• What a White Girl Knows About Race – Free E-book

    When I married an African American man 16 years ago, I had my concerns about the future, but really, race wasn’t one of them. I thought that beyond the challenges of culture between us personally, my husband’s race wouldn’t matter. Yes, racism still existed, but it’s not like it’s that bad or it would affect someone as smart, hardworking and impressive as my husband obviously was (er, is. Hi, honey!) I was so wrong. Over the years, my husband’s race has determined where we can live, our ability to get a mortgage or car loan, his work conditions and even if he comes home in a terrible mood after a run in with someone who felt no need to hide their disdain for my husband’s skin tone and facial features. (And yes, on a couple of very rare occasions, that “someone” was a police officer.) To name a few ways that my husband’s race has affected our lives. 

    Even harder than dealing with these practical problems, frankly, was the process I went through as a white American seeing black lives up close and personal, over the course of time. You see, I didn’t marry my husband as some left-wing, PC devotee. I had never taken an ethnic studies class. I was like a lot of white Americans; I thought racism was a small issue that didn’t matter much, except in rare cases.

    Obviously I never was racist in the way that a rational person would define racist – I married a black man. But I had been raised white in a pointedly white suburb of Chicago. I didn’t even realize that white people had a role in our race problems. I thought, like a lot of white people do, that our race problems were the result of African Americans not being able to get their acts together. White people didn’t care about race, I believed. What they cared about was poor behavior, people having kids with multiple partners and crime and bad attitudes and disrespect and laziness. And obviously, those were all matters of character, which as the sainted black man Martin Luther King Jr said, is what we ought to judge each other by.

    I was certain that there were problems with the narrative on race that I had been given. But I figured it had its truth. However, after 20+ years in intimate relationships with African Americans, I am here to report that whatever truth there is in the narrative I was given, it’s really besides the point. It’s like scolding a drowning man for not having life insurance. After your uncle stole his life jacket and threw him overboard.

    Now, that’s a big claim to make. And I could spend the next several thousand words justifying it. But I’m not going to. It wouldn’t make any difference. Just another person telling you what to think. What I will do, however, is invite you to read some of the thoughts, facts and concepts that took me from the typical white American understanding of race to a place of turning my back on it. (Like, did you know that in 1969, only 22% of white Americans thought that African Americans would be disadvantaged when looking for employment? 44% thought being black would make it easier to find a job. In 1969. Which right there kind of calls our ability to accurately perceive reality when it comes to race into question, don’t you think?)

    Because I do know that most white Americans are genuinely confused and frustrated when it comes to racial issues in this country, I am making a short collection of my writings on race available for free this weekend. These are essays I wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign to explain those things which had challenged my own thinking and deepened my understanding of race in America. Reading it won’t turn you into a radical, nor will it give you the answers to all that ails us. But I hope it challenges you to think more openly and deeply about the problem of race in America.

    You can download the book for free from Amazon through Monday. If you don’t have a kindle, the book can be downloaded for pretty much any device including tablet, phone and computer.

    race coverListen to me participate in a discussion of race and the events in Ferguson on Moody Radio’s Up For Debate.

    Read more of my blog posts on race here.

  • Enough Bigotry to Go Around?

    Hey y’all! I just finished my fancy pants appearance on Moody Radio’s Up For Debate. (That I told you about yesterday which you would know if you had been paying attention. See the things you miss when you’re not paying attention?) Anyways, I will get the link to the show up just as soon as it’s available.

    Almost immediately after the show was done, I got a comment from a listener which addresses a concern I really would have liked to address on the show, but obviously, we could only scratch the surface in an hour. I think it’s an important point, so I thought I would share the comment and my response with y’all. So pay attention! ;)

    Dear Rebecca:

    On the Moody Radio show discussion about Ferguson you mentioned how you had prejudices and biases of which you weren’t aware simply from growing up.  I agree whole-heartedly.  What you didn’t mention is that the same is true for the black community, the hispanic community, the Middle Eastern community and the Asian community.  We all have biases that we are taught as children.  I’m a law enforcement officer in Orlando, FL.  I have worked in the schools for more than 15 years. I encounter black kids and their families that have an automatic distrust and bias against me, simply because I’m white and a cop.  This is a bias the children are taught.  I also work in the parks of a private community which owns the parks.  Part of my duties are ensuring that those who are using this private park are residents or guests of residents.  My concern isn’t race, religion, or anything but whether the person is allowed in the private park.  In 18 years, I can only recall one instance when a white or hispanic person challenged me for doing my job.  On the other hand, I have had a 1/2 dozen black people insist or imply that I was checking them simply because they were black.  By the way, all but one of these folks were NOT residents and did not belong.  This is a racially and culturally diverse community and I have great relationships with young people and adults of all races.  Please acknowledge the biases taught to the children by both races.  Thanks and God bless.

