Today a friend shared his experience when he was a young white teenager hanging out with young Latino men. When there was a possibility of encountering the police, they would say, "act white" and my friend would be asked to do the talking. What does "acting white" look like? If you’re asking that question, you’re probably white. For people of color in the United States there is often a "constant background processing" to empathize with white people around them and deal with their stereotypes. Strategies may range from dressing impeccably to whistling Vivaldi.
This week I’m preparing for a panel with Mennonerds on Race, Mutuality and Anabaptist Community. This blog post is a brief look at some of the themes I’m hoping we can discuss as practices for white people developing lenses to see differently through listening with humility.
Let’s start with changing lenses as Jesus talked about in this classic Sunday school passage, Matthew 18:1-5:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (NIV)
Immediately in my mind’s eye I see this image or one of a thousand like it:
Not only does this image reinforce whiteness as the default normal, they distract from the core of Jesus’ message in this passage: learn to look at things from "the lowly position." Let’s face it: those of us in the center don’t usually have to do it. When I walked into a reception at an art gallery this afternoon that was entirely white, I didn’t have to strategically empathize and imagine how they might see me. I could walk right up to the reception table and fill my plate with delightful foods without worrying that anyone was judging me. No empathy required.
What does it mean to look at things from a lowly position? I’ve written previously about the idea of listening with humility. This is what we see Jesus modelling in his conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman: he is open to her challenge to him after he refers to her and her people as a dog. He recognizes his mistake and he adjusts. My friend and colleague Carol Rose introduced me to this reading of this passage that brings alive Jesus ability to listen with humility.
One of the most difficult parts of this work for Mennonites is recognizing our own high position. We as white Mennonites often prefer to think of ourselves as marginal, persecuted and egalitarian. As Hannah Heinzekehr pointed out in her blog, we don’t like to think about power. “I think we idealize our systems and fail to realize that – even in communities that strive to be egalitarian – there are people who have the ability to influence others and who hold power.” she said. “When we don’t talk about these things, it can be really dangerous.”
Once we are honest about social location we can begin to listen with real humility. We may start to see social situations differently: to develop a different lens. We might begin to notice what it means to "act white." This week I read: It Happened to Me: It Took Me Two Years To Realize My Boyfriend Was Racist. Tiffany Tsai, an Asian woman, tells the story of visiting her white boyfriend’s family. There was never any overt racial slurs, but instead a thousand tiny cuts, often called microagressions. Each interaction could be dismissed as a misunderstanding, but together they left Tsai feeling profoundly isolated.
If I was in that situation as one of the white family members, would I have the lens to see and empathize? If I noticed it, would I have named it? I’ve written previously here about this process of naming.
This is always easier said then done. For many of us our training in political correctness and color blindness have trained us to avoid issues like race entirely. After all, if we keep our mouths shut, we avoid making a mistake. But it’s in making those mistakes that we begin to grind our new lenses. This process comes with pain and moments of humiliation. It is a lifelong journey, not a destination. But along the way there are opportunities for deepening relationships across boundaries that previously were insurmountable.
I hope you’ll be able to join us online next Thursday for the Mennonerds panel discussion to continue the conversation.
P.S. For an in-depth look at the story of Jesus and the children, social location and oppression, see p. 266-271 of Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus" by Ched Myers.