I Was Just Kidding…

Sen. David Purdue (R-Ga.)…another one

When I first encountered blatant racism as a child in elementary school, my first reaction was to cry.  This didn’t win me any friends or empathy.  In fact, it simply garnered more teasing and bullying.  I was already a bookish kid who dressed funny and wasn’t afraid to use his adult vocabulary.  I was also the only black child in my grade at the time.  When I was physically threatened and called “fag”, I learned that I could literally outrun everyone in the school.  This was my golden ticket out from under the thumb of the school bullies for that transgression.  Still, I couldn’t outrun the racism.

There was a turning point for me in those early years.  I recognized that being unhappy wasn’t working for me so rather than get sad, I tried on anger.  I learned that if I couldn’t outrun the racism, I could shout it down.  At the very least, I could make it public.  I remember distinctly calling it out once and bringing it to the teacher’s attention.  But when we were brought before the teacher, the other child said four words that were like a magic code:

“I was just kidding”

This satisfied the teacher that this was just schoolyard taunting and she sent us away.

I will never forget how that white teacher’s ignorance enabled my harm and left me totally vulnerable and unresolved.  The teacher’s solution to the problem in the moment was simple: boys will be boys…harmless schoolyard play.  But it was not that simple. 

It is still not that simple.  This behavior is on full display between adults in our government.  This week, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) didn’t just mispronounce Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Ca.) name, he was publicly mocking her for it.  It was childish, pathetic, racist and a deliberate tool of otherization.  And it was casual…like something he would do or say anywhere. When his campaign defended him by saying “Senator Perdue simply mispronounced Senator Harris’ name, and he didn’t mean anything by it. He was making an argument against the radical socialist agenda…[1]” they all but said, “he was just kidding.”  And of course, he was not (Watch video clip)

This is the oldest trick of the bigot, act like your bigotry isn’t really a thing.  I suppose that this is easy to do if you don’t think that your racism is really a thing.  If, as I suppose is the case with Sen. Perdue, you’ve never thought about yourself in the context of racism or interrogated your behaviors or beliefs to understand where you might actually be wrong or backward or racist.

But then, he’s enabled by the greatest bigot kidder of them all…the President of the United States.  The president was just kidding when he disparaged women and joked about molesting them; he was just kidding when he encouraged Russia; he was just kidding when he mocked a disabled journalist; he was just kidding about the kids in cages, the white supremacists, the pre-existing conditions, liberating Michigan and Virginia…

Basically, he’s just been kidding for four years.

But this kind of kidding does real and lasting harm and lands in the ears and hearts of people who aren’t kidding who are armed and dangerous; consider the threats to both Michigan and Virginia’s governors.  Making a joke of someone’s name paints them as a perpetual outsider, a non-belonger…a foreigner.  Sen. Perdue’s message is loud and clear: Sen. Harris is just another n**ger like Obama who doesn’t belong.  According to him, she is going to continue to destroy our (read white people’s) country and you should all be afraid of her.

Just kidding? Like hell.

Sen. Perdue and every politician who publicly mocks another based on their heritage, ability, gender, sexual orientation or racial identity should have their pay suspended indefinitely until they can be voted out of office.  After all we (including every Kamala and Keisha and LaTonya) are paying their salaries and none of us want to pay for stupid bigots.

I am not kidding.


[1]John Burke on Twitter.

What Is the Toll?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I am a minister, I am black and I serve a predominantly white congregation.  The definition “white congregation” extends beyond the physical and also appears in priorities and perceptions of the congregation as well.  I am not alone.  I have many colleagues from a wide variety of non-white backgrounds who have chosen to work, serve, and contribute to Unitarian Universalist and other religious denomination congregations as ministers, DREs, Musicians, Administrators and Building Managers where they are one of only a few or the only person of color on staff.  They do what they do because they are people who are committed to spiritual and ethical life and public morality, not because they wish to make a statement on multi-culturalism…even though they are sometimes hired for that reason. Their lived experience, not their jobs make them the embodiment of justice.  What I hear from most of them is that they also are aware that there is an existential cost to having made this dedicated choice. 

I have to ask, as I weigh the fact that both my formation and my called ministry have been entirely shaped and colored by the ongoing government sanctioned public lynching of black men by law enforcement, when is it too much?  What has the toll been on me and others like me?  Everyone talks about self-care, but no one ever put self-care in the context of epidemic violence against people of color and viral images of black lives being extinguished.  No one ever taught a seminary class in self-care as an antidote for whiteness. How do those of us who aren’t primarily among communities of color accept that self care is not abdication of some bizarre “duty” to do 24/7 race work.

So many of us have to listen patiently as our white communities try to understand what to “do” and we have to give guidance and instruction as to what is appropriate in terms of bearing witness to the ongoing tragedy.  Too often we are asked to lead protests, sing songs, create rituals, craft messages etc. that are all shaped around a white identity that is desperately searching for a place in the racial reckoning of our day.  There is a brutal contrast between this and coming together with our community of color to raise voices, mourn, celebrate, rage and resist. In those spaces we don’t have to translate, or explain. We are not the show in those spaces because no one is performing. In those spaces we are living out loud in real time. It is a loss to not be in those spaces at this time. It is no wonder that there is also a time when we must make it clear to our white communities that this kind of performance is sometimes simply too much to ask even though putting up the hand and saying “I just can’t do this for you right now” is more labor; more race work.

I have to wonder what it is like for my white ministerial colleagues who wake up in the morning and don’t have an internalized sickened dread at turning on the news or opening their email.  Who won’t see themselves lynched every few months;  who haven’t had to talk about, think about, let alone be the poster child for racial reckoning with their congregations.  I wonder what it is like to hear the helplessness of well-meaning liberal folks in their congregations who want to “do something” having also felt helpless.  I wonder what it is like to be able to decide to go to a march or protest and feel “satisfied” when you leave as opposed to feeling like its just another day at the office and knowing you will be there again.

And yes, I fully well know it is more complex than that but I have to wonder what it is like to be white in this time.

I am a minister, I am black and I serve a predominantly white congregation.  The definition “black” also extends beyond the physical and appears in the priorities and perceptions I carry as well.  I cannot see a black person under 30 gunned down without thinking he could be my child; I cannot witness elders in the civil rights movement who themselves were children when they began to fight, starting to die off without thinking will I go to my grave with this business unfinished too?  I cannot hear black voices crying for justice over, and over and over and over again at march after march, rally after rally, vigil after vigil and not hear myself preaching and writing every week, every day in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways saying this is F**KED UP…JUST FIX IT!

What un-reimbursable toll is being extracted from me and every person of color, every day as we try to explain, justify, fix and retrofit whiteness when ultimately, it is up to white people to cure whiteness?