out, sharpen my words for when the LGBT questions come up again, and come roaring in on my pet issue like a lion on fire.
What value is it for white people who are ethnically and geographically removed to speak up about Ferguson when it seems like everyone else has better things to say?
Everyone’s Voice = Every One’s Voice
One of the deans at Boston University School of Theology–my alma mater–is Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey. She’s currently in Ferguson videotaping encounters with police and protestors (check out the videos on the RMNetwork feed). I asked her about my predicament and here’s what she said.
“Many black people are stunned at what is going on in Ferguson and don’t have words, so I appreciate the reticence of white allies to speak up. However, all our voices are needed at this time in Ferguson. Now is not the time for segregated vocal pockets.”
– Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey
When I don’t speak up, I help turn the response into a pocket and not a whole garment of the human experience crying out for justice. Imagine if these issues were just seen as “their” issues:
- What if only African-Americans in a town speak up about police brutality…
- What if only Hispanic-Americans in a border town speak up about children being imprisoned…
- What if only Arab-Americans speak up about being profiled by the TSA…
- What if only homeless people speak up about inhospitable spikes on park benches…
To stand in solidarity only on our pet issues makes the entire seeking of justice more narrow.
Towards A Unity of Diversity
Indeed, the truth is that cross-cultural and multi-ethnic approaches have yielded better results to combat systemic discrimination.
Deepa Iyer writes at The Nation:
Coalitions such as Communities United for Police Reform in New York City provide hopeful examples of how organizing black, brown and interfaith communities can lead to legislative victories that maintain public safety, civil rights and police accountability.
Police brutality is just one symptom of this country’s larger structural racism, which segregates our schools and cities, increases the poverty and unemployment rates for people of color, has psychological consequences for families and young people, and decreases our life expectancy. African-Americans disproportionately bear the brunt of this structural racism, but it affects many immigrants and other minorities as well.
In order to transform our communities, all people of color must find common cause in each other’s movements.
Allies need to speak up, whether it is about LGBT, racism, sexism, or other forms of oppression. Unless we stand together and support one another, no matter how strong our engagement of our -ism, discrimination will be only be overcome with allies across borders, perspectives, and places. The structure–what Walter Wink called the powers and the principalities–can only be overcome by unity across diversity, not a diversity of disparate voices speaking out against their own oppressive pockets.
Niemöller was wrong
In closing, people know the quote from Martin Niemöller regarding the Holocaust, right?
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It makes seeking justice into a self-serving enterprise: that I should support my brother in his struggle against discrimination because one day it might come for me.
That’s not what we are called to do.
We are called to seek justice because that’s what Jesus would do. It may never have any benefit for us personally: we seek justice for the other because that’s the right thing to do. Anything that we gain is wholly secondary. On my website, “Justice” is categorized under “Theology” because I believe we seek justice out of what we believe about God, the Divine, the “More” of the universe…not out of self-serving ends.
Indeed, it’s not what we get–it’s what we’ve already gotten that matters. People like me should also do these things because white men have already benefitted from the discriminatory systems. As Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobar-Frank articulate in Jesus Insurgency:
Structural racism is a form of hegemony that normalizes and legitimizes historical, cultural, institutional, and interpersonal dynamics by routinely giving advantages to whites, while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. (page 79)
Sorry Niemöller, it has nothing to do with me and my future injustices. It has to do with the past injustices that I’ve benefitted from and continue to benefit from with or without my knowledge. My past, present, and future is bound up in the struggle against discrimination in all its forms.
This entire post has been about me and my excuses and my thought processes. Yes, I’m aware. My hope is that in focusing on me that it has also been focusing on you and your reticence to speak up.
If you share the above concerns, I invite you to speak up, to make a case, to share that post, to tweet that link, to have the conversation, to talk to your neighbors, and start making other people’s injustice into your injustice. By standing together, no one will stand alone.
Quick question: I am trying to share this on Twitter, but it looks like I will have to copy and paste the URL because I don’t see a share to Twitter (or FB) option. Any plans on adding this? Or maybe I’m just missing it.
