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.

The Children We Owned

The Children We Owned

When I was growing up, one of the things I loved about visiting my grandmother in West Virginia was when she would go to a cabinet in the front room and pull out a box. She’d open the box and very carefully take out a handmade, handwritten cloth-bound book. It was about thirteen inches tall, maybe eight inches wide, around two inches thick, and inside it’s cover, in penmanship that looked like it came off the Declaration of Independence, was the name of my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Fields.

James was a Virginian, a tobacco farmer and the son of a tobacco farmer. The book is a collection of math lessons. It’s full of tables and measures and problems, including:

30 Days hath September
April June and November
All the rest hath 31
Except February hath 28 alone
But when of Leap year it doth combine
the time when February hath 29
for February its fourth year doth Come
Does gain a day from the Traveling Sun

It was the back pages of the book that always fascinated me most. They include poems that were transcribed (poet unknown). Both are filled with Christian imagery and implore the reader to be faithful to Jesus. One stanza reads:

Sweet rivers of salvation
Through Canaan’s land doth role
Bright darling berms of glory
Illuminates my soul
As ponderous Crowns of glory
All set with diamonds bright
And there my smiling Jesus reigns
Who is my heart’s delight

The back pages also include a record of the births (and sometimes deaths) of James and his wife Elizabeth’s children. Beginning in 1815, they had eight children, with the last born in 1834.

Alongside the births of his own children, James also records the births of “black children” – slaves.

George born September 3rd 1826
Malinda born August 12th 1828
Ann born January 9th 1830
Mary born June 15th 1832
Stephen born September 20th 1834

Five additional children are listed as born to Malinda:

Charlotte Elliot born March 5th 1846
Berry Frank born July 29th 1848
Julias Gilpin born May 17th 1851
Sarah Ann born May 27th 1860
Robert Lee born January 14th 1864

That last name gets to me most. Little Robert Lee, born just over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation and fifteen months before his namesake’s surrender at Appomattox.

When I was younger, those names were not much more than a curiosity to me – few slave owners bothered to record slave births by name. I was captured much more by the reality that James Fields had created these pages with his own thoughts and hands, and that they had been preserved and passed down parent to child until they had reached me. It was like a string across nearly 200 years of history connecting me with my ancestor in a way that the abstraction of genetics never could.

The mythology of the South was what I knew – states’ rights, Northern aggression, the prevalence of a benign slavery, freedom from federal government interference, the high moral character of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

And like everything involving real people, the realities of the country, the war, and slavery are incredibly complicated.

But that mythology? It’s just that – myth. Slavery is always inherently violent, the South fought the war to defend it, and southern generals led that violent conflict. That strand that connects me through 200 years to my ancestors is a thread of violence woven through our whole history.

My family owned slaves – children – to the end, and they fought for Virginia and the Confederacy to defend their “right” to own those human beings.

I’m glad I know. Many people with southern roots don’t. I’ll not be ashamed of my family history – I’ll not hide it. I mourn what my relatives did, and what they believed that allowed them to record slaves births and celebrations of their faith in Christ on the same page. I am not proud.

It’s a heritage I’ve seen so clearly at work throughout my lifetime and especially today – that ability to hold tightly to a “Christian” faith and to the way things are at the same time.

I understand it because I lived it myself for so long, and no doubt there are tentacles of that belief still entwined in my life. Those tentacles are woven throughout America – North and South – as well, and too many are blind to them. But I will root them out and repent of them, every one I find, both in my own life and in this world.

Because if there’s a Jesus worth following, his work is to proclaim good news to all of us who still live in poverty of many kinds because of racism and the generational impacts of slavery and its successors. If there’s a Jesus worth following, he proclaims liberty to all of us who are held captive by the normativity of whiteness, and the recovery of sight for all who are blind to the air of white supremacy we breathe every day. And he sets free those whose lives are marked by the oppression of suspicion and violence because of the darkness of their skin.

I come from people who claimed ownership of other human beings to support their way of life, who fought to defend that practice, and who named an enslaved child after a general defending slavery. They were willing to die for it.

What am I willing to die for?

White Supremacy Is My Problem

White Supremacy Is My Problem

I wish it weren't. How I wish it weren't.

As I watched events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend, with friends there attacked because they stand against hatred and violence, I wished it weren't.

I wish that what I believed as a child in the 70s was true – that the Civil Rights Movement had brought equality for all. But the justice of the law is no more just than those who enforce it. And as important as the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were, there is so much they did not and could not do.

White Supremacy is very much alive, and it's my problem, no matter how much I wish otherwise.

It's my problem.

Every time I've assumed the black woman sitting next to me on the train feels as safe in that space as I do.

Every time I effectively dismissed racism as a "sin problem" that can only be dealt with in individuals' hearts.

Every time I think I've had opportunities only because I worked for them.

Every time I sat in church believing we weren't perpetuating racism because a few black families were there who embraced our theology.

Every time I haven't thought about White Supremacy because I didn't have to, and I had other things to think about.

Every time I believed a person of color was being considered for a job on the same basis I was.

Every time I assumed that a fellow student of color had the same opportunities I had because we were sitting in the same class.

Every time I dismissed White Supremacists as an anomaly, as a fringe element, rather than seeing them as the most visible outworking of a pervasive system, a system I am a part of.

Every time I didn't speak up when someone excused or dismissed white supremacy as something that isn't their problem, or insisted that black resistance is an "equal" problem.

Every time I failed to realize that black friends don't have the same experiences I do when they drive somewhere, or shopping, or taking taxis, or with the police, or doing any one of the many public errands that make up my days.

Every time I was more concerned with protecting me and mine than ensuring justice and safety for someone else.

Ever time I studied "Christian" history and theology without questioning its Eurocentric assumptions and role in establishing the Doctrine of Discovery.

Every time I've avoided speaking up against the assumptions of white supremacy because it might make someone uncomfortable.

I don't believe in white supremacy, but I don't have to believe in it to be a part of it. And if a white supremacist is someone who does believe in it, then I am not a white supremacist. But every time I have acted like white supremacy is not my problem, I'm sure you couldn't tell the difference.

I'm sorry for every time that's happened. I know more than I used to, but I have so much more to learn. I fail in ways I can barely begin to imagine. I will keep working on it, and this is one way to take a step forward.

White supremacy is my problem.

And if you are white, it's your problem, too.

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.