Thursday, June 22, 2017

Listening to a Few African & African-American Stories

Over the last few weeks, I've read Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, watched season one of Dear White People on Netflix, and started listening to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime via audiobook. To use David Dark's term, my attention collection has inadvertently landed on stories told by those with an African-American and African background and hold race, among other themes, near the center of their individual works. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of The Danger of a Single Story in her excellent TED Talk and though not intentionally planned out on my end, I'm happy when I have the space and time to avoid said danger in my media consumption, even if it doesn't happen as much as I would like and I'm certainly not coming close to getting the complete collective story (as if that is a thing and as though that could be accomplished).

All that said, I've enjoyed these media slices and I thought I would share what about them I enjoyed along with any (minor) critiques.

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Info: Young adult fiction novel; released 2017
What I enjoyed: This teen novel hits on a number of current day issues for Starr the teenage protagonist: code switching between her wealthy, white-majority high school and her rundown neighborhood and home, police violence against people of color, finding ways to survive and maintain one's dignity amidst unfair disadvantages. These are all issues that need to be discussed and highlighted. What the book does so well is maintain its sense of perspective from Starr, the teenager experiencing and processing all of these issues. Her thought processes flow smoothly from making sure her Jordans aren't dirty to dealing with trauma to figuring out how to handle a white boyfriend among her black community.
My hesitations: True to the genre and also a part of what makes the book great is the perspective of the protagonist. As an adult reading a teenager's thought process, there can be moments of frustration, wishing Starr would have a certain conversation or simply be more sure of herself. Basically, inherent in the genre is dealing with the angst and unease of being a teenager and that's not my favorite part of said genre.

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Info: Fiction novel, released 2016
What I enjoyed: The book could easily be classified as a collection of short-stories. Fourteen stories from seven generations following two Ghanian sisters' lines from the 1700's until present day, traversing continents, gender and sexuality, various forms of slavery and oppression, a range of ways of coping, among a plethora of other topics. The scope is wide though each story felt personal and interconnected.
My hesitations: Less a complaint as much as extra work, the amount of characters was extraordinary and required frequent referencing of the family line graph at the beginning of the book. I would recommend reading in close succession, allowing oneself to get into a rhythm of reading each of the stories.

Title: Dear White People
Creator: Justin Simeon
Info: Netflix original series; season 1 released April, 2017
What I enjoyed: I'm not going to try to give thoughts without the context of the 2014 movie of the same name, director, and plot line. Dear White People is set on a fictional Ivy League college campus, with a black-face party instigating the course of events and primarily follows the various black students throughout the school year. Each episode is told from a different students perspective, allowing for more nuanced character development than the movie and to allow for a variety of perspectives to be heard on the various topics being discussed. This was a good move. The show is also funnier, to my recollection of the movie. The script is quick and engaging. Most or all of the plot lines could be pulled from many/any college campus; the show is relevant.
My hesitations: The show can be a little on the nose. There's a scene where Sam (central protagonist?) and her first-year roommate Coco (another central character) voice how they choose to live as black women in a white majority campus and society. The spoken lines are true and it's important to recognize their differences but the scene also seems to feel like two talking heads making their individual points rather than two embodied human beings/characters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions in an Atlantic group discussion on the show, Dear White People is primarily concerned with racism and black people are of secondary concern. Still, the revised format of the series (each episode from a different character) helps in this department and I look forward to future seasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shedding My Whiteness

I wrote this blog earlier this spring (specifically, March), mostly trying to process a handful of thoughts, books, movies, and experiences I'd been fortunate to have the months prior. I delayed in posting, feeling more passionate than thoughtful. After a quick re-read and minor edits, here it is.

