storm progression 

I saw a spider once. I was 14, absently pushing the lawnmower forward across my front yard, and then I froze. A web hung only inches from my face, suspended between the spiked branches of a fir tree. And there it was–the spider. The size of a glass bead, it watched me with a dozen black eyes that dared me to step closer.

Pincers whirling as they wrapped the mummified remains of a now-silent mosquito, the spider showed no awkwardness as its legs flit along its geometric net. The strands caught the dim afternoon light and became silver, and in that moment I forgot ever learning that only giants-the big and strong-deserve mention. Here was a tiny spider holding court on a kingdom of thread, and its every movement resonated as a defiance of gravity.

It probably felt the drops before I did. They began in whispers, falling through the fog that thickened the air, making every breath more labored than before. A drop fell here and there, dampening my jeans in spotted patterns.

It lay in wait for several seconds. Then the rain pounced, bulleting my skin, water dragging my hair down in tangled wet ropes. I fought to keep my head up as the rain roared, the threat of thunder bristling within now glowering clouds. No light remained, and still I stood there, hovering over the spider.

Legs only flickers in the gloom, the spider darted in circles, spinning defenses into every line that tied the web to the tree. But there was no way to evade the drops, no way to diminish their weight, and with another roar the wind soon joined them. The web swung and shook as the wind hammered it, and through the slit of my eyes still open, I saw the spider center itself in the web and go still. The clouds sagged further and unloaded their wet wreckage upon us, muffling a teenager’s prayers for a spider’s survival.

I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to the warmth of my house and wrung out my wet clothes. Maybe I stayed longer. But I remember the spell of watching the spider, palms slick and grasped together as I waited in the dark to see if it would hold on.

A childhood of Animal Planet documentaries taught me that the world is treacherous. A sudden surge of rain can rip a creature’s home apart, ending lives in an instant. But pain, tragedy, can also be an insidious slow crawl. It starts with whispered hints of wetness, innocuous, soft, cleansing. Then it builds and builds, saturating the earth until it’s drowning and choking the air until finally all you see are walls of water crashing around you. And sometimes…it’s both at once. Sometimes it depends on who is the spider and who is the one watching.

That is how oppression works. It’s not one incident, one blatant display of violence. It’s in the murmurings about “those people,” the slipping away of black people from neighborhoods they once lived in for decades, the slow encroachment of hotels and chain restaurants on indigenous land. It’s in the measured accumulation of choices that prioritize the interests and livelihoods of the chosen groups over the less favored.

This is the hardest part for the privileged to grasp: the rain that parches their thirst and feeds their fields can be the threat of drowning for a spider.

Certain storms pass (hey we don’t have segregated bathrooms anymore!), but the additional danger rain presents is that it can oh so easily wipe away all the evidence of what happened before, giving us license to pretend that we don’t walk upon soiled ground.

We could pretend for years that we have progressed differently than we have, and that we have become all-enlightened in that span.

We have progressed. We have progressed from Mamies to the black nannys I see pushing strollers of white toddlers through Washington Square Park. We have progressed from plantations to prisons where black bodies outnumber white by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio. We have progressed from ni***rs to thugs as names to frame our undesirables. We have progressed from auction block sketches to our body parts partitioned and sold in the form of butt lifters and lip plumpers and tanning lotions. We have progressed from lynchings to black boys left bleeding out on streets because they still looked too threatening to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Rain is recycled, moving from pools and reservoirs to the well of mouths and then back to earth and returned to cloud. In a similar way, oppression (simply put: the unjust and often exploitative systematic treatment of a group of people for the benefit of another group) is recycled. It takes new forms, finds new ways to seep into the next generation, and it feels utterly normal…except to the ones who feel the wetness as a threat rather than a giver of life.

But here is where the analogy ends: unlike rain, the repetition of oppressive forces like racism is not natural. It is deeply unnatural as it is a distortion of the intimate community God designed us for. As a friend put it to me: It is “incompatible with the Gospel” many of consider our core truth, yet it is diffused into our everyday life because our world is imperfect. With each new history I learn, I realize how long and wearying this constant threat towards your personhood must be for the people who have lived to see the same patterns emerge in the next generation.

This is not to say that nothing has changed: I sit here typing as a black and Latina woman, educated with a Master’s degree, and I sit on buses with white neighbors and walk through the city most days after sundown. My sister is happily married to a white man who cherishes her; my brother is studying engineering. We are our ancestors’ great hope.

Yet this coexists with the reality that racism and its foundation in white supremacy very much persist in our country (and globally I might add). I may not fear sundown, but many with my skin color fear what will happen their children when hooded and playing after dark. I may have an advanced degree, but I have also been in schools in the South Bronx where too many black girls and boys sleep in a shelter or have a family member who is incarcerated. Interracial marriage is embraced far more easily now, but my darker-skinned sisters are still not approached as equally beautiful, equally desirable, and not defined solely in terms of their strength and stoicism and sass.

As a member of communities in my country that face these struggles, standing through a storm means I hold two truths in tandem and in tension:

  • The first is that you stand on a home, the good things that have been crafted from the labors of those you came before you. They toiled for your benefit so you can live out their unrealized dreams, and opportunity is more available for you now than they could have ever imagined. There is hope wedded to that reality, that there is much for you to receive and then also so much more for you to give back so others can be lifted too.
  • The second is that you stand under threat from the same forces of division and loss and death that your ancestors faced. It can be demoralizing and so, so tiring to feel unsafe within your skin and feel like you are crying out for an end to the injustice and few people around you are listening or are willing to stand by you. Whether you stay quiet or scream out, seeing the evidence that your people have been positioned as less valued in your country is a very real and daily hurt.

But there is this: there is also progression when you are in motion as the rain falls. Despair paralyzes our movement-and how tempting it can be-but when you have hope tethered to a truth outside of yourself, you will not crash to the ground. I believe I have found that hope in Jesus Christ, and the only reason I can challenge what is evil and wrong in this world is because he loves me and cares about all those things too–and definitely more than I am capable of. 

Sometimes getting up each day with a prayer on your lips and your eyes open is an act of defiance. Sometimes watching the news, having a conversation with a friend, going to work the next day is an echo of resilience. Helplessness is an easy sinkhole when you are struck just how much pain is around you; I felt it many moments these past weeks as I watched the events in Charlottesville, in Texas unfold. It feels sometimes like I am doing the bare minimum by just waking up and mentioning these, but if the alternative is checking out entirely, then I choose to give what God enables me to give.

I want to end by affirming you, my sisters and brothers who are black, for weathering the storm–not because you are heroic or romantic or tragically noble, but because you are making choices each day to keep going.

I affirm you for choosing to get up each morning, even if you find yourself too heavy-hearted to walk out the door or too tired to watch the news again as you head to work.

I affirm you for teaching in schools where others might have have given up on the “bad kids” and fighting for those children.

I affirm you for building friendships outside of your race, for intentionally reaching out to build bridges even when it’s hard to share your stories or keep explaining how real racism is for you.

I affirm you for forgiving those who hurt you, even if they never understand why the impact of their actions looms larger than their individual selves.

I affirm you for creating hair products that embrace our God-given features and clothing that connects us to homelands we were taken from and homelands we migrated from.

