Race, Language, and Intent

Race, Language, and Intent

I once had a friend yell at me and call me a liar because I told him that a meeting he led had made others who were there “feel attacked” (something they had expressed to me). He’d asked me about reactions to the meeting, but he couldn’t accept the answer. He heard it as an attack on him – on his intentions and character – rather than as a report of impact and results.

While that particularly instance was extreme, I don’t think the confusion is unusual. It bothers us when what happens isn’t what we meant to happen, when someone hears something that isn’t what we meant to say. We want to be judged by our good intentions rather than by whatever somehow went awry between those intentions and the outcomes.

If we can take a step back, wisdom tells us that, while our intentions are important, they are far from the only contributor to what actually happened, especially when communication is involved. Context matters, and history is a part of that. Shared meaning and/or purpose is part of it – or not, as the case may be. But all too often, we want to believe that we can control more than we do, and that our intentions are the most important thing.

I see it happen most often when we’re talking about race. When something someone says or does is called “racist,” white Americans want to talk about what their intentions were, what was “in their heart.” And when told they are participants in “systemic racism,” white Americans tend to recoil. We hate the idea that we could be part of something we didn’t choose, something that flies in the face of our good intentions and the way we think about ourselves. Something we don’t want to be true, much less responsible for.

But what if it is true? What if, in spite of our good intentions, we are actually doing harm? Perpetuating harm we don’t intend?

It’s a terrible thought. And the only thing worse than thinking it is not thinking it.

The ways we tend to use language about race are all wrapped up in avoiding the thought. Stereotype. Prejudice. Bias. Bigotry. Discrimination. Racism. White supremacy.

We all recognize these words as negative. White Americans tend to see them as moral defects in personal character – bad intentions and ugly, false beliefs. Black Americans tend to see them as negative as well, but in more nuanced ways.

A stereotype is an idea, an over-generalization. “Black people are good at sports.” “White people like yoga.”  We can know a stereotype and not believe it.

Prejudice is a feeling. “Southerners make me nervous.” Bias is a tendency, an inclination for or against something. “I just like to date taller men.” We can be unaware of our prejudices and biases – they often function subconsciously and influence our choices and decisions in ways that may even undercut our conscious intentions.

Bigotry is believing a stereotype and being prejudiced against it. But people who are bigoted rarely see it that way; they believe the stereotype is really true and dangerous in some way, so they usually see their actions as simply protecting themselves. “Black people don’t keep up their homes, and if one moves onto our block, the value of my house will go down.” Well-intentioned people who are bigoted allow for exceptions: “That black family that moved into the neighborhood, they’ve actually got the nicest yard on the street!” For various reasons (social stigma, financial incentives, etc.) bigoted people may not actually act on their bigotry.

Discrimination is acting either in favor of or with bias against a person or group because of their perceived race. Discrimination can be indirect, particularly when we want to believe in our good intentions. “I’ve got nothing against black people, I’m just more comfortable dating men with a similar background to mine.” We can act on a racial stereotype even if we don’t think we believe it.

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races. White supremacy is also any system (social, religious, economic, housing, judicial, penal, educational, etc.) that reflects the assumption that white people are superior and gives them preference (even indirectly). That assumption may have been a part of the system from its inception – designed to implement the supremacy of white people; or assumptions of white supremacy may have been added to it along the way. Either way, those who continue to use the system are participants in white supremacy, whether they know it or not and regardless of their personal beliefs.  It is not the intentions of those participating in a system that create white supremacy; it’s the effects of the system. White supremacy is a system that results in the preferential treatment of white people.

Racism is a pattern of harms done to a group of people because of their race.  It is a persistent perpetuation of racial stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The key here is the pattern of harms. Racism is in the effects rather than the intent.

