Spirituality & Faith

Deeyah Khan: SHERO for our time. A message of engagement, resistance, and LOVE for Valentines Day.

MeetingEnemy2.jpg

When I was working for CARE in the early 2000s our CEO Dr. Helene Gayle presented us with a revised mission. Yes, we at CARE would still be a poverty fighting organization but Dr. Gayle introduced a new focus for how we would do this: an emphasis on empowering women and girls.

I was sold on day one. My own experience living and working in depressed neighborhoods in the US as well as East Africa aligned with the same facts that had influenced Dr. Gayle’s vision. Poverty, violence, illness, lack of opportunities, lack of rights, and legal protections disproportionately affect women and girls—often women and girls of color, too. Trying to address poverty while ignoring the additional barriers and vulnerabilities that half the world’s population experience because of their gender is futile.

While traveling in my career to 34 countries, I have witnessed some the abuse and indignities women suffer—my country of the US is no exception. Often the deeply entrenched chauvinism and patriarchy that benefits men like me is at the root of this. I’ve also witnessed, despite these odds, how it is frequently women who are the sheros of their families and communities. Research has shown that female caregivers are consistently more dependable stewards of social support funds than their male counterparts who are, sadly, more likely to drink or gamble money—earned and donated—away.

But at CARE, as we worked to promote and empower women, I frequently was worried that we were still only addressing half the problem. I wondered how we could make lasting change for women if we didn’t engage the men in their societies. Women’s and men’s self-concepts needed to evolve. If we didn’t do something about the deeply entrenched chauvinism and patriarchy that warps the thinking of boys so that they grow up into men who think they are entitled, who think they are better, than their female counterparts would the future be any different?

Men are half the problem and (conversely) half the solution. We need different roles to offer them, different models of masculinity.

By now the term “toxic masculinity” has entered the mainstream. In recent years I’ve been somewhat encouraged by the increasing number of books, research, and documentary films examining this phenomenon. Toxic masculinity has been a valuable way to encapsulate the beliefs and practices that men feel obliged to follow, even if these behaviors only end up being pernicious to them and those around them. The Netflix documentary, The Mask You Live In[1] is one of my favorite summaries of the challenges facing boys and young men today who are trying to chart a different course. It is also encouraging to see so many fathers, mentors, and coaches who are teaching their sons that being a man is not measured by physical strength, sexual conquest, or material wealth, but rather by our capacity to love and be loved.

Another important angle in all of this is how toxic masculinity is also in a mutually reinforcing cycle with racism and white supremacy as many commentators have pointed out.[2]

After years of asking myself, “What does it mean to be a good man?” or “What makes a good man?” I realized my own question was all wrong and reflected my own ingrained biases. I realized that the virtues I was seeking out to apply to “good men” don’t belong to only men, women, or nongendered individuals. They belong to everyone. The question is not, what makes a good man/woman. The question should be: What makes a good person? A good human.

Period.

But we have such a long way to go. Recently, after watching a smattering of commercials during a break in an NFL game (I’ve boycotted watching actual NFL games so far this year) I was reminded just how prevalent motifs of toxic masculinity are. Aside from football itself,[3] the commercials between brain-jarring plays included fast food ads with slovenly dopey men enslaved to their appetites for bacon cheeseburgers, breathless previews for pay-per-view boxing matches, and one car ad where a man is so busy playing computer games on a VR headset he doesn’t even notice his girlfriend moving out of their apartment until she slams the door and he takes off the headset to see all the furniture gone.

Enter Deeyah Khan, a shero for our time. She is a documentary film maker with a courageous approach to the issues of hate, violence, religious extremism, and white supremacy. Tired of avoiding it, avoiding the men who wanted to exterminate her and people like her, Khan decided to engage them through her art, setting out to interview them on camera. The results are two films, one focused on white supremacists and the other of Muslim extremists: White Right: Meeting the Enemy and Jihad: A Story of the Others. Both are available on Netflix.

I don’t have enough words to describe Khan’s courage to do this, as she was often threatened with violence from the men she encountered, either because she was a woman of color, or because she was a Muslim woman who resisted subjugation. Here is the link to a powerful interview with her by Vox.[4]

Now even Khan herself says that she does not recommend this approach for everyone. For members of targeted communities, doing what Khan did was risky, physically, emotionally, and psychically. Khan is the first person to say engagement, teaching others, trying to influence others, even win hearts, is something one should only engage in if they have the capacity to. It can be exhausting. So she (and I) definitely give a pass to members of oppressed communities who don’t want to spend their energy doing this type of work (especially when just BEING feels like an act of defiance). But Khan, for her part, was tired with non-engagement and in her own words she “just wanted to try something, different.”

There are parts of the interview I could only do a disservice to if I paraphrased further so I’m including Khan’s words verbatim below. Click the link in the footnotes for the full interview. It’s worth a read.

On how we can only drive out hate with love, Khan says we must:

“. . .not become hysterical, [the key is] not to dance to [extremists’] instructions, it’s to not behave how they want us to behave. They want us to become really afraid; they want us to become divided; they want us to join their ‘us and them’ thing. On a larger scale, I think we have to resist that. It’s an argument for celebrating and nurturing our diversity and nurturing our multicultural society, and our pluralism.”

Khan on what happened to one of the white supremacists (Ken) she interviewed a number of times:

“. . .he actually became friends with the pastor of a mostly black church who lived in his apartment complex. The pastor invited him and his fiancée to his church, and Ken basically stood in front of everyone there and said, “I used to be in the Klan, now I’m in a neo-Nazi organization, these are the views I hold ...”

And after he was done, people came up to him and hugged him and said, “Look, we detest what you stand for, but it takes a lot of courage for somebody like you to come in here and share what you have shared.”

That was the last straw for [Ken], where he realized that the people he hated so deeply are showing him nothing but kindness and compassion and an open heart, and are showing it to him even though he doesn’t deserve it. His whole ideology fell apart.

Mind. Blown.

Khan is definitely a shero for our time. I’m in awe. I don’t know if I have been living up to her example of courage, perseverance, radical love, and patient engagement, but I recognize two really valuable lessons here:

Lesson One: Khan’s is an example I want to emulate. I will fall short, but I’ll try.

Lesson Two: Love Wins.


[1] http://therepresentationproject.org/film/the-mask-you-live-in-film/

[2] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullaly-toxic-masculinity-the-common-thread-in-american-hate-1.3190602

[3] American Football itself, especially the NFL, could be its own case study in toxic masculinity as well as institutional and interpersonal racism. It’s no wonder that the commercials align so closely with this, the irony being, that the men in the commercials—the obese an dreaming of cheeseburgers and the man addicted to videogames—are complicit in their own loser-dom, which (paradoxically) doesn’t seem to phase the men watching.

