Economic Choices, the Media, and Racism

At the end of 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Problem with Giving Tuesday,” where I suggested that we have a responsibility and Christian mandate to more seriously reflect on our economic purchases and decisions.  I also noted that I was changing my consumption behavior when it came to chocolate – a decision that continues to prove challenging.This is a follow-up blog.

As we study about systems (like the chocolate trade), we learn the problems are bigger than we individually can solve.  It is important to be involved in political and social action, to demand greater regulations from both the state and from businesses themselves. Sin is individual and social; we are accountable for the sins of systems in which we participate and support in some way.

But that doesn’t negate the need for individual changes.  In calling us to hold ourselves accountable for what we buy, I’m not suggesting that our individual economic purchases are the most important way to fight injustice and exploitation in the economic system. But it acknowledges the link between the personal and the structural.  As a wise colleague noted to me recently, this means we often may feel that any decision we make will involve some level of sin, because of the society we are embedded within.

As I continue my commitment to not buying chocolate where the source is unknown, my second commitment is to change the media I consume. A number of racist and sexist stereotypes are promoted by much of the media, and the persisting racism and sexism in our society is shaped in part by media. First, I want to encourage and support more media with intentionally different messages about race and gender.  Related, I want to change the messages that I willingly consume, and that impact my own perceptions and stereotypes (of myself and others).

The Structural Problem

As many have written about more eloquently than I could, this past week was a bad week for the United States (and Florida in particular).  Yet another African-American murdered youth, Jordan Davis, died without justice from our legal system.  Michael Dunn, the white man who killed Jordan Davis, was considered not guilty for the murder.

While I would agree that Michael Dunn performed a heinous act, what is more disturbing is that our society accepted that act. Sociologists talk a lot about the issues of structural racism that persist in our society today, and that even as we may want to point to individuals who do “racist things,” the actions of those individuals are shaped by their culture, and allowed by the legal system that they live within. Michelle Alexander, a lawyer, scholar, and activist, recently wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It provides great examples and analysis of the ways our criminal justice system contributes to a racial caste system in the United States (and can also help illustrate what it means to live in a society that promotes structural racism).

Culture and structure are often linked together, and the negative and racist stereotypes and attitudes that continue to exist in our society are closely linked to these structural realities.  Given that we continue to live in a racially segregated society, for many, media plays a crucial role in perpetuating racist stereotypes. Artist Jonathan Edwards has beautifully (and provocatively) depicted the “white vision” glasses that many from the majority racial group (and some who are not part of the majority) have towards African-American teenage men.

As Christians, this should be totally unacceptable to us.  For those who grew up in predominantly white contexts, we should be asking how we challenge these stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated and accepted, even if they are “rejected” explicitly in theory or discourse. In an earlier post this summer, I provided a quotation from Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who wrote The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010). I want to repeat here the same quotation, because I think this characterization of African politics is not that different from what recent acquittals for Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman communicate today about how the United States values the lives of African-Americans:

 That these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited. That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted. For a new future to take shape in Africa, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted-by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (17, bold-emphasis mine)

Individual Economic Behavior as One Source of Action

Given these steps backwards for racial justice in the United States, clearly social and political action is needed.  But on an individual level, I want to also ask how my economic choices matter, given my attention in the blog this year to our economic behaviors of consumption. As a result, I commit to being more proactive in the media I watch/read. While I already reject racist/sexist media as much as possible, I want to be more proactive in consuming media with the messages currently lacking in our society. While I do not think media alone changes our perceptions of others (we need to be living in more diverse communities, and learning about our history and current contextual realities), we cannot deny the role it plays in perpetuating stereotypes.