    -E

    E, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I would just challenge you to consider that because of the way race works in this country, that the sort of defiance, hostility and distrust which you encountered among African Americans has its roots in legitimate problems which we as Americans have never dealt with, much less solved. As a white person, my prejudices were shaped almost entirely by the media, my community and the rare encounters I had with African Americans who were serving me in stores and restaurants. An the other hand, my husband has a lived experience of regularly being mistreated, of being belittled, of being threatened, of being afraid which occurred at the hands of white people. His discomfort with and distrust of white people is fundamentally different from my own prejudices. While I might wish an African American person would process and deal with his experiences differently, I had no right to tell him or her that s/he doesn’t have a right to be uncomfortable and distrustful after all that s/he has experienced and continues to experience. Of course, my husband’s a mature, educated, spiritual man, so he isn’t going to start resisting authority, being rude or hostile simply on the basis of race. But it’s easy to see how someone in a less comfortable, less experienced position would walk around with a negative attitude towards authority (which has always been the tool by which abusive, oppressive laws and customs are imposed on African Americans, btw).
    It’s interesting that you bring up working as a guard at a private park. When my husband was 8 his mother moved them from Texas to the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. As they were moving in, my husband noticed that the only playground was a set of swings on a blacktop surface. He asked his mom, “why did someone put those swings on the blacktop? Someone will get hurt if they fall off.” He says his mother bent down and spoke into his face, “honey, there’s something you need to understand right now. Nobody cares what happens to you here. If you fall of those swings and get hurt, nobody’s going to care. We might not even be able to get an ambulance to come and help you. You have to take care of yourself here because nobody else is going to make sure that you and your brothers and sisters are safe.” It was 1978 and she spoke the truth. Now, imagine living in a neighborhood where the playground is unkempt and potentially dangerous. And right near-by is a nice, safe, well equipped park. But you can’t go there. Because it’s not for you. It’s for the people who paid for it. It doesn’t matter that you and your family can’t dream of affording to live in such a place. Nobody cares about you and your problems. Put yourself in that situation and the hostility makes a bit more sense.
    Thanks again for your comment!
    Blessings,
    Rebecca
  • Bring the Smelling Salts and Set Your Alarm Clocks!

    So there’s this lovely woman named Judy who produces the radio show Up For Debate with Julie Roys on Moody Radio. And I think she might be slightly incompetent. I mean, I’m no expert in these things and I certainly can’t predict the future, but it seems likely that come Monday morning she’s going to be having a serious conversation with someone higher up about whether she has the judgment required to perform her duties. Why do I say this, you ask? Because the poor dear went and asked yours truly to be part of an hour long discussion on the church, race and Ferguson. And I, having a big mouth, lots of opinions and no qualms about taking advantage of dear Judy’s foolishness, said yes.

    So, if you’d like to hear me engage in my usual tomfoolery (hopefully without the typos, grammar glitches and random gibberish that I like to sprinkle in my writing), tune in. It’s on Moody Radio from 8-9 am, central time, tomorrow morning. Program info and station information can be found here. And if you really love me, call in and gush about how amazing I am and how every good Christian should listen to everything I say. Depending on how it goes, I might need the help!

    In all seriousness, say a prayer for me. Continue reading

  • Why the White Dude Crossed the Tracks

    Back when I did prison ministry, we used to have this crazy old white dude who would come in to talk with the boys. He had a ministry working with gangs on the streets of Chicago. He had occasionally even managed to bring high up people representing large, dangerous gangs together to reach agreements which would reduce the levels of conflict, and therefore the levels of violence between them.

    Youth for Christ, a national organization which includes Campus Life, City Life, and Juvenile Justice Mission, provided funding for his ministry by employing him between 1982 through 2008. Which is a really long, long time to be a youth minister. Most burnout within their first decade.

    At the time I was involved with prison ministry, crime had just reached a 20 year high, and the problem was most acute in urban areas like Chicago with high density, segregated housing. There were some places that police avoided patrolling out of fear of being targeted by violence, so his ability to develop relationships and gain trust among the gangs was the subject of a lot of interest.

    He was invited to speak to kids in prisons all over Northern Illinois and served as a youth chaplain for the Cook County Sheriff’s department. He made sure that at every step along the path a vulnerable kid was taking, he was there to tell them about Christ’s love.

    The man’s name was Gordon and he looked like a comedy version of a used car sales man. Wore ill fitting and mismatched business clothes. Had a BAD comb over. He was in his late fifties when I met him. But I was 18 at the time, so he could have been my grandpa. If my grandpa were a used car sales man in the early 80s. Gordon had a way of talking that was slightly disjointed, but jokey enough that he kept his audience engaged. He came off as a bit of a fool, really.

