Are you “Microaggressive”?

In recent weeks people have been asking me what they can do about racial injustice. Here’s one thing: we (white people) can become aware of our microaggressions and avoid them. What are microaggressions? Take a look at these examples cited by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and former Spelman College president, in a recent CNN article by Kristen Rogers:

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“You’re so well spoken/articulate” or “You don’t sound black.” This remark sounds like a compliment, but it’s offensive to a lot of black people because they usually don’t have to be that articulate for someone to say that to them, Tatum said. When a white person says it, it usually implies they wouldn’t expect to hear coherence from a black person. The black person didn’t fit the white person’s offensive stereotype, so the white person complimented them for not fitting the mold.

“Don’t blame me. I never owned slaves.” This statement assumes that racism ended with the conclusion of the US Civil War, Tatum said, when really it has continued in new forms. Read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson or “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander to learn more about modern slavery, racism and how white people still benefit from discrimination.

“White privilege doesn’t exist.” Differences in racial privilege occur on a personal basis, too. White privilege also means not having to worry about whether your hairstyle will cost you a job or even an interview. It’s not having to worry if someone is following you around a store because they think you might steal something because of your skin color.

“All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but in this context it’s black lives that are not being treated with respect, Tatum said. Hence the Black Lives Matter movement. Those who say “all lives matter” may be interpreting “only black lives matter,” which isn’t the case. The latter phrase means “black lives matter, too.” So when someone says “all lives matter” without acknowledging the movement, they’re ignoring the anti-black racism that there are so many examples of regarding police interactions, Tatum said.

“I’m not racist; I have a black friend.” People who say this might be equating racism with prejudice, Tatum said. Prejudice is an attitude based on stereotypes. Racism entails the policies and practices that perpetrate notions of white superiority and inferiority of people of color.  You may not harbor racial prejudice or hate in your heart, but ties with black people don’t keep you from engaging in discriminatory behavior and/or failing to challenge racist practices.

“Can I touch your hair?” Curiosity is OK, but crossing boundaries is not. The question may not be intentionally offensive, but it can make a black person feel as if she’s an animal on display — since you likely wouldn’t ask that of any other race. It also continues the antiquated idea of black people as “other” or scientific novelty.

“We’re all one human race/big happy family.” This statement seeks to alleviate racism or complaints of it. The phrase is biologically correct given genetic similarities. But in terms of social interactions, we don’t behave as if we were all one race, Tatum said.

“I’m colorblind; I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow, green or purple.” The intention is inclusive, but people of color are saying their color and identity matter and affect how they experience the world. Saying this is offensive because it could imply you aren’t listening to or don’t care about what other groups of people are telling you.

Clutching your purse or dodging while passing a black man. This behavior implies that black men are dangerous. It’s based on a fear that responds to a stereotype that categorizes black men as threats.

Reading this list of microaggressions, maybe you’ll think, “Aren’t they being oversensitive?” If they were isolated incidents, maybe. However, microaggressions are so common “that it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Tatum said. “Research has shown that microaggressions do contribute to increased blood pressure, physical reactions [and] lower feelings of well-being.”

They wear people down, and they need to be taken seriously.

 

—Kristen Rogers, CNN, June 4, 2020

 

Church in a Time of Quarantine

Trying to think outside the box–that big box on the corner we call the “church,” that is.

Church just happened

“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul wrote.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but not in a time of global pandemic, when we are being asked to practice “social distancing” as a way of “flattening the curve.” So how do you “do” church when you can’t get together, when you can’t hug or shake hands or share a holy kiss? Church leaders are having to figure this out, and they’re having to do it quickly.

Many of my colleagues in ministry called off church as usual last Sunday and some tried preaching in empty sanctuaries while an associate held an iPhone and streamed the sermon through Facebook Live (with more or less success).

It wasn’t church, but it was something.

My pet project, A Sermon for Every Sunday, was not created with a global pandemic in mind, but it could have been. One of…

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Why Is It So Hard?