I agree that we must speak up and have for many years. However, one of the challenges has been that for many years the rhetoric around civil rights especially around race and gender has painted white males as the enemy. This has been effective as a mechanism of rallying support among minorities and women but has also been off putting for many white males who share a commitment to social justice for all. What makes it easier for one to speak up for LGBT rights is that the LGBT community has avoided demonizing straight people and instead has reached out to them as allies. And this effort is producing results. In recent years I’ve seen a change in the rhetoric around civil rights to recognize the importance of allies. Hopefully this change will continue.
Anne in Colo
One problem dominant cultures have in being allies to minority cultures is we show up with all the training of our dominant cultures (“I need to speak” “I need to tell my story” “I need to be seen”) and our attempts to ally end up making the event about us instead of them.
I would say we, as white people, should be asking how we can surrender our privilege in service of those who are actively being oppressed. Marching and protesting are important, but what are we doing to protect people of color from the police departments we fund? How are we working to change the system?
Anne, it has been my experience that when we have studiously undertaken behavior such as you describe, persons of color have upbraided us (rightly, I believe) for paternalist/maternalist behavior. I firmly believe the way we can work is … together. My black and brown brothers and sisters are not seeking protection – they are seeking a voice and a seat at the table. We do that by doing those things side by side – having each others’ backs instead of feeling like protectors.
Dr. Dorothee Benz
Great start. Good self-awareness. On to next steps! I suggest relaying some of what is happening on the ground to your readers. If you read some of the first hand reports and look at the livestreams, it’s mind-boggling the police abuse and provocation going on. Debunk the mainstream media narrative about “unrest”; explain that what we are seeing is systemic racism and state repression. I think everyone, every ally, has a responsibility to help tell the truth about what is going on.
I think you should do a little more research on why Martin Niemoller made his famous “First they came…” statement. He was complicit in the rise of National Socialism, even an advocate in it’s earliest days, and then had to struggle with the monster that had inspired him. He spent 7 years of his life in a concentration camp fighting the racial evils of the Nazis’. There’s a hell of lot more sentiment wrapped up in his thoughts than “that’s stupid.”
We should be recognizing the great contribution of Niemoller, and other’s like him, in a past struggle of race that still continues. His actions weren’t “self-serving,” but rather deeply personal.
Thanks for the context. I’m less concerned with how Niemoller used the statement than how people who are quoting Niemoller today see his statement as applying to the current reality. But you are right that I could have been more clear that my concern is the present quoting of Niemoller than the actions of Niemoller himself.
Really? So what did you mean by the big bold subtitle: “Niemoller was wrong”???
Your misunderstanding/misapplication of Niemoller undermines your very argument.
In the end, my point is don’t be so quick to through a brother pastor, who suffered a hell of lot more than you or I, under the proverbial bus!
Well, I was grudgingly content with admitting you were right. But if you are going to belabor the point…
Niemoller’s quote does not acknowledge how he benefitted from the system, only that when he turned on it (too late) it affected him. That makes it self-serving, no matter what forms of hell he went through to learn it (and then teach us – which we rightly appreciate).
The sentiment (expressed in the Ferguson discussion) that “we need to help others because we may need help someday” is what I’m arguing about because it has a lack of acknowledgement that white people (like me) have already benefitted from the system.
No matter what I say about Niemoller, the argument stands that seeking action based on possible future need without acknowledgement of past benefit is an erroneous position for a white person to take.
Again you show your absolute ignorance of Niemoller’s work, and the context he was existing in when he said it.
We both know that context is as important as a literal translation.
Can you not admit that you overstepped?
I don’t mind admitting I overstepped and misdirected my (valid) frustration from the origins to the current application. I should have written “people who quote Niemoller in the context of Ferguson do so in a self-centered way and without regard to their past privilege.”
It’s the application of the quote to Ferguson advocacy that I find more erroneous than my misgivings about the quote itself. I haven’t heard any critiques of that argument yet in this conversation.
Great article.. i just wondered if the sites admins knew one of the banner ads at the bottom goes to a shockingly racist so-called Christian site? “Race Realism and Christianity”.. It’s so backward and vile I at first thought it was a spoof. . Might want to address that.. Thanks and G-d bless you! !!
Gross. We have good filters but sometimes things slip through. Will look into it. Thanks!