    But it was all very deliberate. Continue reading

  • I See Rich People. They Talk to Me. . .

    The mouse on my computer broke. So now I’m back to writing on my kindle. Which is a marvelous bit of technology, but it has all sorts of quirks which can easily double the time it takes for me to do a post. And the spacebar for the keyboard is gimpy. But since I don’t even have money to replace the mouse, I’ll just have to limp along the best I can.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately that when I finally break free of all these obstacles, I’ll astound everyone. It’s like I’ve been trying to play the game wearing weights. If I could just get free and have a fully functioning computer, a good internet connection and a few hours a day without children, well, you just won’t believe what I can do.

    As I was contemplating the rather unpleasant task of writing on my kindle (something I did exclusively for at least six months), it occurred to me that this is why we hear so much more from rich people than anyone else. If you’re rich, you can grab a few hours which you would otherwise have spent playing Sugar Crush and write something thoughtful on your nice computer without any real delays or impediments. Or maybe you’re more of a take my Macbook to Starbucks to write sort of writer.

    But when you’re not rich, you have to type out the word six because the six key doesn’t work any more. And putting in a hyperlink requires the sort of planning skills normally reserved for major military operations. It’s like driving one of those cars that you have to roll down the window to open the door. Everything’s just much more work when you don’t have access to resources.

    And having crappy, unreliable technology is a first world problem. Imagine what it took for those women in Nigeria to get the world’s attention when their girls were taken! It’s really no mystery as to why people who are powerful and influential are usually white American men. It’s not that every white American man has resources. It’s just that nearly everyone who has resources is a white American man. Having resources removes so many obstacles that what is impossible for other people is possible for them. And that is a big part of our problem.

    Having resources doesn’t necessarily make the path to sucess a clear and easy one. You still have to work harder and be smarter and overcome more than everyone else in order to acheive great things. I mean, Paris Hilton’s family says she works very hard and I believe them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she puts in sixty hour work weeks. The thing is that my husband has put in sixty hour work weeks pretty routinely for nearly 20 years. And we can’t even afford to buy a mouse.

    (The first person to ask why I don’t get a job wins the chance to find me a job with hours that work for our family, arrange the care of our kids by someone who is able to provide high caliber, on demand tutoring, counseling, and training in the ways of the world customized to each child’s needs, obtain transportation, clothing, housekeeping, cooking and taxi services to make that all happen. Good luck. Let me know when you get that all worked out.)

    Aside from being bullshit, the connection between who has the existing resources and who gets seen and heard and rewarded is more sinister than we realize. You know the proverbial “they” we always hear about? The ones who tell us what other people think of us and what’s normal and what’s a problem and what’s expected of us and what failure looks like? Sometimes people will joke and say, “who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Continue reading

  • All About Pain: The Toughness Fallacy

    I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but it’s cold, rainy and windy here by me so I’ll use that as my excuse for being a Debbie Downer here. Cuz we’re going to talk about pain today. Then again, if you are the sort of person who only wants to read about unicorns making skittles droppings, you probably aren’t reading my blog. So just another day here in The Upside Down World.

    It seems to me that when Christians talk about pain they talk about it either very existentially, “why does God allow suffering?”, or we talk about it very personally, “let me tell you my story about being in pain”. We start from the assumption that pain is a valid, important topic, but even our most sincere efforts to address pain from either an existential or personal perspective tend to fall short. When they do, we almost always turn to attempting to minimize or dismiss other people’s pain. And let’s not even talk about the nonsense that comes out of our mouths when we try to moralize about pain or the behavior of people in pain!

    In order to do better, we need a better understanding of what pain is, how it works, why it matters. Which includes getting rid of several dangerous misconceptions about pain. Even people who are personally familiar with suffering tend to believe a lot of false, unhelpful things about pain. Nearly all of us internalize our culture’s prejudices, erroneous assumption and ignorance about suffering and when life goes south, these internalized ideas just make things worse.

    Obviously, this is a subject which could be a book, but you’ll just have to make do with a few blog posts. And I’m not even going to put them in the right order, so nya!

    Anyhow, I wanted to start today by addressing probably the most common misconception about pain. That is once you’ve been in serious pain, additional pain will not affect you as much. You will have gotten used to it. Continue reading

  • Black and White Drug Dealers in America

    Late last Saturday night, my husband and some friends were driving home when there was an accident a ways ahead of them. A piece of debris from the accident punctured the gas tank of our family’s only vehicle. Which, of course, we had used our last pennies to pay off the day before. Because, of course.

