Thursday, March 31, 2016

I Believe Change Will Happen

Gwen, Toni, and Albert share their stories.
A month ago, the author Jeff Chu asked me: who are you writing Dismantling Whiteousness for?  A good question.  And while I am delighted that people of all races have been reading, commenting, and responding (please continue to do so!), I suppose the real answer is that I'm writing to good-hearted white people who are afraid of change and are unaware of their agency in perpetuating life-threatening systems of supremacy.  Like myself.  I'm writing this as much to process what this all means for me, too.  I'm exposing this in blog form because I believe we need much more transparency here, and we all have to be willing to be vulnerable.

Now, of course, extreme terrorist groups like the KKK are not my audience.  While I'd love to witness a moment of true reconciliation with that kind of hate, at this point, I believe that's in God's hands.  I'm writing to white progressives and liberals, people like myself who sometimes believe we've got it all figured out, who believe we are "woke" enough, and, thus, don't need to engage with topics like racism because that's "so last season," "so civil rights era," etc.  Statements that prove we are not as woke as we believe.  But this is the critical takeaway: I believe we want to be.  Wanting to be seen as "getting it" is certainly not the same as actually getting it, but the desire to be there reflects what may be at heart: we want a level playing field with our brothers and sisters who do not have white skin.  But this society has woefully underprepared us, all of us from all backgrounds, how to actually achieve that with mutuality and authenticity.   In fact, the very problem with systemic racism is that it is hard to spot if you're on the receiving end of most of its benefits.

This week, I started a new course at Fuller Seminary called Organizing Urban Communities for Transformation: Following the Jesus who Transforms the World.  It is being taught by Alexia Salvatierra, who self-described: I am a Lutheran Pastor (28 years ordained!) although I often call myself "Luther-costal."  I am a native second generation Angelina from a mixed immigrant background (Mexico and Russia). I have been actively engaged in community transformation for over 35 years, including community development, community organizing and advocacy -- locally, statewide, nationally and internationally.

Many things stand out from our first gathering, but I want to focus on her enthusiastic optimism.  She believes in change.  Even after 35 years of struggle, she knows change is possible.  And then she broke it down for us: sometimes you give people a fish, sometimes you teach them how to fish, sometimes you fish together with them, and sometimes you've got to tear down the f*@king wall around the pond, otherwise none of the previous steps make much difference at all (my emphasis.)  Sure, you must resist the need for immediate gratification, and you may also have to recognize that taking down a wall takes many people with a step-by-step, day-by-day sense of planning and re-planning.  But it's possible.  She has seen real change when people come together in action and fully embrace diversity of race, background, class, and ideas.  The challenge will be to foster that kind of optimism in a generation who have been Googled to think that everything must happen now, now, now.

And if we Christians don't believe change is possible, what does that say about our faith?  What on earth did Jesus die for unless to effect real change?  And why did he teach people about changing their ways and mindsets if it wasn't possible?

In one sense, Dismantling Whiteousness is attempting to engage with the mindset blockages, or walls, we have that encourage us to stay quiet, to not rock the boat, to not want to speak because we are afraid of being called "racist" or "naive" or "communist" or (just pick your fear-mongering insult-du-jour.)  We cannot effect change in a vacuum, and we cannot engage with people telepathically.  We must communicate, and we must talk regularly.  In blogs, in person, in how we spend our time and money, in how we vote, in how we listen and make friends.

I have also seen very small glimpses of real change.  In my work these past 8 years as the director of DOOR Hollywood, we framed service and volunteering as primarily a place of meeting in the margins.  Not so much about helping or mission, in the traditional American mission-trip sense, but really about listening, observing, reflecting, and being vulnerable together.   We asked questions that  the roughly 2,000 mostly white-skinned young participants and their leaders had "never heard before" and certainly had never heard in the context of a mission trip.  Questions like this:

"Who do you think Jesus might ask you to imagine are modern day Samaritans in your context?"

"Why are most of the people on Skid Row African-American?"

"Why do you think you can judge a person living homelessly before you've listened to their story?  And even after you've listened to a five minute version of their story?"

