Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I am White, We are Black - Part 6: Cultural Differences & Wrap-Up

Where We Got The Name

We've called this blog series "I am White, We are Black" from the beginning, but we've never really explained why. This name came out of several conversations that we were having early on while planning out this content. 

As we were talking, I realized that Kevin kept saying "we" as he shared the experiences of black people across the nation and throughout history. Even as he talked about specific instances of racism enacted on individual people, it was as if Kevin saying that action happened to him personally. Then, when he would talk about "white people," I would almost immediately make a mental protest saying "It's not all white people. I would never do that."

Kevin was sharing deep feelings of personal and communal pain with me. My response was to think, "Well, I didn't do that." In the midst of these exchanges, we realized that a cultural difference between blacks and whites was making constructive conversations about race and racism difficult.

Our hunch was that African Americans tend to be more collectivists and whites tend to be more individualistic. So while African Americans perceive our current situation as a shared, ethnic history in which every black person is a participant, Whites see the same history as a story to be observed from the outside. 

As it turns out, our hunch was correct. Research shows that, at least when it comes to ethnic identities, blacks tend to be more collectivists and whites tend to be more individualistic. This is part of the reason so many white people feel like they are not to blame for oppressive systems or institutionalized racism - since they themselves did not make these happen, they are not responsible.

However, from the shared perspective of the African American community, they are still living in the after-math of slavery. The story of oppression is not just the story of individuals in their community, it is the story of their entire people. 

As you might imagine, these cultural differences have made reconciliation difficult and have often led to more conflict. When blacks are saying "we are being oppressed, stomped down, profiled, killed...," whites are saying "That's really sad, but I'm not oppressing you, I'm not stomping you down, I'm not profiling you, I'm not shooting anybody." Blacks are crying out for a change and the majority of whites are saying they're not responsible. 

Perhaps it would be helpful for whites to realize that, although we are individuals, we are a part of a community of people with a shared history. And our history as white Americans has set the trajectory for our black brothers and sisters in undeniable ways. It would be good for us to take part in corporate confession, just as the prophets of old did. We need to confess the sins of our people and start taking responsibility for making things better.

While I don't feel like I have the perspective to give in-depth advice to blacks on this matter, I do know that any cross-cultural communication class would teach you that when you want to communicate across cultural differences, it's important to keep the other person's cultural perspective in mind. Some how the problem has to be expressed in a way that acknowledges the systemic weight without putting individual whites on the defensive. 

Us whites, as individualistic as we can be, can become very defensive when we feel like we're being accused of something immoral. And, while we do share in our own cultural story, we have a hard time seeing that. The moment I feel like I have to defend my own honor or integrity is the moment when I start back peddling rather than moving forward to make a positive change. Kevin had a good example of a way he's changed his own communication in Part 5 - clarifying "racist whites" instead of "whites" as responsible for certain actions.

Blacks and Whites: We have to come together on this. Whites need to become more collective in our racial identity, and Blacks needs to respect the individualist perspective in order to draw whites into meaningful conversations. We both have to move towards the other if we want to bring the Kingdom of God to our country.

Some Concluding Thoughts from Kevin

1 John 4:11 says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” As believers, if we’re honest, we have a difficult task of loving not just those who love us, but even those that don’t have our best interest at heart. If we were to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus Christ, we would have failed in the unconditional love department. However, the act of loving unconditionally is a process.

No one can jump to that level of love over night. We, as the children of God, have been commanded to love and forgive ALL people as He has done for us.

Throughout the duration of this blog series, Keith and I have shared our thoughts and experiences concerning culture and race. We learned some valuable lessons and gained knowledge through experiences. But, could you imagine how we would have turned out without having a relationship with Christ? Things would have definitely turned out differently for both of us and we would have lacked the love of Christ and the fruit of the spirit to accept the things we may not understand. Again, that isn't an easy task, especially for people like myself that have personally experienced acts of racism.