I affirm you for studying our histories so you can shed light on what’s been hidden.

I affirm you for listening to your friends when they are depressed and angry–and for laughing with them and celebrating good times together.

I affirm you for challenging the powerful through your voices and essays and blog posts, for preaching resistance and lament and reconciliation to your communities when bitterness and separation would be so much more bearable.

I affirm you for hugging your kids and telling them they are precious.

I affirm you for cleaning our buildings and restaurants and parks and making at least a few spaces cleaner than what the world would abandon them to be.

I affirm you for staying on top of not only what’s in the world news, but also what’s happened down the street from you–for cherishing the local and making it matter.

I affirm you for celebrating the diversity of us, whether that be from the Caribbean or West and East Africa, or from distant parts of Europe and Asia, or a line of ancestors rooted in this very soil.

And I affirm you for resisting the rain and declaring: “This day it must end.” It may not stop with that charge, but neither will it dampen the ground where you take space and keep it dry.

 

the sisyphus prayer

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”  Albert Camus

Last night I committed an act of resistance: I allowed myself to feel.

When the hashtags announcing the death of another person of color cease as a trend and become a weekly inevitability, numbness feels like less of a choice and more of a mode of survival. I keep scrolling through my Facebook dash. I avert my eyes from the TV screen. I quiet the clamor of the world with headphones and absorb myself in little happenings that don’t cause my heart to crack.

Then the guilt creeps in. There are others marching, calling government offices, writing, speaking, weeping. This knowledge clings to the edges of my consciousness, much as I resist it at work, at home. The questions persist: Is my silence just another tether for injustice to continue, unchallenged? Should I be doing something? What does it mean that my eyes are dry? 

You’d think that as a social worker, I would understand how trauma works. You’d think I’d be able to point out the symptoms of heartache, the comfort found in desensitizing yourself to it, the body’s reflexes in warding off pain once it threatens to engulf you. Yet it wasn’t until last night when I read the story of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old boy recently shot and killed by a police officer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that I realized just how much the constant exposure to racial violence shapes my daily walk in the world.

Under the label of racial violence, I file the black and Latinx persons wrongfully incarcerated, the black sisters and brothers murdered because their bodies are threatening. I catalogue the black kids sent home for having wild hair and tackled for acting out and “being bad.” I index the times a black woman has been exoticized and silenced and dismissed for being too angry. I codify the times a black man has softened the serrations of his anger to navigate the workplace and move up and out. I trace the long line of comments on social media that blame people of color for causing more division and being racist against white people. I find the gaps between files where we are missing; we are too few in the police force, the Senate seats, the boss chairs.

I archive slavery and Jim Crow and urban poverty as well as imperialism and Operation Wetback and xenophobic-ridden ICE raids. Being multi-ethnic means you face oppression on multiple sides.

The sheer amount of data pointing to the existence of racism in my country filters through every outlet connected to my day-to-day life. Maybe once I would have missed it, but now that I am waking to it, I see the shades of it everywhere. It’s a second loss of innocence that many people of color experience at a much earlier age, this realization that the society you were born into was not structured for your flourishing. Hard work and individual effort aside, a black person can do all the “right” things and still end up dead on the street for simply being black. That is the privilege we lack.

I don’t even sense my mind hammering in walls for itself when I’m bombarded by the evidence of this marginalization. I waver between feeling too much and feeling nothing, yet I still blame myself for not fighting back enough. I resist calling myself a victim because I feel like I haven’t lost much–I’m a lighter-skinned, educated woman from an upper-middle class background. Then another police killing happens, and I’m back to figuring out why my gut is twisting inside me.

There is a psychological and spiritual cost in being exposed to examples of racism around you. I use the passive verb “being” intentionally because I do not always choose to hear about these stories–they are often thrown at me and then I have to fly or fight. Even if I don’t experience the situations personally, the racial subtext reinforces the danger, the vulnerability my blackness carries. And because the roots of this positionality are entrenched in histories white people can choose to gloss over or dilute, there is the very great possibility that if I voice my frustration and grief, I will encounter silence rather than open arms.

The Church does not speak to this type of collective trauma enough, and that neglect produces spiritual communities unequipped to comfort and ally with Christians of color as they wrestle with racial suffering. It’s telling that I’m conditioned to react in at least one of three ways when dealing with my own pain in the area of race:

  • Ignore it until it explodes.
  • Talk to other black people. Rant/cry with them.
  • Cry alone and pray.

The last two responses are not bad–in fact, sometimes I just need to commune in a space with other black people and let myself unravel. I also need the spaces where it’s just me and God wrestling through the unexplainables. I have found so much peace in dropping my guard and releasing my pain to Christ because I know He can handle my rage and my questions.

Yet my wounds still ache anew when I see responses from white churches in America and they are cold–or worse, a kindly sort of acquiescence. The temptation to contain my grief, wall it away, sharpens. If racism engineers such tepid responses, how can the institutions that perpetuate it ever crumble when the people whose ancestors built them don’t know or don’t care?

I could also try not to care–I might even find happiness through it. Why exert so much effort to build bridges when it feels like they’re going nowhere? Every life lost feels like censure.

This is where the Gospel flares into life: in the frail smallness of my life against the vast backdrop of racial pain, Jesus is indomitable. Through Him, I have inherited the spirit of a conqueror rather than a slave to history. And He is redeeming all things and wants me to participate in his work. Scripture reminds me that it is injustice, racism that faces a Long Defeat–not me.

I have nothing to prove, no one to please but Him. He frees me from the self-consciousness that shames my tears, and He meets me in midst of racial trauma. My heart learns to be pliant rather than hard, and leaning on Him, crumpling there in His arms with more questions than answers, I re-learn to feel.

So I curled into my pillow last night, and I wept. I cried for Jayson–and for the other black boys and girls lost this year. I thought of my brother, a black boy who just entered college, and I allowed my fear for him to spill out, pooling into the thick summer night. He’s in danger God. Protect him. Please protect him, I pleaded. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I ranted to God about how helpless I feel sometimes, how much I wish all white people could just understand, how guilty I feel inside the walls of academia when there is so much suffering outside them.

I stopped censoring myself in that moment, stopped pretending the pain wasn’t there, and my guards dropped away, leaving me more vulnerable but also more human than I had allowed myself to be. My defense mechanisms may help me keep it together, but they also resign me to a life dependent on my own capacity to process pain. I am called instead to submit all I am to God, whose capacity is limitless.

In the everyday, it means I am in constant contact with Him through prayer, through silence. It means I am wrestling with the pain and letting that process inform how I engage with people. Sometimes it’s too raw and I need to retreat, but I will not build more walls to defend myself. Trusting God to be my shield is uncomfortably counter-intuitive but also desperately needed. There is a way of being that exists apart from the roles of silent sufferer and hyper-vigilant martyr that black people are pressured to play.

I am sick of being strong. Black women are encouraged, praised to be strong. I seek instead the kind of equity that gives me access to vulnerability so I become more human, less of an object conditioned to resist battering. I want to taste more of the freedom rooted in God’s incredible love for me and inhabit that space where I am no longer resisting injustice alone–and I am not alone.