When I was a child, a black family lived across the street from us. I loved them the way a child loves neighbors – though the youngest children were several years older than me and too old to be playmates, they were always friendly to me, and the mother fussed over me and gave me my first popcorn balls (a magical Halloween treat from the days before homemade treats became verboten). When I was five or six, we invited the youngest two children to come to Vacation Bible School. As my mother drove us home that night, the three of us entertained ourselves with a game of I Spy. Trying too hard to be clever, I spied “something green,” and after they finally gave up, laughed as I told them the “something green” was the color of their skin in the glow of the dashboard lights. Appalled, my mother made me apologize and after we got home gave me a stern talking to that I didn’t fully understand. I just thought their different skin color was interesting – it didn’t mean anything to me yet.

But it meant something to them. However naïve my comment was (I won’t say innocent because, while I wasn’t trying to embarrass them for being black, I was trying to best them with my cleverness), it happened in a social and historical context that made it more than I knew. It fed into a pattern of harms. It was racist. I didn’t have to plant the seed of racism – that was done generations before me – but I blithely watered that seed, however unknowingly.

We want life to be more neutral than that. We want to believe we all start on an essentially equal playing field and we all have roughly the same ability to work hard and make something of ourselves. We don’t want to believe we are watering seeds we wish had never been planted.

The world we live in is made from much more than our intentions. Black and white American live with a history every day, a history of racism and white supremacy. If we are willing to step back and look, whatever we believe about our intentions, the pattern of results is clear. Like specks of color in a tweed woven with checks, exceptions are everywhere but the pattern is clear. Changing patterns requires changing the machinery that creates them. And we’ll never change what we aren’t willing to see.

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To Be a Woman

To Be a Woman

In 6th grade, I was an outcast.

It was nothing new; it’d been that way for several years by then. By 4th grade, the girls in my class at the Christian day school we attended had decided I was unworthy, and it stuck. As an adult I came to understand that I was their scapegoat – they projected all their own fears of rejection on me and cast me outside the camp. But at the time, I just knew that they despised me.

I didn’t wear the right clothes, or look the right way. I didn’t care about the things they cared about. I thought the things they cared about were silly and did little to hide it. (That didn’t exactly help.)

But I longed for friends. I was living as an introvert, quite contrary to my nature, and I longed to be seen – for my companionship to be enjoyed simply because I was myself.

One day at school, while a group of us were working on a special project, a couple of the girls included me in their play. They were braiding each other’s hair and trying different styles, and they began to brush my long hair and pull it into a complicated kind of ponytail, a new style for me to try.

I loved it. I felt alive. Part of the reason girls play with each other’s hair is because it can feel so good and be so relaxing. The pull of a brush, the tug of braiding, the focus of attention. It’s an intimacy, allowing another to shape your appearance, however impermanently.

I thought that, for whatever reason, the wall had cracked and a friendship had begun with these girls. I wasn’t so thoroughly on the outside anymore.

Then, as we were rejoining the rest of the class, one of them said something about the other girls maybe liking me now, with my new hair style, and it all came clear. I had merely been their project, an object of their pity. They wanted to change me so I would be more acceptable.

I fought back tears as I pulled that carefully worked ponytail apart.

I had nothing against the hair style, but I wanted to be wanted for who I was. Not because I’d changed something to fit in.

I became possibly the first of the hipsters in that moment in the early 80s. If it was popular, “in,” I despised it. And when the girls adopted something trendy – neon sweatshirts or black lipstick – I despised them for it.

There was little I understood about those girls, or most females really – particularly in groups. And while there were and are women in my life I love and respect and even like, I avoid groups and activities for women like the plague. There is nothing more likely to make me feel like the only alien on the planet.

But when I went to the Women’s March a year ago this weekend, I didn’t feel that way.

I didn’t go as part of any organized group, though there were many represented, and it didn’t matter. I hadn’t even particularly planned on going. I was meeting an old friend for breakfast that morning and had thought I could maybe go downtown to the march when we were done. He ended up deciding to go too, and by the time we got to the area, the Chicago march had been officially canceled due to the crowds. But it didn’t change anything.

The streets were filled with women of all ages and colors and sizes. A sprinkling of men were there too, most carrying daughters or pushing strollers. The signs made it clear that there were many concerns represented – all of the things women care about. Though the most common sign, “Keep your hands off my pussy!”, referenced the bragging claim of the recently elected president and asserted a woman’s self-possession. Her possession of a fully human self, with all the rights of dignity and self-determination that entails.