[4] https://www.vox.com/world/2019/1/14/18151799/extremism-white-supremacy-jihadism-deeyah-khan

Daniel Hill & White Awake Part 2

Daniel Hill2.jpg

We here at the Belong Blog are BIG fans of Daniel Hill (see earlier post[1]) – so it was with real excitement that I attended his talk at Bethany Community Church on January 28th. His full talk and the panel discussion after are all available on Bethany’s website (link here[2]).

There was so much to draw from Daniel’s talk and even more from his insightful book White Awake[3]. But for me, as a white person of privilege, one of the most valuable takeaways was the insight Daniel provided in a sit-down Q&A before his talk (not on the video—sorry, but I’ll share what I learned below. Keep reading!).

A member of the Bethany’s Ministry of Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee asked Daniel what to say to well intentioned people of privilege (often but not always white) who feel convicted and moved to become engaged, to “help,” and to DO something to fight racism.

Daniel’s answer was brilliant and although he began with an examination of white culture (particularly White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture) it led to some valuable insights and practices when it comes to ally-ship in general.

Daniel pointed out that often times, white people, early in their journeys of awakening and combating racism, ask “What can I DO?” As Daniel points out in his book White Awake, “DOING” is not the starting point for those of us who have likely been blinded by a lifetime of privilege. Privilege is its own sort of pernicious disadvantage as it warps our own perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world. We need to do our own work, healing even, to rid ourselves of the blindness it causes us. What Daniel calls for is a more humble approach. He urges the newly inspired to ask, not “What can I DO,” but rather “How am I SEEING,” this.

How am I SEEING this is a call for greater reflection, additional learning, and listening. What Daniel points out is that for people of WASP-y backgrounds, to “DO” something often means to SOLVE something.

And as white people, many of us have benefited from and even perpetuated racial inequality without even realizing it. We have been spiritually warped and handicapped by our own privilege. We are the last people to be leading the charge to solve racism.

But having lived in a position of privilege, with so many resources at our disposal and fewer barriers, we whites . . . well we like to DO and SOLVE. It’s the WASP-y way. To counter this, Daniel counsels newly enthusiastic white friends to slow down. He reminds them, if they want to DO something so desperately, they should remember that LISTENING, LEARNING, READING, and REFLECTING, are all actions too. Maybe they are not “SOLVING” and maybe listening, learning, reading, and reflecting don’t put us in the middle of the spotlight, but part of joining this work (as my friends in AA would say) is to “right size” yourself. Shrink your ego down and be teachable.

And this was where Daniel shared his brilliant insight on ally-ship and how he tries to check himself from being “overly” helpful (read: harmful) to the work. As a white heterosexual man of privilege, Daniel’s DEFAULT position on all this work is not to solve but to listen, learn, read, and reflect and then. . .nothing.

That’s right. Nothing else. He sticks to listening, learning, reading, and reflecting at least, until he is called and/or invited by members of the community he wishes to “help” whether it is the African American community, Latinx, Native American, etc. . . . And when the day comes that they are no longer asking him to help, well then he essentially “sits back down” to wait his turn until called again. This way, it’s the members of these communities who determine whether what Daniel has to offer has any value or merit. They are the gatekeepers, as they should be, to the work that most directly affects them. Something I admire about Daniel is that he recognizes that no matter how much of this work he engages in, no matter how much reading, listening, dialoguing, etc. . . that he does, he will never understand what it is like to be a person of color. He will never understand the psychological cost of living in a world where his humanity is under assault 24/7. Never. That is why he holds to this approach. It ensures that he does not presume to take action, make a choice, or speak to a topic that would affect people of color, without seeking them out for their input first.

It may seem, at first, to be a high bar to clear for some of us, but it is absolutely necessary.

Daniel’s is a superb model of humility. It is also a great practical checklist for folks like myself who want to join this work. If you get a chance, I’d recommend Daniel’s book and the link to his talk. I’d call him a great role model, (and he IS), but I’m sure he’d modestly point out how white supremacy and the tendency for white-centeredness is so powerful, that the focus should not be on him, but the work.

Contrast Daniel’s approach with the epic mess two prominent white males find themselves in: Liam Neeson[4] and Ralph Northam.[5] What is common to the gaffs on the part of both Neeson and Northam is that they appear to confuse transparent and honest disclosure of their “racist” thoughts/actions as exoneration and evidence of them being “woke.”

To their surprise, they have found that it’s not. Admitting you have done racist things can be transformative. It’s a first step. Perhaps that is what they had hoped to do (I’m trying to be generous here). But without sincere remorse or sufficient reflection on the why what you have said or done is harmful, disclosure like Neeson’s and Northam’s is woefully incomplete. It only reveals your flawed inner thoughts without sufficient shame. It’s probably not helping that both men, so far, are digging in and on the defensive.

Disclosure alone does not earn you a pass. Transparency does not equal an I’m-not-racist trophy. And confessions of past bigotry followed by statements of “but I’m not a racist,” – as Neeson has done – probably reads to others (it does to me) that you still have a lot of learning and listening to do. To be clear, I wouldn't go as far to say Neeson IS a racist. I can't judge that from here. But one could categorize what Neeson said and did as racist. Phrased that way, it may be easier for all of us to admit we have said and done racist things.

As for the Northam controversy, the should-or-shouldn't he resign . . . plenty of people have written on that already so I won't add to the noise. I'd rather focus on what these men might do at this point for their own personal growth. How do they become better allies after these debacles? How could any of us? What is there to learn?

My fear is that the way Neeson and Northam seemed to anticipate a that-a-boy-pat-on-the-back from the public for their honesty, may indicate a sense of entitlement in both men. This is the pernicious effect of privilege. The antidote, as Daniel Hill demonstrates, is humility. The way out of our blind spots is to be teachable. To date, neither Neeson or Northam seem to have demonstrated sufficient remorse or reflection to convince others that they have grown enough or learned enough to merit forgiveness.

I hope, in time, they will. It comes full circle, for me, highlighting Daniel Hill's more modest and measured approach. Neeson, Northam, all of us, would benefit from following his example: DO LESS. LISTEN MORE. BE TEACHABLE.

[1] https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/7/4/white-awake-by-daniel-hill-a-must-read

[2] https://churchbcc.sermon.net/main/DanielHill/21320745

[3] https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1549132885&sr=8-2&keywords=daniel+hill+white+awake

[4] https://www.thedailybeast.com/liam-neeson-says-he-considered-carrying-out-a-racist-murder-after-someone-close-to-him-was-raped

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/02/05/yearbook-scoopster-people-are-uniting-their-hatred-ralph-northam/?utm_term=.3fec15f685ca

Self-Righteous Anger vs. Love - Humbling realizations on MLK Day

article-2032598-0D9B4B0D00000578-142_468x286.jpg

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have recently published an important book called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” based on their 2015 article in the Atlantic by the same name. Their premise is that the vocal efforts to police language and stop all microaggressions with vigorous, vociferous correction and confrontation—most prominently on American college campuses but in other spaces as well—can have unintended negative consequences. These consequences are important for any of us engaged in the work of reconciliation, racial or otherwise.

