White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.

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White People and Black Art, Part 2: Black Panther, Black Leadership, and White Submission

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

On February 4th, I began the series with a post about Jordan Peele’s Get Out and how the film can encourage white people to confront our microaggressions and other harmful behaviors towards people of color. Today, I will be talking about Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther and how the film can encourage white people to see ourselves as followers and people of color as our leaders.

This post contains mild spoilers for Black Panther.

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Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Like most of the American population, I saw Black Panther this weekend.

It was pretty damn great.

The costumes and visuals were stunning. Shuri is my new favorite Disney Princess, and Erik Killmonger is the most well-rounded Marvel villain yet (deal with it, Loki-stanners). Chadwick Boseman played his role perfectly and looked beautiful as ever. And the Dora Milaje kicked major butt.

What made this Marvel film attract so much attention was how it centered the African/black experience, while the white people served as “token characters” who supported the main African and black characters, in a role reversal rarely seen in film. In doing so, this film is not only prophetic for people of color, but for white people, too.

In Black Panther, we are shown a world in which white people are not calling all the shots or even controlling the narrative. Instead, they are following the lead of the people of color.

Black Panther’s Dora Milaje — Photo: Marvel Studios

From its aesthetics to its story, Black Panther is greatly influenced by the genre of “Afrofuturism,” which is a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts. Stories which fall under this genre reimagine a world in which colonialism did not occur, and they also project what those affected by the African diaspora can do as active agents in their own futures.

The heroes and heroines in Black Panther, and other Afrofuturist tales, do not wait for a white savior to come to their rescue. Instead, they are their own saviors. They are their own queens and kings, princes and princesses, presidents and generals, warriors and politicians, representatives and resisters. They are not tokens or model citizens. Without the oversight of white supremacy, they have the dignity to embody the whole range of the human experience.

As such, the film features both black excellence and black pain, which results in an empowering form of representation for Africans and the African diaspora (the global communities descended from the movement of African peoples from their homeland).

White people, on the other hand, participate in the “token roles” normally designated for people of color in predominantly white films. They go from the leaders and the storytellers to the followers of black leadership.

CIA Agent Everett Ross is one of the two “token white guys,” and his role as a white person in a superhero franchise is subversive for the genre. Ross is the butt of several jokes in the movie…[and] exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. He’s even called a “colonizer” in a semi-joking, semi-serious manner, going for the heart of the long arduous relationship between the two cultures.

But Ross is such an important character for white people to watch, primarily because he is not the main player. He serves as T’Challa’s ally who saves and is saved by Wakandans. During his time in Wakanda, Ross submits to African leadership. When he dares to speak out of turn to a tribe’s leader, he is immediately and hilariously shut down, further confirming the centrality of black leadership in the film.

And despite his nickname, Ross subverts the white trope of colonizer and white savior not only by taking on a less significant role but by following black leadership. He does not demean their leadership or demand that he play a bigger part. Instead, he recognizes and accepts his place in the Wakandan story, and as such he serves as a helpful ally.

For the first time in a Marvel movie, and in one of the few instances in American film period, white people are not the ones in charge of shaping the story. That role and responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of the black characters. Instead, white people serve as allies who follow their lead and their codes.

This is why Black Panther is an important film, not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for our global culture. In a culture that consistently labels white people as the heroes and leaders of this world, it is important for people of color to see a hero who looks like them.

It is also as important for white people to remember they are not the only ones in charge of this world.

We need to be willing and able to humble ourselves before our siblings of color and let them lead us, because they have dreams for a future which requires us to lay our power down.

White People and Black Art, Part 1: How Jordan Peele Taught White People Voting for Obama Doesn’t Make Them Less Racist (Or: Why White People Need to Watch Get Out)

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. Since I am one of the whitest people to ever be white, I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.

*****

Film Title: Get Out

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After Get Out received four Academy Award nominations, I took out the Amazon gift card we received for our wedding and finally bought the movie.

I hadn’t seen it since the weekend after it came out, all the way back in late February of 2017. The first time I saw the film, I went in not knowing what to expect. Why were all the white people acting so weird around Chris? Why were all the people of color acting so strangely? What would happen to Chris? What did this family have to do with all of it?