And for once, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of women, I didn’t feel like an alien. I felt no pressure – explicit or implicit – to fit anyone else’s idea of what it means to be acceptable as a girl, as a woman.

All I had to do was show up, as a woman, for other women.

And I marched, for hours up and down the streets of Chicago.

I marched for the women I know who were and are afraid every day. The women who are afraid because of the color of their children’s skin. The women who are afraid to go to a public bathroom, afraid they will be harassed or attacked because they don’t fit someone’s idea of what a woman looks like.

I marched for the women who are my neighbors, who are afraid their families will be torn apart by deportations. I marched for my nieces and great-nieces, for the daughters of friends, so that they would never believe that any man has the right to their body. I marched for the dignity and equality of my sisters. I marched for every little girl who doesn’t fit.

I marched for a lot of women I love who hated the very idea of that march.

I marched because we don’t have to fit anybody else’s idea of what it means to be a woman.

This weekend, women around the country marched again. Women around the country are running for office. Women around the country (and the world) are speaking up against harassment and abuse and their own silence in the face of the assumptions of men.

They aren’t marching because they can’t deal with these things – women have for millennia been figuring out how to deal with these things. How to survive. They, we, are marching because no woman should have to deal with these things.

And no woman should ever have to fit anyone else’s idea of what it looks like to be a woman.

Accumulating a Life

Accumulating a Life

I read an interview recently about how small, seemingly inconsequential biases can accumulate to create larger inequalities. Each time a man repeats and gets credit for a woman’s ideas in a meeting because we hear men differently. Each time a black child’s behavior is reprimanded more harshly than a white child’s because we see black children differently without even realizing it. Each time a job applicant is not pursued because of an ethnic name and our preference for the familiar. Small individual acts (“micro-aggressions”) add up to big impacts on both individuals and organizations.

Systems of wealth and credit, education, and the legal system all collect both privileges and discriminations, however small, into cumulative effects. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the impacts cross generations.

It’s a theory that helps us understand how racism and sexism function long after those explicit attitudes may have fallen out of fashion and faded. But it also helps explain much that that is beautiful and good.

Life itself, after all, is an “accumulation mechanism.” Each day builds on those that have gone before it. Each choice, for better or worse, wears the grooves of habit into our character and personality. Evil and hate and fear grow because of what we add to them. Love and kindness and beauty intervene because we do.

Our lives and our world become what we make them because of two things: what we add to them, and what we accumulate with.

So many decisions, acts, and words make up our lives – from what time I get up in the morning to how I great my neighbor on the sidewalk. What I spend, what I eat, whether I take the elevator or the stairs. What I choose to be intentional about and what goes on autopilot – and what kind of habits I’ve loaded into that autopilot. But things I have no control over make up my life as well – from what time the sun rises to how my neighbor greets me.

And there were things given to me before I even knew it that make up my life today. The genes and words of my parents, and their parents. The choices of teachers and friends and strangers, both living and long gone.

So many things come to me whether I chose them or not. But what I can begin to choose along the way is how I receive those things – how I sort them into meaning and significance, and whether I hold onto them or release them.

Consciously and unconsciously, we choose what to collect both of our own actions and the actions of others’. We sift words and acts, holding onto some and releasing others to oblivion. Much of this is unconscious. Early in life, the voices of family and authority – tempered by personality – teach us what to keep and what to ignore, and those filters function with a strong confirmation bias throughout our lives.

But life itself also gives us opportunities to flush out some systems and accumulate differently. Each day is new. Forgiveness and release can transform what has collected. Meaning can be reassessed and rewritten. And while we may never truly start from scratch again, we can change what we are accumulating.

That’s true for each of us as individuals, and it’s also true for us as a society. But that’s harder.

Because the filters that let some of us keep good things make others lose them. And the systems that give some of us room to make mistakes and grow don’t give others those same opportunities. Too many of us are only concerned with how the mechanisms for accumulation work for us, and we insist they must be working the same way for everyone else.

