When God Sends Your Black Friends White Paternalism

So there’s this post going around, “When God Sends Your White Daughter A Black Husband.”  I would like to take some time to do a close reading of the language in it and talk a little bit about how, as white people, we can do horribly wrong things in our attempts to be helpful when it comes to confronting racial bias.  If you have not read the post, it is a letter that a white mother has written to other white mothers whose daughters may be choosing interracial marriage.  And while it is meant to encourage other white people to embrace their children’s choices, it goes too far in whitewashing very complex racial issues and ignoring the consequences that white attitudes have for people of color.

I’m going to go through that post now, copying the harshest of the language and deconstructing what may be read as implied meanings.

The story starts out with the writer explaining how she’d had a wish list that she prayed for her daughter’s future husband to be, and jokes that God “called [her] bluff” by sending “an African American with dreads named Glenn.”  What is unstated here is that she’d always assumed the man that she was praying for would be white, and it turns out that if she’d thought about it, she may have prayed for a white husband.  But given the title of the post I suppose that’s not surprising.

The writer then goes on to say that interracial marriage used to be taboo and even illegal, but isn’t anymore, and states that “though I never shared this prejudice, I never expected the issue to enter my life.”  Again, she’d always assumed her daughter would marry someone white, even though she claims she isn’t prejudiced.  So if she wasn’t prejudiced, why did she assume that her daughter would marry someone white and why did she say that God sending her daughter a black husband was “calling her bluff?”  Despite the author positioning herself as being openminded and accepting, her mere writing of the article gives tell to the lie- it had never occurred to her that her daughter may date someone black.  There is a very real, subtle but real, prejudice at play there.

“Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”  The structure and language here are very interesting.  First, Glenn was a black man.  Then, as he proved he had certain good qualities, he also became something else: a beloved son.  This implies that being a beloved son and a black man are somehow contradictory or disconnected ideas.  Also, it states that his “true identity” is as an image bearer of God.  Is that also separate from his identity as a black man?

Then there is the anecdote about a fellow Christian’s worry over the possible future children of this union, “It’s just . . . their future children. They have no idea what’s ahead of them!”  This confession shows that there was an acknowledgement that having interracial children could be difficult.  What is interesting is that the writer brushes this off as a shrug- no one knows what is ahead of them!  No one picks the trials they face!  But that admits that the author believes having interracial children would be a trial.  That race affects one’s life is both tacitly acknowledged and painfully ignored simultaneously, in the way that only a white person can manage.

Then the author gives this problematic advice:  “Calling Uncle Fred a bigot because he doesn’t want your daughter in an interracial marriage dehumanizes him and doesn’t help your daughter either.”  Oh.  Okay.  The author encourages people to simply ignore “naysayers” as long as people aren’t “undermining the marriage.”  I think it’s worth mentioning here that experiencing bigotry does undermine marriages.  Relatives objecting to the marriage based solely off of the color of one person’s sin does undermine the marriage.  Encouraging people to just lovingly ignore racism helps no-one, other than tacitly racist people who don’t like confrontation.

The post continues on, talking about building relationships and trusting God.  It’s all very saccharine and generally good advice to anyone whose child is marrying anyone.  What bothers me, though, is that the issue of prejudice and racism is never confronted head-on.  If anything, prejudice and racism are swept under the carpet.  The author never delves into why she may have never assumed or wanted her daughter to marry a black man.  While she does lather on her son-in-law’s positive qualities rather thickly, she never discusses why those qualities may have surprised her in a black man with dreads.  She never talks about why other people might object to the marriage.

She does the opposite.  She ignores the issue of racism as if it weren’t important or even central to the necessity to write about her experiences.  She ignores the impact of race on the experience of of her daughter and son-in-law.  I have to wonder if her daughter and son-in-law feel that the proper approach to relatives who objected to their union was just to ignore the racism and pray?  I wonder if they felt that such objection undermined their relationship?

Instead, the issue of race was treated as a merely cosmetic issue.  I could imagine a similar missive being written about when God sends your tall daughter a short husband, or your athletic daughter a chubby man.

The impact of race on people’s lives is manifold, especially so for people of African heritage, even more-more-so for people who are known descendants of slaves, and I imagine that impact is even greater in the South (where the writer lives.)  What bothers me the most is the lack of introspection on the part of the writer, and the lack of repentance, and the lack of a call to introspection or repentance.  Without understanding how racism works in our own hearts we cannot repent of it or work against it.  We cannot ignore it as a cosmetic or inconsequential concern and simply shrug it away as if it doesn’t matter.  Rather than being a much-needed confessional of how entrenched and dangerous racism is, how badly we need to confront and defeat it, the writer instead gave us a rather prim 8-step tutorial on how to smile and pretend nothing is wrong.

All the while, what is really wrong is clearly printed between the lines.


Race Relations

Today I was listening to the radio when an odd guest came on- the leader of the KKK.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to hear most of the interview because it was lunchtime, and thus I was distracted with the kids and getting food on the table and making the day continue to run smoothly.