In true white feminist form, I even had the audacity to think Rose would be an innocent in all of this. Watching the film a second time, I wondered why the hell I ever thought this to begin with.

What I remember most from that first movie-going experience was how uncomfortable I felt. I recounted my past interactions with people of color and all of the microaggressions I had committed. I remembered my “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” quips, my awkward attempts at “blackcent,” and even my “I’m a middle class white woman with an Arabic father whose struggles I have never dealt with, but I STILL know and understand oppression!” attitude.

I also left better informed not only as to how people of color feel when I and other white people make those blunders, but how those microaggressions can quickly shift from small to full-scale attempts to whitewash people of color.

Some of the microaggressions we see in the film are pretty obvious once they are displayed to us in all of their awkwardness. When we hear Mr. Armitage say “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” and call Chris “my man,” we see how he demeans Chris’ blackness by acting on stereotypes. When we see the woman feeling up Chris’ arms and the Japanese man asking Chris to speak on behalf of all black people about the African-American experience, we understand how wrong it is to make one person a spokesperson for their race and to remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Jordan Peele also uses this film to show white people how these microaggressions can very easily become something more malevolent.

The whole plot of Get Out revolves around a science that’s meant to create black bodies without blackness, black minds devoid of black consciousness. The Armitages literally round up black people via their daughter Rose, and then auction off their bodies to their white friends and family. They do this with no sense of irony or shame. They do this not caring about the fact that they are ripping black people from their bodies and planting their white friends and family in them. Because of this operation, the white people get all the “benefits” of blackness without living any of the experiences. They get to put it on like it’s the latest fashion accessory and not the lived experiences of another people.

In Get Out, we see not only how we humiliate and discomfort people of color, but how we rob them of control over their bodies and culture.

Let’s look at the guy who “buys” Chris: Jim Hudson. Jim explains how he will control Chris’ body while Chris himself is confined to becoming a passenger in his own body in the Sunken Place. As he explains himself, Jim tells Chris how it was his photography skills that captured the attention of the art dealer who is blind, and he even goes so far as to tell Chris, “I could give a shit what color you are…I want your eye, man.”

In this moment, Jim tells Chris, “I want your physical eye, but I don’t want the embodied experiences that made this eye possible.” After all, physical vision is not the only thing necessary to make thought-provoking and emotion-inducing art. What makes Chris’ photography so fantastic is how it reflects his experiences, joys, sorrows, and whole human story, from the absence of his father and his mother’s loss all the way to where he is when the story starts. To remove Chris from his body is to take away from the story he tells with his photographs.

Therefore, not only is Jim robbing Chris of his body; he is robbing him of his story and his authority to tell it. Even if Jim could see through Chris’ physical eyes, he would not be able to capture images as Chris once did, because he would not feel the beauty and pain Chris experienced. Chris and his stories would be trapped in the Sunken Place, safely out of the way of white people like Jim and their own desires.

This desire to whitewash the black experience causes us to turn a blind eye to the plights of people of color. It’s why we chant “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” It’s why we complain about “reverse racism” when people of color call out systemic racism. It’s why white feminists accuse other women of being divisive when they bring up issues women of color, trans and queer women, and women with disabilities encounter. We fear dealing with the experiences of people of color, because we fear dealing with our own racism. As such, in these seemingly insignificant everyday actions, we attempt to confine people of color to our own Sunken Places.

And we need to stop.

White people can understand that black people and other people of color not only have different skin colors but different experiences as well. This is not only allowed but necessary if we are to do the work of dismantling white supremacy. Once we acknowledge that people of color experience America in a very different way than we do, we can actually work on making change happen in our own interactions and in the systems with which we engage daily.

As uncomfortable as this movie may make us, it is good for white people to realize our racist tendencies, regardless of how “colorblind” we claim to be. When we see other white people acting out our own patterns and feel Chris’ discomfort and witness attempts on his life, we might be inspired to think more before we speak and act when interacting with those of different races.

