I grew up in a sub-culture that was a bit famous for not being very good at listening. When people think of evangelicals, a lot of times they think of things like “intolerant”, and “judgemental.” Most evangelicals don’t think of themselves in those terms. We think we’re loving, but unfortunately that love hasn’t often been communicated very well through our actions. Continue reading
I’ve tried to gather together some resources and some things I’ve learned about racial reconciliation into one post. This is especially targeted at white people. Most of these are things I’ve learned from other smarter, more seasoned people of color. Hopefully you’ll click on links and read their words yourself! 🙂 And please share ideas below of things you are doing (or wish could be done!)
Oookay that last post ended up going to a much broader audience than I intended! I’m thankful to the people who have kept their comments civil, as this is something the internet discourages us from doing these days. That’s what we Christians do, it’s part of our witness to the watching world. We disagree, but we can have civil conversation about it , we still see people as made in God’s image, we resist the temptation to overgeneralize and defame. Thank you to those who have shown this is possible, even when emotions are running high.
To my friends who voted for Trump (and I say friends, because you are! I know and love you, and I know you are not hateful, KKK-loving crazies) – I’m sorry if my words caused you pain, if you felt like I was painting you into the corner as the bad guys. My intention was simply to point out the real pain that I’ve witnessed in the church from the things Trump himself and some of his supporters have said and done. I think many of us in the church naively thought we could vote on a platform and separate that from the person, without realizing the real hurt that would cause to the most vulnerable members of the body of Christ. And that’s what I care about- the hurt to the vulnerable members of our body. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot about politics lately (as you can tell) and the role that politics play in bringing social justice. We’ve been listening to More Perfect (a podcast about the US Supreme Court) and it’s been blowing my mind.
Recently we listened to a podcast about test-case trials. In cases where people feel the law is unjust, or needs to be challenged or reinterpreted, but there’s no way to get that through the normal political process (like the State representatives voting on it), Civil Right’s activists find a case where an individual is being treated unfairly under the law, and take the issue to court. Continue reading
Surveys show that one of the reasons millennial are leaving the evangelical church is that they perceive it to be too political. I relate to this (probably because I grew up in another country, and seeing American flags on the front stage of churches is just still very odd to me). The evangelical church has been associated with the conservative Republicans since the 80’s when some guys realized there was a huge sector of society that was uninterested in politics, but if energized, could be a significant political force. Continue reading
“I just called for help, and you came and killed him,” she said. “I told you guys he’s sick. You guys came and killed my brother.” – sister of Alfred Olango, a mentally ill, unarmed black man who was killed in California.
She called the police herself, because her brother was acting erratically and walking into traffic. “He’s mentally ill,” she told the police. “He’s unarmed, but he’s mentally ill, and I’m worried about him because he’s blocking traffic.” Continue reading
We’re heading into the bloodiness of Holy Week in just a little while. Good Friday looms at the end of Lent, this horrible black, silent day where we actually contemplate the slow suffocation of a Palestinian Jew on a cross. Uh, depressing. I’d much rather skip it and get to the chocolate Easter eggs on Sunday. Continue reading
Over Christmas break, I was drinking coffee with two of my favorite people in the world (who actually had never met each other). We only had an hour, so there was zero small talk and we went straight to the good stuff like the role of women in the church and diversity and reconciliation and these pressing issues that keep us up at night. At one point we were talking about reconciliation in the church, and black lives matter, and why our white churches can’t/aren’t doing anything on this issue. And at one point I said something like,
“The white church’s problem is we see everything as individualistic, and so we think if we’re individually nice to the black people we know then we’re loving our neighbours and everything is fine. (Like this study pointed out). But if the problems are bigger than that—if they’re structural, if racism is more about a system—it’s harder for people to grasp that.”
There’s an article going round on the Huffington Post right now, talking about how racism isn’t just having prejudiced feelings towards people, or saying nasty things about people of another race. It has to do with a bigger system that shapes the way the world works, and who has access to privilege and power, and who does not. If we think racism is only about saying mean things or personally hating people of another race, then we don’t ever stop and question a bigger system— and we can actually feed into that system. For white people who read that and were like, “Yes! Agreed… okay, so…and now what?” Here are a few ideas of ways to concretely tackle some of these issues. I have not come up with these ideas myself. Most of them come from other smarter people than I am. Also, I realize that I often talk in black/white language, but racism affects many groups in the US and SA in different ways- Asians, Latinos, Indians…it’s not just a black/white thing.