Principles can be deceiving. In theory, they work the same for everyone. But while in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice, there is. Principles have to be judged by their real impact across the board, on a broad range of individuals and an array of different situations.

Too often, in our lives and in our society, the most vulnerable are sacrificed – the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. And too often, we don’t even want to know it’s happening, so we let the accumulation mechanisms keep running without asking if we really want what they are collecting. If what it’s building are really our best selves and our best world.

Our best selves and our best world are worth building, if we can find the courage to try.

Promises Better Broken

Promises Better Broken

There was a man, the story went, who wanted to be a leader of his people. He was from a humble background and had known much rejection, but now he had an opportunity. If he could pull off a victory, he would be praised and appointed to lead. He made a promise about what he would do if he was successful, and when he won, he kept his promise.

That promise was to sacrifice the first thing or person to meet him when he arrived home safely and victorious as a burnt offering to God, and the first to run out to meet him was his daughter, his only child.

The man’s name was Jephthah, and the story is in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars debate what the text means and whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill his vow, or instead dedicated her to serve God and never marry or have children, much like a nun. But I was taught a “plain reading” of the text, and according to that reading, Jephthah – heartbroken – kept his vow and killed his child as a sacrifice to God.

That way of reading the text is consistent within the book of Judges. One generation removed from their own slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have conquered the land God led them to and began using the former inhabitants as their own slaves.

As the generation who won those victories die off, the people forget. They go back to old ways and worshiping other gods, straying from the God who was teaching them that child sacrifice and the burdens of divine bargains were not what he was about. Raiders terrorize the people, and they are desperate to protect themselves and their own.

The “judges,” leaders who periodically appear throughout this time to defeat the raiders, are all flawed according to the understanding of the time. Some, like Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, are morally flawed, and some bear flaws or curses of nature: Deborah is a woman, and Ehud is left-handed.

The moral of Jephthah’s story as I was taught it was to be careful what you promise God (and others), because such promises must be kept.

That’s not a bad lesson – avoiding rash promises is a good thing to do in any context. But the idea that bad promises to God or anyone else must be kept, regardless of the cost? That is a horrible lesson. I always found it deeply troubling that the same God who stopped Israel’s patriarch Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, would consider it more important that Jephthah keep his promise even if it cost his daughter’s life.

I don’t believe that understanding does reflect who God is. I believe it reflects just how much his people miss or forget who God really is. The God of Israel is not a God who values the keeping of bad promises – to himself or anyone else. As Jesus shows us, the God of Israel is one who is willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of loving others.

I’ve remembered this story a lot as I’ve listened to Republican lawmakers talk about why they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” For so many, it just comes down to “because we promised we would.” Keeping that promise is more important than the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. The principle trumps real people.

And I’ve realized, that’s just what I was taught (alongside many other voters), through Jephthah’s story and in so many other ways. We got God so deeply, tragically wrong. We believed in loving our neighbors, but we believed certain principles must guide and define that love regardless of the consequences to that neighbor (or ourselves). We were willing to die for those principles, but like Jephthah, we were also too willing to let others die for them. We just want that promise kept, regardless of the consequences.

Like Israel, those descendants of Isaac whose very existence was predicated on God refusing a child sacrifice, we so readily respond to fear and chaos and evil by embracing leaders who will make those sacrifices for the sake of principle. Principles are so much more straightforward than the messiness of loving people, of considering the needs of the most vulnerable before our own.

Some promises are better broken. Rash promises, surely. But even promises made thoughtfully and with the best of intentions can end up having devastating, unforeseen consequences. Those promises are best abandoned, but sometimes we want to cling to the principle we are convinced will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.

A wise and very humane person once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” The principles that work in theory can betray us in practice, and it’s what happens in practice that really matters. Following God, loving others, is always harder and messier than following principles. Than just keeping promises.

Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

When I turned 30, I gave myself two gifts: a colorful 1940s era vintage dress handmade in Paris, and finding my childhood pediatrician.