If you’re a white person who hasn’t seen Get Out, I highly recommend it. Jordan Peele is a master storyteller, the pacing is solid, and the scares can be endured by those adverse to the horror genre.

But more than that, it’s a story about how our good intentions can become harmful actions if left unchecked, and we owe it to our siblings of color to wrestle with and understand our own selves so we can work to dismantle white supremacy forever.

Fangirl Theology: Nostalgia as Deception and Comfort in Stranger Things, American History, and the Bible

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***POTENTIAL MILD SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS SEASON ONE AHEAD***

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

In Greek, it roughly translates to “homesickness.”

This would explain the feelings we experience when we find an old toy, flip through an album of sepia-toned Polaroids, pick up a vinyl record, or binge-watch a season of Stranger Things in less than 24 hours.

In the act of remembering, we experience a type of homesickness, a woebegone sense of longing for the beloved and familiar. While our memories can be positive and negative, nostalgia holds us in those idyllic moments with all its might. It give us glimpses of home and tastes of (more) carefree days.

We are nostalgic, because we can’t help but yearn for the past when our future seems so uncertain, unsafe, and unknown.

My generation gets a lot of flack for our “early-onset nostalgia,” but I think our critics often forget the context of the world in which we came of age. Some contributing factors included a huge economic recession, job and financial instability, and disenfranchisement with the crippling War in Iraq. It only makes sense that we would cling to relics from our past for comfort, especially from a time that, to us, epitomized financial and global security.

Yet we remember so selectively.

Nostalgia insists on the existence of the “good ole days,” a magical time in which “life was easier.”

But does it dare to ask for whom those days were good, and for whom life was easy?

Does it prompt us to wonder who was invisible in our lives then and shed some light on who is absent now?

ST2 Boys

Stranger Things tells a story with multiple perspectives through a retro, Stephens Spielburg- and King-esque lens. Three boys search for their missing best friend and discover a strange girl with superpowers, a la E.T. and Firestarter. A teenage girl is caught in a cliche example of a love triangle right out of a John Hughes flick. The boy’s mother and the local police chief work together to find this missing child only to uncover an even darker secret that could have set John Carpenter’s hair on end.

From the clothes the characters wear to the posters on their bedroom walls and the iconic scenes they mimic, the whole show is cut and tailored to pull our nostalgic heartstrings by reminding us of a past time. And yet, with its retro style comes a freshness our generation craves. It is a nostalgic tale, but it is also a tight, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story. The acting and writing are phenomenal, and the themes of conquering evil are both comfortingly cliche and organically original.

Many of us need some nostalgic comfort in our country’s chaotic heydays. At the same time, we need to be cautious with it.

ST1 Eleven

Nostalgia influences our memories, and it can deceive them. There’s always someone or something missing from our strolls down memory lane, and if we take the time to find out why they are gone, we can infuse our fond recollections with a strong dose of reality.

Let’s look at the 1980s themselves. While the decade saw significant economic gains, they came as a result of slashed funding to government assistance programs for the poor and marginalized. While the US kept the USSR at bay, we also sent millions of dollars to corrupt Central American leaders, who spent it on weapons to murder their citizens. In return, we slammed our nation’s borders shut on these refugees when they sought to escape the war zones we had enabled. While the white population believed the country had moved on from racial inequality, the race-fueled “War on Drugs” and prison industrial complex picked up steam.

But these stories are not evident on the surface of this 80s-inspired show.

There is only one person of color in the first season (Lucas, one of Will’s friends), and not only is he relegated to a supporting role, but he gets a lot of flack for being rather reasonable with his concerns about Eleven.

None of the characters are people whose parents are not from the US, or who came to the US as children, and there are no people with disabilities.

This is not to say these characters’ traits and the complete absence of others is completely intentional. But then again, very little about anything systemic is.

And as such, we often chalk it all up to the fact that “things were different back then.”

But here’s the truth, y’all: the people who are absent from this and other stories existed then. They were the heroes of their own stories. At the same time, their stories were unacknowledged, ignored, and even silenced by a majority of Americans.

It’s an absence that, if you’re privileged enough, you have to hunt down. But for the forgotten ones, it is visible and painful.

