On Corporate Confession: A Prayer for Black History Month

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.”

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Ok, so I’m racist. Now what?

One of my favorite books, specifically aimed at a Christian audience, that takes social science research on groups and identity, and applies it to churches. Go buy it here! http://www.amazon.com/dp/0830844031/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=46875713345&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=11074892684612560981&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_5s1q88zmna_b

One of my favorite books, specifically aimed at a Christian audience, that takes social science research on groups and identity, and applies it to churches. Go buy it here! http://amzn.to/1P4euHl

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:

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. 

A practical way to help end racism: Learn isiZulu

UnknownThere’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? 

Listening. Really, really listening.

The historic AME Church in Charleston where the shooting took place, (courtesy of CNN.com)

The historic AME Church in Charleston where the shooting took place, (courtesy of CNN.com)

I had an English teacher in high school who made us do listening exercises and not just speeches in English class. “We’re training kids to talk,” he would say, “and there’s too many people talking in the world, and very few people who are trained how to listen.”

I’ve heard that in the Isreali-Palestine negotiations, before anyone actually comes together to sit down at the table, the negotiating team first has to so thoroughly understand their opponent’s position that they’d be able to convincingly present their case. “We can only start talking once we really understand each other,” they say.

And so this is what I’m asking my white friends, especially my white friends who follow Jesus. I’m asking that we listen.

When headlines happen that involve the deaths of black Americans, before we speak (or before we don’t speak) can we listen to what our black friends are saying? Can we first see what this means to the black community? Followers of Jesus are encouraged to put into practice Paul’s words, “Do good to everyone, especially those who are your brothers in Christ.” When a black man dies, and it’s splashed all over the news, can we listen to what our black brothers in Christ are saying about it, and let that be the lens through which we view the situation, before we add on our political interpretations and agendas? (Check out rapper Lecrae’s op-ed on perspective here).

When a  white guy kills a bunch of black people at a historically black church, can we listen to the meaning that our black pastors are ascribing to this event? When they talk about how this reminds them of the Civil Rights era, and how that terror is still very real today, can we listen? Can we listen when they say they feel angry at how the white church was silent about the Ferguson shooting? Can we try to understand why they would feel that way? Before we jump in and talk about how our constitutional rights are being trampled by gun-control laws, can we at least hear where the plea for gun-control laws are coming from? Can we understand that history shows pretty clearly that if the federal government hadn’t stepped in, it might have been 1995 before black people could vote safely in many Southern states, and that for many black people, the federal government is an ally, not an enemy– all because they can’t trust the people in their own neighbourhoods and districts to vote in ways that lead to black lives flourishing? I’m not asking you to agree, I’m asking you to listen. And to listen in order to understand.

I’m asking us white Christians, who are really good at giving talks to girls about dressing modestly and inconveniencing ourselves out of love for our brothers with the clothes that we wear, to start giving talks about issues that matter to our black brothers. Taking down the Confederate Flag is exactly the same argument as the modesty argument. It might not be a big deal to you, as a Southerner, it might be your right to fly it, but as someone who cares for your black brothers and sisters, will you inconvenience yourself and take it down out of love for them?

In South Africa, can we find ways to listen to the black people in our lives—and make a space that is comfortable for them enough to share? Too often when interact with black people, we do so in a way that does not afford them the power to really say what they think. When we tell a race-based joke, are our black friends laughing because it’s funny, OR because they know if they told you it makes them uncomfortable you wouldn’t listen but would tell them to get a sense of humour and stop being so sensitive? When we ask a black collegue’s opinion, have we created an environment where they can really share and be heard, or do they need to tow our party-line? Can we listen to our black friend’s interpretations of the news before we jump in with our own agendas? Can we invite their criticism? Can we ask them to let us know when we’re being offensive, or pushy, or insensitive? In our churches, our workplaces and our dinner parties, are we listening to black voices?

And because I hate reading things like this that don’t have any practical applications, here are a few concrete ideas:

In the USA: 

  • Watch this series of 8 TED talks on race and racism in the USA. If you only watch two, make sure it’s this one about 3 things we can do to get over our internal bias (it’s super funny, too!) or this one, that discusses the criminal justice system.
  • Here’s a reading list that was put together to help people understand the context around the Charleston shooting.
  • Join a church or civic organization that is not predominantly white, and get involved. Join a choir, or a prayer meeting. Put yourself in places where you can have black leaders in positions of authority over you so you can listen and learn.
  • Change your neighborhood.
  • Get a different newspaper, or magazine subscription.
  • Take a course on African American history.
  • Take a course on African American literature.
  • Ask your black friends about what they think and really listen.

In South Africa;

  • This TED talk about bias is American, but the concept still applies in a South African context.
  • Join a church or organization that is not predominantly white, or seek out leaders in your denomination who are not white and be mentored by them.
  • Change your neighbourhood.
  • Take a course on black South African history and literature.
  • Read this series of blogs on race and South Africa by Brettfish – he gets some great guest posters of all races to weigh in, and as a white South African male, hearing his perspective and his journey of wrestling with race and privilege is super helpful.

