January 31, 2015
Friends often make you think. Not a bad thing, but often a hard thing. Thought, while good, is not always good or risky enough without verbalization. Shayne and Sandhya, I figure, know that, which, maybe, is why last October they asked what I thought about the blog Please Stop Being a Good White Person (TM). Thinking about it wasn’t enough. I would have to risk voice. Something I seldom enjoy on edgy issues. Well, five months is enough time to stew over it.
The blogger uses a quote from Dr. Kings Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
We all like Dr. King quotes, don’t we? Yet, we seldom see ourselves on the challenged end of the quote. The problem Dr. King addresses here is that of ally. He speaks about justice orientated folk who are about change, but fear what might happen to their reputation if their heart is voiced (hmm, like me for the last five months?); and the perceived communal stability that exists with the no comment negative peace.
Some sixty years later I find I line up closer with Johan Galtung’s understanding of negative peace than I do with Dr. King’s. I figure there is plenty of tension lying just below the communal surface now (listen to the tone of the blog) and in King’s era. The peace known in society, now and then, is not the absence of tension, but the absence of violence. Which for my money means, no one should be surprised if the boiling tension below the surface ends up blowing the lid off the teakettle.
The blogger talks about white privilege and how many white skin folk hold virtuous thoughts but get through the day without voicing or acting in favor of change. True enough and the challenge White folk should hold close. However, though I don’t believe it is the blogger’s intent, I hear US racism expressed as a black-white issue. This is problematic because positive peace comes about through the combined work of the ally and the harassed. If we think of racism in terms of black and white, then “ally” applies only to White people. That is a problem.
Sandhya Jha, in the chapter “Murky Terminology,” in Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual stories from the front lines begins a conversation on “ally.” During her conversation with Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, a white ally during the Dr. King era, Gaddy tells of growing up with the song Jesus Loves the Little Children. In speaking about this song and its words—red and yellow, black and white—Gaddy calls us to wonder what a call to unity and equality meant in the 1960’s and well as the 2010’s. In doing so, it is evident that even with the Brown Power and Red Power movements about to rise up, racism in the 60’s was a black and white issue for most of the US. Sadly, the problem today is the red and yellow (and if I don’t say it, I’ll hear about it…yes, this Christian language of identification is problematic) continues to be lost in the US racism conversation. Which, as noted above, means allies are White people.
Jha brings up Abraham Lincoln in this chapter as an advocate for racial justice with some race prejudice in him. That comment alongside Gaddy’s red and yellow, black and white is telling why tension is brewing and why US racism is preferred to be known as a black-white issue.
Lincoln had a lot on his hands with slavery, States rights, and Secession. However, what most US folk are not taught in school and therefore do not know is the racism being applied to American Indian people during the Lincoln administration. Lincoln’s normalized race prejudice has him walking one path with black people and a very different path with American Indian people. In a US expansionist era, Lincoln is as much about the US nation spanning sea to shining sea as he is about ending a war. Therefore, Lincoln cuts 38 Santee Sioux little slack and on December 26, 1862 allows the largest mass execution in US history (2 others are hanged on November 11, 1865). US racism has never been a black and white issue and it is incumbent upon us today to know that allies are not only about White people. If we are going to get a handle on racism and inequality in the US, we have to rethink, broaden, and challenge ally.
Two groups help us move toward a rethinking of ally: #blacklivesmatter and Idle No More. While the sustainability of both remains to be seen, they both push the idea of racism as a black-white issue only. They both move toward an understanding of intersectionality and the recognition of racism as it applies to, for instance, race, gender, and sexual identity.
This path may be a bit more complicated, but we are capable of complex thought, right?
Before I say what I am going to say next, let me reiterate what you have heard me say before. US White people receive unearned privilege simply because of skin color. US White people must engage in changing institutional and systemic racism that gives them this privilege.
Ally must be thought of in terms of us! Which means we all need to question our own privilege. For instance, when we think in terms of Indian and non-Indian, People of Color (POC) are in the non-Indian camp with White folk. Perhaps a weird and difficult notion, but when it comes to every category—e.g., health, nutrition, education—American Indians are at the bottom. The racist system we live in has placed American Indians as something other than all other folk. Which calls POC and Whites to be American Indian allies. This as you might imagine evolves further and requires deeper consideration. Point being, US racism oppresses many while giving different degrees of privilege. To beat US racism, we need to own our varying degrees of privilege, and become allies to one another.
To become such allies we to challenge one another like Shayne and Sandhya challenge me. We need learn how to have open conversations where folk risk their thoughts without ridicule and where we savor challenges to our own thoughts. We need to believe our sisters and brothers when they say they hurt and do something about it now. We need to no longer settle for negative peace and insist on positive peace. And people of privilege must developed the fortitude to act and end systems benefiting me and mine.