Most notably Lukianoff and Haidt have pointed out how the hyper-focus on language, and the attribution of racist intent behind insensitive comments, has unhealthy parallels to the very cognitive distortions and logical fallacies that contribute to a rise in anxiety and increased levels of depression and mental illness amongst college students. Yes, they say, our work to counter racism can, in some cases, contribute to mental health disorders!

Now I am all for uncovering our unconscious biases. We need careful reexamination of how we can harm others, even when that is not our intent. But the work of Lukianoff and Haidt has made me realize, there have been times even I’ve veered into what they call “vindictive protectiveness.” And that is not love and it’s not productive. It’s just a pointless performance.

Lukianoff and Haidt are not bomb throwers or provocateurs. They are thoughtful researchers and professors concerned for the mental health of their students and society at large. They are urging us to foster resilience and not reinforce fragility.

Most of the time, in this work, I’m countering “white fragility.” But this concept of “vindictive protectiveness” is something different. It’s our default tendency for stridency when doing this work. It’s when, instead of thoughtfully engaging others, we sanctimoniously police their language and browbeat them. I’ve witnessed this among my allies and definitely in myself. We’re the overzealous social justice warriors and campus protestors who would counter arrogance with our own condescension, thereby we become the mirror image of the very narrow-mindedness we are aligned against.

Humbly, I’ve realized my tendency for stridency, unchecked, only serves to bolster my own fragile ego—while alienating people who are just starting off on this work. Again, that is not real love, which I know is the antidote to this. It’s just my own insecurities run amok.

In his sermon just before Christmas Eve, the senior teaching pastor at my church reminded us that our Higher Power (God) never promises to hermetically seal us away from suffering. I came to recognize my own efforts over-protect and over-police others whom I perceived as less “woke” than me, rested on the very ungodly assumption that we could create a zone absolutely free of offense and a life free of suffering. I can’t do this or even promise this. No one can.

I don’t claim to know where the perfect balance between constructive dialogue that leads to helpful correction and overreaction that just leads to digging in is . . . but I’m aware I’ve erred on the side of the latter at times and need to course-correct.

This year I’m trying to reign in my self-righteous anger. Anger can be good, it can lead to social change, but it also can be self-indulgent and smug. I can’t make that choice for others, but I can make it for me. Half the time when I let myself get too publicly spun up, I’m engaging in a sort of self-righteous display to flaunt my credibility to others (virtue signaling[1] or slacktivism[2] as some sociologists call it). The risk I run with that, is that my performance of outrage will alienate people taking their first steps in this work (and, moreover, I’ll look like a fool).

The link to the article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is below. It’s a good read and certainly moved me into new places of reflection and started some great discussions in my own circles on how to approach the work of living and realizing MLK’s Beloved Community.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/


[1] The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue e.g. "It's remarkable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things." (Wikipedia)

[2] A pejorative term for "feel-good" measures in support of an issue or social cause. Slacktivism is showing support for a cause with the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement. The action may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low-cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them. (Wikipedia)

If you can't spread your gospel without the receipients dying. . .then don't.

Jarawa1.jpg

Last month an American missionary John Allen Chau, 26, of Vancouver, Washington (pictured above lower left) was killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe as he landed on the beach of their remote island in an effort to “convert” them to Christianity.

This is one of those blogposts wherein I want to pay my respects to the family and friends of the deceased and recognize the loss they are suffering as well as the intense emotional pain they have endured. I don’t wish this loss on anyone.

It’s for the very same reason that I also feel deep frustration at what this young man was trying to do, no less in the name of a faith—which I practice—whose central principle is love. Although Chau may have had good intentions, his actions were frightfully misguided and misaligned with the beliefs he professed.

I’ve been to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I was there working for CARE as part of the rebuilding efforts after the devastating 2004 tsunami. The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribe in this island chain. The Jarawa are another and they were not so “lucky” to be isolated on a tiny island of their own.

The Jarawa did their best to avoid contact with outsiders, for centuries. However, as India took a greater interest in the island chain, especially because its strategic importance just off the coast of Myanmar, contact became harder to avoid. With the completion of the “Great” Andaman Trunk Road through the Jarawa’s territory in the 1970s, more frequent contact became inevitable.

The Jarawa suffered for it.

As a tribe, isolated for centuries, the Jarawa have no immunity to many of the diseases we carry. Measles and flu can be fatal for them—as they were along with small pox for so many Native Americans. Aside from the disease outbreaks (which become an immediate threat to life after every incident of outside contact) the socio-cultural impact of contact can have similar effects on indigenous people. This leads to the collapse of traditional social structures. In the eighteenth century, different waves of colonial occupiers (British and Japanese) tried to exterminate the Jarawa population through the introduction of alcohol and opium and encouraging overuse. This at all different from the introduction of alcohol and the “gifting” of small pox infected blankets by the US government to Native Americans in the nineteenth century. It was nothing less than a conscious attempt at genocide.

Substance abuse is still a threat today among the Jarawa. I saw this first hand and I witnessed the heart-breaking impact of the Andaman Trunk Road on the Jarawa’s way of life. From the window of my white Land Cruiser, that ubiquitous vehicle of international NGOs everywhere, I saw Jarawa teens stumbling around jetties at ferry crossings, mothers begging for handouts from passing vehicles, and children playing with trash discarded on the side of the trunk road. I saw just over 20 Jarawa during my trip through Andaman-Nicobar. Considering that their numbers are estimated to be around 270 surviving individuals, I realized that I had “seen” nearly 10 percent of their total population.

Human rights groups have called for the closure of the trunk road for decades. A Supreme Court ban against “human safaris” has been implemented and then lifted, amid controversy, in 2013. Today, Survival International reports that hundreds of people travel along the truck road daily, many throwing biscuits at Jarawa in hopes of making them dance for pictures.[1]

Witnessing what I did along the trunk road led me to openly question within CARE whether or not it was even right for CARE to help Indian nationals rebuild their homes and schools after the tsunami, especially in light of the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling that the encroachment of the trunk road on the Jarawa land was unconstitutional and human rights activists calling for its closure. (To my knowledge this was never honored and CARE India continued to work in the region years after, despite a stated commitment in their founding principles to respect and protect indigenous people).

All this brings me to Chau, this young American missionary who decided to try to land on Sentinel Island.

Anyone who visits the region will hear about Sentinel Island and how it is completely isolated. After the 2004 tsunami, when helicopters flew close to the island to investigate if any of the people needed “help,” warriors emerged from the forest shooting arrows and throwing spears as if to say, “We’re doing just fine, thank you. Please take your help/interference and bug off.”