The film Miss Representation  highlights that women are underrepresented on screen and in the media, and that this is especially true for women of color. I should add that there is great lack of representation of positive images for men of color as well.  White male characters are often still the stars of mainstream films, television shows, and children’s cartoons. Unfortunately, this means that people of color are often depicted with stereotypes, given their limited representation (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media provides some great statistics and analysis on issues surrounding gender, and interactions of race and gender, in the media)

 Right now, Doc McStuffins is an example of a show I want to support. Doc is a six-year old girl who wants to be a doctor, and serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals.  Her mom is a doctor, and she has a caring father; she is a good older sister to her younger brother.  She is friends with boys and girls.  She is an African-American girl who is the star, and not the sidekick.

I’d love to hear from readers on what you think are good films and/or television shows where racial diversity exists, and writers avoid relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.

 

 

 

Theology, Silence, and Action

I recently returned from a two-week seminar in Brazil with the Nagel Institute and Calvin College, where I spent time in Rio, Brasilia, and Manaus (Amazon) with a number of Brazilian scholars, as well as Christian college professors from the USA.  Given this opportunity, I hope to be able to spend some time in future blogs sharing some of this experience.

As in the United States, evangelicals can be found supporting a number of political causes across the spectrum.  We had the opportunity to talk with evangelicals playing a key role in different political parties (social democrats, the labor party, communist groups), some involved in women’s movements, and others who were committed community activists.  I was struck by how connected theology was with activism for these leaders, as well as my peers in the seminar.

As a sociologist, I was also intrigued by the role of the sociologist within society, and within the church.  Let’s just say the situation in Brazil is different than the United States. Sociology was seen as important and relevant for society (and the church). Several of the Christians I I met were sociologists and pastors, or sociologists and activists.  Former President Lula de Silva was a sociologist. As I commented on last year (after attending CLADE V, the FTL conference in Costa Rica), evangelicals seem to use the social sciences in interaction with theology in more integrated ways than we do in the United States.  Sociology shapes the way that they make sense of their context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in Brazil, I was reading Katongole’s book, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010).  Katongole is a priest from Uganda who has been integral with reconciliation programs at both Duke and Notre Dame.  One thesis in The Sacrifice of Africa is that political institutions and most of the ‘modern’ states in Africa were created out of a foundation of violence, and violence is part of their core.  He enunciates the theology that was (and is) at play:

that these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited.  That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted.  For a new future to take shape in African, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted—by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (p.17)

For many Christians around the world, theology is recognized to be contextual. There is a recognition that theology must speak to the social issues and society in which it is embedded; to be silent is also a form of speech.  One of the favorite songs of our Brazilian group was “Xote da Vitoria,” which speaks of the violence that will not win within society; of a God who will overcome, and of people who join with God in that march.

The words of Katongole continue to occupy my mind as I ask myself about what it means for US evangelicals (myself included) to think more critically about the context of our theologies. As I read and re-read his thoughts about the sacrificing of African lives and the casualness with which it is accepted by society, I cannot help but think about how our society continues to accept the loss of young African-American lives with casualness as well.  While the Trayvon Martin case has garnered much attention, there are far too many cases where similarities exist.  I leave for Florida tomorrow to visit my family, thinking about Trayvon and the case of Roy Middleton – an African-American man shot at his own car, who was apparently mistaken as a burglar by neighbors.  I think of the case of Jordan Davis, a teen who was shot in his car at a gas station. As I sit here in Chicago, I reflect of the number of youth, many African-American, who die to gun violence, and the families who have lost multiple children to gun violence, and the lack of serious attention and outrage at this situation.  I think of the Chicago Public Schools, which continues to be under resourced.

As a church, what does it mean to speak out on the devaluing of life that much of US society has accepted?  In response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, as well as the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Voting Rights Act, Lisa Sharon Harper wrote an excellent blog at Sojourners about the ways we are moving backwards, legally, when it comes to civil rights for non-whites in our society.  It is outrageous.

Both Jerry Park and George Yancey have offered some thoughts on this site about how we engage in talks about racism and recent events, especially within the church.  We need to ask what these cases (and our responses) reveal about our underlying theologies about the value of all life.  What theology exists in our own churches when we fail to proclaim (in word and action and presence) the dignity, the sacredness, and the preciousness of all lives—whether those in our neighborhood, in places throughout the United States, or countries across an ocean?  What theology do I profess when I remain silent when violence takes life? What would it mean to truly proclaim that dignity?

