There’s much to be said by how many words are spoken, also by how many are left unsaid. We rarely delve into how quickly someone answers a question, perhaps a nervous tick, pride, or presumption are the precursor to these witty remarks. But seldom do we stop or slow a conversation down enough to realize how a question may affect the hearer.
That glazed-over look they have when a question hits somewhere deep, so deep that it causes them a moment of panic and they have to do something or anything possible to swim up and out of the pit of self-realization. Their reaction is to answer the question as quickly as possible because to think about things, especially the thing you had taken this long to learn, is to look weak or to be perceived as an obtuse individual. No one wants to be portrayed as obtuse. That’s too crass a qualification. So a quip, a verbal jab, a cackle, and possibly a crude joke to dissuade the seriousness of the question you were just asked helps you do away with the all-too-real possibility that you have been wrong about something for decades.
I believe I saw this look earlier this week whilst in conversation with a peculiar gentleman. An older gentleman, of course. I did say decades did I not? This sir, this mister, this gentleman I speak of has the given post-military-serviceman look. The military haircut, clean-shaven chin, furrowed eyebrows and eyes stook in a squint as if the sun were always before them. He dawns a bottom down, which he neatly tucks into his blue jeans. Belted, of course. Wears boots, drives a Harley, and also owns a truck.
I once asked him if he had served, if he had spent time in the desert or in a foreign village where the language was indecipherable, the food undigestible, and the living conditions, well, unlivable. His response, after hiding a hint of embarrassment, was no. He reads well and reads much. Consumes literature about soldiers, mercenaries, real and well, half-real military veterans. His personal favorites are navy seal veterans who now speak at veteran conventions, TED talks, police academies, late night shows, and men who have written enough books about their personal traumas at home before the wars and their personal traumas after the war that their lives can be made into Tom Clancy movies for decades to come.
I’m always suspicious of the military types. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with someone who admires the work of valiant soldiers, their sacrifice on the field, and the continued sacrifice to live with trauma once they return from battle. That’s honorable. Although I find American wars ethically and morally questionable. But that’s not the point.
I’m suspicious of the types who idealize the military complex, the ruggedness, the rough and tough stance, the superman, the American boy-turned-man by blood, sweat, and the pure desire to disintegrate the enemies of the state. But I am even more suspicious of the type that has never joined nor served, has not participated in any military drills, national guard, paramilitary venture, not even the local police force. Their admiration for this kind of life, or rather, service, irks me.
Either way, this gentleman I speak of has the look of a healthier and somewhat younger Clint Eastwood. Same characteristics except, well, like I said, healthier and fifty years young, because I think Clint Eastwood is anywhere between 100 to 110 years old at this point. This man I reference looks rugged and tough but is actually quite docile and kind. His words are direct, his attitude astute, his conduct like that of a serviceman, his gait is wide, consuming the hallway as he walks even though he’s quite slim for his age. I presume he works out. He gives off the vibe of someone who would. He’s a gentle soul. Laughs when his face isn’t shut-in. Jokes when in the company of others. He will stop his day just to show me pictures of his granddaughter, which, let’s be honest, is one of the nicest things anyone can do. Anyone who shares family photos, especially of cute little babies with others, is a kind-hearted human being. And he is. I truly believe he is.
But today’s post is a reflection of a conversation that this gentleman and I had earlier this week on the voices that dominate our headspace.
We were discussing recent events, the news, and also the violent overthrow of a statue of a Canadian saint whose legacy is under scrutiny. The statue in question was toppled, spray painted and decapitated with the help of several angry people wielding sledgehammers.
The gentleman was more concerned with this toppling and beheading of a statue than he was concerned with the history of the individual whose statue had been toppled.
Side note: the person in question began Canadian residential schools, where, under the authority of Canada’s government and with the help of local churches with the social support of white Canadians, many indigenous families had their children forcibly taken from them and forced into schools that would erase the savage Indian from their memory along with their cultural identity. This saint would teach these kidnapped children to hate everything about their former life. This is this man’s legacy.
But this gentleman wasn’t focused on the legacy and history of this saint. He was more perturbed by the toppling of statues and severing of metallic heads. This, to his hardened character, was a step too far.
“These people hate people like me. Wealthy white men.” Paraphrasing the gentleman. He points his index finger at his forehead as the last few words fade from his mouth. I have to complete them for him to which he reaffirms. As if the reality of him being wealthy and then white, lastly, a man, are all too heinous a combination that to speak such words in public is dangerous. Thankfully, at least in my opinion, they are not.
This gentleman has studied well, in a professional scope and also a religious one. He has attended and graduated from a renowned religious institution. One we both know well and whose history in academia is envied. He has sat under a very prominent lecturer who our shared religious world respects very much. So, when it comes to philosophy and theology we have a common ground so in this conversation, I dared to approach his fears and agitation from there.