However, what those of us that are within the body of Christ can do is show the world what heaven looks like, but on earth. Invite other ministers that may not look like ours to our holiday gatherings. Come together and do street ministry to reach the lost. Bring our children together for youth events and show them what it is to love those that don't ok like them and learn about their cultures. Have small group ministries intentionally built around conversations about race.

Diversity in the body of Christ must be the norm, not just reserved for special occasions.

Overall, we must remain focused on the mission Christ exemplified during his 33 years on earth, to spread the father's love. It was His mission and should be ours as well.

Upcoming Resource

Nazarene Theological Seminary's Center for Pastoral Leadership is partnering with Youth Front to offer More Than "Getting Together": Youth Ministry and Race on December 1, 2016. This is a great opportunity to continue having significant conversations about race and the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I am White, We Are Black - Part 5: Individuality and Racial Stereotypes

An Introduction from Keith

In part 3 of this blog series, I reflected a bit on one way that white people can be racist without realizing it: Stereotypes. Here, Kevin shares his perspective on being on the receiving end of these stereotypes and generalizations.

Generalizations and Individuality

The generalization of ethnicities is a very inaccurate way of viewing a group of individuals; whether it is concerning their strengths or weaknesses, stereotyping is never a good idea. As I’ve grown, one important aspect of how I view others is through the eye of individuality. I celebrate individuality because it allows the beauty of the person, the garments they wear, gifts, and the skill set in a person to shine and not be compared to anyone else. Generalizing a group of people simply because a number of persons in that group committed an act that was unacceptable or unlawful sets a tone or standard of opinion that can quickly become harmful. It can create an oppressive act to maintain the group of people simply from the unwise choice of what only a small percent of them did.

POC (People of color) in America have more than often been categorized as the same: lazy, uneducated, poor, fatherless, violent, or doesn’t respect authority. These false perceptions excepted as reality are most times never seen with the person’s own eyes or experienced themselves, but from the comfort of their home through local/world news and stereotypical roles black people play in movies (the killer, robber, fatherless child, and single mother on welfare living in the inner-city). From the roles of these fictional characters, fears are created and carried throughout the lives of those that now only see people of color as possible robbers and killers. Do POC commit crimes? Yes! But, so do people from all ethnicities.

Throughout the history of America, POC have had to fight together to be free from slavery, treated as equals, and fight for justice.  When one black or brown person breaks the law, it’s like we all did it in the eyes of others. You can sit in any black home and feel the tension when watching the news, waiting on the name or mug shot of the person that committed the crime as we hope and pray that they weren’t black. We don’t want anything else to add to the false perception that black people are dangerous or a thief.

Depending on where you shop, you may be followed by employees no matter what color you are. However, being a black man, I’ve experience racial profiling more times than I can count. It got to the point that when I would go shopping with my (white) best friend, I wouldn’t want to go into this particular jewelry store he shops at because I already knew I was going to be followed… again! Think about it. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I were poor or rich, but they saw the color of my skin and within seconds made a conscience or subconscious decision to see me as a potential thief.

In this 2009 movie, stereotypes about
African Americans and gang activity
cost one undercover police officer
his life.
I don’t want to be compared to the black man that robbed you, or that robbed the person in the movie you watched the night before seeing me. Just like any white person wouldn’t want to be seen as a person that will go shoot up a movie theater or an elementary school full of children, I want the same level of respect. However, the difference between the two is that I will be compared to the scary black man from the news that did a drive-by, but the white man standing next to me won’t be seen as another Dylann Roof. White people are seen more as individuals. Actually, they demand to be seen as individuals and their demand is usually complied with. POC have to fight for that same level of decency.

I, too, have had to learn when voicing my comments concerning racism not to just say “white people”, it gives the notion that I’m talking about all white people, but instead when discussing this serious issue to clarify who I’m talking about, “racist white people”. Being more specific separates them from those with greater values and a love for ALL people. Grouping all white people together is just as wrong when it’s done to POC.

