Tag Archives: race

The Moderate Protester

Some of what’s said at protests makes me uncomfortable. Why, as a leader, It’s not my job to “police” others’ anger

My maternal grandfather, the late Oscar Stewart, served seventeen years as the chief of police at Texas Christian University. A black man in charge of the TCU campus police force, the flags at TCU flew at half-staff when he died, in 2013. While in college I drove to Fort Worth and spent a weekend with him. We played a couple rounds of golf, his favorite post-basketball pastime; on the course we ran into some of his white former police colleagues. They shook my hand and, laughing, told me to root for Missouri less–and TCU more. I was 20, six feet tall, and black, yet those chuckling white, Texas-accented men on the golf course made no attempt to make me feel less human.

I struggle when I hear protestors chant “fuck the police.” I struggle when all cops get thrown under the proverbial bus. I understand, though, where that feeling comes from. My life experience–having lots of white friends and being treated mostly well in society–must not be used, by myself or anyone else, as a weapon against other black and brown folks speaking their truths.
Since Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown on August 9th, I’ve emerged as one of Denver’s leaders in the fight to end systemic police violence and brutality. We’ve held rallies, forums, protests at grocery stores, and marches through the streets.

You name it, and we’ve heard it. There are those who believe in respectability politics—that “black people must love ourselves before the police or white people can love us.” There are those who want us to “be more like Martin and less like Malcolm.” We are often implored to “stop killing each other first.” Self-proclaimed leaders have called for calm, for us not to show too much passion, because it will scare moderate white people away from our side.

And we’ve heard that all police are evil, that voting is useless, that black pastors are worthless, that “we should be openly violent in return.”

Never mind that calm protest has never changed anything. Never mind that black people who kill other black people get thrown in jail, unlike cops who kill unarmed teenagers. Never mind that we needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and that they were not as far apart as their posthumous caricatures suggest. Never mind that passionate nonviolent protest—and, frankly, the looting—is what made Ferguson into a national story in the first place.

This is not an argument for moderation. We have had enough of that.

Those of us with a propensity towards moderation—towards decorum, towards respectability—I implore you–us–to hold it in. Black people are being killed. This is no time to be calm. This is a time to disrupt, a time to move beyond silence.
Some have called on myself and other leaders to “control the message” at these events. We have our opinions on what works best, but rather than unilaterally deciding, I invite a broader, truly democratic conversation on best practices.

As soon as we in leadership positions tell other people how to feel, we are lost.
If you don’t like “fuck the police” as a chant, get some friends together and start “black lives matter.” If large numbers of people would rather chant the former, be honest with yourself that maybe that’s not the rally for you. That’s okay. There are events at which I don’t feel comfortable.

And lastly, to my white protesting family: By now, you’ve likely read articles about why “all lives matter” isn’t the point. Black lives are the ones in question. I ask you, here, to evaluate how often you take the bullhorn or microphone. If you’re frustrated with black people who don’t seem radical enough, remember that we are more likely to have police retaliate against us and/or keep us in jail longer.

But at an event, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to do that work on your own, it will be warmly welcomed.

It is often said that we have to work together for this movement to work. Indeed. But “working together” doesn’t mean silencing anyone who disagrees with us. Working together doesn’t mean men silencing women. Working together doesn’t mean older civil rights activists running over younger ones. Working together doesn’t mean white people taking the mic or otherwise telling black folks how to respond.

Working together means understanding not just how each of us is disadvantaged but also how we are privileged. Working together means knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Working together means having hard conversations.

I am a moderate protester. It is an honor to march with ‘radicals’ as well as (relative) conservatives. We are showing up, and it’s a start—though we have more work to do, both within and without.

Dreaming of Heroes

“Dad, what in the world am I supposed to say to him? He talks to world leaders!”
“How about ‘hello’?”
I sat at a table with my father at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, but eating felt like an impossibility. Nerves overtook me. I felt sick.

In an hour, I’d be meeting the president of the United States.

Never had I been more nervous. My dad, a former Clinton employee from the late 70s, had received an invitation to the White House from his old boss. All of eleven, I joined him.

As a child my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories of civil rights leaders, of women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, and American icons littered my room. The women and men in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks get her courage? What gave FDR strength?

Maybe most children don’t pore over books about women’s suffrage, but nearly every young person spends time dreaming of heroes.

Back then I made little distinction between mainstream, elected leaders—like President Clinton—and those who challenged the status quo, often at great cost.

After meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office, I decided I’d go into politics. I wanted to be, I told my mom, a “real-life superhero.” And, as I became a teenager, even through bouts of severe depression, that hope persisted.

In my sophomore year of high school Spider-Man 2 came out; one scene still gives me chils. Many know it as the ‘Aunt May scene.’ Peter Parker asks her why a neighborhood boy, Henry, wants to be Spider-Man. She replies:

He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.
I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It’s that line that has, over the years, kept me believing. But Aunt May got a couple things wrong.