"Could it be that Jesus encourages us to meet him in the marginalized not just to feel good about ourselves, but maybe because prisoners, neighbors living homelessly and without good nutrition, poor black, Latino, and Asian folks, poor white folks living in encampments, and foster kids might have something to teach us about the Kingdom of God?  Could it be that their perspective might actually be a clearer source of reality than anything you may be learning in a classroom?"

I am not naive to think that simply asking the right question solves the problem.  But I do know that it can crack open a new line of thinking, and while all of the conversations were not earth-move-under-your-feet moments of revelation, I will share a handful of feedback statements we've gotten already in 2016.  Some are anonymous, some said it was okay to use their names.

Asking an actual African-American tough questions: questions I would never have had the courage or opportunity to ask, I got to ask at DOOR and got answers to them.

Is it okay for me, a white person, to say that racism affects me? Obviously, no one has been racist about me, but they have been racist to people I care about and that hurts me.   (Absolutely. God created us as interdependent brothers and sisters. When my sister is hurt, it hurts me. This is an important question.  It's a first step, empathy, towards reconciliation.)

It means so much to me that in just one long weekend, I learned more about other races than I had in my entire life. I have learned that change is never going to be possible if we don't acknowledge the differences between people. If we can acknowledge these, we can accept them and find healing. All I was left wanting to know is how people like Toni and Diane kept their faith through all the hardships they faced. - Karley

I will remember meeting new people and hearing primary source stories, and I feel I have a new way of respecting different race's cultures.

I liked the service parts during the day helping others, and I feel I know why many African-Americans are afraid of the police. - Palmer

Thank you for raising awareness, breaking barriers, mending broken hearts and communities. We know that there is still a long way to get to a better world, but it starts with people like DOOR to change the world. I will also remember Marvin, he was so wise.  I really am going to take with me his zeal on becoming educated about issues like homelessness and racism, and asking the challenging questions and taking them back to our classrooms to help educate others. - Nkechinyere 

Julio shares his story.
Marvin's personal story about his concerns for his sons as they are out there in the world gave me a perspective that I had not given much thought to. - Lori

A man asked me where I was from, as in heritage, and I have never been asked that before. - Anglo Discover Participant

I learned to pay much closer attention to the "roots" of problems; to look with an analytical & critical eye at the systems in place and challenge the status quo. I already did that to some extent - but this trip gave me firsthand experience and more reasons to do so.  Also, I will not be as afraid to ask others questions and participate in uncomfortable conversations.  Progress begins with a single step. - Giorgy

I found talking after dinner so meaningful because everyone was so vulnerable and willing to listen. We learned as much as we could about race and ministry in the days we had, and I hope we can use the information to better ourselves and this country. - Lily

And that is the lesson to be learned, sitting at a table together and sharing isn't about fixing people or changing people; it's about listening to people and respecting people.  It's about admitting that "they" are not the ones causing all of the problems and that I am just as capable of being self-centered, stubborn, and difficult to love.  It's about finding a starting place to struggle together as we attempt to reconcile our different opinions and beliefs over issues of theology, race, politics, class and gender.  It's about literally letting food and conversation create community and lift up the many things we all have in common. - Tom

Yes, these are merely the starting points.  The questions now: what's next, and what's next, and then again, and what follows that?  There is real danger in just exposing people for a minute and then expecting that to set things right.  But: it is an important step.  And these recent responses (and we've got years of similar statements in the file cabinets) convince me that this is important and hope-filled work.  

Jordan, Yecenia, and Robert share their stories at our 2015 Fundraiser
We, myself included, have to work through prides and guilt-complexes and hypocrisies and fears, but it is possible.  Turn off all media for a time, liberal or conservative.  Both often stoke the fear that being called a "racist" would be the worst thing imaginable.  All that does is make us afraid to try to speak and understand.  So what if we we make a mistake, I've been called racist many times, you might even be wanting to call me one now.  So, to be fair, turn off this form of media too.  Go talk to some actual people who look different than you.  