ST1 Barb

Nostalgia’s comfort and trickery is in the biblical text, too. After its devastating collapse, the psalmists celebrated Jerusalem in its glory as if it wasn’t also a place of greed, oppression, and corruption. The prophetic writers were the ones reminding the people of both their triumphant past and the reasons for their tragic downfall.

King David is idealized as the perfect king, and he was a rapist who feuded with his own son to the point of death. Again, a prophet had to bring the man to his senses so he could see the error of his ways.

The writers of the conquest narratives talk about God’s blessing of their successful missions to destroy the Canaanites, but we never hear the Canaanites’ perspective. Unfortunately, they did not receive any prophets, and their stories of pain and loss went unheard.

This is not to say pursuing feelings of nostalgia is a corrupt quest. It is comforting and necessary to remember where we’ve been and who we are, and we should be thankful when we can do so with joy and thankfulness in our hearts.

But it can also blind us. It can hold us back and keep us apathetic. It can make us dwell on what was instead of moving forward into what could be, and it can make us focus on a false narrative instead of digging deeper into the dark Upside Down beneath its facade.

We can allow nostalgia to comfort us and remove us from our own reality. Doing so can encourage us to play again, and when we remember how to play, we can change the world. After all, the kids in Stranger Things saved the world because of the wisdom they accumulated while playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading X-Men comics, and watching Star Wars. They were victorious, because they knew the value of play and imagination. Nostalgia can help us recover those traits after we bury them under adulthood’s reason and seriousness.

So go ahead and be nostalgic when you watch Stranger Things, and be comforted and emboldened by it. It’s only natural in a world like this.

And also remember to be honest. Remember that the privilege to look back on a time with nostalgia often comes at the price of someone else’s comfort, and you did nothing to earn it, nor did they.

And remember to do what you can to make this a world in which every person can have a home for which to be homesick as we journey through life.

Kneeling for the Kin-dom of God

On Shrove Tuesday, (or Fat Tuesday for those adverse to fancy liturgical language), I slid down a slick ramp and busted my left knee open.

I was working in a parsonage office, and my boss brought to my attention that it had started raining, and I’d left my car windows down. I had taken the recycling and trash to the dump on my way to work, and without the cracked windows, my car would have been real ripe for the drive home.

Heeding his words, I grabbed my coat and went a little too fast out the door and onto the small, descending ramp attached to the house.

And I went down. Hard.

As I recovered from my embarrassment, I bit back curses and gingerly pushed myself up from the soft ground. I could feel the wet blood sliding down my leg and seeping through my favorite pair of jeans, which had, of course ripped. Nevertheless, I hobbled to my car, rolled up the windows, limped back inside, and asked my boss for a first aid kit.

This nasty cut bled through the 3 Band-Aids my boss gave me and 3 more at home.

The next day, Ash Wednesday, my knee stung and prickled as I knelt in front of the altar and the deacon smeared ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, muttering, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On the first Sunday of Lent, after days of replacing bandages and applying Neosporin, small amounts of pus replaced the blood. Kneeling for prayers at my Episcopal service was unbearable, and I was in a constant state of adjusting myself on the kneeling altar.

By the second Sunday, getting on my knees for prayer was a bit more bearable. A hard scab covered the worst parts of the wound, but a small remnant of exposed skin remained open to the environment.

I began to regret being part of a denomination in which most of our prayer time was spent on our knees. We made our confessions crouched over rickety altars. We partook of our holy meal while kneeling. Whenever we asked to be made right with God and for the world to be renewed, we did so in the most submissive position a body can take. And I did so with physical pain simmering in my body.

When you spend a lot of time on your knees asking for renewal, and you’re already in some type of pain or discomfort, the desire for said renewal to happen becomes much more urgent.

*****

I’ve been thinking about my knee and kneeling in light of the American athletes bending down on football fields, soccer arenas, and basketball courts across the nation.

I think about how I knelt in reverence, and how these athletes knelt in protest, and I can’t help but think they’re somehow connected.

When I knelt in painful awareness of my busted knee, I did so out of submission to and reverence of God, with a sense of humility, smallness, and even defenselessness.