When a person is truly courageous and self-sacrificing, they draw disdain, even rage. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him, no matter their political views—but in life, many reviled him. When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, other black leaders criticized him, and President Johnson felt betrayed.

A hero cannot be in it because she wants people to line up for her, cheer her, scream her name. Whether it’s in comics or in real human rights movements, heroes are not celebrated. Heroes are despised. Heroes are ignored and, so often, unknown. And sometimes, heroes are killed.

To be a hero means speaking truth to power. Heroes advocate for freedom, not the status quo; for hope, not hate; for the presence of justice, not the absence of tension. Heroes call us to be better versions of ourselves.

Here at the end of 2014, I find myself, again, dreaming of heroes. I look around at the public sphere and, at first glance, I don’t see many. The actions of officials—local and state—in Missouri surrounding the Ferguson situation have been troubling. A ‘peace’ “won” with tanks and riot gear is no peace at all. Too many appear more interested in policing the actions of poor and working-class blacks than with working with them to help improve their lives.

While politicians get the credit, they have almost never been the true heroes. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson were good-hearted men—men who waited a long time to get involved in civil rights issues. They did so because they were pushed and prodded, by Dr. King and by thousands of others. Black people (and a few white ones) were being attacked and sometimes lynched, and yet they waited, because they feared losing the South.

I met one of my childhood heroes, Bill Clinton. I later learned he was willing to hurt people by cutting (though he called it reforming) welfare. He was willing to compromise and buy into—or at least not challenge–myths about people, from poor blacks to folks in the LGBT community—to score political victories.
Mr. Clinton was incredibly kind to me in the White House that day in 1999. By most accounts, he genuinely loves people. But is he a hero? Is Barack Obama? Are any politicians? I’m not sure.

I don’t think (most) politicians are evil. Politics is complicated, and messy, and requires compromise. Yet I still dream of heroes.

And if we look harder, we will find them—being shouted at, harassed online, and ignored or shamed or misunderstood by the public. There’s one other thing Aunt May got wrong: heroes need not give up their dreams. Heroes inspire us to join their dreams.

Frederick Douglass dreamed of a day when black folks could truly celebrate the Fourth of July. Sojourner Truth dreamed her society might answer her “Yes!” when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Mary White Ovington dreamed her white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality. Ida B. Wells dreamed of a nation without lynching. James Weldon Johnson dreamed we might ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ At the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored Dr. King to “tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

And today: sportswriter Jessica Luther dreams of a sports world without intimate partner violence and with people in power who believe the victims. Elon James White dreams that men will take responsibility for their public actions. Anita Sarkeesian and others dream of a gaming community less hostile to women.

The day after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I scoured the Internet every five minutes to see if someone in Denver had organized a vigil or protest to honor Mr. Brown’s life. I checked church websites and searched on Twitter. Nothing. Finally, I saw one. I tweeted out seeing if anyone would join us in a peaceful vigil.

A few people responded. We’d meet near Civic Center Park. I told my roommate Kierstin about it, and ten minutes later, she came downstairs with markers and posters. “Let’s make signs.”

That first night, there were nine of us out there. Numerous cars honked their support. Two people heckled us. Bolstered by Kierstin’s support, we kept tweeting. A few days later, over 100 showed up for a vigil. A few days later we held a march through Denver in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors, at least 300 strong.

On those days, and many since, Kierstin has been a hero. I’ve met many others. They are not famous. Many do not have official titles and positions. But from them I have learned: heroism means showing up. Heroism means pushing officials to do better, to be better, to build a more inclusive world.

Our country, our world–we need leadership. We need heroes. This can be done without hating the “other side.” It can be done through love, even of our adversaries. But it cannot be done without the willingness to be despised, to be heckled, to be ignored.

After all this time, I still dream of heroes. And despite the hateful rhetoric, despite the fear that rules so many, I still believe there’s a hero in all of us.

Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and YRUU summer camps brought me ever-mingled comfort and stress.

I am also black. The struggle for black freedom has long held a grip on my soul. In adolescence not even complicated high school romance got me feeling quite like Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry could.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a great UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. Older adults had me over for dinner and looked out for me on campus. When my mom died, church staff and members alike wrote cards and weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing.
There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister and scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked for an hour with Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

Mrs. King continued, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

The first time I read that, during my failed attempt to do seminary and become a UU minister, tears came down my face like a mighty stream. Night after night I read that passage from Rev. Bray McNatt’s chapter in the book. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood. I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up also because I’ve often wished I could leave UUism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

Growing up I needed to figure out how to navigate a mostly white society that accepted me quite warmly, so long as I did little to rock the boat. I had no real black community to help me out, save for a few friends and two extended family members. Talking about race with many white UUs too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

On Facebook I am quite active; on Twitter, I have few followers and mostly listen/read. I follow young adult activists who fight for racial equality, champion black feminism, and struggle for change. Mostly they are people of color, often also members of the LGBTQ community. They are not conciliatory. They regularly call white people out, challenge PoC men’s sexism, and support one another.
They live out theologian Allan Boesak’s words from The Courage to be Black: “No one person has the right to take our life into their hands, and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us.”