So generalizing any group of people from race, class, skill trait, or country is a close-minded way of viewing others and the possibility of what they as individuals can offer to the world. We all have something that is a favorite of ours: a type of food, television program, author, or musical artist.

Biologically we all have different finger prints and cresses in our hands that can only identify us as an individual. We all have different interests, morals, and spiritual beliefs, and even if we do share some of those aspects of beliefs, we may go about them differently.  There are so many things that separate us from ever being exactly the same.  That is why I believe it is unfair and unfortunate for humanity to ever group a class or race. We defeat ourselves in so many ways by not celebrating and embracing the individuality of others.

Monday, November 21, 2016

I am White, We are Black - Part 4: Oppression in Isaiah and Jesus

I've been teaching a class called Isaiah's Christmas at church for several weeks now, studying the book of Isaiah and how the New Testament writers took those themes and applied them to Jesus. It has been fascinating to dig so deep! Unexpectedly, I've learned some significant ideas both from Isaiah and the New Testament about oppression.

The first idea comes from the very first chapter of Isaiah. Before we jump in, here's a brief summary of the book:

Isaiah 1-39 is Isaiah's warning to Israel that they need to turn back to God (more information to come) or else their nation will be destroyed. God was right when he called Isaiah in chapter 6 when he tells Isaiah that they will listen, but never hear his words and turn and be healed. In other words, they were so far gone that when they heard the rebuke for their actions, they weren't even able to receive it.

Isaiah 40-55 was likely written by Isaiah's disciples, some 150 years later after Israel has been taken into Babylonian exile, promising that God will come back and lead them back to Jerusalem and it will be a city of peace & justice for all nations. 

Isaiah 55-66 is a more developed picture of this new Jerusalem.

Through Isaiah, God makes several accusations against Israel. One of these accusations is that they keep turning to political ideas and military alliances for their hope rather than God (Am I saying that they were wrong to put their hope in the strength of their military and their government instead of God? Yes. Yes I am). One other main theme of an accusation can be found is Isaiah 1:

When you spread out your hands in prayer,
   I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
   I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean.
   Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
   stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
   Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
   plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Although the people kept up many of their religious practices, they weren't pleasing to God because they weren't taking care of the poor and oppressed. Some scholars explain that the people, when they were owed a debt that the person could not pay back, they would take them to court. If they still could not pay off the debt, they (along with their family) would be sold into slavery. This was specifically troubling because they were doing this to people who were already poor and oppressed. 

They were using the justice system, but were not living out justice. They weren't acting illegally, but they were not living out how God intended for them to live in community. 

What these words from Isaiah say to us is this: When we don't defend the oppressed and provide for the powerless, we not only rob them of justice. We also put a barrier up in our own relationship with God.

Jesus is faced with a similar issue in the New Testament. Consider the pharisees who, although they were not priests, were voluntarily living by the holiness code developed for Levitical priests. They believed that if they lived to the letter of the law, God would intervene on their behalf and drive Rome from their land. Their land, which was the Promised Land guaranteed by God in the Old Testament, was a material reality that symbolized their relationship with God. It was so important to the pharisees to be able to live freely in the land that they tried push everyone to live out the Levitical code. Those who didn't - tax collectors, prostitutes and any other 'sinner' - were ostracized from the community. To converse with them, or especially to eat with them, would contaminate a pharisee's holiness and make him unclean. 

This is why the pharisees were astounded when Jesus and his disciples voluntarily ate with these people. The pharisees, whose motives and actions flowed from holiness and a desire to be in right relationship with God, could not believe that Jesus was God's anointed one when gave up the holiness law to eat with the oppressed. Jesus was jeopardizing their perception of the only chance they had to get God to move. 

Just like in Isaiah, the pharisees not only oppressed people with practices, but also damaged their own relationship with God by not caring for these people.