First, don’t be the boss. When it comes to fighting against racial injustice, there’s a massive need for white people to get involved—racism is our problem, it’s everyone’s problem—but we really don’t need to run the show. This happens in the States, and I’ve seen this happen All. The. Time. in South Africa. Us white guys are used to being the boss. If we think we’re doing a great job of including black people in decisions we’re making about making black lives better…uh, that’s already a problem. If we find ourselves thinking things like, “I’ve hired a black assistant pastor, so now our church is diverse!” that’s probably a problem. We can’t be running the show and co-opting people onto our team to make it more colourful. Whether it’s churches or work places or anything. Listen. Go join someone else’s team. Submit to black leadership. Find a mentor.
Listen & Learn about race and racial injustice. I feel like I’m a stuck tape recorder on this one. I love what Christina Cleveland has to say on this topic to leaders, “Within the family of God, members of oppressed groups should not have to mount a social justice campaign to be heard.” Of any group, Christians have some of the strongest and best motivations for listening to the ‘outsider’ and oppressed. Let’s reshape our structures in our churches and workplaces so that members of oppressed groups can be heard loud and clear. Let’s educate ourselves on the issue as well.
Become a white ally. The term that people use in America for white people who want to help end racism is “white ally”. You don’t experience racism first hand, but you ally yourself with people who do, and join their cause. Janee Woods has a great article listing 12 very practical things you can do to be a good white ally, from learning how modern racism is rooted in a history of racism, to getting active in your community around policing issues, to advocating for change in the criminal justice system. Read it! Several ideas of hers I will be expanding on, but she has lots of wisdom here.
Stay informed. Change your media. Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help for people in South Africa, except BrettFish’s blog (awesome stuff related to race here), but I know a few more in the US. Many of these are specifically from a Christian perspective. Here is a link listing some of the top blogs written by Christian people of color in the US, and many of them focus on racial justice issues–and even if they don’t do that constantly, you can be sure when something happens in the news related to race, they will “pause their normal programming” to weigh in on it. (This link is, yet again, thanks to Christina Cleveland. If you haven’t read her book, do that, too!) Because I’m lazy, and don’t want to subscribe to hundreds of people, I generally look for people who are good content curators, and retweet/post links to other people. Two of the best I have found for that is the blog “By their strange fruit” (@BTSFblog) and @CarisAdel.
Share your voice. The sad thing is that sometimes a white voice will be heard before a black voice will. This is wrong, we need to work to change that, but it’s reality. So use your voice to make space for black voices. Don’t be afraid to share about racial justice issues in your sphere of influence. Talk with your friends and family, your pastor, your school board. Speak in places where a black voice just won’t reach yet, and introduce people to new black voices.
Be willing to look at how economic & racial privilege are linked, and then make choices about your stuff. You don’t have to just go with the flow. Since the system is giving white people economic privilege, you can share that privilege, rather than horde it. For example, we were given a car to use for the next two years because our family is awesome and generous with their stuff, but also is able to be generous because of a history of privilege. So I can just take that gift and say “Score! More room in my budget for holidays!” or, I can figure out a way to give my money/time towards making it possible for people who don’t have that kind of privilege to get access to material possessions. Mine your social privilege for others. Make connections for people getting jobs. Tithe on major purchases (like a house) into organizations or groups that are working on getting people access to affordable housing*.
In South Africa, learn the majority language of your area. In the US, racism is really tied into slavery, but in South Africa, racism and colonialism are still very linked. Part of that means that if you’re an English first-language speaker, the system is built to privilege you. You can read more about that on a blog I wrote here. Also, based on feedback from that post, I want it to be clear that learning isiZulu is not some kind of magic “get out of jail free card.” There are plenty of racist people in South Africa who know isiZulu. But anyone who is committed to racial justice in KZN and hasn’t seriously made an attempt at learning isiZulu is missing something vital. In the US, you could learn Spanish, or the language of the most recent immigrant community in your area.