For them the way is clear and straightforward, albeit difficult. For them white people, even (or perhaps especially) well-meaning white liberals, mostly get in the way, re-center themselves, and derail conversations. These folks are mostly done with the mainstream society that blindly trusts conventional authority. I mostly agree with their analysis and support them with favorites, retweets, and small financial contributions.

All the community they need is with each other.

Nothing is so straightforward for me. Most people in my life are white. I cannot so easily dismiss them, nor do I want to. White individuals have caused me stress, and others have been there for me. White people have told me awful race jokes I never again want to hear, and white people have marched alongside me at rallies and protests.

Some may read this as internalized racial oppression. It is. I am shaped by my upbringing. Many privileged black folks revel in being accepted by white America, in opting out of blackness (see: Raven Symone and Pharrell). I want no such thing. I am black and proud; being authentically black, for me, means something a bit different.

When Mike Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August, something fundamentally shifted within. I felt called to act, to organize rallies and vigils in Denver.

Planning those rallies terrified me, but not because I feared the inevitable white backlash. I worried that I wasn’t “black enough.” I thought my being a Unitarian Universalist would put me on the margins of the movement.

I was wrong.

A black, Christian pastor I met at a Denver rally said to me, “As long as you’re not ashamed of your blackness, you can be one of them and one of us at the same time.”

And so it is.

At rallies for racial justice in Denver, UU ministers and laypeople have shown up. I have looked out and seen “my people.” They are black folks and white UUs.

This is, it seems, less true nationally. Our faith has a complicated racial history, and a less than stellar record on race presently. St. Louis-area UUs put out a call for ministers and UUs to come to Ferguson, to be present for Ferguson October. Some, like Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley and Rev. Julie Taylor, were there and proved vital. But not enough.

Hundreds of UUs are planning to go to Selma, AL in March 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes in The Selma Awakening that, after years of absence, UUs came through and journeyed to Selma. Rev. Morrison-Reed argues that in Selma, “Unitarian Universalists’ values in practice snapped into alignment with their espoused values.”

Last summer I went to Selma as part of a moving road trip through the South. With a friend I walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a muggy June evening. On the way we stopped at the marker honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister from Boston who was killed after answering Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma.

Kneeling in front of Rev. Reeb’s marker drove me—to tears, and to an understanding of history’s importance. Finally, after ignoring the race problem for years, we showed up in Selma. But fifty years later, if we UUs show up in Selma in 2015 but not in Ferguson right now, and not for all those black and brown victims of police violence in the sadly inevitable future, we will not have learned from our past.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation, though, my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged (I have depression) Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

There are so many things to fight—and fight for—in the world. We mostly do a great job on climate justice and immigration. Our LGBTQ work has saved and changed lives. Black lives, too, are worth fighting for. When the next Ferguson happens—and sadly, it will—we can and must do more. We have to show up, be willing to follow others, and be willing to change ourselves.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. Not everyone can travel hundreds of miles, but we can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do. Oct. 22 is National Day Against Police Brutality, and several cities are hosting events.

The next call to action for racial justice has arrived. My people: Will we answer?

My people want to know.

race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

Moving Beyond ‘I Feel So Helpless’

Mike Brown, Ferguson and Injustice

Moments away from addressing the crowd of two hundred, I panicked. Who could I draw upon for inspiration? My mind turned briefly to MLK–which made me feel even worse. Wow, Kenny, I thought to myself. You tweet a few times, co-organize a couple vigils and rallies and now you’re Dr. King. Real humble there, buddy.

Okay, so that wouldn’t work. I went over names and faces in my head. Fannie Lou Hamer. John Lewis. Ella Baker. Bayard Rustin. Dorothy Day.

Names flew by faster and faster. Two hundred-ish of my fellow Denver residents had joined together to honor Mike Brown and other victims of police violence, and to rally for justice and racial equality. I had volunteered to co-organize and to emcee the vigil itself.

Why had I done that again?

I’m just some guy who works at a Unitarian Universalist church. I’m not an ordained minister. I’m not a pastor. I’m not a professional organizer. I have no clerical collar or stoll or robe on—just jeans and a shirt that says “DENVER.”

Many of us, at least in childhood and adolescence, learned narratives about the civil rights movement that went something like this:

There was slavery. Then there was Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall and Linda Brown challenged school segregation and Rosa Parks stayed seated on a bus. Dr. King led a boycott. Then Dr. King had a dream and led marches in Alabama. He wrote a letter in jail. He was killed for his dream, but segregation died, too.

 Too often we credit a handful of people—Dr. King and Rosa Parks in particular—for the work and sacrifice of untold thousands, even millions, who strived for equality.

This has terrible consequences.

