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White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Speak the Silent Cries of the Innocent & of the Perpetrators

An unsettling consciousness of the contrast of my life in Austin with both the victims and perpetrators of violence at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall induced a restless sleep last night. I went to sleep wondering what emotions and fears the 30-plus hostages, the scores of wounded, plus families of the deceased were experiencing after the trauma of the day’s violence.

Westgate

A prior, 24-hour span, Friday to Saturday, had been as near to idyllic as one could hope for.

-My wife and I witnessed our middle daughter being honored as one of ten high school homecoming court nominees, a first for any IB (International Baccalaureate) student from her high school.

-We experienced a welcome summer-to-fall seasonal change, with an overnight temperature drop of 10 to 15°F, thereby coaxing our family outdoors for an evening sit in our lawn chairs, while nursing a hot, sweet mug of cardamom tea.

-We watched a documentary movie (Searching for Sugar Man) so excellent and tragic, that even our 9- and 12-year-old daughters were captivated by its feel-good story. It chronicles a blue-collar, Deer Park Michigan, Latino-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, shunned and relegated to near poverty status in his native North America, yet who gained near cult status in South Africa during the apartheid era, for music that facilitated freedom of anti-apartheid expression. His self-composed lyrics resonated with people, particularly anti-establishment minded, white South Africans, whose lives were being constrained and compelled by an unjust and immoral political institution.

Rodriguez1

-The final day’s cherry on top was sharing intimate moments with my wife, whose Friday night portrait I had been “forced” to repeatedly look at since posting it on my FB wall.

A last act before sleep was viewing picture galleries of the al-Shabab attack: lifeless bodies lying crumpled and bloodied at the base of stairs and escalators; a twisted and contorted woman’s arm/elbow obviously disfigured by shrapnel; and panicked children being evacuated by security personnel or cowering in confined mall spaces, sheltered by the protective, yet useless-against-bullets arms and bodies of family members.

What had begun as a fun-filled day of shopping for thousands of Kenya citizens, residents and visitors, became in an instant a nightmarish rhythmic of grenade explosions, AK-47 gunfire, tear gas, and I’m sure the high pitch shrill of emergency sirens and human wailing and screams.

The numbers dead changed from a midnight 39 to a Saturday morning 59, with three to four-times that number of wounded.

Obscured and sidelined by Kenya’s tragedy were equally tragic same-day events elsewhere, including a suicide attack on a church in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 75 people and wounding 150. Another 60-plus Iraqis died at a funeral, with more than 120 wounded.

It is purported that some of the al-Shabab militants not only intentionally spared Muslims, while targeting Westerners, but also shouted out “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as they fired indiscriminately in the mall.

Dignity of Diff

Jonathan Sacks remarks in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference –

“Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. . . .

Two conversations are now necessary. One is between religious leaders on the one hand, and politicians and business leaders on the other, as to the direction globalization must take. This has brought benefits to many, but distress, disruption and poverty to many others whose voice we must also hear. . . .

We must speak the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom.” (italics added)

An anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, was produced in 1984. It allegedly showed via ultrasound the silent screams of a fetus in pain during an abortion procedure.

I thought to myself, “What silent screams born from perceived injustices or personal and prolonged experiences of suffering provoke and motivate acts of violence?”

Simply and quickly branding them as politicians and the media often do as “terrorist” conveniently legitimates retaliatory acts of punitive violence, yet it overlooks the formative life events and context that birthed the “terrorist.”

Certainly, there is no conscionable excuse for acts of violence against innocent people, such as the al-Shabab attack. Yet reactive political statements resolve little except to assuage initial public anger and outcry, such as Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s — and any number of similar global presidential statements — in which promises are made to “hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

We as nations are naive and ignorant at best, arrogant and stupid at worst to think, let alone voice false assurances to the public that the likes of al-Qaeda will eventually be defeated and decimated — no matter how many singular and significant “victories” we might have along the way, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

We might periodically succeed in eradicating this or that regional or global extremist group like al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, but will prove ineffective in the long-term unless we “target” (let me use a militaristic term) systemic influences like widening economic disparity, which are the birth places of extremism.

On the contrary, should we not individually, or as communities, (faith) congregations, corporations, organizations and nations focus more attention and exert more effort to ascertain, help alleviate where we can, and “speak the silent cry of those who suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom?” After all, much of the wanton acts of violence and terror are last-ditch efforts to be heard.

Insignificant as my voice may be, that is a primary objective of Life — to speak and give voice to the silent cries of “the Other,” who Edward Said described as those who have been excluded, subordinated, demonized and dehumanized by whichever social, political, or religious group wields overt, subtle and underlying power at any given time.