“I need to ask you a question,” I began, trying not to sound too forward as his anxiety over the severed statue head was at its peak. He used laughter to ward it off but it wasn’t working. We both noticed. “While in seminary, say, during your spiritual and vocational formation and throughout the many years of your schooling, how many of the writers, theologians, and teachers that you had read, whose materials you had consumed, were NOT of European descent? You know many books from non-white writers have you read?”
This, at this moment, is where I can see it. Even if for a split second, the tiniest amount of time passes but I see his eyes brighten, decades of bliss are pushed away from the seat of comfort and the reality of blindness and seclusion are made bare on his conscience and I see it.
Hands in pockets, back stiff, and a visible agitation is made clear as he bounces off his feet and responds as quickly and jovially as possible, proud of the answer but still, somewhat unaware of the gravity of his answer.
I nod. He nods. I smile. He does too, for a bit, we trade a few more pleasant remarks over our religious circles and culture. He blames the culture. I blame the religious circles for being part of the problem that started the culture-related problem for us. We exchange our salutations and greetings once more, he reaches for his phone to show me more baby pictures, we both smile, and off he goes in military step, drill, and cadence back to the Forsaken Land of Statues of Genocidal Murderers and their Statuette Preservationists.
Racial Catalog and Inventory
This interaction, this conversation between the gentleman and I was another step in my realization of just how anemic some of my white friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and the like are about the subject of race, racism, scientific racism, structural racism, and so on.
In working my way through Daniel Hill’s book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White, I realized, as Daniel did, that too many white people are unaware of just how much white literature, film, history, wars, triumph, culture, music, cuisine, philosophy, theology, politics, and policies have influenced their thinking.
Like this gentleman I conversed with, he was unaware of just how much of his theological framework was produced and built upon by white theologians, professors, mentors, pastors, deacons, elders, friends, parents, and social clubs who lacked the diversity to help him understand the hostility toward a statue of a man who purposely caused the deaths of hundreds of Indigenous children and destroyed the identity of thousands more through residential schooling.
So, I made a list of the the voices that dominate my headspace. Voices that have influenced me over time.
And yes, having grown within a particularly religious environment I can attest to the fact that I, too, was influenced by a generally Eurocentric body of scholarship and work.
(Note: Allow me to pause here and explain to the reader that there is nothing inherently wrong in studying European folklore, history, literature, theology, and social formation. In fact, it is healthy for one’s educational formation to study European history. There is nothing wrong there. What I am challenging here is Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, or blindness and unawareness of just how much one has been influenced by Eurocentric materials and later finds themselves dismissing other perspectives, usually the perspectives of minority groups. One usually precedes the other.)
So, the books we read in our religious circles were written by European or white American scholars. The religious commentaries we referenced were written by European or white American scholars. The scholastic structures we followed and graduated from were produced and later adopted into our denomination by European or white American scholars, and listen, I’m a black kid from Brazil at this point, unaware, myself, that much of my formation is absent of the voices of people who look just like me.
I hadn’t realized this until recently.
I have had to revisit much of my ‘scholarly’ materials to determine who it was that influenced my thoughts, opinions, both political and scientific opinions, my convictions, and so on. And I found that especially surrounding my religious formation, which, to me is the most important aspect of my life, was formed, built, structured, developed, and advanced by European or white American men.
If I had not been a minority (black and Brazilian), I would have assumed, like the gentleman had, that the decapitation of this statue was more egregious an act than the man whose statue was toppled, racist and murderous legacy.
Chances are I would not even have ventured into who the individual was, why his statue was there, or what he had done to merit the honor of being memorialized. I would have spent more time decrying the iconoclasts than questioning the idolization of the iconophiles who erected his statue in the first place.
Like the gentleman, I would be oblivious to the struggles of minority groups because everyone I know, from my parents, my friends, my siblings, my community, my schools, post-graduate studies, theologians, lecturers, pastors, deacons, ministers, worship teams, accountants, builders, architects, engineers, managers, colleagues, executives, and with the exception of a few cleaners and laborers I happen upon on my way into and out of work, are all white.
Without committing to this inventory of thought formation, I, too, would have never realized just how much of my society has been set up to shield me from its hyper eurocentric or exceptionalist white American inception.
But this is somewhat of a contradiction because being a black man in American (or North America) I was obviously aware of the many horrors and genocides that preceded me in these lands. What troubles me further, however, is how unaware I was about how much of my educational formation had been comprised of Eurocentric thinkers.
Having purposely gone out of my way to listen to women, women of color, black men, Latinos, Filipinos, Koreans, Native Americans and so, has opened my mind to more historical events and perspectives, which, have been and continue to be denied by my Eurocentric and white American circles to this day.
See the correlation?
And this has helped me realize that the proponents of ‘Why topple that statue? What’s next? Me?’ dismissive trope are people who have very few friends of color (or none at all) or little to no influence from minority individuals in his or her life.
And this places a stumbling block in front of them where they cannot learn on the current issues of race, racism, racial equity, history, and so forth because most if not all of the voices that have influenced them up until now have never experienced these wrongs. In fact, the voices that have influenced them have all but participated in the wrongs, in overt or covert ways.
