Self-examination is a difficult experience. It requires a humble disposition to see the beautiful marks and the flaws which distract from that beauty. Even more so, national self-examination demands its citizens to reflect on where they have been, where they are, and what is their destination. As with all organized groups there is a culture. There are a set of values, beliefs, languages, and customs which mark inclusion and participation. In our country, I want to humbly assert whiteness is the dominant culture asserting freedom demands participation in this cultural experience.
What is whiteness?
Whiteness is a cultural experience. It is a belief, at least in America, in which it is the standard of measure by which all other cultural expressions and human experiences are judged. I think for most of us, we walk in American life unaware of its presence, yet whiteness casts it shadow over our daily lives.
What was whiteness in the past?
The major American institutions-political, economic, social, and religious-are informed by this cultural dynamic. The nation celebrates men such as George Washington, John Adams, and Patrick Henry who were courageous and sacrificial British citizens choosing to establish a new world separate from British tyranny. The establishment of this new nation carried a strange irony as a new tyranny was enacted upon the lives of an existing people to continue the expansion of this new experiment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What else is to be expected as cultures clash to maintain identity, maintain resources, and simply exist?
To the victor obviously goes the spoils. The descendants with a Caucasian flavor created and justified a specific perspective of culture which would influence all of American life. I don’t necessarily fault them for establishing this baseline for how to conduct politics, execute a particular laissez faire capitalistic system, and the religious dominance of Protestantism. In the grand scheme of providence whiteness prevailed in America. Admittedly, it is in this cultural context of whiteness I am subject to develop this very writing and it has informed my learning.
What is whiteness? Is it a way of speech? We are to speak the “Queen’s English!” Is whiteness the accumulation of colonial actions spread throughout the world manipulating, conquering, and redefining persons of colors as backwards and animalistic? Borrowing from the thoughts of Black intellectual James Baldwin, maybe you can only understand yourself by forming a doctrine announcing my skin is cursed, my hair is nappy, and my lips are huge. Are we to understand whiteness as embodied in a group of persons who can only understand themselves in the context of creating “others?”
What is whiteness in the present?
Depending on who you ask many would have you believe whiteness finds a home with its colonial impulses and intense desire to justify racial disparity and inequity within the election of President Trump and conservative agenda. Yet can we not consider whiteness with its colonial power and racial paternalism finds homes on the Left side of American streets as well? Whiteness in the present pulls itself up to the dinner table not only with Conservative Whites but also in coffee shops participating in conversations between “woke” Millenials and lecturing in college institutions.
For example, as a seminary graduate, I received no exposure to theologians who were persons of color. My exposure was limited to those European males coming out of Germany, England, Geneva, and the North East America. White males who possessed a specific view of God, redemptive history, and how human beings were to treat one another. It was not until I completed my master’s thesis on Black Church leadership I discovered theologians such as Lemuel Haynes, James Cone, Howard Thurman, and Willie Jennings. I had to move out of a segment of Protestant Christianity which was narrowly defined by Whiteness and yet held itself as the standard for Christianity. There were more voices from different cultures which sought to express faith in an infinite God and life.
Even today with the many voices rising from persons of color, I ask myself if White brothers and sisters perceive a loss of place and personal identity. Persons of color are seeking to assert their value and presence within this American experiment. A reclamation which calls to account past sins and present situations. What is the response? Charlottesville torches. Confederate rallies. What is more antithetical to freedom than the promotion of an ideology embodied in the Confederacy. Fifty-four White supremacist indicted right here in Arkansas. An ideology which has no power yet still finds a few adherents and flies over some Southern states even today. An ideology which should remain buried in the past but remembered in our present and future reflections.
What are we to make of these White voices in the sound of other voices? Are the voices of these fringe elements calling persons of color to remain in compliance to the cultural realities of Whiteness? It is possible White brothers and sisters are realizing the period of such a dominant cultural influence is now experiencing its swan song.
I find myself treading on a very thin line. How does one express his or her significance as a human being ad then a person of color within a culture which explicitly and more so implicitly diminishes his or her humanity without diminishing the humanity of those who identify with the dominant culture of whiteness. In other words, I love my brothers and sisters who are aware or unaware of their whiteness.