We watch the news or our Twitter feeds and feel horror—horror that another unarmed black person was killed, horror that the deplorable actions of some black youth were used as justification to essentially create a police occupation of a St. Louis suburb, horror that too many of our colleagues and former classmates and even family members seem more interested in focusing on what Mike Brown might have done to ‘deserve’ being murdered than in the killing itself.

We watch yet another slander of a dead person of color and we are filled with frustration, filled with anger, filled with rage.

And then that vicious thought bubbles up, the thought that sends us back to the other room, back into our seats, back onto our Netflix queue:

There’s nothing I can do. I feel so helpless.

We think this because somewhere along the way we internalized the notion that a few people make history happen while everyone else watches. And so we scroll through social media and flip through newspapers, waiting for official statements from our ministers, from our elected officials. We wait for someone to ‘fix it.’

We don’t have to wait.

While many around the country waited for President Obama and Governor Nixon to make statements on the situation in Ferguson, local leaders like Alderman Antonio French spoke out and documented events on the ground. A hundred years from now, schoolchildren will know Obama’s name. They probably won’t know French’s name.

But this week, to that community and to those following the developments around the world, who has been more important? Whose actions have mattered more?

And so moments before the Denver vigil began, as my legs shook and the media members’ cameras prepared to roll, it was on Antonio French—and the protestors and mourners in Ferguson, Denver and nationwide—that my mind landed to glean inspiration. Antonio French cared about his community and did what he could—document and witness the events on the ground. The people who showed up at #NMOS14 vigils in Denver and all over the country, we did what we could: we showed up. We made signs. We answered questions and spoke our truths into the cameras.

I told my terrified, pre-vigil self: I’m not Dr. King. I’m not Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m not an ordained pastor and I don’t organize for a living. My co-organizers and I can sing okay (or okayish, in my case) and give decent TV interviews and take down emails.

And that’s okay. I’m somebody, and I care. 

Not all of us can plan or attend rallies. Not all of us want to chant. A good close friend said to me after the vigil, “I care about inequality too, but fighting racism isn’t my leading cause. Mine is battling stigma around mental illness.”

Everyone—everyone—can do something about racial injustice, in their own ways. My friend, when he becomes a therapist, can understand that the black woman who schedules an appointment with him may be battling not just depression, but also sexism, racism and the damaging stereotype that all black women can handle anything and don’t have problems.

We can challenge our friends. We can practice empathy. We can pay attention. We can educate ourselves about inequality. We can learn that ending racism is not black Americans’ fight or Latino/a Americans’ fight or Asian Americans’ fight but must become America’s fight—especially white Americans’ fight. We can review hiring practices and seek out different information sources. We can challenge our own notions.

And we can keep our gaze on the situation in Ferguson and connect it to a broader system of injustice. We can channel the anonymous elderly woman who, when a car driver during the Montgomery bus boycott offered her a ride, declined, saying “I’m not walking for me. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

She did what she could.

So can we.

For Every Mountain: A Young Man’s Spiritual Longing

It started with chills. Goosebumps.

It began when he walked through the church parking lot. For once, he didn’t stand out. He was just another new face, complete with a mediocre #2 haircut, scuffed dress shoes and slightly wrinkled khakis. He could be a one-time visitor, never to be seen again. He could be a future member, a young man who would grow and change with the church. For now, though, he was just another new face.

For waking me up this morning
That’s why I praise You
For starting me on my way
That’s why I praise You

The usher, a warm middle-aged man in good shape, directed his aunt and uncle into a row on the right side of the church, and he followed.

He thought he knew what would happen.

Already, he felt at home. On his way in, every man he passed shook his hand and said, “Welcome.” Five women had hugged him. As he settled into his row, an attractive young woman about his age glanced at him—or maybe it was at the wrinkles in his shirt. He couldn’t tell. He sat down next to his uncle, but then he realized that everyone was standing and singing.

You see so many times 
You´ve met my needs
So many times, You rescued me
That’s why I praise You

He stood up, glanced around the sanctuary, and started clapping along. He looked at the faces as he did so. 
He saw sturdy men in their fifties; teenagers–some shabbily dressed, others in their Sunday best; kids in athletic shorts; wives and husbands, grandparents and grandchildren, entire families together.

He looked to the front and saw the choir: twentyish smiling, intense faces swaying, clapping, praising.
Most of the faces, both in the choir and in the crowd were black—like his.
It started with chills. Goosebumps.

Actually, it had started before that, in his classes at grad school. In one of them, he and his classmates had read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” They read Langston Hughes’ short story “Big Meeting.” The professor had read aloud Hughes’ account of his own pretend conversion. Those three stories brought him here, he thought. He felt trapped somewhere among all three. The story of the black church, of the struggle for equality—it was his story, and yet it wasn’t his story at all.