Dr. Dunn was my doctor from the time I was born until we moved to a different city when I was 8. I was prone to ear infections, so he saw me around ten times a year on average. We lost a lot of the men in my life through those years – my daddy, grandpa, and great-grandpa, and my “adopted” Grandpa Duggins, among others. Dr. Dunn was one of the few men who was reliably there through all of those losses.

And he was a wonderful man. A gifted pediatrician, Dr. Dunn was also a Shakespearean actor, collector of African violets, and a musician in a local, old time style band playing the hammered dulcimer. He had a full white beard and twinkling eyes. He was unfailingly kind to me, and I always looked forward to going to the doctor.

More than twenty years later, back in the city I was born in, I tracked him down. When I called and explained who I was, he was delighted I’d found him and invited my mother and I to visit him and his wife in their home. It was a lovely time catching up, and before we left they invited me to join their family at a fiddlers’ festival in the Carolina mountains later that summer.

I took them up on that offer, and spent a wonderful weekend camping with their large family and enjoying the old time music of the region. (Old time is traditional mountain music similar to bluegrass, but while in bluegrass different instruments take turns with the melody, in old time, the fiddle always leads).

It was a beautiful weekend, but it was a conversation at a picnic table one night that shifted something in me.

I was sitting with Dr. Dunn and a couple of his grown sons as they talked. It was 2002, not even a full year after 9/11, and the war on terrorism was never far from anyone’s mind.

“If we want to end this,“ Dr. Dunn said passionately, “Every time a suicide bomber blows himself up, we will bomb their entire family.”

I was stunned. “But what about the children?” I asked. “They’re innocent!”

“Their children don’t matter if they are threatening my grandchildren!” he declared.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man I had only known as kind and gentle, who had made it his life’s work to care for other people’s children, was ready to destroy children for his own grandchildren’s sake.

My head and heart were spinning, and for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe there could be something good in not having children of my own.

I always wanted children – at least one. I love kids. Nieces and nephews, my cousins’ children (one of their girls is the only child I’ve ever waited for in the hospital as she was born), the friends’ children who I’ve known and loved from birth, the neighbors’ kids playing on the beach a few blocks from my apartment.

None of the children I love are mine. And as I have come to terms with age and circumstances, I have accepted the reality that the children I love will always be other people’s children.

That’s something I’ve grieved, but there’s also a gift in it – it means that I can want for all of those children everything I would want for my own. There’s nothing I have to protect, nothing I have to lose, in doing so. Rather than having my maternal instincts captured by this one particular child of my own, every child calls out to the mother in me.

When I heard those words come out of my beloved doctor’s mouth, something shifted for me. Something opened up in the way I look at the world. I saw how the love of “our” children can become twisted into something that is toxic to “their” children.

And the world is full of endless “us and thems.” Once we begin, we will see the threat of “them” everywhere, and it is so easy to harden our hearts. It’s how we destroy each other – kill in spirit and then in flesh.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” must also mean “love your neighbor’s children as your own.”

The children of my friends and family. The children of the stranger. The children of parents who, like Mary and Joseph, brought their children far from home to a country where they could be safe to grow and thrive. The children of my enemies, even.

That day began a change in me – a change in how I look at the world, in how I understand and live out my faith, in my relationships, in my politics, in everything.

I don’t live and work to give a better life to my own children. I live and work to help give a better life and world to other people’s children. To children of every shade and nationality and religion. Children full of hopes and dreams and questions. Children I know, and children I will never meet.

But each of them is equally precious, all of these children who belong to other people.

Prophecy and Patterns

Prophecy and Patterns
When I was a kid, every classroom I was in had maps and charts that pulled down in front of the blackboard at the front of the room. Whether it was a Sunday School room or a classroom at the Christian school I attended, there was one chart I remember seeing most. It was a timeline of history that focused on the end of time – the “tribulation,” as we called it.

I grew up in the heart of Dispensationalism. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. We didn’t often talk about it by name. We just read the Bible the “right” way and “took it at its word.”

