People who know me will, I would hope, attest to the fact that I am not one to steer clear of “controversial” subjects. At the same time, I don’t stir up trouble where trouble is uncalled for. All that said, I felt compelled to respond to a blog post entitled “Who Will Give It Up?” by my good friend and brother James McClary as well as to responses given him by various others to the same.
DISCLAIMER: I use terms of ethnic identity in this article to for the purposes of clarity only. I wish I didn’t have to… But I guess we will get to that in a minute.
First of all, it seems that James had two ideas going on in his article: 1) A kind of general malaise regarding the lack of ethnic diversity in his friendships [summation and verbiage absolutely mine], and 2) the thesis that one cannot focus on both an ethnic identity and a Christ-centric identity. I understand the malaise. In high school, I had many friends of divergent ethnic backgrounds (of course, in Mobile, AL that pretty much meant African-American, the occasional Latino/Hispanic and even rarer Middle to Far-Eastern Asian friend). Currently as I scroll the list in my phone, there seems to be a far greater number of white (ugh! more on that later) people there than of any other ethnic background. It is slightly incongruous with my high school experience.
Still, there is at least one African-American that my daughters call titi (aunt). I was more than happy, proud even, to lovingly associate myself as a “twin” with two of the loveliest women I have ever met (yay for June 5th B’Day’s) – and it is, for me, only incidental and ultimately unimportant that they are African-American. Also, I have had (embarrassing admission forthcoming) many romantic relationships with women of varying ethnicities (NOTE: To be clear, it’s embarrassing only because of the word “many.”), and I am married to a first-generation Puerto Rican. So, is my malaise, the same as another James’? Probably not; so, why am I bothering to write?
Let me lay as a foundation for my thoughts a comment that will most assuredly cause a stream of hate mail, flames, and, at the very least, misunderstandings. (It is my hope, though, that I be afforded a chance to fully explain.) I am confounded by the constant descriptor of the upcoming inaugural as an “historic event.” (i.e. “Local Leaders Get Ready For Historic Inauguration,” “Washington in overdrive for historic inauguration,” “Obama’s historic inauguration features music legends, service projects, much more.”) While I understand and appreciate the very certain distinctiveness of this incoming president and, by extension, his inauguration, I would like to point out that EVERY inauguration is historic. Every new president is a potential hero that will encounter and overcome massive obstacles that distinguish him (or her) as a leader for the generations. Likewise, every new president is a potential moron that duped just enough people to get himself elected. Every four (or eight) years we elect and inaugurate a person who at one point in his life, messed his pants, made fart noises with his armpits, tried to burp the alphabet, cheated on homework, a test or somebody, and is ultimately a dice roll away from becoming either a blazing triumph or a colossal failure. (OK, James, what is your point? Let me fly for a while…)
I have a very distinct memory from my childhood of sitting in my living room and watching a portion of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is such an iconic piece of rhetoric that I can hardly imagine there is anyone in the world that hasn’t heard it, but I, on that day, had never heard those moving and magnificent words. I still remember the chills that ran over my body and the tears that came to my eyes the first time I heard the words “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I was seven. I didn’t really know what character was, but I fully understood what Dr. King meant by the first part of that sentence. It was then that I decided that the color of someone’s skin would absolutely not matter to me. Period.
I have tried through the course of my life to negate skin color as either an identifier or a mark of division. Throughout my high school, and even into my college career, I always checked “other” on the “race” box and wrote in “human.” I will not allow myself to be identified as white because I’m not white (in Jen Toksvig’s words “I’m kind of a peachy color, actually”, and by my own demonstration I am actually two toned.); I acknowledge my ethnic heritage (which is VASTLY varied) mostly when I find it funny (i.e. I understand that the primary reason my skull is so FREAKING large is because of my Scottish ancestors. Thanks. Also, I can’t grow a good beard because I have just enough Native American (Cherokee) in me to nix that whole idea. There are others, but the point is that I find all of that funny.), and I do my level best to not use ethnic identifiers for others (especially in front of my daughters).