In the US, advocate for reform in the criminal justice system. Read a book like “The New Jim Crow”, which explains how our criminal justice system is whacked. It explores major inequalities (like how most drug dealers are white, but most people in prison on drug related charges are black, or how when a black and a white teenager are caught with the same amount of drugs, the white teen will get off with a warning and the black teen will serve time. It also talks about how possession of drugs as a felony means that people are never able to rebuild their lives after serving time on a drug charge, because of “the box” asking people to check if they have ever been convicted of a felony on job applications….) Obama is the first US president to ever visit a federal prison and speak out about this issue (see it here), and if you’re looking for a way to advocate around these issues, here’s a link to some organizations.
Advocate for better education for everyone, everywhere. As one guy has argued, we could be totally pragmatic about all this and forget trying to help white people come to terms with understanding racism. Instead, we could just focus on changing things “on the ground”- like improving education, ending the war on drugs, providing contraceptives etc. I don’t see this as an either/or, but a both/and. Especially because as a Christian, I see justice as holistic: oppressed and oppressors experiencing wholeness that comes from working together to make our world better for everyone.
Some more resources for understanding privilege:
- The implicit bias test: This test is talked about on this AMAZING TEDTalk on racism and bias. Take the test, then watch the TED talk if you’re wondering what to do next.
- Here’s an interesting review of a new book that has come out on modern racism.
Ok, your turn– what are some other good resources you know of to help white people join the cause of racial justice in both South Africa and the USA?
*Note: There are a lot of structural, big picture economic reforms that many people are advocating for in South Africa that could help the vast majority of people who are stuck in material poverty due to our racist history of apartheid. I think as a white person, a lot of our gut instinct is fear, panic, and immediately rejecting the very notion. Instead of that, we should educate ourselves about these proposals. Even if you end up being against large-scale change instigated by the government, you’ll need to offer a thoughtful alternative. You’ll also have a much better leg to stand on if in your personal life you are willing to live generously, sacrificially, and in a way that empowers others.
There’s an article going round on the Huffington Post right now, talking about how racism isn’t just having prejudiced feelings towards people, or saying nasty things about people of another race. It has to do with a bigger system that shapes the way the world works, and who has access to privilege and power, and who does not. If we think racism is only about saying mean things or personally hating people of another race, then we don’t ever stop and question a bigger system— and we can actually feed into that system.
For white people who read that and were like, “Yes! Agreed… okay, so…and now what can I actually do?” I’m putting together a post with lots of links for you to click on. (hopefully. There’s a whole move to Texas thing in there, too. But hopefully). When you’re talking about a big system, it’s hard to see how an individual person’s actions fit. But for my South African friends, here’s one practical thing that I didn’t find many articles on, but I think is super important: Learn the first language of the majority of people in your province. If you live in KZN, that’s Zulu.
In the US, racism is tinted by a long slave history, but in South Africa, racism is tinted by colonialism. Part of that means that if you’re an English first-language speaker, the system is built to privilege you in many ways, including economic advantage. You have access to better jobs (in South Africa or globally) and since everyone is trying to learn your language, and you don’t have to learn anyone else’s. Also, we live in a world where we judge people’s level of education (and often intelligence) by their level of spoken English. Pause and think about what that would be like if you were in France, and you were judging people’s intelligence based on their spoken English, and told everyone in France you weren’t going to bother to learn French because you’re “just not a language person”. It would be weird, right? Yet we do this–and I am just as guilty of this! I have baby-level Zulu (and church vocabulary, whoop whoop!) but 80% of the people in the provence of South Africa speak Zulu. Why is that okay?
If we as white South Africans are really committed to not just intellectually assenting to the idea that racism is a system of privilege built on an unjust history, (and not just thinking mean things about people), then we need to do what we can to:
- acknowledge privilege (expose it to ourselves & others)
- work to create fairer systems
- leverage our privilege for others rather than for ourselves
- listen, learn from, and stand in solidarity with people who are experiencing racial injustice
And one way that we’re privileged is that we don’t have to learn another language to get by in our country, and we expect everyone to communicate with us in our first language. In our church denominations, in our work places, in our schools– as white people we are often in positions of authority or power, and language plays into this. (Sometimes we say we’re on equal footing with our Zulu peers, or even their subordinate, but because of our history many times we’re unconsciously asserting authority over over them rather than listening. Other times, others are wrongly holding us up on a pedestal because of their false beliefs in their own inferiority). Playing into this dynamic is the fact that we’re communicating in English, our words, our terms, our standards. Hopefully anyone who has taken a good English course has learned how language and worldview are closely linked–how our words shape what we see, and how we see it. And anyone who has seriously studied any foreign language (with a good teacher) has hopefully seen for themselves how this is true.