Today, the regional and national governments have done their best to honor this. Sentinel Island is off limits by Indian law. It’s common knowledge that outside contact with these tribes can lead to huge disease outbreaks, loss of life, and possible destruction of their entire society.

So why did this young man want to make contact?

For Jesus.

We’re told, by the words of Mr. Chau’s own journal, that as he set foot on the beach he cried out, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”

I read these words and cringe. As an American and a Christian, I feel shame at the peril Mr. Chau’s actions posed to these people. And for whose benefit? I feel that deeper introspection, self-reflection, or better spiritual mentoring might have revealed to Mr. Chau that his efforts were more about his own gratification than the benefit of these people—whose death sentences he was signing by setting foot on that beach.

There is simply no doubt that prolonged contact and Chau’s presence on that island would have led to the deaths of people. So I’m a little gob smacked that he would attempt it, especially as a follower of a faith based on love for others. It’s misguided at best, selfish at worst. While it feels callous to be writing these words so shortly after news of Chau’s death, as his family is experiencing a sorrowful holiday season facing an empty place at the table, and contemplating many more. But I feel like we also have to point out the even more massive loss of life that would have ensued had the Sentinelese not defended themselves.

What choice did Mr. Chau leave them but to use force to turn him away? I’m pretty sure the Jesus Chau claims to follow would not want to kill the Sentinelese with disease or threaten their civilization with collapse. Not in His name. In Matthew 10:14 Jesus even cautions against converting people against their will and encourages his disciples to move on and find more receptive listeners, listeners you don’t have to force to listen—as such coercion is antithetical to the spirit of the gospel.

So we’re left with this tragedy. A young man, with an earnest heart and good intentions, is dead. His family and community are in mourning.

This is not the first time I’ve felt this toxic mix of emotions: horror, anger, sorrow, shame. As I have described in my memoir Two Years of Wonder, in 2003 I was working for an NGO focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS in Nairobi. We had set up a mobile clinic in an impoverished slum in Nairobi and were immediately flooded with patients. The line was out the door while a volunteer doctor from the UK worked tirelessly to administer what care he could to people who otherwise had no other access to health care. We could not even provide the patients much privacy. We examined them in a classroom with dirty floor and without curtains while other anxious patients waited in child sized chairs against the walls.

Our nurse that day was an American missionary, driven by kindness, compassion, and her need to bring Jesus into people’s lives. When there was a break between patients the nurse asked me if she could try to “convert” some of the people while they waited. She opened a bag and showed me a clutch of Bibles she had brought for parents and toys for children. I was shocked. According to the demographics of Kenya, and personal experience, I knew most of our patients were already Christian. But what struck me most was the coercive nature of the conversion and her obliviousness to it. Here was the only medical attention these people could receive. Some of them were seriously ill. Some of their children were dying. I imagined they would tell us they believed in Baal, Zeus, or Thor, if we—the ones holding power over their health and their children’s health—asked them to.

I would say and do a lot of outrageous things if the only doctor available to treat my child asked me to.

I said “no” to the kind nurse. Whenever we are presenting others with a choice between “Christ” or death, or (in Chau’s case) Christ and death, it doesn’t seem to be an action grounded in a message of love in the least. Chau might not have known the risk he posed to the Sentinelese, but if he had done his homework, he would have. To what extent his earnest faith and zeal for helping others overrule knowledge and good judgment? How often do we see other Christian’s acting in similar ways? How often do we?

And this is where Chau’s actions on that beach feel so personal for me. As someone who was raised Christian, who is a deacon in a Christian church, I’m horrified at what some people are willing to do, what people are willing to risk, in the name of the spiritual teacher and moral genius—Jesus—whom I attempt to follow. This is compounded by the fact that both these instances I’ve shared (and as often is the case) the perpetrators are Americans and this is another identity that is deeply meaningful and personal to me.

So the coercive conversion of oppressed, impoverished, vulnerable people, I hope, will never be done in my name (and I’m fairly certain the Jesus I’ve read about wouldn’t want it in His name either). And if He truly is God, as Christian’s believe, I’m willing to believe He can orchestrate a way to get the gospel to the Sentinelese without decimating their population with disease.

Furthermore, this flagrant disregard for the rights and lives of others that I see all too often among “Christian” missionaries, is powerfully linked to a cultural and national arrogance that is endemic in the west. I feel remiss in not calling it out, criticizing, even condemning it from within, in hopes that it will stop. It must.

I can’t help but ask where were the leaders in Chau’s faith community, “The Way,” or his associates at Oral Roberts University? Isn’t it the role of elders in a faith community to speak wisdom to young people such as Chau, whose misguided impulses could otherwise cause serious harm to themselves and others? My wish is that this tragedy prompts deep and honest self-reflection and humility among those who counseled him. I pray his death does not inspire copy-cats who endeavor to go out and complete his “mission.” We should do everything we can to prevent another tragedy like this. No one should come to the end that Chau did and no family should have to bear such a tremendous loss of a young man who, despite making a poor choice, had so much life to offer the world.

I imagine some readers might counter, in sincerity, “What of the Sentinelese? What if they live their whole lives without hearing the name of Jesus? What if they are not ‘saved?’”

While I admire your piety, I’d answer that by leaving the Sentilese alone—which is obviously their preference—they will remain protected from influenza, measles, and pertussis. Given the choice, I certainly would prefer this outcome for myself. As for the Sentinelese people’s souls, I’m inclined to reference one of the pastors at my church who recently posed the same question in respect to a hypothetical Tibetan shepherd. His answer: “We always want to know ‘who is in, who is out, who is saved, who is not.’ It’s such a western question. How about this: it’s none of our business.”

In other words, if you believe in an all knowing, all powerful, all seeing God, who exists outside of time, well, He, She, It (whatever you want to call your deity) can sort it out. That question is above our pay grade, so we can relax. As my friends in AA say, “Let go and let God."

So consider, if you can’t spread your “gospel” without the recipients dying, then don’t. Please reflect on the fact that your methods might invalidate your message.


[1] https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/9008

Allowing Ourselves to be Transformed by the Stories of Others

MigrantCaravan1.jpg

A friend of mine recently said, “I miss the people of September 12, 2001.” She quickly pointed out she DID NOT want another 9/11. But in context of the deep divisions in our country right now, what she missed was the solidarity among Americans the day after 9/11, when there was not the factionalism and tribalism we see now. “Where are those people?” she lamented. “I know they are still out there.” 

I thought of her words when I came across the op-ed in the Washington Post this week by Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger III, the airline captain who successfully made an emergency landing on the Hudson river January 15, 2009 saving 155 lives with the help of his crew. Link to the op-ed below.[1]  

Captain “Sully” poses a similar quandry as my friend, albeit in terms more familiar to military officers and leadership consultants. He asks where our “unit cohesion” has gone and points out that when a team, army, or community loses such cohesion, defeat and dissolution quickly follows. He goes on to say that as a country, [W]e are in a struggle for who and what we are as a people . . . The fabric of our nation is under attack.”