I spent a lot of time on last Monday night’s panel discussion. Along with my friend David Bailey I challenged the city to read the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. I had read the book and loved it. I thought, “If we could learn to talk about racism we might actually be able to do something about it.” So David and I challenged the city to read it and then come to a panel discussion on Monday, March 2.

Panel Discussion White FragilityI put the panel together, and I must say: I got lucky. The people I invited said yes, and the people I invited were the best and most knowledgeable people I could find.[i] My opening question was this: “Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism?”  The answer came in a lot of different forms, but it might best be summed up like this: White people have learned (mostly through the Civil Rights Movement) that racism is a bad thing and racists are bad people. If you suggest to white people that their words or deeds might be perceived as racist, they often become very defensive, because they assume that you are accusing them of being racists. They know racists are bad people, and they do not believe themselves to be bad people.

In other words, white people are “fragile” when it comes to this subject.

The problem with racism, however, is that it is more than an individual thing. It is systemic. It is built into the structures of our society. To use just one example: a white high-school dropout typically earns more money than an African-American with a college degree.[ii] That person might say, “I don’t care how racist you are, personally; just pay me as much as you pay white college graduates.” So, we white people fret about how we are perceived in the black community while the black community struggles with inequity, segregation, substandard education, and crushing poverty.

I’ve been trying to write from my heart lately, and not my head, and I know I’ve just written a lot of things that sound “heady,” but I want to assure you: this is a heart issue for me. It’s not because I “have a lot of black friends” or because my father “marched in the Civil Rights movement.” It’s because I believe—with all my heart—that every human being is made in the image of God. We’ve got to see that image in others. We’ve got to celebrate it. And we’ve got to speak up when we see or hear someone putting others down. This short video, above, makes that as clear as anything I’ve seen, and if you’ve read this far maybe you’ll take another three minutes and forty-eight seconds to watch it. If you don’t have time, I hope you will remember that I see the image of God in you,

And I celebrate it.

Jim.

 

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[i] David Bailey was there, who runs Arrabon, a non-profit devoted to racial reconciliation; Sheryl Johnson was there, who co-chairs the “Pledge to End Racism” campaign in Richmond; Tiffany Jana was there, who runs a consulting firm specializing in workplace diversity; Rabbi Michael Knopf was there, an outspoken champion for social justice; and Corey Walker was there, an academic who has taught at some of the finest schools in the country.

 

[ii] “Education is not the Great Equalizer” (https://rollingout.com/2017/08/13/average-white-high-school-dropout-earns-more-than-black-college-grad/).

Puppy Love

Connie

I got the text message at 8:58 on Tuesday morning.

It was from the woman who cuts my hair, because, you know, when you sit in someone’s chair for an hour each month you talk, and we both talk a lot. One of the things she talks about is her two little dogs, and on Tuesday she texted to let me know that she’d had to put one of her little dogs “down.”  She wrote:

“The last few weeks she had been in a lot of pain, not eating and very anxious. It was so difficult to say goodbye to her. I love her so very much…”

I can’t tell you how many times in my work as a pastor someone has told me about losing a pet. They make it clear that their pet was not an animal, but a member of the family. They are grieving, and their grief is as real as any grief there is. Tuesday’s text reminded me of the first time I experienced that kind of grief personally. I talked about it in my Thanksgiving sermon in 2012:

“[My parents must have felt a little guilty about taking me away from the only home I had ever known when we moved to West Virginia, so] on my seventh birthday they took me to a kennel and bought me a puppy.  I wanted a Cocker Spaniel; I had seen one in a book. But the closest thing we could find was a Brittany Spaniel. Instead of golden curls it had brown and white curls, but it was still beautiful. ‘I want that one,’ I said, pointing, and my parents (who must have been feeling more than a little guilty) paid a small fortune so we could take that puppy home.