So, if you’re a minority like me and you’re reading this I need you to understand that when you’re in conversation with someone who is hostile to current events and dismissive of our calls for justice, reparations, remuneration, racial reconciliation, a push for more accurate and all-encompassing history books, a need for holding bad cops and killer cops accountable, and the toppling of statues of individuals who perpetrated genocide, understand that the person you’re in conversation with is working from a limited and restricted perspective.
They do not have the language by which to define what has happened. They do not have the empathy by which to understand these wrongs. They do not share the community hurt that it takes for change. They are limited in their understanding and restricted in their emotional capacity.
The only thing that will help them venture out of this circle of Eurocentric and white American bliss is when they befriend people of color who are compassionate enough to teach them and love them out of ignorance.
Hate and violence will only drive them further into their white fog of ignorance. It may in fact rekindle a white superiority complex so, please, what is done must be done from love toward love.
So go befriend that person and over time, time allowing, educate them. Share with them your personal experiences. They will begin to notice, time allowing, that whenever whiteness comes into contact with non-whiteness, Whiteness (with a capital W) customarily wins.
If You’re White…
And if you’re white, please, commence upon the project of cataloging the voices that have influenced you over time. Produce an inventory of the news stations you listen to or watch, what these anchormen or anchorwomen have to say about minorities, whose books you’re reading, music and genres you’re listening to, political sources, and origins you’re consuming and being shaped by.
Are they overwhelmingly white?
Fret not. By God’s grace, there is nothing wrong with listening to white voices or in being white. It’s a blessing to be white as much as it is in being non-white.
But you’re holding out on yourself by limiting your understanding of our very diverse world by listening to only white voices.
Go out. Befriend people of color and listen to their stories. Not to challenge them with a well, maybe that wasn’t racism, that was just a jackass being mean, kind of narrative. No. Listen. Sit there and once the story has been told, sit with that reality. Digest it. You don’t need to rush to save, to defend, to even give a response. Your presence in our pain is more important than your perceived solutions to it.
Over time you’ll begin to realize that there is a wealth of voices out there that have so much to offer and add to the white voices you have been overwhelmed by.
Befriend people of color. Venture outside your monochromatic world and community. There’s fear, at first, yes, I understand. But with time you will find that fear of ‘the other’ dissipate and disappear as you realize they are no more different from you with the exception that they have a bit more pigmentation than you do. And sometimes they’ll speak a different language. That’s okay. It’s a beautiful addition to our expansive and diverse world.
Read up James Baldwin’s material. Listen to women of color on the news. Minorities concerning political science and economics. Pick up history books that were written by reliable and competent historians of color who can give you added and historically accurate perspectives on the issues of race and the formation of our western world.
If you’re a religious person, read up on materials written by persons who are not from Europeans or white Americans.
Believe me, you’ve read quite a lot from white Europe and white America and you will do yourself a favor to learn more from others as well.
Put Calvin, Luther, Edwards, and White (I know, given), aside and pick up the works of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Jemar Tisby, Justin Giboney, William Lloyd Garrison (white), Robert Kumamoto, Susan Neiman (white), Edward Ball (white and descendant of a Klansman), James H. Cone, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (who wrote extensively on the horrors of lynchings of blacks in the Deep South), W.E.B. du Bois, Ben Crump, Brian Zahnd, Lemuel Haynes, Kristie Anyabwile, and Anthea Butler, just to name a few.
Diversify your friend and learning pool. Diversify it because it’ll make you more compassionate toward the harms done to your neighbors. Those who are screaming, smashing windows, toppling statues, and beheading them with sledgehammers are exhausted by how quiet their white neighbors have been for decades; whereas others have been complicit for centuries.
What we’re seeing today is the side effect of an exhausted generation. One that has seen and experienced way too much silence and ignorance from their white counterparts who, for the most part, have been at the top of the food chain of western civilization for the better part of the last four hundred years and who they can partner with to make the world a better, less hate-filled place.
But this cannot be accomplished, this step toward progress and reconciliation, if so many of our white neighbors are blind to the problem: willful ignorance and apathy.
We need people on our side who will be more upset about a man whose legacy involves kidnapping, murder, genocide, and coverup than people who are upset with a statue being defaced and toppled.
Please, come out of the bubble of white bliss and into the community of humankind, which, by all standards, is beautifully colored.
You’re colored too. That skin of yours ain’t all white. Pale, maybe. But not white.
Whiteness is a social construct invented by people who wanted to use physical characteristics to differentiate between people groups to enslave some, liberate others, enrich some, and exploit others.
Whiteness is an inherently evil concept. Being white is beautiful.
Join us in fighting racism and dismantling the statues of horrible criminals.
Produce your catalog, produce your inventory, and go out and befriend, learn, love, listen, and grow.
I love you. Most of us do too. We just don’t like your lack of sympathy and your willful ignorance concerning our pain.
That’s it. That’s all.