Both these observations take me back to a dinner I attended New Year’s Eve, 2001. As the final hours of a traumatic year ticked down, the meal, of course, turned to the tragedy still fresh on everyone’s mind. One relative at the table expressed his desire for a more aggressive stance on terrorism, insisting upon an eye for an eye approach. He asked those of us seated around the table, “If someone broke into your house, shot your family, wouldn’t you want to go out, find them, and shoot them back? Wouldn’t you be justified?”

My father was at that dinner—a former Catholic priest, retired federal judge, and my lifelong spiritual mentor. Dad answered him, “Well, yes, I probably would want that, but whether or not it would be ‘justified,’ who am I to say? That is why I, as an aggrieved party, should not be judge, jury, and executioner. I think—I hope—I would first try to understand why this person committed this act of violence against me and my family. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Was someone holding his family hostage, someone with a grudge against me, or whom I had wronged? I think I’d like to know all this before I contributed to perpetuating the cycle of violence.”

It was my father’s piety and his time as a priest, traveling to some of the poorest parts of the world that inspired me to move to Kenya and live and work at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in 2002—the story I chronicle in my memoir Two Years of Wonder. I left on that trip with my own biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. But I think my dad’s words December of 2001, planted a seed whether I knew it or not. Because in the subsequent years in Kenya and in a myriad of other countries after, I learned that the story was never about me. Reflecting on only myself, as a writer and as an activist, just leads to navel gazing, solipsism, and shitty writing.

The real story (or stories), were the stories of the people I met. The children I met while at the orphanage, not to mention the friends I made in rehab years later: the “junkies” and “drunks” who poured love and wisdom into me when the suffering and deaths of the children I witnessed in Kenya brought me close to suicide.

What does any of this have to do with today’s news cycle?

I’d say, everything.

I’ve seen wall to wall coverage of this migrant caravan in the past weeks leading up to this midterm election. I’ve listened to the breathless commentary from news hosts speculating about the “diseases” these people carry into our country. Consistently, in television coverage I see wide angled aerial shots, from helicopters or drones, showing the column of people moving north. Inevitably this leads the “migrant caravan” to be treated as a monolith. Individuals are lost in that river of bodies and when that happens, we can’t hear their stories.

And it’s those individual stories—I know this from experience—will transform us.

Some journalists have endeavored to cover the people, the individuals. Those profiles, those people, their stories stand out to me. There is José Luis Hernández, who, as Jonathan Blitzer points out in the New Yorker: “[T]ried three times to come to the United States. When he was sixteen, after gangsters in Honduras threatened to kill him, he made the trip with two other boys, but they were attacked by extortionists at the Mexican border, robbed, and eventually apprehended by Mexican authorities . . . Two years later, he undertook the journey again, this this time with a slightly larger group. In Mexico, he fell from a moving freight train and lost an arm, half of one leg, and part of his left hand. Once more he was deported to Honduras. When he finally left the hospital, after a two-year recovery, Hernández began planning another trip . . . In 2015, he joined a group of disabled Honduran asylum seekers who called themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated, and together they reached Texas.”[2]

There is the story of Chantal and Stefani, as profiled by CNN. Chantal, from Honduras, and Stephani from El Salvador both identify as transgender. As such, they face high rates of violence and persecution in many Latin American countries. They are traveling north in search of safety, as well as jobs as climate change (an overlooked actor in all this) has altered the labor landscape throughout Latin America. 

In the same CNN story we encounter Iris, a twenty-one-year-old woman fleeing violence and endemic poverty with her siblings, nephews, and nieces, who rest by the side of the road with her sleeping or playing with dirty stuffed animals.[3] Iris said she would take the first job available that she could find in the States. The risk of being captured by sex traffickers in transit (a real risk to women her age[4]) does not deter her.

A caravan is a thing. As such it can be painted into something threatening, a menace that we can project our deepest fears and insecurities onto to. But seeing these people as a threat is akin to that relative of mine at the dinner table New Year’s Eve 2001, the one who proffered that he would be justified executing his hypothetical home invader. Judge, jury, and executioner.But I feel compelled to try to live up to my father’s proposal: to understand, to comprehend, before I act. This was all the more striking to me since my father actually was a federal judge. His forbearance makes sense though. After all, lives are at stake. It’s only when we draw in closer, take the time to read profiles like the ones in the New Yorker and CNN that the humanity of Jose, Chantal, Stefani, and Iris comes through. These are not some abstract home invaders. They are human beings. As Emmanuel Lévinas, a Jewish philosopher once said, the only thing we are ever converted by is “the face of the other.”[5] The stories of others will transform us. If we let them.  

This was what I learned Kenya and it was, ultimately, why it is the children’s stories that make up the lion share of Two Years of Wonder, not my own.  

What is hardest for me to comprehend is that embracing the unknown was once such a defining feature of the American character. “The US is a country of immigrants,” teachers told us in school. “A place for every culture, creed, and ethnicity. Where everyone has a voice.” America (supposedly) is (was?) a country that pushes against boundaries and barriers, whether it was reaching the Moon or Mars, or diving into the realms of science, math, engineering and the arts. Innovation, exploration are supposed to be in our national DNA. But we can’t take a step towards either without facing and embracing the unknown, trying to comprehend what we don’t understand, even if what we don’t comprehend is another human being. That said, with their souls and our own at stake, isn’t the imperative that much greater to comprehend, to understand, to not shy away from the unknown, the unfamiliar, the alien? 

I think my father realized that, seventeen years ago, on New Year’s Eve. 

So today, in November 2018, on the eve of another divisive election, as we’re challenged to choose between fear or facts, ignorance or understanding, I DO wonder, where are the people of September 12, 2001? Did they all turn into my relative who wanted to chase down “invaders” with their guns? Or are they people like my father, who seeks understanding even today as he asks “Why are these people in the caravan migrating in the first place? What can we learn from their stories?” I learned in my travels that these questions, inevitably, lead us down a path of compassion and transformation.  

That is a place I would rather make my destination.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-saved-155-lives-on-the-hudson-now-lets-vote-for-leaders-wholl-protect-us-all/2018/10/29/554fd0e6-d87c-11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html?utm_term=.af3835b48f67

 [2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-the-trump-white-house-is-having-a-meltdown-over-the-migrant-caravan

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/americas/migrant-caravan-profiles/index.html

[4] https://iwantrest.com/blog/

[5] Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, ed. Jill Robibns (Stanford University Press: 2001)

 

White Awake by Daniel Hill - A Must Read!

index.jpg

I frequently encourage the white participants in my Reconciliation and Justice book groups to read more authors of color. I provide my students with recommendations ranging from Brenda Salter McNeil, to James Baldwin, bell hooks, Michael Harriot, and Michelle Alexander.