I do not believe it's too far to suggest that we can learn something about racism from these stories. Racism, our perspective and actions that make certain ethnicities lack value or opportunities, is our modern day expression of oppression in the United States. When we do not defend the people from whom our communities and systems have removed some degree of power, we are continuing at best (and helping at worst) that oppression continue. While we may not be liable in the justice system for hate crimes or slavery, we are not seeking justice for people around us.

When we see that injustice is happening, but do not take action to to "Defend the oppressed/Take up the cause of the fatherless; please the case of the widow," it is our own relationship with God that takes the hit. We cannot both knowingly let injustice continue and genuinely seek God simultaneously. 

I don't have time to tell you of all my examples working with families in Kansas City, Kansas. Stories of parents without college education who work long hours to provide for their families at dead-end, low paying jobs. Their kids, without their parents at home because of their work hours, grow up barely making it in school and without academic or emotional support at home. Eventually, if they're lucky, they graduate high school, but college was never even mentioned around their home. They have to go to work to pay the bills. These young adults have never heard of a checking account or a savings account, because they're used to living pay check to pay check. There was no savings. If they want a car, they might have to buy it from a "buy here, pay here" place with 17% interest on their loans. If they lose their job or get hit with an unexpected payment, they may find themselves at a title loan company, either losing their car or paying even more interest. This is only just barely scratching the surface.

These people are the oppressed. Telling them to "manage their money" or "move somewhere else' are not helpful suggestions. They don't have money to manage, and they definitely don't have the motivation to move away from their families and community - the only support they have. There's not education (either formal or life-lessons), there is not capital, and there are not social connections that is passed from one generation to the next. These families need someone to defend them.

Did you know that almost half of all black children in the United States live below the poverty line (less than 15% of white children do). 

Jesus himself quotes the prophet Isaiah in his first public ministry, according to the Gospel of Luke. He says:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

This was the outline for Jesus' ministry. When the Word became Flesh (John 1:14), the rule and reign of God broke into our world and began setting things right. If we want to continue to see this picture of the Kingdom of God develop in our world, a picture where the poor get to hear good news and the oppressed are set free, we have to continue to challenge our own stereotypes and take action to bring real justice into our world.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

I am White, We Are Black - Part 3: I am [not] a Racist

I read a story on Facebook recently about an African American woman at a nice butcher shop, ordering fine cuts of meats. A white man, standing in line behind her, says under his breath "I hope she knows that they don't take food stamps here" to his wife. The African American woman turns around and says "You want to say that to my face?" The man was surprised, but not as surprised as his wife.

She immediately apologies, "I'm so sorry Kiwana. We're not racist or anything." The African American recognizes the white woman as someone she had interviewed for a job earlier that day. She gives the man an earful about how she's the one with a job and his wife is not. The wife reiterates, "I'm so sorry, we're not racist...I guess I won't be getting that call about the job." The African American woman looks at the couple and says sternly, "You are racist."

This story moved me to realize that many American's don't really know what racism is. We often think that racism is a strong feeling of hatred or animosity towards another race and that this hatred is expressed by institutionalized separation of opportunities (voting, segregated schools, white business and black business, etc.). While this is racism, it's not the only form of racism.

Racism often reveals its ugly head in the form of stereotypes. We take something that might be true of one person in a group and apply it to the entire group. For white Americans, most stereotypes about blacks are negative: Lazy, entitlement mentality, uneducated, violent, and the list goes on and on.

I already shared a little bit about my own journey with racism. I have never felt any feelings of hatred towards my black brothers and sisters. I am guilty to stereotyping them though. I take facts that might be true about some blacks and apply them to the whole people group. In that way, I was racist.

The problem with stereotypes is that they can end up leading to hatred or self-fulfulling prophecies. If we believe black people are uneducated, lazy people we're going to create an environment where that sort of life-style is provided for. If we believe all black people are violent, hateful people we live in fear of them. These stereotypes lead to a systematic, institutionalized racism.