The choir picked up the pace, and the congregation followed suit:

For every mountain, You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through
For every blessing
Hallelujah, for this I give You praise

Murmurs and shouts of “Yes,” “Thank you, Jesus,” and “Amen” filled the sanctuary as the choir sang. All at once, he was no longer just a body in the sanctuary: the choir was challenging him. It was like they knew what had been on his mind.

For every mountain, You brought me over.

The tears began.

How he wanted to join in. If anyone had asked (and during the greeting time, they did), he was there because he was visiting his aunt and uncle. That was technically true, but really, he agreed to join them at church because he wanted to know what it felt like to blend in, to be just another dark-skinned face. At school—in elementary, in high school, in college and now in grad school out by the coast—he stood out. At work he stood out. In discussion section he stood out. In church especially, he stood out: the lone black face. Of course, sometimes that wasn’t completely true, but he was almost always in the minority. What would it feel like for him to be able to let his guard down?

For every mountain
You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through

He lived a fortunate life, but lately, that was hard to remember. His mother, the person who knew him best, loved him most and whom he loved most, had died, a year and a half ago. A few weeks later, his college buddy and roommate died suddenly. He had picked up and moved halfway across the country to start a new adventure on the coast. He craved and feared connection, friendship, and love. He couldn’t sleep because he kept having nightmares about other people in his life dying: his siblings, his father, his long-time friends, and his new best friend. He felt broken, beaten down, and insert-other-cliché-about-sadness-here; as the song goes, he was tired, he was weak, he was worn. More than anything, though, he was lonely.

He wanted—no, needed–to feel at home somewhere. He thought back to when his mother was still alive. During college, trips home had meaning mostly because it meant that he got to hug her, have long conversations with her, and work in the yard with her. But where was home now? He thought of his religious communities: the one he grew up in, the church he went to during college, the worship group at school now. Each one felt like a best friend’s home—familiar, warm, he knew all the traditions, and he could open the refrigerator to make sandwiches without asking permission–but there was always that unspoken awareness that it wasn’t home.

Was it the race thing? He didn’t know. Maybe everyone feels like an outsider for one reason or another. He just knew that he wanted—no, he needed–to find out. He had a lot of “best friend homes” in his life, and he felt lucky for that, but he needed to find his home again.

The tears kept falling.

How he wanted to join in with the choir and the congregation. As they sang and praised, he felt something in the sanctuary. He felt connected to the people worshiping in the room. Almost.

For every mountain, You brought me over

The choir belted out the song’s refrain. The congregation repeated it, some murmuring, others singing, still others shouting. But he couldn’t sing along. A beautiful, dark-skinned woman in her forties standing three rows in front of him fell to the ground, her tear-filled face overcome with the Spirit. He was so sad, so pained, so tired. 

He wanted—no, he needed—to do the same, but he couldn’t.
Because he just.
didn’t.
have it.

He thought of his mother, who taught him to look for the Divine in everything and everyone. As a kid, he’d meditated with her every morning. He thought of his father, who taught him to take the teachings of Jesus and Scripture “seriously, but not literally.” The church he went to taught that Jesus was one of the greatest, wisest men in human history, but not the literal Son of God. He had always believed in some kind of higher power, but never in the kind that would interfere. All those nights in the hospital with his sick mother, and still he had never asked God for anything—because somehow, he knew different. Not better, just different.

He thought of Langston Hughes’ conversion story his professor had read to the class. The professor cried that day, and he did, too.  He, too, wanted to feel the Spirit, wanted to be truly included in this wonderful church and in this powerful feeling.

I want to thank You for the blessing
You give to me each day
That’s why I praise You
For this I give You praise

He needed a place like this; a place where people hugged and clapped, where they prayed and swayed, where they trusted in the community and Jesus to support them–to help bring them over the mountain. He inhaled books and scoured his favorite TV shows in search for answers to his grief, his loneliness. He read the Bible and watched sermons online, practically daring himself to believe, to submit. And finally, his pain had led him here, crying silent tears in a room of strangers who looked like him and weren’t afraid to love, to weep, or to hug a complete stranger.

For every trial
You’ve seen me through

The choir held the final line, and the shouts in the room reached a fever pitch. He could feel the congregation releasing its collective sadness and pain one by one. He saw pain from divorces, money problems, struggling children and more being sung and shouted into the waiting arms of Jesus and God the Father. He himself had so much to remove.

As the song ended and the building roared, he looked up into the portrait of Jesus behind the choir and made a decision. He didn’t really believe as (presumably) everyone else in the room did, but he would try, because he needed them. He needed a place like this. He saw his future, if only he would believe. He would have a place where he wouldn’t have to stand out or be the spokesperson for a group of people. He’d meet a beautiful, brilliant, black (or whatever; he didn’t care) Christian woman and they’d raise successful, God-fearing children. He wouldn’t feel so alone—he’d have church brothers and sisters, and people to pray with and to pray for. The sense of family and community overwhelmed him.

The song ended, and the pastor came to the front.