    On the upside, one of my husband’s friends has stepped up and is driving him to and from the bus stop while they work on replacing the damaged gas tank. He took my husband to buy the replacement, brought over the tools needed and has spent at least 6 hours so far on our cold, filthy garage floor helping my husband remove the damaged tank. Obviously, he’s a very good friend.

    However, about 15 years ago, he was our town drug dealer. He sold everything, but particularly cocaine and meth. And he had become a meth user himself. He says that the first time he tried meth, he felt so good that he thought, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Big ambitions.

    He was still in high school at the time and one day, just a few months short of his 18th birthday, he was caught on school grounds with a large quantity of drugs and cash in his car. At this point, his fate was in the hands of the county prosecutor.

    There were enough drugs and cash in the car that it was obvious he was the source of a lot of the drugs being used in the area. And he had been found with them on school property, during school hours. He was close enough to his 18th birthday to be charged as an adult with multiple felonies and sent away for a long time. In fact, the DA and the local police would be able to make some real political hay with the case. Plus could hold a press conference with the drugs and cash laid out on a table, announcing that they had just taken out a major player in the local drug trade. Continue reading

  • Colonizing Cities for White American Jesus

    No one likes to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced. Even the KKK denies being a racist organization. Which for some people just affirms the deeply held idea that there’s something wrong with people of color. If there wasn’t something wrong with them, people of color wouldn’t have so many problems now that racism isn’t a problem. How can racism be to blame when there are no more racists among us?

    Of course, racism and the residual effects of centuries of being raped, robbed and pillaged continue to be an issue. If we’d ever like to get to the day when there really are no racists among us, we need white people to be a lot less clueless. Like, for example, we need for this to become unthinkable, particularly for Christians:

    When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to . . . reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

    Or this:

    One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist.

    Those quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations” which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super good.

    I had heard talk of urban church planting and knew that most such church plants fail miserably. Often they become money holes for the church supporting them. Even relatively successful ones find that instead of ministering directly to poor, struggling communities, they are attracting a crowd that doesn’t actually live in the area the church is supposed to be ministering to.

    In fact, the last church our family was seriously involved in was an urban church plant supported by a large, predominantly white denomination. They had a long history of working for racial reconciliation and so did better than most. They hired African American pastors and ministers who were at least somewhat familiar with the community. They were even paying for additional education and training to bring the pastors up to the denomination’s standards. But at the same time, we were driving 40 minutes each way to get there. Urban ministry is much harder than Pastor “It’s my turn” thinks.

    Continue reading

  • least_of_these

    The Least Have the Answers

    Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

    And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

    A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

    Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

    After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

    The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

    The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

    We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

    However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

    I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

    The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

    In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

    People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

    Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

    The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

    This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

    The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

    We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

  • black faces 1224_s31

    Stuff I Appreciate About Black Folks

    Hey – want to watch me stick a fork in an electric outlet? ‘Cuz that’s pretty much the same thing as being a white person who talks about black folks, right? Or at least some would have you think so. But I’m going to do it, because African Americans are forever getting dumped on in our society and are rarely called out for all the things that are great about them.

    Now, before I get started, allow me to provide proper cover for myself. For those not in the know, I’m married to a black man. I have 5 mixed race kids and two African American stepsons. So if nothing else, my “I have black friends” creds are actually solid. (I’ve written more about my experience with race here and you can learn more about my $.99 ebook on race in American here.) Of course, there is as much variety among black folks as among any other group of people. I’ve known sweet, shy, reserved black women and loud, sassy, confrontational black women. Macho black men and nerdy black men. And the things I’m going to list here aren’t universal. There are always people who go against the grain. But as a general rule, these are things which I have observed to be common among black folk I have known that are not nearly as prevalent among the white folks I have known.

    Of course, every positive trait has a dark side when pushed to far. My goal isn’t to idealize African Americans, but like I said, we continually dump on black folks and discuss problems in the black community. For this post, I’m just focusing on things which I personally appreciate about black folks I have known. So having properly covered my ass, here goes:

    1. They respond to your problems with grace and understanding.

    Probably because black folks have had to deal with so many really serious, awful problems for so long, they aren’t particularly phased by your problems. Usually they’ve heard or seen it all before – and worse. And if your life is going to hell because you did something wrong, well, the black folks I’ve known probably disapprove of your dumb choices as much as anyone else. But they also know that you’re the one who is going to have to live with the consequences of your dumb choices, so there’s really no point in piling on. Better to help you move forward than waste time berating you much less exacerbate the problem by turning you out. In my experience, if your life goes all to shit, you’re much better off going to your black friends or a black church for support than to your average middle class white person or church. Continue reading