This is my daily rebellious exercise: When I feel the weight of my world like a rock, I pray its movement forward, inch by inch. My fingers may ache, my back grow sore, but I know this weight will not crush me. This is no futile strain. There are hands far stronger keeping me in place as I look past the rock to where the mountain peak waits.

This is endurance–not that I am strong, but rather that I am allowed weakness.

 

*Learn about Sisyphus here

 

 

to write and riot: one year later

Jordan Edwards is dead.

When I lift my fingers to type, they drum down on the keys with the weight of this–the names of the people Racism has stolen from my communities. They are not just headlines that will pass away; they are not just bodies behind bars. Yet I live in a country where non-White features designate people as Other and thus less valued–no matter how many exceptional people of color “make it out.” There is no “out.” We are all inextricably, unavoidably, in this, and the ripples of one boy’s death collide with each of our realities–even those too numbed to notice.

This is for those who hear me and stay.

I was recently startled into the realization that this blog is one-year old. God charged me during the Urbana ’16 conference to channel all the thoughts I wrestle with into something that could not only stretch my growth, but also potentially challenge and lift up others. This blog was born. I didn’t so much leap with faith as really tip over into a new realm where suddenly my words were pulled out of my head and heart and positioned on display for the world to see (whatever sliver of the world manages to find this blog).

Starting this blog was an exercise in anxiety. I’ve always shied away from public writing, even as I envied others who seem to share with such ease. I also didn’t believe I had anything groundbreaking to offer–not anything other social justice-oriented individuals had already shared (and far more eloquently). Yet God tugged at my feet, so I took a step forward into the unknown.

Rusty from a few years of wildly inconsistent writing habits that would provoke slow, somber head shakes from my former professors, I quarreled with a blank screen and an overload of ambition. I blundered (and still stumble) over the basic stepping stones: to whom to write (audience), what to write about (topic), and how to write about it (tone). Cognizant that I was writing about issues framed as controversial (cite: avoidable) in the Church, each typed word became fraught with tension.

The reality that I am a woman of color in her early 20s loomed over my fingers as they flexed, preparing for the Great White Portal to racial discourse. I sat before my computer (feeling) unequipped, inexperienced, and lonely in my racking desire to confront the racial pain burdening my heart and to help my communities somehow. Then the questions stampeded in, no pause to exhale:

What if I’m too angry?

What if I burn bridges?

What if I have nothing to say? 

What if everyone hates me?

What if I’m wrong? 

Dread wrapped in a tight, thick knot in my throat, I begged God to give me an out. Clearly I wasn’t shaped for this type of work.

A little over a year later, this blog remains (obviously). So what happened? A few realizations unfolded over time:

  • I don’t have to fix racism. It’s not on me to do this–I’m no Savior. I can speak to what I observe, what burdens me, what others have taught me, but I’m never engaging in this work of repentance and reconciliation alone, leading to…
  • I’m joining a conversation. I am one voice, carrying my stories and thoughts and struggles, and my voice matters, but I must recognize that I am entering into a space where I am engaging with past, present, and future threads. There are others I must listen to and learn from, other voices to reflect upon and voices to interact with as we untwist the problems of race and identity and community.
  • I’m human–own it. I am not perfect. Neither am I the ultimate authority on all things related to racial discourse. I can honestly admit that I’m stubborn and struggle with acknowledging my mistakes–I prefer to rationalize them as logical or excusable. I also have a ridiculous capacity for being judgmental, and that creates blinders that prevent me from seeing all sides and angles. I’ve been learning through this writing process how to take responsibility for my sin areas and make space for God to teach me differently. My writing will always reflect my imperfection and gaps in knowledge, but I am committed to deepening my comprehension, adjusting my vision, and growing outwards.
  • The pain is worth it. I’ve cried during and after writing a blog post. Some of them have excavated deep wounds I didn’t realize I still have; some shoved suffering into my face, leaving me adrift and unable to process it all. Some made me feel every single gram of my inadequacy, and I wanted to give up. But then I would get a message from someone who read a post, that it helped them in some way, and it was like God’s prodding to keep going. Words arose, quiet, steady: Keep going daughter. Face the storm. I am with you. So I went on.

I labor over this work–and it’s hard. I am constantly amazed by those of you who have been invested in this labor for years. I agonize over words, pray over them, gnaw my lip and wonder if I should soften the language or shift topics. God rarely responds yes. And even then, I don’t always obey, bending instead to the pressure to be polite rather than truthful.

I don’t (as of now) face incarceration or mortal danger for typed letters, but as the PEN World Voices Festival warned me yesterday, not everyone has that luxury. So I treasure the freedom that allows words of challenge to unfurl out of my being and press against the world in some needed way. I don’t feign the posture of a great Liberator or Artist as I write, but because there is an unfathomable well of pain to speak to, I have a purpose in trying.

Writing, talking about racism is a tangle of pain and hope. The pain rises and throbs as you point to the realities of discrimination, unjust economic systems, and the hidden heart issues that bleed out into our actions. I move through a labyrinth of thought and feeling, a pack of understandings sloped on my back because I realize that confronting racism involves the indictment of that which has been hidden away, held taut beneath the surface and ready to snap. It requires examining what it means to be White and where White comes from. It mandates wrestling what it means to be Black and diasporic. It provokes the questioning of how to locate yourself within a color binary never designed for you if you are Asian, Arab, Indigenous.

This is tense, uncompromising work. It will not make you feel good–in fact, it will disturb and offend you. Confronting ugliness repulses us–and it should. I do not ask God to remove this tension from my gut; it unsettles me into a state of action so I will not be complacent when the needs are so great. They are great, and they are relentless.

With the presence of so much unfettered ignorance and a vacuum of empathy, how can I possibly soothe the heartbreak that racism causes in my country? I can’t. Sometimes all I can do is loosen my tears and not forget the ones abused by it. And I do this: I write. I lift my small torch to shed light on the margins so those willing to draw near them can mourn with me and step through the night into what could await us beyond it. This is a shade of riot, that we repel the forces that would keep us static and demand the ushering of Heaven to Earth, opening our hands to receive it and hold on tight.

Our hearts hurt because we sense that racial division and injustice is not God’s intention for us. His movement, always and forever, is to bind us together with words, with the Word, into one family with no dividing wall.

Words matter, and they have power. Writing can be an act of activism, rebellion even, against that which mars human dignity and distorts the beauty of our relationships with one another. Words have founded revolutions, fractured families and repaired them, and so I handle them with care and submit them to God. I look for the ways in which He is using them already to weave our disparate stories together, and I ask to join Him in that industry.

Yet there can be little communion when one member’s hands are burned, nerves exhausted. To resurrect our fellowship with one another, we must look frankly upon the wrongs done to our peoples and examine them, repent of them. Lament brings us through this cycle of sorrow, weighing the gravity of the past and present and leading us to the One who reconciles all. We end in a small echo of the final paradise: in praise, in community.

So I end this with where I started: a declaration of riot. I feel feeble sometimes, too passive and hesitant to shake walls and topple towers. I walk into rooms with an apology on my tongue rather than a confrontation. But you, my readers, my friends, and my God, you have dared me to surrender fear and point to the world I yearn for and the change I am now willing to labor towards. So I leave you with this and hope to encourage you as you take hold of the calling God has given you and till the soil for a world better than what you were born into:

The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.

Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.

The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power,  demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.

God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.

graceriot 2016

Riot on.

getting out: part I

I’ve never been strapped to a chair in preparation for lobotomy, but when I saw the horror in David Kaluuya’s eyes as his character’s desperate situation dawned on him, I discovered that the pounding of my heart in sync with his was not new…it was familiar.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch Get Out with a group of my friends who are black. I had seen the teaser and assumed the movie would be about slavery ghosts or some drama like that. What I got instead hit uncomfortably closer to home. What director Jordan Peele accomplishes brilliantly (and disturbingly) through Get Out is that he creates a movie for black people in which we are allowed to be afraid.

Thanks to my family, I’ve seen my share of horror films, and a trend we mock constantly is that “the black guy’s gonna die first.” And he does–not always, but enough times in bloody, gratuitous ignominy that we can joke about it to shrug off the uncomfortable truths propping that reality. Get Out resists that narrative by presenting us with a black man who not only experiences terror and still makes it to the end of the movie blessedly alive, but who also gets to see his fear legitimized.

The latter part is especially compelling when you consider what his character is afraid of: white people. This movie has been criticized in some spaces for being “anti-white” and feeding into “reverse racism” because the circumstances in which Chris finds himself when he visits his white girlfriend’s family home are seen as exaggerated. The movie showcases him interacting with white people who squeeze his arm to admire his “genetic advantage,” who attempt to forge camaraderie with him by declaring they would’ve “voted for Obama a third time,” who ask him to speak to “black issues” and praise his existence because “black seems to be in fashion.” They definitely turn out to be on the extreme end of cultural appropriation by the movie’s third-act reveal, but what Peele ultimately points to is not a demonization of white people, but rather the very real fear and discomfort people of color carry into spaces where they are the minority. 

It’s vital that we center our analysis of the film on the experiences of the black characters rather than contesting the lack of “good” non-racist white characters that white audiences can feel safe relating to (even Hidden Figures surrenders to this trope). We enter the film through Chris’ black gaze, and that is subversive and rare both for the horror genre and for mainstream media.

We need to commit to this black lens because Chris is, in many ways, a stand-in for people of color who find themselves walking into a room of white people, preternaturally conscious of their Otherness. This doesn’t signify that those white people are malicious or intentionally hurtful; neither does it insinuate a space void of friendship or positive connection. That sensation of internalized difference is instead symptomatic of a society where color does hold differentiated weight and value, even if that truth lies unseen by those within the majority group. We have enough past and present histories to evidence that people of color have good reason to feel uncomfortable with white people when their embodied existence has been consistently devalued in so many ways–even by the most well-meaning people.

Devaluation and disenfranchisement take different forms, sometimes in the blatant examples of horrific mass incarceration rates, the headlines of a black teenage girl beaten by police for acting like a criminal, the mockery black celebrities like Leslie Jones endure for their atypical looks (when I say atypical, I mean she’s not white). But it’s worse when racism appears in casual, conversational, and normalized form because it’s overlooked and easy to dismiss by white people.

Racism outside the bounds of the hateful bigot who is easy to point to can seem innocuous, but it’s no less hurtful because of how it piles up. It looks like the absence of ethnically diverse church leaders, local authorities, and policy makers when congregations and neighborhoods are diverse. It emerges in the passive acceptance of injustices facing people of color and in victim-blaming. It’s wrapped up in compliments that exoticize a person of color and suggestions that they “be less angry” when sharing their experiences of racial pain. It shows up in the standardization of life practices, worship styles, dress, language, literature, theology, and media as normal only when they are based on a white Euro-American context. It can take form as stereotypes and the assumption that people of color are in the wrong, that they must factually prove their innocence and their pain to have a stage to speak.

We must extinguish the belief that racism equates to racial hate. Being confronted for acting or thinking in ways that maintain whiteness as the norm should not be perceived as an act of character assassination, yet there seems to be no greater crime than to be accused of racism (white and POC communities can do better in addressing this anxiety). Racism is a stronghold of sin that inflicts deep pain, but not on the basis that all white people hate black people; instead, it grounds itself in the lie that only bad people perpetuate it. The white people Chris meets at Rose’s home don’t necessarily hate him; they think they are doing the right thing in their approach to his blackness. However, their actions align with a racial narrative that outlines his blackness as something they can benefit from or downplay without personal cost. This narrative is real and pervasive in America, and it’s rooted, not in hate, but in blindness.

There is a collective unawareness among white people that our system of racial difference was created to reinforce the superiority of people classified as white (supplying the reason for why reverse-racism does not exist), and so it bleeds into both individual attitudes and institutional policies. It may have started with slavery, but the impact of that practice is felt in the here and now. And when racism is understood not solely as a posture of hate (since there are definitely still people bearing hatred towards people of color) but rather an assignment of meaning and value to physical differences, it becomes harder to address. Even if a person of color notices it and speaks to it, they risk being chastised as crazy or-the worst crime in Christian spaces-divisive.

To avoid this labeling, people of color may inure themselves to stand politely, speak diplomatically, and grip silence rather than point out when a white person has said or done anything offensive. Within the realm of race discourse, we classify this as “catering to white fragility.” White fragility is a term thrown around a lot whenever a white person gets upset about a person of color talking frankly about racism or confronting them about the ways in which they unconsciously hew to problematic racial ideas. In this case, I refer to white fragility as a dynamic that arises when a white person has a low threshold for experiencing the tension and discomfort that comes with conversations about race. This low tolerance of discomfort can result in the seeking of a quick exit from the conversation, a defensive posture as if responding to the subject as a personal attack (even if it’s not heated), or a rationalization of how they are not racist. The pot gets hot; they jump out.

This discomfort is understandable, and I empathize with my white brothers and sisters struggling with it. But there is a cost when a white person’s reflex is to avoid engaging with racial issues or critically reflecting upon both their experiences with race and those of their brothers and sisters of color. The burden is heaved upon people of color to navigate the racial systems they didn’t create and to heal the wounds dealt them. It’s the loneliness of that work, the weariness of that everyday resistance that engenders frustration towards white fragility.

I bring this up because fragility-like fear-is an experience that people of color are not usually afforded. Since our Otherness is stamped upon our features, and our society has imposed lenses through which to view us as alien, deviant, and threatening (the thuggification of Michael Brown highlights this), we can’t easily avoid conversations or experiences directly related to our race and ethnicities. Our communities suffer because of the historically-seeded narratives that frame our opportunities and identities, and so we enter the trenches to understand racism and struggle to dismantle it. We at least value our lives, and we know God does too.

For this reason, I think black people are familiar with walking in someone else’s shoes because you have to in order to navigate the minefield of feelings and reactions of white people in regards to race. It’s an anxiety that hinges on my words when I talk sometimes to my white friends, not only because I’m afraid of rejection, but because I’m afraid for them. Few people choose to make others feel uncomfortable or offended, and for a people-pleasing, way-too-apologetic woman like me, I lean into making myself a buffer to console white people rather than airing out the warring thoughts inside me. The lines between consideration and accommodation become blurred, and I get lost in the middle.