I knelt in preparation for, during the receiving of, and while returning from the Eucharist, a communal meal symbolizing Christ’s nourishing presence within us.

I knelt during prayers of confession, wondering why the One who made us and the universe would entertain the notion of letting us approach with our tiny pleas for forgiveness.

I knelt to lower myself before God, in order for the Kin-dom of God to be made real, first in me, then in the world.

Back in 2016, Kaepernick began kneeling down during the playing of the national anthem to protest the system that this country gave birth to, one that allows the police to brutalize and destroy its citizens with no consequences. He knelt, not because he’s not a patriot, nor because he disrespects veterans, but because he cares about the people deemed unworthy and disposable.

Other athletes began to join him. They, too, knelt in defiance of the corrupt ways of our country, and they hoped that in their kneeling, others would be inspired to make a different world possible.

Instead, people lashed out. Instead of clinging to justice, they clung to their star-spangled idol.

Those who are against this movement say they care about respecting the flag and the country, and about revering the lives lost to protect it.

But I don’t think that’s really why they’re upset.

They’re not mad that Kaepernick knelt or that others joined him. They’re mad that he wouldn’t stand to honor the country that disproportionately mutilates and murders black and brown bodies, bodies like his. They’re mad because these “sons of bitches” broke a code of conduct for an inanimate object that idolizes an idyllic lifestyle that exists at the expense of black and brown and other marginalized lives.

Like the Pharisees with their tithes of mint, they give their fair share of salutes and attention but neglect the more important matters of the law: “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

But standing for the flag isn’t the reverence those who seek a more just, merciful, and faithful nation need to show. If we are serious, like Kaepernick and his supporters are, about making America a more just nation for all people, we need to show reverence and submission to something greater.

This requires us not to stand, but to kneel.

We need to show that reverence to God’s Dream for the world, in which justice rolls down like water, the wolf and the lamb feed together and a little child leads us all, and we will no longer need written laws, creeds, anthems, or codes of conduct, because the love of God will be engraved into every heart and soul.

It is to God’s Dream that we pledge our ultimate allegiance. Not America. Not the American Dream. Not even the flag.

And it’s an allegiance we show by getting on our knees.

We show that allegiance by kneeling and confessing our complicity in a corrupt system, even when it is extremely uncomfortable and even painful to do so. We show that allegiance by kneeling in front of our siblings of color in submission to their leadership, since they know the way forward better than we ever could.

We kneel to make ourselves open to discomforting change and transformation.

We kneel to say God’s will, not America’s, be done.

Because the truth is, God’s Kin-dom isn’t something we stand tall and proud for as it enters. It’s one that is ushered into the world as we kneel down in submission to its presence and in defiance of the empires of the world.

We kneel, because we owe our allegiance to this Kin-dom, not an prideful, idolatrous, exclusionary, supremacist Empire.

I’m Not “Woke”

Oil Lamp

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.” – Matthew 25:1-10 (NRSV)

In high school, I had thick, springy curls that my straight- and thin-haired friends and family envied. One of those friends, a white girl, told me that I had “black people hair.” I took it as a compliment.

I took it as such a compliment that I told my mother what my friend said while we were riding on the DC metro, and a woman of color was sitting in the seat right behind me.

My mother tried, in vain, to get me to shut up. But I still spewed those words out of my mouth.

There’s no nice way to put it: I made a racist comment.

At the next station, the woman in the seat behind me got up to leave, and as she walked by our seats, her bag bumped me rather roughly in the arm.

It was more than likely an accident. But I felt enough shame to never say the remark ever again.

*****

I wish I could say I stopped making racist comments and remarks, intentional or otherwise, after this encounter. But I didn’t.

Hell, I still say and think problematic words and thoughts. I still have strong biases that need time, effort, and intention to destroy.

Yet I once considered myself a “woke” person. I’m sure other white people did, too.

And that in and of itself is problematic.

First of all, as a white person, I shouldn’t be using a term that began as an urge by and for people of color  to “remain vigilant, but also to keep safe,” before being appropriated into a badge white allies use to say that “if they walk the walk, they get to talk the talk.”