However, there are times I think the best person to reach people (especially white folks early in their journey to deeper understanding) is actually a white male—a white male who has grown up in privilege, made all the beginner mistakes when trying to be an ally, fallen down, gotten up, brushed himself off, and tried again.

That is where Daniel Hill comes in.

I recently was able to participate in a meeting with some of the leaders at my church and Daniel Hill. Daniel Hill is a pastor at River City Community Church, a multiethnic church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. He is also an author. I was first directed to Daniel’s book, White Awake, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, a reconciliation leader and church pastor here in Seattle. Here are some links to cut and paste to Daniel’s website and his book on Amazon. I’ll just say now that any white person in this country interested in working towards eradicating racism and building reconciliation should read White Awake.

https://pastordanielhill.com/

https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930

Amid so many gems, one of the most fundamental lessons of Daniel’s book has to be how he breaks down the two tracks we must use when discussing anti-racism and reconciliation work. These two tracks are interdependent and inseparable.

The first track is to consider Ethnicity and Diversity. Daniel, being a pastor, would be the first to call ethnicity, “God given and God created.” His point is that our different cultural backgrounds are valuable and worth acknowledging without self-consciousness. This is in direct response to people (often white) who are uncomfortable even talking about race. They will insist they are “colorblind,” which is of course a huge mistake. Striving to be “colorblind” only leads to the dead end of ignoring the undeniable fact that people of different ethnicities and skin colors experience the world in different ways. As a white male, when I see a police officer, I generally feel safe. But for my friends of color, they have a fundamentally different experience.

The second track is that of Race, Racism, and Discrimination. Daniel makes the critical and valuable point that THERE IS NOTHING REDEEMABLE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF RACE. It is evil. I agree. Hear me (and us) out. Race, is a construct that is human-made, not only that, but it was created and propagated by European colonial powers as a justification for colonialization, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and genocide. This aligns with Brian Stevenson’s (author of Just Mercy) concept of the false Narrative of Racial Difference. This is the notion that points to ethnic differences, which are fine unto themselves, but then assigns different values to those ethnic differences. This is the essence of racism and I think Daniel is right to call it out as evil and unredeemable.

Daniel goes on to point out that to discuss just the first of these tracks without the second, is often what we get in the corporate sector when we attend mandatory gender, equity, and diversity trainings. Those can be useful, but without acknowledging the second track in these discussions, we’re not getting to the root of the problems that require us to have gender, equity, and diversity trainings in the first place.

As Daniel is a pastor, his core arguments against racism rest on scripture and tenets of faith. I know this might pose a challenge for those of us progressives who sometimes seek resources and justifications for anti-racism and equity work that are not associated with the faith community. This is understandable (which might be surprising to hear from a deacon). The church has so many times been on the wrong side of these discussions and so many people from marginalized communities have been church-hurt by bigoted religious folks, that association with the faith community can taint some equity and justice resources. It’s sad but true! See: Westboro Baptist Church (ugh gross, I don’t even like typing their name!). As a result, I know there are times equity leaders are required to step away from religious affiliations and references which can be divisive or triggering to some.

But Daniel’s work can be translated to the secular sphere seamlessly, as he does for his trainings and consultancies with government agencies. A middle way might be to borrow from the recovery community and 12 Step programs. As equity leaders and change agents we can recognize that racism, like addiction, is a social malaise and even a disease at the level of the individual. But these afflictions can be overcome through building community, honest self-examination, and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) growth.

So, my heart is full of thanks for Daniel Hill, an influential thinker/activist, a powerful speaker, and gifted writer. His book is a must read!

Selene San Felice: F*** your Prayers

I was truly heartened to see this statement from Sojourners Magazine circulating among my social media feeds this weekend and how frequently it is being endorsed and shared among people of faith and people who want to call out people of faith on their silence and/or complicity on some of the injustices being carried out in our country right now.

WeBelieve Pic.jpg

https://sojo.net/media/reclaiming-jesus-time-crisis

I commend this statement. I agree with it. Silence is not spiritual. Silence equals consent in cases of injustice. As a writer, I recognize the importance of words, free speech, and speaking out. . .speaking TRUTH to power.

But I also see this statement as only a starting point. I'd urge churches to go further than mere words. I hope church leaders who have been on the “sidelines” up to this point are as haunted and challenged by the words of Selene San Felice, one of the survivors of the attack on journalists at the Capital Gazette this week. Ms. Felice said to Anderson Cooper on CNN: "Thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”

Selene Fuck Prayers.jpg

https://splinternews.com/capital-gazette-reporter-on-thoughts-and-prayers-i-cou-1827225278

I guess we all will wait and see what sort of act of compassion, reform, and resistance "thoughts, prayers, and reclaiming words," transform into.

 

Immigrants' Creed - Counterpoint for "Christians" who want to lock people of color up in cages

Came across this from one of the pastors at my church. She thought it was another meaningful counterpoint for people who call themselves Christians who are clamoring for the US to lock immigrants and migrants seeking asylum up in cages. As with all my posts on spirituality and faith, take whatever works for you and feel free to leave the rest.

The Immigrants' Creed
by José Luis Casal  
 
I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.


I believe in Jesus Christ,
a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,
and returning to his own country suffered the oppression
of the tyrant Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power,
who then was persecuted, beaten, and finally tortured,
accused and condemned to death unjustly.
But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a foreigner but to offer us citizenship in heaven.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.


I believe that the church is the secure home
for the foreigner and for all believers who constitute it,
who speak the same language and have the same purpose.


I believe that the communion of the saints begins
when we accept the diversity of the saints.


I believe in the forgiveness of sin, which makes us all equal,
and in reconciliation, which identifies us more
than does race, language, or nationality.


I believe that in the resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct
and all are alike at the same time.


Beyond this world, I believe in life eternal
in which no one will be an immigrant
but all will be citizens of God’s kingdom,
which will never end. Amen.

 

 

Sorry "Christians," the Bible DOES say to Break the G**D**** Law

For those of you who know me, you might know I’m a deacon at my church in Seattle. It’s a non-denominational Christian church and my role is really to minister to the material, social-emotional, and practical matters of church members who might be in a season of need. I don’t preach or teach. I basically run errands and coordinate volunteers so that the pastors can do that. 

I as raised in the Catholic Church and while I appreciate their teachings on social justice, I couldn’t remain a practicing member considering their handling of the child sexual abuse scandals, their positions on homosexuality, female ordination, conception, and abortion. 

Anyone who has read my memoir, Two Years of Wonder, will also know I attend multiple meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous each week. I attend AA as a “friend of AA,” someone who has never struggled with addiction, but practices the 12 Steps as a spiritual practice. I find the tenants of AA have helped me profoundly with my depression and anxiety. I also have found a deep connection with the recovery community. It’s in the rooms of AA with recovering addicts, drunks, sex workers, that I have met some of the “best” Christians in my life—although I know they would eschew any such label themselves, since so many folks I meet in the recovery community are also “church hurt” and are understandably skeptical of institutional religion (something I took on in my first novel City on a Hill as well as my short story collection Bunny Man’s Bridge).