What if we were willing to be the one that brings chuckles and smirks because the word order of our sentences was wrong, rather than making fun of the way a politician speaks? What if we were willing to put ourselves in a position of being the student? What if we were intentionally in a position where we were not the expert?
And what if doing that opened up a whole new world of understanding? What if we were no longer afraid to shop downtown, because we understood what “all those people” around us were saying? What if we weren’t afraid to drive through a township and have our car break down, because we knew we could ask anyone around us for help? What if we were liberated to find out how the people in our homes were really doing, instead of just giving instructions? What if we had access to the music, the poetry, the stories and histories of everyone around us? We would gain so much. And perhaps it would give us just a bit more sympathy for the people who are speaking English around us. We’d understand how your personality just doesn’t shine through well when you’re communicating in a language you’re not confident in. Maybe in Zulu someone would say, “The newspapers today are just inflating the egos of the local authorities, but are not taking into account the needs of the working class,” but in English they are forced to say, “The newspapers are bad.”
And just because more and more people can communicate in English (even better than some of us first-language Englishers) doesn’t mean we don’t have to bother— many of the poorest in our province (often the ones that racist systems hurt the most) still don’t communicate in English at all.
I think of several reasons why people (like me!) in KZN don’t learn Zulu. One is that it’s hard to learn another language, and putting in lots of effort into something we’re not forced to do (because we’re privileged) is difficult. Also: it’s time consuming and we have only been given a finite amount of time by God to accomplish what he wants us to do with our lives–if we can get by with English, why spend time on another language? And perhaps another (or maybe this is just me) is we feel awkward and embarrassed. Learning another language is embarrassing. It’s vulnerable. You sound foolish. It’s like being a two-year-old all over again. I still have nightmares that I’m in Afrikaans class and have to give an oral.
So I’m not saying you have to go and get your PhD in Zulu, but I do think we’re called to at least try. At least entertain the idea. At least make a genuine attempt. Some people may be super gifted and be able to fly ahead, but what if the rest of us signed up for a conversational Zulu class and actually tried? Here are some baby steps we could all easily take:
- Learn how to pronounce words in Zulu (especially the “hl” sound, which anyone can do, and it’s in more words than the c, x and q which terrify so many of us) so you can at least say the names of your friends and the town where you live correctly.
- Learn how to greet, and have a basic conversation about the weather, and then use it. The general rule for language learning is learn a little, use a lot.
- Learn something about the grammar and vocabulary by taking a basic 6 week course. Even if it moves too quickly for you to retain much, you’ll learn invaluable things about the language, which will also give you more understanding when interacting with second-language English speakers (for example, if you understand Zulu word order or the fact the passive voice is used often, you’ll understand why these two things are carried over into English by many second-language speakers. Then rather than being confused or making fun of it, you’ll see it as a sign that they actually know multiple languages pretty decently and are quite intelligent).
- Don’t settle for Fanagalo, or speaking English in a “Zulu accent”. If you know a small amount of Zulu and speak it correctly (or at least attempt to speak it correctly), you’ll have lots more respect from first-language speakers than if you try to speak lots of Fanagalo. Give learning Zulu the same respect you’d give learning any foreign language. You wouldn’t go to France and speak English through your nose, then tell people it’s basically the same as French.
- Don’t mock second-language accents. This is a touchy one, I know. In South Africa, we love telling a good story, and we’re good at mimicking each other and having a laugh at ourselves (and each other). But here’s the thing: There’s a difference between impersonating people when you’re really getting into telling a story, and mocking the way people speak. If you can’t tell the difference, then tell stories and jokes that mock yourself, not other people— you’ll be safe from hurting others, and from perpetuating stereotypes about people of other language groups that aren’t true. Our problem is that in South Africa we often rely on these stereotypes to make sense of the world, instead of making fun of the world.
Okay, ball’s in your court: Any first-language Zulu friends want to share their thoughts on English people learning some Zulu? What have I failed to mention? Any other South Africans want to chime in? Have any English-firsties learned Zulu? How did you go about it?