What does the future hold for White brothers and sisters in America?
Well it depends on self-identification. Identity is key to personal experience. We are an amalgamation of a various values, beliefs, customs, and relationships which are critical to how we understand ourselves in this human experience.
We are human beings and we have made significant progress from the past colonial powers which supported slavery and maintained the systems of Jim and Jane Crow, and Segregation. We are human beings who chose to march collectively in Washington D.C. to hear about a dream and braved Edmund Pettus to secure the right to vote. We are human beings who have come along way overseeing the funeral of Jim and Jane Crow to where we are today.
I want to offer three encouragements for my White brothers and sisters.
The first encouragement I want to offer is tied up in the title of this essay, “White Brothers and Sisters.” We are a common humanity. We are family by origination of the dirt. The word human has its origins from the Latin “humus” meaning soil. If we would look beyond our skin color, languages, and national origins we would feel in our hand shakes and hugs, the soil. The earth unites men and women from a variety of ethnicities and we would be encouraged to remember as such.
My second encouragement is built on the words of Frederick Douglass. In 1865 Mr. Douglass speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society offered his observations regarding the future of freedmen.
“What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
White brothers and sisters, leave persons of color alone! You have helped with the “War on Poverty” and statistically the situation of Blacks has diminished over the last fifty years. You have helped with the “War on Drugs” and persons of color populate more jail cells than dorm rooms of college campus. You have helped with affirmative action and are we now saying my intelligence is not enough? All I ask is you give us a chance at full freedom and not the paternalism which echoes the dead institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and Jane Crow. Leave us alone like the Asians. Leave us alone like the Jews. Leave us alone. I want to encourage you to see power and creativity lift persons of color to an atmosphere which is as high as we desire to exist.
This leads to my final encouragement and conclusion. America prides itself as the bastion of freedom. President Ronald Regan stated, “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.” In another place he stated, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” My White brothers and sisters who are my family by location of the soil and the reality we are made in God’s image. Use your freedom as a means to uplift others because of our shared humanity and not out of a sense of past sins or present guilt. Yours is the opportunity to demonstrate color truly is not the defining character in which a person of color can live free, to pursue life, and happiness. What is the future for you? Your future is tied to my future and the future of Latino-Americans, Asian-American, Native Americans, and all others. It will require some honest reflection which should produce actions which affirm human bodies and human life.
So I close with James Baldwin who observed about America,
“any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of
human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of
everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of
this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental
failures in the history of nations.”
My brothers and sisters I would encourage you to conduct some self-reflection because this country depends on this activity.
I had a naive optimism when the election had completed in November a fresh wave of people would be elected and prepare themselves to act as waiters to serve our country. I had believed what would arrive at the dinner tables of America would be glasses filled with civility and we would all enjoy a meal which was to arrive at the beginning of 2019.
Needless to say, I was disturbed by what was brought to our tables. What we received was more of the same language and anger which has been characteristic of our nation since President Obama’s executive leadership. What do you say when a newly elected congresswoman calls President Trump, “motherfucker?” The response was reminiscent of my children when they were younger. “Well he did it first!”
The context of our nation’s uncommon decency did not begin in January 2017. Yes the executive leader of these United States demonstrates a lack of decorum in terms of language, a combative tone with those who would challenge his most off the wall statements, and an incessant penchant to tweet. This uncommon decency which washes over our country did not flow initially from President Trump but has been flowing out of the hearts of many persons regardless of party affiliation, ethnic community, or religious commitment. A Pew Research Study (Dimock, Kiley, Keeter, & Doherty, 2014) examined how uniformity along political ideology increased in a twenty year period between 1994 and 2014. The study sadly points to an increasing adversarial sentiment in which 38% of Democrats had very unfavorable views of Republicans, while 43% of Republicans had very unfavorable views of those holding Democratic positions. Therefore, the incivility we are experiencing has been growing through Democratic and Republican presidencies. Presidencies which have experienced impeachment, unfavorable wars, accusations of Islamic influence, and now Russian influence. President Trump is not the source but a symptom.