But being called racist is not the worst thing in the world.  Living in a world where systemic racism still makes my brown-skinned peers afraid to even ride their bike around LA is worse.  Living in a world where I'm generally seen as a savior but Marvin is generally seen as a threat is much worse.  Living in a world where we want things to be better and more equal but are too afraid or confused to engage is much worse.  Living in a world where black and brown bodies die much faster than white bodies is much, much, much worse.

Peace and blessings,

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tired of Talking about Racism, by Tonya Powell

Here are thoughts from my friend and colleague, Tonya.  For Holy Week, I will be taking time off from posting, but will continue the week of March 28.
by Tonya Powell, DOOR Atlanta City Director
I am sick and tired of talking about racism.
I am sick and tired of talking about racism when I serve a God who is love. Lately all the race talks I have had reek of some underlying hatred with no one trying to understand anything. Don't get me wrong, it is almost unbelievable to have a job with an organization that does staff book studies and even hosts BCC meetings where someone who looks like me can freely speak their mind. A job where city directors across the country bravely try to tear down the walls of racism and teach understanding through service work and reflections. But I am tired of talking about racism when there is so much hatred that I have to respond to.
This week we have over 40 Discover participants. We have had a fun week so far. Tonight I had the opportunity to drive one of our participants back to the church after we finished a service project. It was just the two of us in the car. Our conversation was great. She has such a great spirit and it was awesome just to have her positive energy around. Then her phone buzzed and I noticed her face dropped. I asked if she was ok. She told me she was but she was trying to make plans to meet her aunt and have dinner with her while she was in town. I told her I was happy that she was able to do that. She responded that she wasn't. She continued to tell me how her aunt was prejudiced against people of color. How she knew the dinner would be hard because her aunt would probably say some offensive things about people of color during their dinner. She said she would not even allow her aunt to pick her up from the church because she was afraid of what her aunt may say to the people she saw there. The more she talked the sadder I became. I heard her say most of her family feels this way except for her mom who "taught me to love everybody." I told her so did mine.
I thought she was brave to share all that she had with me, but I wondered how many more of our participants had the same issues. Then I was reminded of how important it is for us to talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. this week. I am so sick of talking about racism, but tonight we both agreed with our mothers that God is love and we should love everyone!
To know that people who don't even know me hate me because of the color of my skin is my reality. However, this reality does not make me feel any less. I love the color of my skin. I can't help that stereotypes help allow others to look down on me. No, I am not the stereotype of the angry black woman because I am naturally quiet, but when I do speak, I speak my mind. That's not anger, that's confidence. I am not only confident, but I am strong. I have great reasons to be confident and strong. Not only am I the seed of Abraham, but I also am the seed of slaves who endured captivity, a treacherous boat ride, ridicule, and shame. Yet my ancestors survived. I am the seed of a grandfather who, although hated in this country for being a person of color, still had enough dignity to go to another country who hated him even more and defend this country and its citizens of all races in WWII. I am so sick of talking about racism, but if I never talk about it how can I help others to better understand?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Why Our Anglo Kids are Not "Too Young" To Learn about #BlackLivesMatter

At Fuller Seminary in 2015, Moderated by Dr. Love Sechrest

Last year, about this time, Darcie and I took our daughters, aged 5 and 3 at the time, to a panel discussion at Fuller Seminary that pondered if Black Lives Really Mattered in our country, and particularly in dominant American Evangelical Christendom.  It was moderated by one of my all-time favorite professors, Dr. Love Sechrest, and on the panel were some friends like PJ Johnson, Toby Castle, and Dei Thompson (mentioned in an earlier post here). In a gathering of about 200 people, we were not the only ones who brought children, but ours were the only children of European descent that I remember seeing.

At a break in the evening, Darcie, the woman who agreed to marry me and continues to believe that was a good idea, was approached by another white woman:

"How do you bring your kids to something like this?"  And the question was not judgmental, as I misunderstood when Darcie started describing the story moments later.   Perhaps I was still bothered by the flak we received earlier that year for taking our kids to an MLK Day Parade in Leimert Park. This woman's question, however, was more along the lines of "how do you explain this to them?"