“I thought a Brittany Spaniel deserved a sophisticated name, so I named her “Constance,” but ended up calling her “Connie.”  That first night we brought her home I wanted her to sleep with me, but since she wasn’t housebroken yet my mom thought it would be a good idea if we kept her shut up for the night in our big pantry.  She put down newspapers all over the floor, and then I came down the stairs dragging my sleeping bag and put it down on top of the newspapers.  I slept right there that night, in the pantry with my puppy, and when I woke up the next morning there were little puppy piles all around me and wet spots on the paper but that’s not what woke me: it was Connie, licking my face with her little pink tongue.

“I was the happiest seven-year-old in the world.”

She learned to follow me wherever I went around the house, out into the back yard, down the street. In fact, I couldn’t get her to stop following me. When she got a little older and a little bigger she would chase the family station wagon down the road as long as she could keep up, with me yelling at her out the window, telling her to go home.  She did that for months, and even when I shut her up inside the back yard fence she seemed to find a way out. One day she chased us all the way down to the highway, swung wide when we turned right, and got hit by a car coming the other way.

She never felt a thing.

Dad scooped up her broken body, loaded it into the back of the station wagon where I was sitting, and as we turned around and headed back toward home to lay that dog to rest I ran my fingers through her soft fur and wiped my tears and my nose on my sleeve.

I was the saddest seven-year-old in the world.

You know how we sometimes say about a relationship that it’s “only puppy love,” because the children who are feeling it are not old enough to experience “real” love? My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t call it puppy love. It’s the most love they’ve ever known.”  So, don’t call it “puppy grief” when someone loses a pet. It may not be the most grief they have ever known, but it is as real as it gets.

I’m saying prayers today for my friend who lost her dog, and for you if you have ever known that particular loss.

It’s as real as it gets.

A Challenge to Our City

David-Bailey heaadshot 3For the third year in a row David Bailey and I would like to challenge the people of Richmond to read a book together during February, and the book we have chosen is White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I (Jim) am the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  I (David) am the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit devoted to the work of reconciliation. 

You are probably asking the question, “Why should we read White Fragility, a book written by a white person for white people during Black History Month?”

Because of the subtitle: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. 

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Both of us have found that it can be easier for white people to talk about the progress of black people during Black History Month, but often find it difficult to talk about racism. That’s what drew me (Jim) to the book in the first place.  I had preached three sermons in a row that touched on the subject of racism when one of my parishioners said, “Dr. Somerville, I’ve been really hurt by what you said in those sermons. I’m not a racist!”  

I know this man, and he’s right: he’s not a racist.  But his response to the subject of racism is typical among white people: we take it personally.  I explained that I wasn’t talking about individual racism; I was talking about systemic racism. I said, “You are one of the good guys!  You are one of those people who can help to dismantle the structures of racism that exist in our society and make Richmond a better place!”

But not if we can’t talk about the problem.  

Katy Waldman of The New Yorker writes: “In 2011, Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged— and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Why, she wondered, did her feedback prompt such resistance, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of it?  In White Fragility she argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that ‘flesh-toned’ may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon.”[1]

You might ask the question, why would a person of color want to read White Fragility

In my work (David), every week a person of color comes to me saying, “I’m exhausted… why don’t [white] people get it? I don’t understand.” Whenever I encourage a person of color to read White Fragility it is empowering to them because light is turned on in a way they can see clearly the depth of the problem. 

“If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race,” DiAngelo writes, “then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you,” she writes. “I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument, it should soon begin to make sense.”[2]

We hope that every Richmonder will accept our challenge to read White Fragility during the month of February.  We believe that if we can all remain open then Robin DiAngelo’s argument will “soon begin to make sense.”  And if it makes sense, we should all be better able to talk about racism in ways that help and heal our beloved city.

White Fragility is available online and at bookstores everywhere.  A limited number of free copies will be available at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue) beginning February 1.  A panel discussion will be held at the church on Monday, March 2, at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.  

—Jim Somerville & David M. Bailey

 

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[1] Katy Waldman, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018.
[2] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 13.