Sadly, these two parties have positioned themselves to dominate the public square, pitting family members, co-workers, and even persons of the same religious affiliation against one another. In the same period of 1994-2014, we also saw the rise of social media. Facebook launched in 2004 essentially eclipsing the outmoded Myspace. Two years later, Twitter and its 140 characters-now 280- would also position itself as a significant communication tool which the current President uses with fervor. The public square has now moved to the technological square where persons can hide on a phone or behind a computer screen communicating some of the most damning, damaging, and dehumanizing content without fear of reprisal.
We are all accountable for the lack of decency. This lack of decency pervades our communication devices and finds embodiment in those who position themselves as our elected leaders, whether political office or religious office. If we have arrived at this place because of our collective efforts, then it requires we as a people lay hands on the future to secure a common decency for our posterity.
Noam Chomsky, crafted an article entitled, “Humanity Imperiled: The Path to Disaster” in June 2013. In this article Dr. Chomsky examined the future of humanity considering if our path to disaster would be through ecological destruction or the penultimate of nuclear destruction. I would propose that these paths are chosen only if we continue to demonstrate an uncommon decency towards one another. If we are not willing to galvanize as peacemakers to claim decency towards one another, how much easier it is to devastate our soil or the soil of another nation for monetary gain or claims of democracy? A lack of common decency willing to dehumanize persons on social media is a slow steady descent towards more conflict, more war, and the most devastating event, mushroom clouds.
Imagine how a cup of common decency can be just what we need to stop a great dinner from becoming a food fight. We just need the waiters willing to serve.
Self-reflection has become a critical personal discipline for my life. This practice offers me the opportunity to examine actions I have taken, words spoken, and thoughts I have meditated on throughout the year. Self-reflection is a humbling practice as it allows an individual to face him or herself.
I think we are all in need of a little bit of self-reflection during this period of our societal history. We are not as holy as we make ourselves out to be on a daily basis. We are not as just and merciful to others as we would want others to be with our own actions and words. We are not as civil as we think we are in the 21st Century America.
What a strange word.
This word invokes images of peaceful interactions between persons. Persons who have equally chosen to place themselves in positions in which there are no religious, social, political, or economic hierarchies. I imagine civility as the embodiment of two human beings on a journey of questioning, discovery, and understanding.
Civility should produce friends.
Then I realized something. In order for civility to be embodied in human beings it necessitates the acknowledgement of a human being’s personhood. Rufus Burrow identifies a zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which persons are not appropriately given the consideration of their inherent worth. If I am not willing to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom I am engaging within a form of communication the result will not be beneficial to either of us. If I desire to see civility I have to do something different.
As I reflect on this past year, I worked hard to provide a platform for people, primarily on social media, to discuss topics of race, poverty, and other social issues. Sometimes the topics went very well while other times I just shook my head and chose to delete the whole interaction. I realized I was contributing to the incivility I was seeking to reduce.
Breath changes people.
When a person feels, touches, and sees another person the opportunity for change is possible. That is what happened to John and his friends in first century Palestine with a Jewish Rabbi who embodied the breath of God. Social media is a poor platform for interaction because people are not face to face. Our ability to feel appropriately, touch a hand, and see facial expressions are significantly hindered. Social media many times creates opportunities for persons to diminish themselves through disrespectful and dehumanizing comments which prevent any type of meaningful engagement, discovery, and understanding. I have observed even the most encouraging statement can descend into ugliness.
So now as 2019 approaches I need to exhale in the presence of other living persons. I want people to recapture the power and beauty of inspiration through the virtue of human presence.
Noam Chomsky stated “freedom produces opportunity and culminates in responsibility.” I have a responsibility to people in the area in which I live to cultivate civility. Why? (Only God knows.) Whatever the case, I understand my small platform and will pursue opportunities to advance the dignity of persons.
What will this look like?
Join me for self-reflection, civility, and the opportunity to experience the breath of another human being.