Black friends, both in South African and the US, what are some things that you wish white people would do to listen better? 

Pea Soup and Brene Brown

Read the book. It's way better than the movie.

Read the book. It’s way better than the movie.

I always picture “shame” like the pea-soup green fog that descends on the town of Chewandswallow in the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 

It kind of rises up inside of you and hovers around you like an icky blanket and of COURSE every rational human being would want to avoid it. You’d be crazy not to.

I want to avoid it. Even just writing that sentence makes me want to hide under a blanket or take a shower. Shame is just such an icky feeling.

I want to avoid it so much, that sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to things that are true. If I feel like some part of what that person is saying somehow implicates me, my armor goes up and I try to run away as far as possible.

Especially when it comes to conversations about race. If there’s one thing that no kind, decent human being wants to be called, it’s a racist. (There are some other people out there who maybe wouldn’t mind being called a racist, but that’s a whole different story). In the US, we immediately picture ourselves being lumped in the same category as the KKK, cross burning and all. In South Africa, we think of the atrocities committed under apartheid, the police interrogations, the shame of having the world hate us, and we want to flee the other direction.

We do not want to be called racist.

And I think that’s a problem. It’s not that we don’t want to be racist. We don’t want to be called racist. We don’t want people to think we’re racist. How much do we really want to be people who are not racist?

On the surface I always say, “Of course I don’t want to be racist! I’m not racist!” But I definitely want to avoid the horrible squishy feeling that comes up when there are conversations about privilege. And my built-in anti-shame mechanism can prevent me from hearing truth, because I can’t get past my own feelings.

And when I’m listening to black friends share their experiences of racism, or talking about some systemic injustice their dealing with, whether it’s in the academy, or in their interaction at a restaurant, I oscillate between two different reactions. On the one hand, the pea-soup-fog of shame is descending and I just want to cover my ears and run away. Or, I want to immediately jump in to the story and share some kind of anecdote that will completely disassociate me from “those” racist white people who are nothing like me. On the other hand, this disassociating myself from “those racist white people” is a process that requires some pretty crazy racist white people to exist. I need those crazy racists so that I look okay, and the focus isn’t on me. As long as there are still people who will kill black people in churches, no one is asking me hard questions about my unconscious biases, or the systems that privileged me. And I’m safe, because I can avoid shame for the moment.

But, there’s concrete evidence that shows white people in South Africa are still privileged.

  • In a 2006 and 2010 study conducted in KZN (controlling for class-based discrimination), almost 1 in 3 black people will be discriminated against in booking holiday accommodation.
  • White people continue to occupy the highest living standard measures in South Africa, (73% of white people are in the highest two groups, and none are in the lowest groups). (Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Study, 2014).
  • Black/African people make up 41.2% of the educated post-school population yet only 21.1% of managers are black/African. The percentage of black/Africans is even smaller in highest level management and CEO positions, where 69.2% of management positions are held by white people (a reminder that we white people are only 10% of the population). (Institute of Race Relations).

There’s hard evidence of racism in America today as well… evidence about how often black kids are convicted for the same crimes that white kids just get a warning for. Evidence about how the police treat people that they pull over. Studies that show there’s still discrimination in hiring and admissions processes. A history of racism that trapped some people in cycles of poverty and other’s in an upward spiral of privilege (but I haven’t just finished a masters in that, so I don’t have tons of studies at my finger tips. But you could watch this TED talk) that references several.

But as a white person, it’s really hard to hear things like this. It’s really hard to hear, because we have this pea-soup fog of shame that hovers around statistics like that, and since we don’t want to walk into that shame, we don’t want to listen to those stats, or hear those stories.

“That can’t be right!” our gut anti-shame mechanism tells us. “That’s only one side of the story. They’ve got to be slanting that somehow.”

Because if those stories and stats are true, it means that we’ve got to walk through that pea-soup fog. Because the truth is that I don’t have to let the shameful things about my heritage or my people group, or my social group define everything about me. But if I really want to be someone who isn’t racist, if I want to be for racial justice, then I’ve got to be willing to take the plunge to work through that process.

Even if it makes me uncomfortable.

Even if I don’t like what I hear.

I love Brene Brown’s stuff. She’s a shame researcher, but her focus is on whole-hearted living– connecting with others, having meaning, and being vulnerable. All the wonderful things that happen when we take a risk and step into discomfort and are willing to listen and grow.

(You should watch them all, but the link above is a FANTASTIC one on this topic. She’s so funny and I wish I was her. In this talk, in a side comment, she says that conversations about privilege are so difficult because of shame. But she has great comments about how to process shame, to be vulnerable, embrace discomfort and be fully alive).

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging more about race stuff. And I’m inviting to you journey with me. Don’t let the shame– real shame, or the specter of shame- keep you from engaging. Be brave. Watch Brene Brown. Or at least read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  🙂