I recall (embarrassing admission #2 coming) from the third season of “The Real World” (don’t you dare laugh at me) the cast member Cory Murphy, described by housemate Judd Winick in his book, Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss and What I Learned as “an unassuming and naive Christian girl from Fresno, California,” was involved in an incident where she made some, apparently, insensitive comments to her housemate Mohammed’s girlfriend by asking her if she was “half-white” due to her light skin-tone. This led to a discussion among the housemates which ultimately led to Cory tearfully admitting that she comes from a “rather ‘white’ world.” More specifically, I recall a scene (it could have been around the same situation) where, after a conversation regarding ethnic identity, Cory was crying over the fact that she didn’t have a culture the way that Pam (Asian-American), or Pedro and Rachel (Cuban-American) did. I was very disturbed by this primarily because it flew so violently into the face of what I had been trying to do my entire life.
I don’t wish to sound naive. I understand that not everyone (for that matter, hardly anyone) shares my view on this. I also understand that there are people in this world who have been the victims of remarkable prejudice and ignorance, as well as inexcusable behavior based solely on the color of their skin that, in turn, colors (pun absolutely NOT intended) their worldview. Certainly someone who has been taunted or threatened because their skin is black (or some shade darker – or lighter for that matter – than the moron doing the taunting/threatening) is going to be affected by this for the rest of their life. I understand that. I have been at the receiving end of it. (What?!?!?!?! A “white” guy has been the victim of racism???? Yeah… but I won’t go into it because it’s not the point.) I have even been present when my wife and mother-in-law were the victims of it. A friend of mine… a sister really, the titi mentioned in paragraph three, was recently the recipient of a rather back-handed (unintentional, I am sure, but back-handed nonetheless) compliment. It went along these lines, “I always said you were the most beautiful black girl that I knew, but [sometimes] you pass all of us white girls too…”
Am I just rambling now? Wasn’t I supposed to address some of the points in James McClary’s article (and in some of the responses as well)? Yes I was, but I needed to say all of the above to establish a basis for my comments.
I believe that James is experiencing both a kind of “white guilt” of the kind that Cory (see above) was experiencing as well as a frustration over ethnic division in the Christian church. Further, because I know James I think I can safely say without fear of hurting his feelings that the article felt that it was written – as is the danger of most blogs – on the fly. (That said, regarding the impromptu nature of blogs, has anyone besides me noticed that “blog” is also the sound you make when you vomit? Moving on…) I read the words and I understand what James means because I know him. I also understand that those who may not know James the way I do might respond, well, as many of them did.
Now let me respond to some specific comments…
I ran into [a friend from HS] again at UTC with his fiance who was looking for a specific room in the theater department. I have his number, but I’ve yet to call him… why?
Because John Lennon was right; “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” Also, James, you haven’t called… because you haven’t called. It’s not a big deal. There are many people with whom I was friends in HS and college that I haven’t spoken to in years. I had, or even still have, their phone numbers, but I don’t call and it has nothing whatsoever to do with their skin color.
Another old friend I met as he and his brother were driving by Brainerd Rd. and as they saw me waiting for the bus they offered to take me to school. …he congratulated me on my successful 3 years of marriage and wished me luck. I don’t know if I would ever see him or his brother again.
But would you know if you would ever see him again if he was Asian, or Hispanic or White?
[An article] then began to go into how black churches are too preoccupied on neighborhood achievement these days because of the prospect of achieving the “American Dream.” Ok, so what? That still doesn’t explain to me why blacks and whites don’t stay friends after high school.
What about all the friends of the same ethnicity we have from HS that are no longer in contact with us?
For instance, I know for a fact that I’m acting so ‘white’ right now because I’m even analyzing all of this. If you think about it for sec, it’s quite stupid that I am compelled to post my thoughts on a public forum, but for some reason I feel it’s out of necessity.
Yikes! So, only white people blog? Only white people are analytical? See, I know that’s not what he meant but it is what he… well, meant. Over and over in the news, in various forms of media we see not only white people but people from every ethnicity portrayed as having certain characteristics. (Most of the time we call that stereotyping, but let’s not get into that here.) The Big Lie Theory basically states that “people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” When one hears the “characteristics” and “shortcomings” of white people over and over again, it is understandable that some people will come to believe it, even subconsciously. So, go easy on James here.