“God is so good today. Thank you, Jesus, for filling the choir and this hall with the love and mercy of God. This is the time in our service where we ask: who in this hall is ready to commit to a life following our Savior, Jesus Christ? Who is ready?”

A bespectacled woman in her late thirties stepped out into the aisle, and the sanctuary erupted.

His mind turned again to Go Tell it On The Mountain. If he just went out there into the aisle, he would have an experience, just like John, the boy preacher. He would succeed where Langston Hughes did not. He would be filled with the spirit and finally, finally, some of his pain would leave him behind.

He moved his left foot a fraction of an inch forward, ready to give it a shot, but–
He felt familiar eyes staring him down from right behind him. He whirled around.

It was his mother. His dead mother.

She wore her trademark church clothes: the dark blue sweater, and the long, flowy skirt; she also wore an uncharacteristic look of concern.
As the applause and cheers for the woman carried on, she leaned in and asked, “Son, were you about to—?“
“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t know what else to do.”

“I know you’re sad, Son, and I know you feel alone. You know that I always wanted you to figure things out on your own, so I won’t ruin the mystery about what happens when you die. But I have to ask…what are you doing?

“I need something or someone to save me from feeling like this. I’m so tired, and so lonely.”

“I know, Son. I know. I won’t tell you to become a Christian, or not to become one. But do notinsult these folks. Jesus is with them—don’t you dare move forward unless Jesus is really and truly with you, too. Just remember that the Divine is everywhere. It’s here, yes, but it’s in your church now and in the church I raised you in, too. I’m just going to tell you what I told you when you meditated with me when you were little.

Listen.”
“To what?”
His mother stared at him.
He stared back at her.
“What if I can’t hear anything right now?”

“Keep listening, Son. You will.”

She smiled an encouraging smile at him, and then turned around and walked past the newly committed woman, humming one of her favorite hymns, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” As she did so, his mother stopped, turned back around, and pointed up towards the choir. She winked and then left the sanctuary.

Three more people pledged their lives to Christ, but he wasn’t one of them. The tears had stopped, but he felt every bit as alone. He barely heard the call for prayers or the announcement letting people know that youth group would be meeting after the service. He was still straining to listen to his mind when he noticed that the choir had gone back up to the front and was twenty seconds into the closing hymn.

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light

Despite his sadness, he laughed to himself. He didn’t turn around, because he knew his mother had gone, but he understood: today wasn’t the day for answers. It wasn’t the day for conversions. Today was the day for struggle. There was only one thing to do.

He listened.

Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home.

 

Race, Power, and #CancelColbert: A Conversation with Matt Bieber

Matt Bieber over at The Wheat and Chaff is a funny, almost absurdly brilliant human being. We went to graduate school together and have engaged in some terrific discussions about gender, race, love, and more through the last two years.
Over the past couple weeks, Matt and I exchanged messages about how the media handles race, through the lens of the #CancelColbert controversy. It spawned a great conversation. I invite you to take a look.

Matt Bieber: You have some really interesting thoughts about the whole #CancelColbert episode. Can you briefly recap the sequence of events? And what did you make of Colbert’s response?

Kenny Wiley: The Colbert Report Twitter account put out a tweet referencing the bit they did lampooning Dan Snyder’s “Original Americans Foundation.” The bit used stereotypical Asian/Asian-American words, and it quickly garnered a great deal of attention. Activist Suey Park, previously known for her #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, took issue with what she viewed was the racism and white privilege latent in Colbert’s words, both in the skit and on Twitter, and criticized the show by, among other things, starting the #CancelColbert hashtag. It took off and became a huge story.

There are two things that make this story noteworthy to me. First, Suey Park quickly came under fire for starting #CancelColbert. She received heat from white liberals, fans of Colbert, and also from many people of color. There were several journalists and other people of color who leapt at the opportunity to dismiss Park’s claims that Colbert’s satire was ineffective and racist.

I am a Black American. I found this “ganging-up” on Park by Asians and other people of color on Twitter and other forms of social media to be fascinating and thoroughly disconcerting. I know that there exists for many of us a desire to come across as ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’ when it comes to racial issues. We don’t want to seem angry, and mainstream America rewards those of us who maintain our composure. I argue that many writers of color used Suey Park as a device to prove their “reasonableness.”

I’ve done that in the past, and really regret it. Suey Park simply strove to begin a dialogue about the appropriateness of a rich white person, even in character, using tired stereotypes about one ethnicity to score political points. It’s been said that “good satire points up [in terms of power structures], not down.” I believe tearing down other people of color for the benefit of white people proves that these power structures exist, and also maintains them. I’m disappointed, not that people of color had the temerity to disagree with Park’s analysis, but that many did so viciously. They seemed more interested in challenging Suey Park than in analyzing Stephen Colbert’s work.

That brings me to my second thought. A narrative emerged, from white folks and people of color alike, that Suey Park and those who agree with her were “fighting the wrong battle.” Dan Snyder was let off the hook, so went the conventional wisdom, because Park directed her energy at Colbert and not at the absurdity of having an NFL team named the Washington Redskins.