Darcie offered that we didn't really have a formula or a method, just a mindset that we must train our kids to walk in this world, and that kids who do not have the same skin tone as ours never get the choice of whether they have to "deal with this" or not.  In fact, some of our daughter's young male friends are already getting "the talk."  No, that's not about sex, it's about what to do around police officers.  And there's no formula there either, our friends explain: do you tell your kids to just be quiet and not talk back to the police officer?  But what if the police officer reads that as rude and becomes angry?  Do you tell them to do everything the police officer says?  But what then?  What if they get in the car for a crime they did not commit?  It seems clear, given all we've seen lately, that one message is consistent: don't run.  
For another response to this, click here.

With all the confusion of how to best respond when police confront you, because they definitely will if you are a brown-skinned person at some point in your life, and most likely at multiple points regardless of if you are "following the law" or not, can you blame young men who freak out and run anyway?  Because in the hundreds of conversations I've had with African-American and Latino families, it is a survival discussion that must be had.   And it is far more complicated than just "YOU OBEY," as Franklin Graham trumpeted on Facebook exactly a year ago.   "The Police Talk" is not one I ever remember as a child, but one that every non-white parent must confront.  My friend Marvin fears for his three sons, literally every single day, as they navigate the Los Angeles Metro in their late teens and early twenties.  Fruitvale Station is a good representation of why he is afraid.  I also thank all the boys, who are now men, that taught me about all this in New Orleans when I was their 6th grade teacher. You can see them here.

You see, these 6 and 7 year old boys are already having to ponder this with their parents.  Why shouldn't our girls understand that reality to the best of their abilities now?  True, they don't fully understand everything discussed at this Graduate/PhD level panel, but they certainly understood some of it.  "Why are people with brown skin afraid of the police?" our oldest asked at dinner.  And we explained, careful to share that all police are not out to hurt people who don't look like us, but why the fear is legitimate.  Of course, the girls also remember that night as the time we finally let them try "real" Sushi.  And of course, our girls loved it more than we expected and more than our single income can afford very often.  Parental fail.

With DeRay Mckesson at the Teach For America 25th Anniversary
But seriously, as teachers in the public school system, both my wife and I know that textbooks are presenting a limited representation of American History.  It is from the vantage point of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants being the heroes of "founding" America.  It does a poor job telling a balanced perspective of how African-Americans built this country, like the Hebrews built the Egyptian Pyramids, and how African-Americans in wealthy white homes were often more of the parental figures for both their children and the master's/employer's children.  It fails to frame the founding of America from the point of view of the natives, who were conveniently branded as savages so that their conquer and slaughter could be morally justifiable.

So we teach our children what we already know they will not automatically learn as white youth.  And, for me, I'm realizing how my own parents did this for me.  While neighbors in our suburb warned against ever going to Detroit and some spoke with unhinged racism during every local news story, my parents did not follow suit.  We went downtown about once a month, for Tiger's games and for Mexican food; for parades and concerts; to work in food service kitchens at Thanksgiving.  Now, it wasn't necessarily actively anti-racist, but it certainly was a household that allowed us to grow up with an alternative frame of reference.  The worst year of my father's life was 1968: his mother died along with RFK and MLK.  I'll never forget him telling me about that despair and how it profoundly changed him.  Darcie and I were grateful in the truth of Jesus when our oldest came home from school to say how a friend with brown-skin at school was getting in trouble with the teacher for talking too much, and our daughter said that it wasn't true.  It was actually our daughter who had been talking, and she confessed that to the teacher publicly.  Justice doesn't magically happen in our world, it has to be taught and practiced.  Just last month, a high school aged group from Orange County visited DOOR Hollywood, and we engaged in deep discussions.  Listen to one of the teens, Susannah, report back to her entire congregation here (and if you let it continue, hear her youth pastor, Marvin Wadlow Jr. and Toni White preach, too.)