Yet, as in all times when my body is involved in routine movements, my mind disengaged enough that I started down this line of thought.  I thought, first, of a few days ago when in a conversation with my father he mentioned that the welfare system has “destroyed black society”, a statement which seemed so empirical as to give me no reply.  I don’t like entering into a debate in which I feel crippled by my own lack of information, so at the time I said nothing.

But my irritation with the statement hasn’t faded over time.  For one, the statement seems incomplete.  He meant “black society in America” and it’s obvious given the context in which it was made, but even so…  I think that people too often assume that the whole of the “black experience” (another phrase I find irritating) hinges on the black experience in America. That and they too often say “black society” when they truly mean the inner city- two things that are wildly different.  Not all black people live in the inner city and not everyone in the inner city is black.  So let’s please keep those things separate.

That isn’t the whole of my irritation.  The implications as well as the overall lack of information they portray is what truly gets to me.  So lets, just for “fun” (by “fun” I mean sorrow inducing meditation, but whatever…) go over the history of the “black experience” in America.  First, black people are brought over on slave ships to be exposed to conditions worse than what we put cattle through.  They are worked to the bone, beaten and raped, subjugated, barred from learning basic skills, starved, and have I mentioned the beatings and raped?  Women would stand up to defend a stray dog being stoned in the street, but not a black man.

When the obvious injustice of this treatment was recognized and black people were given personhood- and note, by personhood I literally mean being identified as people– what were they given to correct this injustice?  These people, battered and beaten, barred from ever having so much as learned to write their names, were given a donkey, some papers and some land.  How were they expected to start to mete out a living?  And do you think their neighbors, the people who had been beating and raping them a year previous, would give them a pittance of help?  Do you imagine they were given years of free tutelage, invited over for dinners, loaned seed crop?  Perhaps some of them were, but for the most part I am not surprised by the fact that they banded together in shared misery and poverty, desperately trying to make the most of their meager circumstances.  At least they had their freedom.

But look at their situation honestly- these black communities are desperate and impoverished.  They have little more than the clothes on their backs.  They are surrounded by white people who have inherited wealth and circumstance.  Even the poor bakers and blacksmiths have inherited their trade- they have something to build wealth on.  Black people have a mule and the derision of the white people who still, at that point, felt that something had been stolen from them.

That divide has yet to be closed.  I refuse to believe it.  One can say that the white people in America built what they had from nothing- but those people came into the states with their health, their determination, their personhoood, their education- whereas the blacks were starting at less than zero.  It is incredible that they were given as much as they were, considering the bitterness on the part of the south, but even so…

Can anyone say that it was enough- not enough to assuage our own guilt, but enough to birth equity?  I don’t think so.

Do you?

Racism matters.

It looks like everyone in the blogosphere is talking about Obama’s speech from yesterday. I’ve already done the same elsewhere (link includes full transcript), so I really don’t want to repeat myself here except to say language is power, and by that measure Obama is far more powerful than people credit him.

I do want to talk about race. See, I’m white. I’m not just “Caucasian”, I’m WHITE. The vast majority of my heritage is dutch, and it shows in my pale-as-a-baby’s-bottom skin, the blond hair and blue eyes, the “wholesome beauty” of my features which will never be described as striking. I’m the daughter of a Pastor and a woman whose parents started out as Amish, so I also come from white middle-America Evangelical conservative stock. We didn’t watch the evening news. We listened to Rush Limbaugh.

I also have black cousins. Their mother married a black man in a time when that sort of thing was still rare and rather taboo. I can’t describe the oddness of going to family reunions where a good half of the people were Amish, most of the rest were conservative Mennonite, and here’s me in my punk rock jeans sitting off to the side with my black cousins. People who think that race doesn’t matter or is no longer important are people who were raised in a part of the country where race doesn’t matter. People out in the boondocks see that it does, and how do they see it? Because out here you NOTICE when someone is black. If a black man in a wifebeater with jeans around his ass walks by me, I’m shocked.

I’m shocked, and I’m always worried that my momentary startlement will be interpreted as racism.

I’ve heard lines like, “black people aren’t willing to work,” and “black people are still too full of self-pity to move forward”, and “black people are all full up with anger” from the mouths of men I wouldn’t have thought capable of racism. I’ve heard gentle, loving women say things like, “when I see a black man I cross the street, I don’t know why, I just get afraid”. So there is still this lingering issue of race. That, and there’s fear. As we lose more and more jobs and we see more and more black people and Mexicans walking around our little town, people start to wonder if they’ve got the jobs and the rest of us don’t.

I get angry when people say, “racism is outmoded” or “racism doesn’t matter anymore.” How can you say that? As long as it exists, it matters, and it STILL EXISTS. There are still parts of this country where people see black men standing on a corner and they tell their kids to lock the car doors as they drive by. It matters; it matters and it is still very real.

I have heard more than one man say that if Barack Obama becomes the President, he won’t live to run for a second term.

Oh, yes, it matters.