Second of all, the use of the phrase implies that there is a prize white people get when they cross the non-existent finish line of “not being racist anymore.” For white people, our so-called “wokeness,” our collection of quotes, behaviors, and friends, does not prove we’re “no longer racist.”

Our work of dismantling white supremacy is more than that. It is an uncomfortable and unceasing journey, and white people can cover themselves with merit badges without putting a dent in this system.

Claiming a so-called “wokeness” separates us from other white people. It allows us to claim we’re done being racist while other white people are not.

It’s a false claim that says we no longer have biases towards people of color that still need to be broken down.

It’s a claim that falsely announces the demise of this whole system.

The hard truth of it all is I didn’t magically stopped being a racist when I started chanting “Black Lives Matter” or when I marched in Charlottesville.

I’m still part of this broken system, so I’m still a racist. And that hasn’t stopped yet. Not now. Maybe not even in my own lifetime.

The same applies to all of us white folks.

*****

Along with most white Christians, I like to think I’m one of those wise, eternity-minded bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, ready and waiting for the coming Kingdom with oil overflowing.

But more often than not, I’m one of the foolish ones caught unaware and unprepared, left begging my siblings of color for oil to light my lamp instead of fetching it for myself ahead of time.

So I’m getting rid of this “woke” label, one that was never mine to claim to begin with.

Instead, I’m waking up to my own self, my own biases and complicity, and the system that has made them all possible. I’m waking up to my past sins and attempting to move forward in humble repentance instead of being paralyzed by personal shame. I’m awakening compassion, empathy, and understanding within me, and I’m opening my ears to be more attuned to the stories of pain and joy from people of color. I will wake up to my need to admit wrong-doing and to apologize.

But waking up isn’t an easy process, either, nor is it a quick one.

Sometimes, I hit the snooze button. Sometimes, I take a long time to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Sometimes, that bed of privilege and supremacy is so comfortable that I don’t want to dream of resting on anything else, even when I know that comfort is built on the backs of my marginalized siblings.

Sometimes, like the seven bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, I awaken with a jolt to discover I have no oil in my lamp and am lost in the dark, and those wiser and more prepared are moving towards a more perfect world.

It is in those times I am called to remember it’s one thing to bring a lamp in a dark space and quite another to bring the oil to light it.

And the sooner we realize we don’t have what we need to illuminate the darkness, the sooner we might start following those who have known the way much longer than we have.

Where Do I Begin?

Antifa

NY Magazine

Where do I begin?

Do I begin at St. Paul’s on Friday night, when the white supremacists surrounded a sanctuary of worship after beating up a gang of peaceful students, threatening and intimidating the people who came to answer the call of the God of justice?

Do I begin on Saturday morning, when the group with which I came couldn’t even get to Emancipation Park, the original site of the rally, because they knew they’d be marching to their arrests at best and their deaths at worst?

Do I begin when we finally got to the streets as the white supremacists were on their way out, and the white people put their bodies between the black and brown ones so the neo-Nazis couldn’t threaten them physically but could still taunt and demonize their sacred humanity?

Could I even begin when we got back to McGuffy Park after the white supremacists left and had a golden half hour of peace and joy, where we traded snacks and stories as if it were just a normal Saturday spent amongst friends?

Should I begin when we took to the streets again so we could meet some friends in need, when we marched and chanted and for a few shining moments held our fists up in victory?

Do I begin with the terror and chaos, the crashing cars, flying bodies, and screaming voices, of being separated from my group and not knowing if they were alive, injured or dead, of not knowing what the hell was going on except it was something awful?

Or must I start at the beginning of our nation’s history to unearth white supremacy’s origins, which have been embodied over and over again, from Native American genocide and slavery to Jim Crow laws and police brutality?

Where do I start? Where do I stop?

*****

DavidSmash

New York Times

The events are too much to recount. Should I begin with the people instead?