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A Masai Warrior, A Roasted Corncob, and a Life Lesson

For some unknown reason, as I sat to write this FIRST EVER personal blog, a flurry of thoughts and images confronted me, each vying for primacy of expression.  I chose an image from early childhood – that of a tall, slim Masai warrior, standing just on the edge of my family’s camp fire, leaning against his long, double-edged spear, the sharp point of which was anchored firmly in the ground beside him, and with evident boredom or fascination – I could not tell which, observing and listening to an incomprehensible white American family’s interactions and conversations (*Note: the individual in the photograph below is only representative of my memory).  During these once or twice-a-year safari outings, my family had become accustomed to these semi-nomadic, fireside gawkers, who arrived almost on cue each day accompanied by their herds of cattle, irritating-to-your-face-and-ears flies, plus insatiable curiosities – for many of them: admiring their faces for the first time and at great length in the side mirrors of the camp’s resident Land Rover Defender.

Masai Warrior  This image is seared in my consciousness, in part, because of what occurred between the warrior and myself – a small, insignificant incident, perhaps, yet full of meaning these many years later.  I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time, 3rd or 4th grade.  I was eating a roasted ear of corn, while seated on a camp chair, within leg reach of the boundary-setting stones of our campfire. I had consumed at least half of the ear, if not two-thirds, when I become intensely conscious of the fact that we were eating, and this very visibly and culturally “different Other” persisted in standing, staring, and maybe, even, wanting some of what we were eating.  Painfully aware that my family and I were attempting to ignore him with the hope that he would grow bored and return to his cattle or family kraal or both, I eventually could not fight my discomfort any more, and got up from my chair, walked over and extended to the warrior my partially eaten ear of corn.

His response to my act of “generosity” unexpectedly and sharply drew deep embarrassment to my white face.  I don’t recall whether the warrior even took my gift, but for certain he did mutter something to himself in either Maa or Kiswahili, and then spat on the ground.  He was clearly offended and unhappy with his “gift.”  Surely he was upset by one or all of these reasons . . . I had already eaten the choicest kernels off the cob.  I offered him remnants of a measly corncob, when the rest of us were eating a meat, potatoes and all the trimmings kind of meal.  I didn’t invite him to sit in a chair around the fire with us.  And, I offered nothing to drink as an accompaniment.

What likely most offended this Masai warrior was not the pathetic “gift,” or the lack of invitation to join my family in our noontime meal, but rather my naively innocent yet demonstrated antagonistic attitude and perception toward difference.

This warrior was someone my culture had instilled in me was inferior, uneducated, “unsaved,” and primitive – all without ever having said as much in words (i.e., hegemony).  Winthrop Jordan, in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, noted that “difference” – and more importantly, perhaps – sustaining a sense of difference, is dependent upon isolation and/or segregation, whether sustained by voluntary or legislated means.  Or more blunt and to the point, as Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage: A History of Misunderstanding, “The unknown is usually the enemy, while the misunderstood is always the savage.”

At that time I did not live isolated from “different others” because of a legislated segregated society like apartheid South Africa.  My individual isolation and that of my family’s was mostly voluntary, induced in part by education and economic privilege, plus post-colonial realities, but hardened by a rationality and practicality influenced in large measure by fear.  A fear of crime.  A fear of over-exposure to poverty and its effects upon the psyche of oneself or even one’s children. A constant unspoken fear and awareness, perhaps, that life is tenuous and unpredictable, and in the briefest moment of time good fortune and societal standing could be reversed.

So  . . . lesson learned and wisdom acquired from this life incident of more than 30 years ago?  A person doesn’t necessarily have to give up what one has inherited through privilege of birth, or acquired through individual hard work, or even to assume another person’s life and identity in order to experience empathy and thereby show relational kindness and respect for those different or less fortunate economically, than yourself.

BUT, I believe people – you, me, we – need to consciously and intentionally live measurably less isolated lives, and more relationally engaged on a day-to-day basis with our respective “different Others”, so that we can in varying measure, shape and form share collectively in life experiences.  This is not socialism, as many attempted to brand President Obama, but a healthy ism of societal relatedness.  And from shared life experiences and relational moments lie the seedbeds of new and transformative thoughts, relationships and paradigms, which can help mend our world’s many fissures.

My significant shared life experiences and relational moments with “different others” regrettably did not occur until postgraduate studies – much to my own self-impoverishment.  Up until my early to mid-30s I was quite confident that I was right and “the other” was wrong (especially the religious other).  It took a little dash of so-called “liberal education” and a big dash of a willingness to be vulnerable and risk my faith and traditional cultural/ideological thought in a much less homogenous and less power-presiding position, before I recognized and experienced first-hand just how small I had shaped God and the “Other,” and just how much I had projected “enemy” upon the “different Others” of the world.  What I’ve since discovered is that contrary to my Puritan-laden heritage, it is not sin that defines humanity, but rather a search for meaning amidst the inexplicable realities of life (miracle of birth, the problem of suffering and the enigma of death), hope and the aspirations for “becomingness.”  As my primary mentor used to tell each class of university students:  “You are not merely human beings.  You are human becomings!”  I wish I had been so wise that campfire day, so many years ago.  Maybe I would be emailing that Masai warrior as friend, requesting a proof read of this blog, and asking whether his recollection of that day and event is anything similar to my own.

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