Dispensationalism was the first attempt at constructing a “biblical theology” – which doesn’t mean a theology based on the Bible so much as a theology which takes the whole Bible into account. But what we focused on most was “eschatology” – the study of the end times, particularly from the book of Revelation.

Dispensationalist eschatology tells a story, and a gripping story at that (as the success of the “Left Behind” series of books that was based on it illustrates).

There will come a time when a political leader will arise who is the very antithesis of Jesus – the “Antichrist.” He will convince people, including the people of God, that he is committed to their interests, and they will be grateful for him. But there are forces of evil behind him, and the people of God (along with everyone else) will be destroyed, except a remnant of those who resisted him and will be saved by Jesus in the end.

The Antichrist is a deceiver and manipulator who presents himself as a savior. But he is a false savior who is the very opposite of Jesus.

In the version of Dispensationalism I was taught, all the true believers would be raptured up into heaven before things got that bad, but the “rapture” isn’t part of the story Revelation tells.

The Antichrist was the boogeyman of my childhood, which is not to make light of him. He was (and is) a deeply scary figure to be taken very seriously.

Which is why I have been baffled to see so many of the folks who taught me about him support or at least defend Donald Trump over the past months.

I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Antichrist who brings about the end of days. The Bible speaks of multiple antichrists – false saviors – who will come. And Revelation is a unique genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature,” which should not be understood as straightforward prophecy in symbolic language.

More than a road map for the End, Revelation is describing a pattern for how God’s people – as well as everyone else – will be deceived and destroyed. Such leaders have come before, and they will come again.

I’ve just never seen a political figure in my lifetime fit that pattern like Trump. In his personal behavior, leadership, and in the powers behind him, what I was warned about is clearly on display, supported and defended by the very people who warned me. (And he hasn’t even tried very hard to cater to them.) He is a deceiver, ready to turn justice, right, and truth upside down and inside out to serve his own interests.

I don’t believe we are fated to see the pattern play out, though.

The other message of the Book of Revelation, the more central message, in whatever way you interpret the book, is that Jesus is King. Jesus is the Victor.

Jesus is the good news in a book full of dire warnings and deadly news.

And the people the Bible calls “the Body of Christ,” those who are willing to be “little Christs” (the original meaning of the word “Christian”) in this world, can be that good news in the face of any Antichrist that shows up.

Defending the voiceless and the vulnerable. Speaking truth in the face of power and privilege. Standing up for the kind of love Jesus exemplified – “to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).

The pattern will always repeat. But so does the good news.

Hidden Roots

Hidden Roots

The days when things felt good were the days when the systems of injustice and bias were already in the ground we walked on, the ground we built our homes and families and careers on. The ground we built our communities and churches and safety and sense of well-being on.

What we see happening – the rise of overt racism, the excusing of bigotry and bias, the anger of those who have borne it – these are not something new. They are the green shoots of those roots finally breaking the surface of the soil and showing themselves in the light of day.

We cut off the weeds of racism (or many of us thought we did), but we didn’t pull it up by the roots. And that root system spread. And because we didn’t see it above ground we thought all was well. We went about living our lives, even building good things, on ground that was pervaded with evil.

But the plants broke the surface of the soil again, here and there, and too many of us thought (think?), “The last vestiges.”

It’s far more than the occasional bad apple, far more than the isolated incidents we’d like to believe it is. Instead it is the outworking of the whole system of roots we’ve been building everything on all along.

Just because we were blind to it, didn’t realize, even meant well, doesn’t change the reality.

Yet we keep chopping at the weeds where we can see them, because we don’t want to think about what it would mean to dig everything up and clear the roots.

My folks live in the country (its suburban-ish country, but one of their neighbors is a horse farm with a rodeo, so…), and when my mother goes out to weed poison oak in their yard it’s no simple task.

It’s not the plants that are really the problem (though they are the reason she weeds with every inch of skin except her face covered), but the root system that produces them. It spreads from plant to plant, far deeper than you expect. And if you don’t get it all it spreads again.

The poison we see is the outgrowth of those roots. The poison hurts us and it needs to be cleared.

But the roots, the roots are under everything.