There was my main group, three activists from Black Lives Matter (BLM) and four from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). The BLM folks strategized where we would march and stationed themselves on the front lines during confrontations with the white supremacists. My fellow SURJ Care Bear and I provided snacks, water, and Aspirin to our Direct Action friends. Two SURJ de-escalators put their body between the three men in BLM and hoards of neo-Nazi, fascist white supremacists. We were seven brave souls doing God’s holy work of justice and mercy, demanding the acknowledgement of the sacred humanity of black and brown bodies, and handing out cough drops when the yelling broke our voices.

One of the BLM guys loved fruit snacks and always gave me a hug when I handed him a pack. He was always at the head of the pack when a confrontation with white supremacists occurred, at great risk to his own life. Another man had such a calm demeanor that I wondered what he was even doing there, until I heard him passionately chant and yell whenever he was on the front lines. Another carried a megaphone and led the whole community in our cries and made us double over with laughter at his witty one-liners. He’s a theater person like me, and he told me about the August Wilson play he’ll be performing in for which he hasn’t even begun to memorize his lines. (#Relatable).

My fellow Care Bear carried copious amounts of water and trail mix in her bag. Our de-escalators ran after our BLM comrades everywhere they went to make sure they stayed safe.

The so-called “evil” and “violent” Antifa prevented the white supremacists from beating clergy and stood by us when the alt-right passed us on the street, making sure we were safe and supported. They took control of the streets in the chaos following an act of terrorism, administering first aid and keeping people off the streets so fire trucks and ambulances could get through. We refused to go anywhere without them.

The people of SURJ made sure we all stayed together. After a terrorist drove through our fellow protesters and had us fleeing for our lives, they ensured that everyone was accounted for before seeking a safe house.

A seminary friend and community organizer prayed with my BLM friend after he witnessed the collision. Another seminary friend was the first familiar face I saw after escaping the chaos and the one I clung to in a desperate, terrified hug.

The family that housed my friends and I let us sleep on their furniture, breathe in their lavender and sage, gobble up their dark chocolate and honey, and rest in the sanctuary of a scenic and peaceful landscape after the chaos and hatred of the day.

In less than 24 hours, these people became my family and my great protectors.

I would march with them again any day.

*****

Is now the time to talk about returning home? Is this the end of the story?

On Saturday night, my fiance held me, the tension of watching and waiting finally over, his relief literally collapsing into me.

On Sunday, we watched movies and cooked meals together, and he kept looking at me and saying “You’re home,” as if he didn’t dare to believe it, because if circumstances had been different, it wouldn’t have been true.

On Monday morning, I used my prayer beads to pray in gratitude and in pain, for justice and for the steadying of my own heart, for myself to keep doing this holy, difficult, important work and for the families who have lost their loved ones to this same work.

On Monday afternoon, I went to work, and one of the first things I saw was my co-worker, a woman of color, leaving her lunch in tears because of a stray “…but don’t All Lives Matter” comment.

And then later that night, all my colleagues held a surprise bridal shower for me, and we ate cake, drank wine, and played Utter Nonesense for hours.

On Tuesday, I saw the posts and comments lumping my BLM friends and Antifa accomplices into the same category as those that threatened to and even succeeded at killing them. I read everything from “they’re the flip side of the same coin” to “everyone is equally responsible for making this happen,” as if our very presence in the face of evil was something to demonize and condemn.

Despite giving evidence that the BLM chapter of Charlottesville committed no violent acts, despite video footage of white supremacists viciously attacking people of color and other protesters, they didn’t listen. The president condemned us all and gave us a name associated with the evil we had encountered, as if we were worse than them.

And to add to the heartbreak and pain, to poison an already salted wound, the people saying and accepting these falsehoods claim the same “Christian” title I do.

We’re barely halfway through a new week, only days separated from Charlottesville, and still the tensions simmer. Still, the battles continue, not on the streets, but in the office and over Facebook and even in our own homes.

Now that I’m home, how do I keep fighting? Must I fight my own people?

Where do I start? When does it end?

*****

Do I conclude with a prayer, a prophecy, or a call to action?

Do I conclude with anything, or do I just let this be?

Do I tell you what to do next, or do I leave the choice up to you?

Do I remind you that real activism isn’t fuzzy hats and fuzzy feelings but hard, heartbreaking work that isn’t about you at all?

Do I dare give you an ending when this is far from over?