Tasha Robinson from The Verge speaks to how Chris mirrors this experience in Get Out:

It’s significant that Chris starts out as a passive, quiet, conflict-averse man who defers to white authority in every form. Peele has said that his target with Get Out was primarily the white liberal elite, the types who think President Obama’s election and their own open-mindedness have solved racism. And he’s unsparing in mocking them, in terms of making his antagonists not just ruthless, but laughable. Still, Peele spares a little side-eye for Chris, who’s willing to go along with anything to avoid causing trouble, and gets himself in trouble as a result. The entire film is about Chris coming to terms with his need to defend himself, to fight back, and to trust his instincts about who’s a threat, no matter how congenially they tell him that black skin is “in fashion” at the moment.

As Tasha points out, Chris appears as the “safe” black man at the beginning of the movie–someone white people can feel complacent around. He encounters white people who accentuate his difference and make him the anomaly of the room-even when they say color doesn’t matter- and with a hand-wave he responds: “It’s okay.” How many times have we said that to avoid bringing more attention to race or to our own anxiety about it?

In the beat before “It’s okay,” “It’s fine,” and “No big deal,” lies the reminder of who holds power in the room–and it’s not people of color. Peele explains that the inspiration for this movie came after Obama’s election and how the media touted this as a symbol of our post-racial age. We’re equal now. Race doesn’t matter. Yet in Get Out, Peele magnifies one of the consequences of this thinking: white Americans believe they don’t participate in racism. Even though the narratives surrounding black people and other people of color have been updated instead of altered (see: the Mamie, the submissive Asian woman, the Latino lover, the Thug), even though our system still disproportionately allocates resources to black people and disproportionately punishes them, even though our churches still struggle with segregation, this belief that people of color have nothing to complain about because we’re equal now is nationally circulated. This accomplishes much in rationalizing the patterns of collective inaction among white people, particularly white Christians, in respect to racial issues.

So when I tell my white friend in college that I feel self-conscious in class because I’m the only black girl in the room as we elaborate on the virtues of Western literature (which apparently don’t include black or Latino or indigenous stories except for spring electives) and she gently offers that I might be “paranoid,” I shut my mouth. I’m making a big deal out of nothing. When I attend formal events for work, I catch myself lapsing into the role of the conciliatory minority, smiling away microaggressions as they amass in my gut to be picked apart later. I don’t want to make a fuss. When I visit someone’s home and sit at their dinner table as the only darker-skinned person present, sometimes anxiety locks my spine straight because I just want to blend in as much I can, leaking only the parts of my cultures-the parts of my self-that will be safe here. I don’t want to stand out more than I already do.

I’ve been at that dinner table, that party lawn with Chris. I can still have a good time and enjoy the company of people I’m with, but there is this ever-present anxiety that accompanies me in predominantly white spaces that has rarely been acknowledged or validated. Instead, I’m pressured to blame myself for feeling this discomfort when in a group of white people. I’m reminded that I should be the one getting over it because clearly no one else but me has the problem. So my eyes widen when Chris is proved right. He is right in feeling tension. He is right in noticing something is wrong with the way he is treated. He is right to defend himself because he is someone worth defending. I keep rooting for him to get out of that house, that sunken place because I feel like I’m still clawing my way out of it.

trauma-informed care

What should I expect from my white friends when I’m broken up about racism?

I mulled over this with a white woman from my church as we sat on a bus stop bench in Washington Heights, smells of the Cubano sandwich clasped in my hands curling into the cold air around us. Shock greeted me when I found myself opening up to her about topics I hadn’t even brought up with my close friends, and it revealed to me just how much I need to talk about this: race and my white friends.  For a few days, I had kept these questions to myself and saturated in articles and ranting, grieving Facebook posts. I found myself messaging and calling my black and Latino friends at every threshold point when I felt overwhelmed; desperate for affirmation that the well of pain I was sinking into was real, I needed the presence of people who just got it. If the well breached open in my heart was pouring out, I simply didn’t have enough buckets in hand to share out so white people could see and understand.

In many ways, I still don’t. People outside of the groups targeted by Trump’s campaign underestimate the breadth of hurt that those vulnerable communities are experiencing, and that the hurt issues from sources far deeper than this recent election. The tears, the protests–even the tongue-in-cheek black memes are symptoms rather than the crux of the matter. The election results tapped into a submerged current of grief and fear that has had little room to surface throughout our history as a nation.

It’s the current of 1492 and Standing Rock. It’s the current of slavery and sharecropping and sundown towns and mass incarceration. It’s the current of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps. It’s the current of the Mexican-American Wars and Operation Wetback. There have always been walls built to contain and maintain this legacy of suffering. The visible walls planned only mirror those closeted out of convenience.

Grief is not convenient. It doesn’t wait for you to catch up, nor does it fall into any timetable of denial, anger, and acceptance. I realize this as I sit in my office, that same tension churning in my gut, refusing to leave. I’m not the embodiment of the tragedy mask from Greek plays–it’s not like I’m tearing my shirt and weeping every few minutes (bring out the ashes!). I’m not a walking waterfall. But while I laugh, crack jokes, and work like any other day, the emotions and thoughts related to race spring forth in the most unexpected moments, often without any specific trigger. How do I articulate the kind of sorrow that isn’t tied to just one thing but ALL of it, all the horrors and unnameables like cuts bleeding together?

The hurt becomes personal and national when I acknowledge that I am not used to being prioritized. My pain has not been catalogued or considered in policies proposed, nor has my peoples’ suffering garnered consistent actions of solidarity that translate into more than sympathetic reblogged articles and safety pins. There are, of course, people pursuing other avenues of standing with their marginalized neighbors, and I am grateful for those allies; I remain mindful, though, of the lingering hesitation on the part of white allies to step closer to the messiness that is racial pain.

I don’t necessarily blame them. (I don’t really want to deal with it either). I think of the guilt that comes with the realization that your skin buys you safety. I think of the confusion and anxiety hinging conversations with friends of color, the fear of screwing up and being seen as racist. I think of the awkward silences where the “right” words won’t come when the world unravels again after another police shooting. The gap between white and black realities looms large, and if white people haven’t learned how to bridge it, stagnation results, despite the best intentions.

Frustration sets in as I navigate through my expectations of my white friends and whether those expectations are fair or not. When another race-related event turns up, I find myself waiting for them to reach out to me. I don’t need a full conversation or a therapy session with them–just a text asking if I’m okay. I find myself yearning for their acknowledgement that the racism underlying both the daily realities and big, mainstream-worthy headlines affects me in a different way. Then I have to inevitably sort through those thoughts and question if I’m really asking for their recognition of my hurt or for their permission to express it.

What I didn’t realize when I was younger is that interracial friendships require this kind of thinking process. There’s an additional layer of effort needed to foster mutual understanding and empathy. As much as I wish they could be, interracial friendships are not organic or easy because subtle power dynamics and unspoken assumptions weave into those interpersonal interactions. We still have to deal with white privilege in our friend-space. As a person of color, I wonder if I am conditioned to shield my white friends from the visceral way I experience race and reinforce their comfort level instead. Is it a matter of relegating my need for support in this area to secondary status or merely saving it for conversations with friends of color–people I don’t have to explain myself to? It might be both.