This is a dangerous argument, especially coming from those white people who self-identify as liberal. Telling Suey Park and others, “I’m on your side,” while simultaneously discrediting their views and opinions, seems incongruous. However one feels about The Colbert Report actually being canceled, Suey Park spoke to a very real pain for many people of Asian descent and other people of color: being used as a punchline over and over and over hurts. Watching a white male profit off of racial humor, even in character, pains us. The “I’m on your side” response discredits such a viewpoint, and says, basically, “get over it.”

As someone who has heard the same tired, worn racial jokes throughout my life, I can tell you that getting “over it” just isn’t that simple. Many people believe racism, and other forms of discrimination, to be limited to isolated, horrendous actions by individuals. When one comes to see that racism is a system that involves and impacts everyone, it becomes crucial to critique everyone – because we’re all complicit. I am a black male and I think prejudiced things against my own race, and others. I’m not a bad person. Harboring racial prejudice doesn’t make anyone a bad person, because we all have it. It’s out of our control.

What we can do is listen to those people who harbor opinions we are taught to discount – women, and people of color. We can fight the urge to immediately dismiss their claims.

I now turn to you with a question. I’ve often heard it said that people like Suey Park are “injecting” race and gender into a particular situation such as the Colbert controversy, and that they need to “learn to take a joke.” How would you respond to the view that sensitivity is weakness, and that we need to stop injecting gender, race, etc. into the public discourse?

MB: People dismiss sensitivity as ‘weakness’ so that they don’t have to listen to what others are sensing, experiencing, and living through. In other words, disparaging sensitivity is the true act of weakness. It’s a declaration of indifference (and underneath, fear).

This whole controversy has been confusing to me, in part because of something I went through as a teenager. My high school’s mascot is a Native American ‘warrior,’ and a group of my friends and I sought to get it changed. As we made our case, I sometimes asked people how they would feel if the mascot were of a different race or ethnicity. I would give examples. What if a student dressed up to look like a stereotypical Jewish person – yarmulke, big nose, curly hair, long beard and payot? And what if that student then danced around the football field with sacred Jewish religious paraphernalia? What if we sewed those same stereotyped images into our wrestling uniforms and plastered them on our scoreboards?

I was trying to make the same point Colbert was making – that we would never feel comfortable taking some other group of citizens and turning them into caricatured symbols for sports teams. But we’ve been doing that to Native Americans for decades, and relatively few people seem to notice.

I’m wondering, then, whether you think there’s any difference between what I was up to and what Colbert did. One thought that comes to mind is that, save for a few letters to the editor, we were mostly trying to persuade people in one-on-one situations. And that meant that we could approach things differently depending on our audience. Generally, I was wary about using examples that implicated the person I was talking to, because I didn’t want to risk hurting them in the name of making my point. On the other hand, though, this sometimes felt like it was the only way to make the point real to people. (Either way, I’m sure I made mistakes: I was 18 and full of self-righteousness.)

I’m wondering if it works differently on TV. The target of Colbert’s satire was Dan Snyder, but he was broadcasting to millions (including many Asian-Americans). He had no way to get a sense for his audience, because he had no way to know who was watching or to gauge how they might feel.

I’m wondering if this is related to your point about privilege – that by just going ahead with his joke, Colbert was expressing a kind of indifference to the possibility of hurting Asian-Americans (and others who are tired of being caught in the crossfire of white people’s humor).

But perhaps this is another difference – that Colbert wasn’t just trying to illustrate his point using a provocative analogy. He was also trying to be funny. And if he hadn’t been so interested in getting laughs, he might have been more sensitive to the hurt his words might cause. (He’s certainly overlooked this kind of thingbefore.)

In his response to the controversy, Colbert suggested that the furor only started when one of the jokes got taken out of context in a tweet. But you’re saying it’s more than that – that plenty of people were already frustrated, and that the joke wasn’t okay even in context. And I think it feels that way to me, too.

This leads me to wonder – would it feel different to you if he hadn’t made a joke? If he had used the same example, but in a way that expressed more overt solidarity with Native Americans? If he had done something like what a Native American group did in this recent ad?

KW: To your last question: I believe using the premise of the joke as sober commentary would feel quite different – but it also wouldn’t feel like Colbert. Colbert pokes fun. That’s what he does, and now he will apparently be doing it as CBS’ new host of The Late Show. So your actions in high school also strike me as far different from Colbert’s joke. Using equivalence as a debating strategy can be tricky, because the other person(s) may just not see anything wrong with racial humor in general. I have seen it be effective, however – provided the other person has some appreciation for anti-racist rhetoric.

In a way, Colbert-to-CBS feels inevitable. Another white guy moving on up. While some people of color (and some others) argue for the cancellation of Colbert, he gets a massive job upgrade.