So my approach to religion is more informed by AA’s approach to spirituality than anything else. In that I mainly, “take what works, and leave the rest.” This would earn me the label “Cafeteria Catholic,” back in Catholic circles. If I were still Catholic, I might care.

That said, it’s been saddening, yet not shocking, in recent weeks to hear so many folks who call themselves Christians using justification from the Bible to rip migrant children, seeking asylum, away from their parents to be placed in modern day concentration camps. Now, you can consider me a post-modernist skeptic of the Bible. I look on it as a historical document, written by MEN with all the biases and cultural blind spots that come with that. Although I recognize there are some profoundly progressive notions in the Bible on a number of issues, including gender, these have historically been glossed over by scholarly analyses, until recently done by men (that is the subject for another blog post).

But for those who still refer to the Bible as their go to, citing it, erroneously, as stating that we have a moral obligation to follow laws (as some politicians have recently, cherry picking a line from Romans 12) I decided to include the following counterpoints—from the Bible—highlighted recently by Pastor Tara Beth Leach. I think its also interesting to point out that the author of Romans, Paul, wrote many of his most famous epistles from jail, as he was constantly, willingly, purposefully, breaking the law—and was ultimately executed for it. Strange that this is the writer conservative Christians turn to in order to justify their own legalistic position to throw people of color in jail.

 

·      In Exodus we see the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, deliberately refused to enforce the law of the land. Pharaoh had explicitly commanded them to kill all male Hebrews. Recognizing this command as outrageously morally perverse, they courageously refused to do it (Exodus 1:15-17). 

·      Moses’s mother, Jochabed, illegally hid her son for three months instead of drowning him in the Nile as Pharaoh had ordered (Exodus 1:22-2:2). 

·      The wise men disobeyed Herod’s order to tell him where Jesus was; they broke the law and returned to their own country (Matthew 2:7-12). 

·      Mary, mother of Jesus, and Joseph, did not give their child up to Herod but fled as refugees to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

 

Let’s face it. Very righteous people in the Bible broke the law, often in order to protect children and families. Think on that.

 

 

Writing Characters of Color when you are a Cis-Gender, White, Heterosexual Male

With the release of my latest young adult novel, Jamhuri, Njambi, & Fighting Zombies (the second novel I've written from the point of view of protagonists of color) I wanted to share here the Author's Note I've opened JN&FZ with which I wrote as an attempt to enter into dialogue with some of these challenging and complex issues. I definitely would never suggest I have all the answers on this, but I think the best we can do is to keep a dialogue going on it. Scroll down past the cover for the full essay.

jamhuripreview2.jpg

A Note on Cultural (Mis)appropriation

            I have not stayed in my lane, and my sense of social justice—not to mention my friends who identify as people of color—have called me out for it. Rightly so.

            At first glance, most readers might not see the trouble with a cisgender, heterosexual, white writer using imagery from African culture in a work of fiction. It’s a “celebration of African traditions ignored by sci-fi and fantasy writers for far too long,” or it’s “an overdue acknowledgement of rich African contributions to art and literature.” Maybe it’s even “a healthy, contemporary reaction to the overemphasis of white characters in sci-fi and fantasy.”

            It is, I hope, but it’s other things too—things that must be viewed in the context of colonialism and the social, political, economic, and military oppression of people of color.

First of all, I’m no trailblazer. Other writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, have been producing works that fuse sci-fi and fantasy with African themes for some time. Before them, Octavia Butler was doing the same. Acknowledging, celebrating, and profiting from a white male’s derivations from the art and images of people of color over those artists of color who have a more personal, historical claim is nothing new. It’s a long tradition, characterizing the careers of artists as diverse as Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and so many others.[1]

            So, depending on the interpretation, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is a celebration, an acknowledgement, or it’s just another form of exploitation and cultural (mis)appropriation.

            Truth is, it’s all these things.

            To simply see this work as a welcome and timely celebration, a “generous inclusion,” would be to patronize these traditions and ignore great artists of color. It also ignores the historical power imbalances that have benefited Western, white writers over communities of color, whether in Africa or in its diaspora, for hundreds of years. This has been due to quirks of geography, disease, and more insidious institutions and practices such as colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery (to name just a few). Blood, treasure, images, and ideas have been extracted from these communities for centuries, the benefits accruing to whites and the cost borne by people of color. It is a repeating pattern, called out with smoldering eloquence by Jesse Williams in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award:

 

This invention called whiteness uses and abuses us . . . extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold—ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

 

            There is nothing to add to Mr. William’s words. They are complete, powerful, and persuasive on their own.

There is a counter argument. It goes something like this: that the cross-fertilization of cultures has always taken place and led to benefits in a variety of disciplines. The very characters these words are written with are “Roman,” influenced by Greek and Phoenician alphabets; the numbers in this text are “Arabic,” although really first codified by a Persian scholar (Muhammad al-Khwarizmi) who modeled them after a number system used by Hindu mathematicians.

Cross-fertilization indeed.

            The precedents for cultural exchange in fantasy literature are many fold. Take J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from Norse, Finnish, Germanic, as well as his own Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such fusions can create works of profound beauty and stand testament to the value of cultural diffusion. And it is often artists who are pioneers in reaching across cultural and social barriers, drawn by the universal experience of art and the appreciation of beauty. In the process we may blend influences, foster collaboration, and forge lifelong friendships despite ethnic, racial, or other social barriers. Sometimes amazing art is produced too.

But it is equally important to point out that Tolkien’s ancestors did not systematically oppress these other groups. Furthermore, Tolkien, in his own time, did not benefit disproportionately from historic or current oppression of Scandinavians or Germanic people in a way that denied these groups equal opportunity to flourish. The exchange of trade, ideas, and even violence among these peoples took place (more or less) among groups with equivalent levels of power—on an even playing field, if you will. The costs and benefits were equally shared.

No such moral or ethical neutrality can be ascribed to the exploitation of people of color by Europeans or their white descendants. White privilege is real. It has benefited me and still benefits me as a white man, a white writer, in the United States.

            There is no getting around this. But just because something looks like an unethical pattern in the past, does not mean it is the exact same thing today. In my heart of hearts, I would hope that Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is not exploitive. But intentions do not exculpate the artist. The art and work will stand for themselves and will rise or fall on the interpretation, opinions, the praise or condemnation, of others. I expect both and I have no answer other than my work.

            So why write Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies? Can we escape these patterns of oppression, exploitation, and historical amnesia?

I hope so.

            Those who are not seized by the urge to create, to channel some idea from the world of the imagined to the real, might not understand the fierce insistence of an idea, a plot, or characters and their stories knocking around in an author’s head. Like the Greek muses, these imagined personalities and events seem to exist outside us, using the artist as a mere channel. Michelangelo described it best when he said the figures he sculpted had always already existed, trapped inside their blocks of marble. It was simply his role to chip away the excess to reveal them.