Talking about race with white people is draining. Real talk here, and I know my brothers and sisters of color may feel this. Pulling back my smile and explaining how this election is making me re-live the discomfort of being called “exotic” as a kid AND the self-consciousness of being one of 1-2 brown people in a classroom AND the rage at how many black people have been shot by police officers this year AND the anxiety I feel when white colleagues and friends rant about Trump when I’m sitting there on the verge of tears and not knowing how to respond…it’s hard to parse it out. There’s no one-conversation-wonder that can fix this, and I don’t expect my white friends to have all the answers.

I wonder sometimes about that anxiety I’ve heard some of them express about this–whether they fear that one more race crisis will tip me and I’ll finally be just done indulging the white stumbling into racial awareness. However, the problem often is that I love them so much that their absence in times of crisis, their unknowing silences sting. I can’t make considering friends of color during times of racial stress a reflex. I can’t connect the synapses in their brains so they realize: Oh, this horrible racially-charged thing happened. Maybe my black friend needs me. I could reach out and tell them what I need. I usually do. But sometimes I’m all stubborn, wounded will, and I don’t want to. I want to see them make the first move towards me. I’m wretched over wrongs they don’t have to consider daily by virtue of their skin color, and I don’t know how to open their eyes to see me. There are people I call home, but when I am too tired to knock, will they still welcome me in?

As an American community, as the Church, we need to take the trauma of race-related stress more seriously when people of color are hurting around us. It’s not enough to survey the body we are mourning and tell us to pray. It’s not enough to see us protesting and tell us to calm down and move forward. Each person experiences racial stress differently, and our reactions and needs vary. We challenge our white friends and allies to take the time to walk alongside us through the debris so your actions reflect your intentions to love us well.

So if my white friends want to shoulder this race pain with me, what next…?

This week, I attended a training centered on supporting people with disabilities, and it convicted me to educate myself about the privilege I hold as an able-bodied person. I don’t have to think about issues of dependency or transportation or the stigma of mental illness, but I need to exert effort beyond obligation to care for those who do. It’s more than”feeling bad” about other people’s oppression–it’s taking ownership of that oppression for yourself and acknowledging that being part of the pain also involves being part of the struggle to reconcile the brokenness with the vision of shalom, of a restored global community that Jesus offers us.

Pursuing the biblical discipline of caring for our neighbors, in this case, neighbors experiencing racial stress involves daily practice. A million articles exist on how to go about this, but here’s what I can share with my white friends:

  • Check-in with your friends of color and ask them what they need from you. Sometimes…it’s nothing in that moment, but ask anyway.
  • Make space. Sharing your friend’s pain doesn’t equate to you dominating conversations about it. Affirm my struggle without needing to rationalize it.
  • Stop trying to prove yourself. I don’t need to know how “not racist” you are. I love you. You can take responsibility for your thoughts and actions when I tell you they are hurtful without fretting that I’ll stop pursuing our friendship. We are not each other’s race-projects.
  • Educate yourself about my pain. You can’t rely only on my personal anecdotes to examine the systemic racism that compromises the welfare of my communities. Listen to others’ stories, read books, watch documentaries, think to podcasts from preachers with a different skin color than yours.
  • Explore the concept that expressions of racial pain are not a personal attack. There are times when I am angry and frustrated at white people because my communities of color are hurting as a consequence of their collective inaction or ignorance. You don’t need to distance yourself from “being white,” but instead I encourage you to explore the tensions you’re feeling when I say “white people” and why you’re feeling them.
  • Own Whiteness. It’s not about getting paralyzed by guilt over it, but rather understanding how the construct of it shapes our society and causes dissonance between our experiences. Continually re-evaluate your biases, your assumptions, your perceptions of people of color and their experiences, and update your knowledge base so you are equipped to engage with racial injustice and its impact on your loved ones.
  • Get messy. Racism is screwed up, and dismantling the institutions founded on it requires your participation. Go to a Black Lives Matter event. Protest with me. Call local representatives to challenge unjust policies. Defend me and people like me with your white friends and neighbors. Complicate their narrative and how they view my skin.

I can only speak from my experience, but I own my trauma and label it as such. I own that the racial brokenness in my country twists up my emotions, shades my daily life, and that the signs of this reality prod at that open wound. Sometimes it enrages me; sometimes I sprint into activism. Sometimes all I can do to cope with the hurt is laugh at Thanksgiving viral videos and toss banter at my little sister to normalize the ups and downs of it all (us Dominicans are good at that). Each day being black, being Latina will be different, and it’s a comfort to know I have a community around me that strives to affirm that.

I’ve been re-watching classic Star Trek episodes lately, and there is a phrase in the Vulcan language that resonates with me: Tushah nash-veh k’du. I grieve with thee. I feel the solemn weight of those words because they convey a sense of shared loss, a dwelling space centered on the pain and all the redemptive hope and exhausted heart wrapped up in it. In the moments when my emotional capacity to reach out to my white friends dwindles, I desire that space to unload my weariness without feeling pressured to BS it or rush to reassure them. I don’t need their attention to feel whole or even to cement my worth-God reminds me of that-but I want them, I want you (if you’re reading this) in this with me because it’s an inescapable part of my reality.

We want our white friends and allies to inform themselves on our racial trauma and seek resources beyond personal stories so they can also share what they learn to those white people we don’t reach. We still live in a world where their voices hold more credibility than ours in those spaces–and believe me, we will change that. But right now, I need my white friends to acknowledge what I’m experiencing as trauma, something complex and deeply-rooted and manifested in ways even I don’t fully understand. Social worker that I am, I call it trauma-informed care, and I believe God calls us as a Church to model that with brothers and sisters of color and other marginalized communities. 

I won’t always be in a headspace to reach out, but the invitation remains: Sit with me as Job’s friends once did, but not to fix me or say God must have a reason, but sit with me and mourn the rubble and the dead. We will continue to rebuild together when morning comes.

 

 

tears in the night

I am agonizing over what to say.

I could say I’m in mourning, but what I’m mourning has been burdening my heart for far longer than this election season. The tension knotted in my stomach, the nausea thick in my throat is not new. For years I have grieved for the divided state of my country.

This election highlights the failure to actively listen, the failure to empathically recieve another’s story, and this has crippled interracial dialogues on the interpersonal level and prevented our national discourse from taking ownership of the ugliness beneath the red, white, and blue. Each community feels ignored, invalidated, and we all suffer.

I wish I could say that when I clicked off the news last night, the only sensation residing in my heart was hope. I wish I could say that I didn’t spend the night wracked in tears and desperate prayers–but yes, the results of this election was a stab in the gut.

I felt ashamed of my tears. I thought: I should be focused on the redemptive part of all this. I should get back to work and keep fighting. I should feel perfect peace. When I saw that some people weren’t rattled by the election, I thought that maybe I was wrong in feeling what I feel.

But then I asked myself: Why do we rush people to praise when they are suffering? Why do we demand them to feel better so quickly? Do we really think they’ll be better for it, or are we the ones who will feel better when their pain is not all in our face? The fact that I feel this subconscious, overwhelming pressure to suppress the anguish clawing inside me tells me that as a Church we still haven’t learned how to embrace lament, nor how to mourn with those who mourn. Lament involves engaging with pain in the here-and-now, recognizing that the wrongs strewn across our national landscape connect our past, present, and future and necessitate our confrontation with them. Instead, I see Facebook posts chastising people for “sulking,” “being whiny” when they should clearly just “get over it.” It suggests to me that these people don’t want to deal with my pain, so they wrap it in platitudes.