Like many Christian colleges, the community within which I live and work has a white majority and the resulting culture reflects that in many ways. There's clearly work to be done in terms of creating a more just and equitable racial and ethnic environment that seeks not only higher representation of people of color, but more inclusive operating at every level. I say this as I also know that we at Messiah are striving for racial reconciliation* in real and meaningful ways, for our faculty, staff, and student body. As manifestation of this and among a variety of other factors, this year alone, I've been impacted by multiple book groups (Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy & Jim Wallis's America's Original Sin), a lecture by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a service trip to D.C. with Messiah students involving a workshop on race and a visit to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, and personal professional development reading Messiah's professor/alum Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. So while not perfect, I have appreciated the ability to grow in my understanding of issues of race in this environment.

Each August, the good folks in the Intercultural Office lead an exercise for the in-training RAs, having them take five-minutes to write their story. Where they're from, the traditions their family has, their hometown values and routines. Everyone writes their story out on a piece of paper and posts them on a wall, creating a collage of miniature life-stories. While it's always nice to recognize the nuances and variety of backgrounds, the exercise gets at the idea that we all have a particular story. This is oftentimes especially helpful for majority students as it's easy to fall into the mindset that, if you're from the suburbs and have limited experience in diverse settings, that your story is normal. Heck, I've been through this exercise five times and I always have to fight the urge to recognize that while my story may be a common one in the room, I cannot categorize it as normal. My path has given me a particular set of formative experiences, impactful people, and exposure to ideas that has left me with a particular set of bias, worldview, and perspective.

This leads me back to what I mean when I say "shedding my whiteness." When I check "white" on any form, I do so reluctantly but honestly, knowing that "white" is a messy conglomeration of certain European immigrants and descendants that have made their home here in the US from which I am a result. And, as I continue to learn, "white" is and almost always has been in the position of oppressor, and those with a light skin tone have always been welcomed into the "white" club with the perks of having certain advantages and avoiding other disadvantages. Broadly speaking, avoiding slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration. And then there are countless more specific examples of oppression (e.g. redlining or microaggressions). So while my direct family line may or may not have been directly involved in many or any of the systematic forms of oppression, I can't totally shed the group from which I come because my family line has always been able to check the "white" option on the forms. Hopefully my actions and words work towards a more equitable present and future.

One major take-away that I had from Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen, is the imperative to the white church to not trust our guts on issues of race. In looking back at our country's history, there was a solid majority of nice, white Christians who were trusting their instincts that slavery and segregation laws were moral. Just like I have to check myself every time I consider my story as normal, I cannot trust my instincts because there's no way I've unlearned the bias that hundreds of years of oppression has ingrained in the culture in which I grew up. So, whenever there's a racially charged incident nationally or more locally, I need to first recognize that I have a bias on the event and then I need to listen to others who come from perspectives other than mine. Or, as another example, the first half** of the movie Get Out speaks brilliantly to a black guy's experience in a predominantly white (and liberal!) environment. Time after time, the protagonist endures the well-intentioned stereotyped conversational assaults from his white girlfriend's family and friends all the while having to justify and prove that the impact is exclusionary in nature.

So I am trying shed my whiteness. This takes intentionality. And work that doesn't immediately further my own standing as a person doesn't always feel rewarding. But I think it is rewarding in the long run and it's something that is in line with the kingdom of God and a more inclusive life really does benefit both myself and others. I'm looking for the next step. Or maybe just trying to be faithful in my current operating roles as husband, friend, residence director, consumer of culture, etc. In any case, I'm trying to have open eyes and ears to the world around me.


*I know the term "reconciliation" is a misnomer as there's no amiable racial relations to revert back to in this country/culture. Is there an alternative phrasing that's preferred?
**The latter half of the movie also obviously speaks to issues of race, just in a more direct and horrific way.

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As reference, these are all great:
Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism 
Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Jim Wallis's book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America
I haven't read Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas's work but if her lecture was any indication of her books, she's worth investigating
The movie Get Out fits within the horror/thriller genre so beware... but it is excellent, even to someone who doesn't naturally enjoy the genre
The National Museum of African-American History & Culture in D.C.