It is the same with the characters and stories that reside in a writer’s head. They feel, to us, as if they already do and have always existed—a bit like a law in physics, a pattern in number theory, or an undiscovered prime. We as artists reveal; we create, because we can’t not. These characters, Jamhuri, Njambi, Latia, Anastasia, Esmeralda, and their stories, although not completely aligned with my own background, wanted to be out in the world. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were.

            The second reason was a personal promise. These stories were conceived in the early 2000s when I was living and working at an orphanage for HIV+ children in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time our resources for books were limited. Although we benefited from donations, the books I read to the kids had few characters that looked like them. As much as they enjoyed Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants (which did include a main character of color), they clamored for more characters that looked like them, characters from backgrounds and contexts they could relate to. As children who had been abandoned, abused, stigmatized, and generally not “seen” as individuals outside of their HIV status, this broke my heart.

At the time, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin were not on my own radar. So I set out to write a few stories of my own.

As a result, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is laden with that personal history and meaning for me. If these stories never find an audience beyond the children I wrote them for, then I am at peace with that. The audience and stories deserve at least that much, if nothing else.

            But this all begs the question of whether a privileged, white, male writer can or even should write from the point of view of characters of color. The answer leads me to my third and final reason for writing and publishing these stories.

            “Can a privileged, white, male writer write from the point of view of characters of color?” I will leave that for the readers to determine. I’d like to think these characters are authentic and well developed, but sales, comment sections, and reviews will bear that out as true or not.

            The question of should I have even tried to write in the point of view of these characters also looms large for me. I, for one, believe that art can transcend race (in some ways). As mentioned above, the common ground, the shared experience of being an artist, has united people from various backgrounds for the entire story of humankind. Moving from literature to music, I landed on the career and life of Benny Goodman as an example. Contemporary critics may be split over the legacy of figures such as Goodman, whose classical background and European ancestry “legitimized” jazz for white listeners, making jazz “safe” to bring into venues such as Carnegie Hall. His integration and promotion of this African American art form in his own performances undeniably contributed to his own stardom and the success of his career at a time when black musicians couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, much less perform in the same concert halls as he. So in that sense, perhaps Goodman’s choices were exploitive. But Goodman also launched the careers of many African American jazz artists and, during a time of racial segregation, defiantly toured the US in an integrated jazz band.

            So, as they say on Facebook, the relationship status here is “complicated.”

And that still does not answer the question of whether a white person can even write believable black characters?

It is not as straight forward as I once thought. For instance, my friends—writers of color in literature, television, and film—have had to write white characters throughout the course of their careers. It’s the reality of whiteness being associated with the mainstream, with “normality.” This is a consequence of our ridiculous default culture of white-centeredness and the unfortunate reality of the marketplace. The question of whether or not my friends of color “can” write white characters rarely comes up for them. After all, as people of color in the United States, they are bombarded with images of whiteness. They are forced (sadly) to move in a sea of pallor that is, arbitrarily, considered “the norm.” As people of color in a predominantly white society, they have to understand white culture—even better than we might understand ourselves (as James Baldwin once pointed out).

            Whites do not have the same need. As Jesse Williams reminds us, white society might extract black culture, treating it as a costume to put on, or a thing to demean, to make the “other.” But we have the choice. If we whites wanted, we could likely pass the day without encountering a person of color IRL (in real life). With effort, (and sometimes without) we can whitewash our social experiences and our media consumption, eliminating diverse images and voices and validating only our own. Living a life in an echo chamber like this, as so many white Americans do, eliminates the need to appreciate the perspective or point of view of someone different. It is a great loss, but it happens. I know this from teaching classes on race and reconciliation to white participants. One woman in her fifties in one of my classes recently had the epiphany that, “I worked as a trauma nurse in for thirty-two years and it’s dawning on me that I never worked with a black nurse. It didn’t even occur to me that that was even remarkable until 2017.”

            Baldwin has written that people of color are forced to “get” us whites, to understand us. Sometimes reading white people, living in a state of double consciousness (knowing yourself but also imagining how others misperceive your identity), is a matter of life or death. The tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and the murder of so many other black citizens by police can attest to this.

But to say that whites cannot do the same, that a white writer cannot and should not write from the point of view of black characters (as I have been told) is a conclusion I am unwilling to accept. Such a conclusion is flawed; it posits that we whites can never understand, much less endorse, the perspective of anyone but ourselves, even with effort, intentionality, and exposure. If this were true, it leaves me without hope. If understanding could only go in one direction: people of color learning to interpret and live with white people who are unable to do the same, progress would be impossible.

I don’t want to live in that world.

            It may take intentionality and no small amount of effort, humility, and discomfort, but I want—I need—to believe that members of a group of people who have been oppressors and a (rapidly diminishing) majority can come to understand and endorse, to love and accept the perspective of an oppressed minority. Perhaps it is the part of writers and artists, who try to see out of the eyes of others, to play a constructive role here. Again, to say otherwise—that artists, or even people in general, cannot do so—would be to suggest that people of color alone have this ability and whites do not. This seems like an overgeneralization, a dangerous assumption—in short, pure fallacy.

So yes, I believe that a white, privileged writer can and even should try to write from the perspective of others—with care, humility, and historical sensitivity. Must we be aware of harmful cultural legacies? Absolutely. We should also take care to consider whether or not our voices are taking up space that could be granted to writers of color who have not had the same opportunities to speak or to publish. The realities of the marketplace and the attention span of the modern human dictate that this is a genuine possibility. But to stop short of trying because of these risks handicaps us all.

The default flow of information, attention, experiences, and imagery might be in the direction of white people like myself—we the loud, obnoxious, blundering, self-absorbed, self-centered sibling of the US family, we who have historically been the referent. Thanks to demographics, this will not always be the case. But in the meantime, with intentionality, I believe this myopic vision amongst wypipo can be remedied. It takes exposure, dialogue, travel, reading, watching, and most of all, shutting up and listening.

            In that spirit, I think that is enough from me. People who look like me have had the spotlight on them and the microphone clutched in their hands a long time. Acknowledging that requires me to step aside, to let the characters take the stage—in this case Jamhuri, Latia, Njambi, Anastasia, and Esmeralda, who all have their own real-life counterparts—so they might tell their stories. I’ll be off to the side, sitting down and shutting up.

            Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy. If you don’t, well, I’ll try to do better next time.

 

—Ted Neill, Seattle, 2018

 

[1] This even happens in social activism. One need look no further than the initial confusion about the origin of the “MeToo” campaign. Many Twitter followers attributed it to Alyssa Milano, when it was actually a campaign started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Harlem activist, as a way to support women and girls and women of color who had been victims of sexual abuse.