 

Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

Sexism in Racist Tones

Last spring UCLA was the site of a YouTube rant by a former student who was white non-Hispanic, about “Asians in the library” including her version of “Asian speak”- sociologists call this and other derogatory verbage against a group ethnophaulisms. Much of the work on the sociology of race focuses on the influence of the dominant group over subordinate groups; in the case of the US it usually refers to the influence of white non-Hispanics over non-whites. The Alexandra Wallace case is one of these. This is pretty straightforward racism and its significance is due in part to the public platform of YouTube used to convey her thoughts and feelings.

But I was reminded of the Wallace incident because it was implicitly linked to a more recent incident that seemed somewhat ambiguous. On Tuesday November 27th, the Vietnamese Student Union of UCLA had a banner in the student union building where (I think) each student organization has a space to promote their group. It goes unmanned for many hours a day. So on Tuesday morning some members of VSU found a paper with the words “asian women R Honkie white-boy worshipping Whores” tacked onto their banner.  The following day, a similar phrase was found scrawled in one of the women’s bathrooms in Powell Library. The question everyone is asking: who would do this?

Because Wallace was mentioned in the reporting, we’re led to believe that these are similar in nature. Maybe. Perhaps a white student may have done this but in this discussion by the online news site “The Young Turks” they suggest that it may be more complicated than our race-sensitive intuitions might suggest.

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Notably as they point out, the remark is not merely about race but about gender – it’s an attack on Asian American women. It specifically accuses them of “white-boy worship.” We have to agree with the news discussion and ask, why would someone white promote this? Instead we might consider turning attention to the complex matters of interracial dating, and the perceived differences in dating patterns among white and Asian college students. From this perspective, this incident is the ranting of a unique individual, probably Asian American, who feels frustrated about rejection (real or perceived) and externalizes his insecurity by making a public show of his emotions.

So this story does not actually seem similar to the Wallace story at all. The news reports also made mention of another incident at UCLA of anti-Latina sentiment earlier in February 2012. In that one, sexist language was used again with a racial tone. It was not enough to make an ethnophaulism against Latinos, it was specifically aimed at women, and most likely women’s agency in crossing racial lines (evidenced by the phrase “Meximelt”). At this level, perhaps the real issue is sexism. Certain ethnic minority males feel threatened by their female peers in the decisions they make regarding who they will and won’t date. Perhaps that is where the problem rests.

But we should ask further still: in a post-racial America, why would an ethnic minority male feel threatened by dating preferences that cross racial and ethnic lines? Perceived threat of this sort presumes a lack or loss of power by the threatened, and the available power by those they feel threatened by. In these two instances of public sexist-racist remarks, the perceived power of minority women to date outside of their ethnic community is the primary target. But implied in the messages too is a perceived threat of white males who date interracially. Why would white males be perceived as having more power than ethnic minority males? In a society that privileges white masculinity, some non-white males will be particularly sensitive to the difference (i.e. unfair treatment) they experience or perceive in their day-to-day lives. This combination of sexism and racism reflects what sociologists describe as intersections of power which cannot be reduced to one social category or the other. Both racism and sexism structure the kinds of language one uses to express hostility such as the cases we see here.

The upshot is that if both the anti-Asian and anti-Latina sexist remarks are reflective of irresponsible young non-white men, it works to create a climate of fear and insecurity for all. Perhaps that was the aim of those responsible for the rants, but in the end this doesn’t improve their chances at dating someone from their own culture-group. The effect of their behavior chills relations between men and women within these ethnic communities, and promotes distrust between ethnic minorities and whites. If this is the case, those responsible are basically saying “I want everyone else to suffer for the anger I feel from rejection.” In sum, while race is certainly a factor in these incidents involving defacing private, public or communal property, it cannot be decoupled from the sexism that work together in a matrix of inequality that privileges white masculinity.


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