This can be taught, and I implore, it must be.  And not just once, it should be part of our daily lives.

So when our oldest walked out dressed with a quilted purple vest (see above) for school yesterday, I told her she looked a little like DeRay Mckesson.  She asked, who's that, and we told her.  (If you don't know who that is, he is a leading voice in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a candidate for mayor in Baltimore, and a community organizer who quickly gained respect by listening and lifting up the stories of others primarily through Twitter.)  At the TFA event in DC, he explained why he always wears his signature blue vest, and he said it makes him feel safe, as it also helps him remember that there is always danger for people who look like him.  My favorite image of him in this blue vest was at his recent meeting at the White House with Barack Obama and other civil rights leaders last month.  He wore a shirt and tie under the vest!
Brittany Packnett, on Obama's right, is the co-founder, with Deray, of Campaign Zero.
Click here for her reflections on the above meeting.

Now: this is not saying that we are better parents because of our choices.  It is meant to lift up a piece of what I trust God has been teaching me through the many voices of our friends whose American experiences are not congruent with mine.  When Jesus explains to his followers to visit those who are sick, in prison, homeless, etc. in Matthew 25:31-46, I believe part of the story is that we are supposed to care for those who are often overlooked and ignored.  But, and this is a big Biblical butt, I believe it also means that if you are really looking to learn more about Jesus, start by coming alongside the actual, real-life struggles of those whose lives do not match yours in privilege or status or experiences.  I know that is consistently where I've learned the most about Jesus, and I believe it's the heart of what Jesus speaks about days before he dies for reconciliation amongst neighbors, reconciliation with humanity and God, and the forgiveness of all sins.  I believe All Sins Matter to Jesus, as all of them are a misunderstanding and a deviation from the will of God.  Racism, and ignoring racial injustice, is a sin.

So, white Christians?  Are you threatened by #BlackLivesMatter and the recent wave of protests over racial discord?  Have you ever met someone involved in that movement, or been impacted by the injustices of our legal system?  If not, please try to do so, it's actually not that difficult and I'm more than happy to help point you in the right direction.  After you meet a few people, then let's sit down and talk, maybe even agreeing to disagree.

I stake my entire faith on this: God intended us to learn from one another.  God created us with differences as part of the good, good plan.  Who are we to edit God's design by pretending that some of us matter more than others?

And never forget this: the grandparents of my children grew up with access to reading materials like the ones shown below.  These were Little and Big Golden Books.

This was only half a century ago.  If you think that lingering effects of elementary school education are not still alive and well today, just turn on your television during these political campaigns.  We must actively teach different stories and we must tell the truth.  The full truth.  I believe it is the only hope of ever achieving social freedom, and ultimately, freedom in Christ eternal.

   Thanks for reading: @MatthewJSchmitt

To close, listen to the reading of this awesome children's book by David LaMotte called White Flour. It's a true story about individuals embracing a third way, with humor, when confronting the KKK.  This is a good starting point for kids.  Buy it here:

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Whiteness History Month

My favorite component of having launched this site is generating dialogue and a space for learning and, hopefully someday, healing.  I am sharing my testimonies and connecting to others doing similar work.  In this space, I've virtually met Jason Chesnut, (follow him @crazypastor) an anti-racist, feminist pastor ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church on the East coast.  He's declared March as #WhitenessHistoryMonth, in a clear mission to uncover the often hidden, evil side of how this country rose to power.  In addition, Portland Community College will be digging into the very same theme this coming April.

DismantlingWhiteousness seeks to share, link, consider, dialogue with all of these projects, and I'm so excited to know that we are not alone.

But, before proceeding, be warned.  I have put the postings in chronological order, but it does open up some pretty horrific moments in the history of the United States.  

Whiteness History Month Postings by Jason Chesnut

and, just for some levity, a little MTV video on a response to, why can't we have White History Month?  There are counter-videos disputing the accuracy of the narrator's claims, but I like this because it shows the attitude problems.  And, she nails it when she reminds us that the United States rise to glory was on the backs of free labor.  Anyway, peace out: @matthewjschmitt