Media in our society exists to entertain; even more fundamentally, media aims to make money and perpetuate itself. CBS sent a message loud and clear that using people of color as props is profitable and acceptable, and as long as you toe a racial line, getting critique from “fringe groups” doesn’t matter.

Media coverage of the Colbert controversy and of race more generally deeply frustrates me. I came across a quote from Elinor Tatum, editor-in-chief of the New York Amsterdam News, that deeply moved me. She said of race-related stories in America, “There is no such thing as objective journalism. There’s always a point of view.” I buy that. When too many of us don’t understand power dynamics, we fail to see that the privileged position is seen as the default or ‘objective’ stance. So only white folks can be unbiased about race, only men are unbiased about gender, and so on.

Such viewpoints stymie us as a society. White viewers of Colbert and/or the Colbert controversy could simply dismiss out of hand Suey Park’s claims instead of doing any sort of introspection on their own thoughts or biases. She is a woman of color, and therefore had two ‘inherent’ strikes against her credibility even before she said anything. People – indeed, not just white folks, but also people of color more interested in respectability politics than in asking tough questions – tuned her, and those like her, out.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently learned that people we would now consider die-hard racists – Bull Connor and other white supremacists – told media outlets that they weren’t racist. I believe, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry does, that we need not equate the systemic racism of today to brutal Jim Crow segregation of the past in order to make our point. It is frightening, though, to consider that “I’m not racist” is as old as racism, and perhaps nearly as insidious.

I’ve started thinking, then, that maybe we ought to stop using terms such as “sexist” and “racist” when discussing systemic prejudice and supremacy, because they cause such a visceral reaction. People essentially stop listening as soon as you suggest they have prejudice against women. “I’m not sexist – I love women,” some men say. Media and individuals focus on horrific, isolated, seemingly outdated instances of overt prejudice. I believe that lets us consumers off the hook, to point fingers at “those racist people” or “those homophobic people” without examining how we help perpetuate these invisible (yet super-visible) systems of inequality and discrimination.

How do you think we move the conversation away from “Look at those sexist people!” to “Look at this system of sexism”? Relatedly, I saw a poster this week that said “We need feminism because our campus teaches ‘How not to get raped’ instead of ‘Don’t rape.’” The poster deeply moved me. I’m interested in moving conversations and more accurately analyzing systemic realities. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how we do that, and anything else.

MB: Thanks for being so honest about your feelings here, man. I often feel a kind of exhaustion with the sheer level of callousness and meanness in our popular culture. I have a sense that the fatigue you experience is deeper, though, because you’re a target of much more of that meanness. It takes courage to share those feelings, and I admire it.

In general, I think I agree with you about the terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist.’ They seem helpful for describing systems and situations, but they’re often counterproductive interpersonally. Not always, though. When I was growing up, my mom stopped me short several times by suggesting that my casual adolescent slang was sexist. If you’re talking to someone who’s both concerned about uprooting their own racism or sexism and capable of taking that kind of direct feedback, those words can work. But probably not on TV (where people are much more likely to get defensive).

As for how we have the kinds of conversations you’re seeking, I think the answer is to just keep having them! Because the more we do it, the easier it is for everyone else to jump in. We do our best to point out the shortcomings of the existing narratives, and we push as far as our courage and insight will take us. And then we sit back and hear what others think. Speaking of which, perhaps we should do that now!

KW: I also believe in the power of conversation. What I think matters is that we’re all striving to improve, rather than just marginalized groups carrying most of the load when it comes to conversation, education and activism. About a week ago a white friend reached out to me wondering if I’d share my thoughts with him regarding the Steve Utash mob beating in Detroit in early April.

My friend wasn’t coming from an overly negative space, yet the request still rankled me. To him, I believe the Utash tragedy was an example of “reverse racism,” of angry blacks beating a white man nearly to death. He wondered why I hadn’t written about it, and why black activists hadn’t made a big deal of the situation.

As with most things regarding race, the case wasn’t that simple. Indeed, Steve Utash was horrified that he’d hit a black child with his truck, and stopped to check on him. Utash was beaten by black people – and a black person saved his life. If anything, the case showed how messy any and all of these issues can be. But I was struck by my friend’s demand that black activists speak out against the violence, yet there was no mention of retired nurse Deborah Hughes’s heroics.

The more I read about the Utash/Hughes tragedy and the more I read my friend’s message, the more I thought of W.E.B. Du Bois’ words in The Souls of Black Folk. In 1903, Du Bois asked a set of questions that, for all our progress, still remains unanswered today:

“Here, then, is the dilemma…What, after all, am I? Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?”

The people who attacked Utash are described as young black men. Deborah Hughes, a black woman, is described as an “American hero.” They are all black. They are all Americans. That disconnect in description saddens me deeply, and it concerns me. I don’t know what to do about it. Talking about this discrepancy, and so many others like it – with race, gender, sexual orientation and so many others – is of the utmost importance.

Let’s keep talking, my friend.