The best cure for negative stereotypes is building relationships. When you see a person who is different than you - whether a different race, age, socio-economic status, personality or something else - the first step is identifying when you're labeling that person with a stereotype. The second step is to set that stereotype aside and get to know the person as an individual. Build a genuine relationship with him or her and see what that does to your understanding of the group as a whole.

Another problem with stereotypes is that they can be based in reality, but are usually mislabeled. Millennials, for example, are oftened stereotyped as a generation who is not loyal to their place of work because they change jobs often. The reality is that millennials do tend to change places of employment more regularly and readily that some generations before them. From a millennial's perspective, though, it's not out of disloyality, it's motivated by other things we value: meaning in our work, transparency from our employers, means to provide for other activities that are important to us, etc. So, the reality that millennials change jobs is true, but it is actual because there are other values that millennials find important. It's mislabeled in the stereotype and applied to a group of people.

In the same way, stereotypes we apply to a people group might be based in reality or true for a small population, but it's likely just that we've labeled an activity negatively because we haven't taken time to understand it from their perspective.

Many of the stereotypes that white people use (like lazy or uneducated), my black friends have explained that those are because of the systematic racism white people have implemented for the black population. Broken welfare and education systems keep blacks "in their place."

Us white people who don't have a direct role in developing political systems then make judgments about those who live under their rule. We'll talk a bit more about this in the coming days.

Main Takeaways: Withhold stereotypes, build personal relationships, seek understanding, see what you can do to change the systems

Friday, November 18, 2016

I am White, We Are Black - Part 2: Kevin Reflects on #BlackLivesMatter

When you care for someone, they matter to you – their opinions, safety, health and much more. These things aren’t just important to you, but are priorities. When someone matters to you, when you hear their cry, you rush over to tend to the need at hand and do your best to assist in preventing it from happening again. These are just a few actions that take place when someone you respect and care for matters. Sadly this hasn’t always been the case for black and brown people in America. Instead of knowing that we matter, the justice system and government has failed us in many ways to the point where we’ve had to remind them that we still bleed red and that we, too, matter.

In 2012 a young man by the name of Trayvon Martin was murder by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was later acquitted on second-degree murder. What was Martin doing, you may ask? He was walking home (while black) from the store, rushing to get back home to watch a football game with his father. The outcome of this case was one that shocked the world.

Once the world saw Zimmerman walk away a free man, social media went crazy. The hash tag #BlackLivesMatter became a popular proclamation. People all around the world came together and started marching and committing to other acts that demanded change in our justice system and chanted “Black Lives Matter”. BLM matter soon became an organization that advocates for black and brown people many places across the globe. This movement has been a vital asset for the unlawfully killed black and brown individuals that no longer have a voice. So many unlawful deaths happen daily on the streets from law enforcement and citizens, but don’t always get news coverage. BLM created a platform to speak for those who no longer have a voice and fights for justice to be had for them.

Since the growth of the BLM movement, they’ve been celebrated by some and hated by others. Some have even categorized them as a hate or terrorist group, which makes a very strong statement about how black and brown people are looked upon when they stand up for themselves in America. For some white Americans, the sight of a group of black people doing anything good or bad scares them. Some just fear and stay silent, others, in fear, actively work to jeopardize whatever it is that the group is doing.  The sight of black and brown people in America standing strong and fighting the system and demanding change has always been problematic in American history.

Since the murder of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has reached its peak and other times have had to defend its cause. However, if it weren’t for this organization, many black and brown people that were murdered unlawfully would have just been another unknown case. There is so much more I can say about this organization, but I believe their work speaks for itself and is honorable. As a black man, I appreciate what the BLM movement has done within the black and brown community. I’m very aware of the fact that I, too, can be a hash tag tomorrow with an unknown case. So to the Black Lives Matter Organization, I say thank you for knowing that I matter and reminding the world daily.