Nowadays, it has actually become part of ethnic identities to be at church; ever think of that?
It irks me that James came so close here to saying, again what I think, what he was trying to say but missed. It disturbs me that the only churches that don’t have ethnic identifiers are “white churches.” (i.e., “You know it’s that black church over off of Highway 153” or “Yeah, they go to the Hispanic church over behind the college.”) Let me rephrase in such a way that shouldn’t surprise too much: it irks me that churches have cultural/ethnic identifiers of any kind.
Most whites go to church because they otherwise feel condemned not to go because of pressure from their peers.
The real problem here is the word “most.” Or maybe it’s the word “whites.” Conceivably it’s the words “most whites.” You’re stereotyping James.
…it is … difficult to add adults to a congregation, because they have convinced themselves that their identity is already secure.
I buy this statement, in the above vacuum only.
This is also why especially in white churches there are multiple church “members” who continue to dive into alcohol, pornography, adultery, bitterness, murder… they are not there to look for Christ; they’re there to achieve a white identity.
And the response from Kimberly Mathis Brooks:
I HAVE never EVER associated a “white” identity with pornography, bitterness, murder, alcohol, etc. To say that identifying yourself as a “white” person means that you associate with all those things is ridiculous, demeaning, and ignorant of basic human faults.
Kimberly has a point, but, here again, I think it’s mostly because James didn’t take time to edit well. I feel safe saying that I know for certain that James in NO way meant to imply that “identifying yourself as a ‘white’ person means that you associate” yourself with “alcohol, pornography, adultery, bitterness [and/or] murder…” His point was, rather to illustrate that the church members (specifically the “white” church members to whom he had earlier referred. Again, stereotyping…) to whom he was referring were not at church to seek any kind of real enlightenment or truth but instead to develop a cultural identity (which is FAR broader than simply an ethnic identity).
There were some who responded to James by telling stories about how they had been the victims of prejudice. To that I respond as follows:
It seems certain to me that you have been harmed by ignorance and prejudice. I’m sorry for that, but I am not sorry for that as a white person. I’m sorry as a fellow human being. As a very good friend of mine once wrote, “When any man is wronged, not just one is maligned. The ripples expand to touch all of mankind.” And, as a much more famous person wrote: “No man [or, for our purposes here, no ethnic group, no race, no group with similar skin tones] is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind (emphasis mine), and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
To James McClary’s post, Donnie Johnson Sackey wrote:
I think that if we move toward ignoring race and ethnicity, as they play important mitigating circumstances in certain institutions (i.e. the black church), this will only help to further the logics of racial supremacy since it appears to favor the status quo within our American culture. In other words, we would be solidifying the same racial caste system that we’ve been “trying” to eliminate for over 100 years.
Categorizations in the human race based on phenotypical characteristics are the mark of intolerance and division. To agree to your above statement is to say that the best thing for all people to do is to embrace an almost Garvian anti-miscegenationist worldview, come together and assign to each category a specific land mass and group them all there for all time. I understand that may not have been your intent, but it is the logical extension of your statement. I understand your thought that race and ethnicity “play important mitigating circumstances” in our collective experience (see paragraph 8), but if we can’t “move toward ignoring race and ethnicity” then racism will NEVER cease to be a problem.
And that is my real point. What difference does it make what to which ethnic group your friend from high school or college or that past job with whom you have lost touch belongs? What difference does it make, ultimately, which ethnic group claims our in-coming bi-racial (ugh!) president? What difference does it make, between you and me (whoever you are), what difference there is in our skin tones. We’re all colored people to one degree or another. I haven’t even met an albino that was truly achromatic. I say again in paraphrase for purposes of closing that, the harm that comes to any person of any ethnic group for any reason diminishes me, for I am his brother and he is mine because we are the both of us, human. We are, the both of us, a colored people.