American Triumphalism shoves us past periods of grief to the grand vision of reconciliation and unity and restoration. We are all one! it declares, then furrows its brow when it notices us standing apart from each other. Why are we still divided? it complains, throwing up its handsWe are divided because we never took the time to fully grieve the losses reaped by a consistent history of compromising the dignity and livelihoods of people of color. Racism spikes the soles of our feet, yet the church in America still wonders why we stumble.

Knowing that, I will not apologize for my ugly tears. I will not apologize for the hollowed-out ache in my stomach, the invisible weight dragging my lips down. No one is entitled to my smiles nor the assurance that I’m okay when I am definitively not.

If the Church that I am a part of truly seeks reconciliation, then we must face the ugly. We must tell the truth to each other and see each other as we are–not only the parts that are palatable. So this is me telling my truth, sharing where I stand.

I feel:

Hurt because for so many years I have defended my white brothers and sisters in Christ. When I observed and experienced racist words and actions, in my head I diminished their impact because I grew up with white people, loved them. I didn’t want to strain my relationships with white friends and neighbors and believe them capable of the ignorant attitudes my black classmates talked about. But when Trump called my people criminals and claimed that black people lived in an inner city hell, when he insinuated that Black Lives Matter were like terrorists threatening the rights of everyday Americans, too many white evangelicals were silent. When I saw that over 81% of white evangelical men voted for Trump, it conveyed the message that I was not worthy of being defended. Trump supporters may not have intended my devaluation, but when the racist and sexist statements of someone aiming to lead your country are met with silence instead of condemnation of any kind, that is the message I internalize: you are taking your America back at my expense.

Conflicted because examining the arguments in support of Trump, the reasons why people voted for him, does not erase the damage. Some of the reasons relate to the depressed economic situation encountered by people in rural areas; some relate to high healthcare costs and the barrage of headlines about homicides by an undocumented immigrant or a illegal drug-runs. Some base themselves on the moral imperative to preserve the unborn and transcend “identity politics” and a defensive PC-culture. I empathize with these concerns and the legitimate anxiety underlying them. I know all too well how infuriating it feels not to be listened to. At the same time, the fear professed by people after Obama’s election is not equivalent to the fear others are experiencing right now. Whether rich or poor, urban or rural, whiteness still maintains a privileged position in America, and when the anxieties of white people dictate the policies of a nation, the people who pay the price, the ones made more vulnerable are black people, Latino people, Asian and and Arab and indigenous people. Acknowledging the valid arguments for a presidential candidate’s rise does not disguise the racism and xenophobia in its foundation. America has a problem with race, and the fact that in election coverage we can’t even say the R-word because we don’t want to see it contributes to the twisting in my gut. I hear that Americans (total) have spoken, but if we’re being honest, which Americans?

Angry because there is no space for my pain. There are so many well-meaning posts laid out to remind me that Jesus is King and the Church is one Body and not to hate on other people. The unintended patronizing tone stings because these words assume that I don’t already know this, that I haven’t already been praying constantly and asking God for the grace to love Donald Trump and reach out to those who voted for him. The words assume that I am consumed in my fervid emotion and unable to see the Gospel in this. Lifting up Jesus as the ultimate leader of my life is not mutually exclusive from being devastated at the idea of Trump having a position of such profound political and social influence. It’s both/and: I cling to hope and believe that God will wash this nation in the revival it needs; I also cry because thousands of people decided that Trump’s vision of America is desirable, and that vision doesn’t appear to include me. You can tell me my worth is in Christ, and yet I can still cry out to my Savior that I feel rejected by the white Christians in my country. If you’ve never felt that kind of betrayal from a community you are supposed to belong to, don’t judge it.

Sad because even though there are better words to capture the depth of what I feel, sad is the easiest to access. I feel sad because I don’t think enough white people understand what the election results mean to the groups Trump has targeted in his agenda this past year. I feel sad because so many people I know are furious and shocked and their reality feels leagues away from the casual “well it’s done now let’s make up” attitudes I see on social media. I feel sad because I am overwhelmed by how big the problems are and how many economic and spiritual and racial dynamics are tangled in them. I am sad because the estrangement between peoples in America cuts more deeply than I can ever express.

Assured that God will redeem what is broken in my country. Even as I cried last night, I felt that alien peace, this sense that the blatant showcasing of disunity we have seen will provoke the radical racial awakening that America needs. I want to be part of that movement to throw off the blindness hampering our movement to intimately relate to each other across color and socioeconomic and gender lines. I want to lift up and cover my brothers and sisters of color and rebuild our communities. I want to learn from and protect the groups I am not a part of–like my Muslim neighbors. I want to refine the voice God has gifted me and speak truth into the spaces where it is most needed. I want to see bridges built.

I was not surprised by the results of this election. I am still heartbroken, and for my white neighbors to reconcile with me, I need you to see that and not look away or tell me I’m not trusting God enough. This is not the time for jokes or calls to be polite. This is not the time for claims of America’s greatness. I love you…and you have hurt me. Both/and.

To my Black and Latina brothers and sisters who may resonate with my pain: Let no one deny you your need to process what you feel. It is not healthy to pretend it doesn’t exist or diminish it so you look okay to the outside world. Let it out. Take time to rest. I am praying for us.

The train pulling away from the Bronx was silent this morning, and I felt a spiritual pall settle over the people seated beside me. America is bleeding, but if we can all finally see it, we can tend to the wounds.

I re-read Psalms 116 on the train, and even as the tears remain a steady, heavy presence, and anger writhes in me like a desperate creature I can’t placate, this passage tells me that my God sees me and will not shame me:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
    our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

I believed, even when I spoke:
    “I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm,
    “All mankind are liars.”

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord

    is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
    You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! 

Psalm 116

 

the walking dead 

“There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy 

“We walk with targets on our backs,” cried a Black woman from the stark letters of a New York Times article. Her words dragged me out of my time, brought me back to that place two years ago when I was on my way to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and found myself in a protest instead. Eric Garner’s trial was going on, and dozens of people massed on the sidewalk, barred from the plaza by metal gates locked together. Maneuvering my body through the crowd, I tried to move forward, but too many bodies pressed against me, anchoring me in place. Cardboard signs grazed through the puffed layers of my jacket so I felt each time they were thrust into the sky, screaming “STOP KILLING US!” and “SAY THEIR NAMES!” in red and black ink.

My breath arrested, any plan to see the tree dropped from my thoughts when I saw the rows of SWAT police officers lined up in front of us. They were padded and armed, some with transparent shields at their sides like a recreation of the medieval jousts I used to go to as a kid. But this was no game, and I was no child. Instead I stood, heart thudding against my chest as the protesters shook the metal barricade. As it rattled, the cacophony of shouting found form, met in sync as the people began to chant “BLACK LIVES MATTER” again and again and again until the hoarseness of their voices chafed at the air. I joined them.

We stood there for hours as the snow fell around us like ashes. The distant strains of “All I Want For Christmas” circled us, set an alien perimeter that separated our block of chaos from the carefully orchestrated holiday celebration only a few streets away.

I will never forget the words of the middle-aged black woman who stood in front of me. In the pause between breaths, she lifted her head, curls tipped by frost, and her voice rang out like a prophet:

They’re here to protect the tree, an inanimate object, but they don’t protect us. The tree is dead, and they’re here to protect the tree, but they don’t protect us who are alive.

Other voices soon joined her in what became a searing sermon on the coldest night in November. Here are some of their words:

“There’s the blue wall of silence!” – Black Man

“Thank God I’m white so I don’t have to deal with the stuff half of the people here do!”-White Man

“We know you are good people. Don’t protect the bad ones.” – Black Man

Do you have to instruct your child how to not get murdered on his way to school? We’re not supposed to fear you? He should respect you!… The change has to start with you Officer–it starts from within. Put your batons down. We are here to have a conversation. We are not here to hurt you. You broke the public trust. Look us in the eye–don’t look down.” – Black Woman

I wish I knew your names.

Once, I was too hesitant to speak about these things. Whispered admonitions laid the foundation for my fear: Don’t rock the boat. Be constructive. Don’t be too harsh. Don’t be too angry. Show grace. I suspect many people of color who enter majority-white spaces know this mantra all too well. This is how we assimilate and avoid the dismissive label of “angry minority.”But as I have said before, there is a difference between grace and accommodation, and I can no longer accommodate the comfort and slowness to react of many white Americans when my people are being shot. I didn’t always call them my people, mixed and mixed-up and afraid to say I belonged, afraid that I didn’t count, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters, as black people have been declaring for decades before the #hashtag, are black lives, and the fact that in this country-and globally-they are not as valued as other lives.

What does it mean when a black man, a black woman, a black child cannot drive home, walk from the store, go up the stairs, enjoy a playground without being framed as a threat? We may not have signs that say Whites Only or Blacks Only in our stores and bathrooms anymore, but that doesn’t mean this world belongs any more to Black people than it used to. Racism has crafted insidious new ways of fortifying itself in our nation, and by convincing white people that its symptoms (urban poverty, gang warfare, substance abuse, high incarceration rates, unjust police shootings, mental illness) root itself in black culture and personal choice, white people have the freedom to avoid confronting the systemic and historical elements of the problem.

One of the most dangerous tools of racism is its ability to render an entire people blind to the consequences of their actions–both accumulated and present. This blindness shrouds the truth: you benefit from political and economic policies that position people like you on top. It’s not a matter of being white and rich or white and poor, even though the intersectional dimensions of a person’s experience add complexity to the conversation; it’s a matter of being White, and how being White will never equate to a death sentence. Yet from Columbus’ documentation of “savages” to the writings of Rudyard Kipling to the depiction of slaves to the lynching of black men accused of harming white women to the rhetorical warfare around the thuggification of black men, society has taught us to approach non-white peoples with caution. The words will never be spoken by moderate white people (that’s for those racists over there), but the truth comes out in the reflex to pull the trigger.

Years of racist imagery and coded language have constructed the schema that black people are dangerous, the schema internalized in the minds of white people born into the noxious fumes of racism…and in the minds of black people conditioned into the belief that we are inherently deficient. Racism is part of the daily reality for ALL people, but those blinded from that truth cannot understand its breadth. When a police shooting happens, the news channels will tell the police officer’s story first because this is deemed the rational, objective approach to the case. The shades tucked within their reasoning, however, point to the underlying belief that black people are less trustworthy, less capable of discerning reality because of our “emotions,” and less stable than a white voice of authority. We are assumed to be in the wrong until we somehow do enough to liberate ourselves from white expectations.

My time working in a public elementary school in the South Bronx made it vividly clear that starting even from preschool, black children are expected to be loud, belligerent, unmotivated, and aggressive. The reasons for their behavior are rarely examined in depth, and often too late to stem the tide of high school dropouts, disillusionment, and violence. Those who make it out of the heart of darkness will be tolerated; they will be the Exceptional Ones advertised on college brochures and human interest stories, but they will always be, consciously, Black.

We are feared. The lightness of my skin becomes my buffer, as does my educated status and socioeconomic background; but when I step out of my apartment, I remain Black in the eyes of my nation–even when it assures me that it sees no color. As a friend recently pointed out, we are “political bodies.” Our skin bears meanings and wars within the melanin. The relief I know in my safe spaces evaporates when I walk out Black and in danger, and I haven’t even experienced half the things my other black friends and neighbors have. But we see the headlines and hear it on the streets. I see it in the eyes of the black boys I teach and walk past in my neighborhood. We share this tragic kinship in knowing that this long-engineered fear turns the guns of police officers towards darker skin–our skin.

We are not given the benefit of the doubt. There are arguments to be proven, data to be supplied, eyewitnesses to be interrogated, the usual black commentators to drag out to console White America about the latest shooting. Black children pay the price when their mothers warn them not to wear hoodies when evening light falls. They play with their toys, wrapped in a wariness that any moment they may be asked to raise their hands so they will look less like a criminal.

We are hidden away when we are inconvenient. The prison cells spill over with our bodies. We are shouted down, placated down with sweet smiles when our ways of challenging racism make white people feel uncomfortable. When we are enough of a disruption, we are carted away in cuffs.

706. That is how many fatal police shootings we have witnessed in 2016 so far. This does not even include all those cases that go unreported, or my Latino, indigenous, and other ethnic minority brothers and sisters harmed through excessive and aggressive policing. And I am angry that the year is not over because I can expect more of my people to die.

I wrote in a previous post about the weariness people of color experience when constantly exposed to the suffering of their racial or ethnic community. We are traumatized, and we need our churches and non-black friends to come around us, pray for us, stand with us. There are times the world asks us to bear the pain politely and quietly–and we can’t. Our threshold is breached, and still many white people have the temerity to ask more from us when our ancestors were shipped on the waves of imperialism and slavery with empty hands and chained ankles.The chains clang loudly still, and we play no race cards idly–again, this is no game.

Why must black and brown people heft the weight of responding well to the horrific reality of injustice when they are traumatized? Why are we not allowed to be vulnerable, cracked open and grief-wracked?

I hurt when I see the gravity of what is happening to black and brown people reduced to “issues” or “difficult questions” or “conflicts.” This is racism. Let’s not shy away from the term or from the labels “white people” and “black people” because this is the language we have inherited, and we must take ownership of it in order to dismantle their power over our communities, our relationships. We are fractured. So many people have pointed out the inequities, documented the histories, and spoken to the economic, political, and social complexities, and yet as a nation we remain stagnant in our movement towards justice.

Numbness sets in some days when I hear of another shooting or scroll through the news. Bile on my tongue and a leaden heart other days. A churning anger today. Why are my people being hurt in this way? When will it end? The Lord hears our cries for deliverance, sees the blood dripping from bullet wounds where bodies lie on the street–when is a change gonna come?

We are the the walking dead, and yet we are not voiceless. Who will hear us? Who will help us bury our own and save the ones still breathing?

My eyes fail from weeping, 

I am in torment within,

my heart is poured out on the ground

because my people are destroyed,

because children and infants faint

in the streets of the city.

Lamentations 2:11