I got an email yesterday from a friend of some 30 years who’s a member of Trinity Church, home of the suddenly very famous Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She’s a tad freaked out by all the hoopla. She loves her pastor, of course. She knows him to be a deep, vital, loving man of God whose life and ministry are defined by compassion.
Talking to her made me want to suggest that one of the reasons white people (and yeah, I know I’m white) get so upset about Rev. Wright’s, shall we say, more vigorous assertions, is that they imagine what their white pastor would have to feel in order to say the same things Rev. Wright is now being so roundly condemned for saying.
But what I think we’d all do well to remember is that communication has much to do with style. And style is function of culture. And in black culture—that is, within the black community—the style in which people very often talk is big. Big voices. Big gestures. Big language. Big effects.
Rev. Wright wasn’t literally calling for God’s wrath to be visited upon on America. He was just talking in the flamboyantly oratorical way that’s traditionally used by black preachers in black churches. There are all kinds of visual and tonal cues that tell you when that’s the kind of talk you’re hearing. But if you’re not used to those cues—if you don’t really have much or any experience in black culture—then you might naturally assume that, in Rev. Wright’s case, he means what he says, in the same way that a white preacher would if he or she said the same things.
But that’s a category mistake. That’s failing to account for context—which, in communications, is everything.
Trust me: If my straight-laced, hyper-intellectual white pastor ever hollered from his pulpit, “God damn America!”, I would have no doubt that he’d lost his mind. When I hear Rev. Wright say it, though, I know that he’s just dramatically making a point to an audience keenly attuned to his flamboyant style of communication—to what, contrary to what it might seem to outsiders, are the subtleties of his message.
White people can relax. Rev. Wright doesn’t think everyone in the United States belongs to the K.K.K. He doesn’t want God to destroy America. And his audience doesn’t hear it that way, either.
I got another email yesterday from another black female friend of mine, someone who, way back when I was a teenager, basically saved my life by inviting me into her home and making me part of her family. Here’s some of what this good woman wrote to me:
When you grow up the way I did (in a white world, denying the truth of who and what you are) you are privy to racism in a way that many aren’t. People actually get so comfortable with you, that they let little statements start to “slip” in your presence. They start to finish nasty little comments with, ‘Oh, but not you,’ or ‘But you’re different.’ It was after that started happening that I knew I didn’t want to be different from my own people. That I didn’t want to be separated out. It is a truly painful thing to realize that you have had to learn to embrace your own skin and your own people — when you learn that you have been taught to hate yourself and all the beautiful things about yourself that are unique to your specific ethnic group. From the kink of your hair, to the curve of your hips, to the tone of your voice — you hate yourself. And for me, that is the saddest thing and the cruelest pain that racism can inflict: it can cause a human being to hate the beautiful creature that God has created in them. …. If everyone could see each other as an extension of God, these types of conversations would be unnecessary, and slavery would have never occurred. Slavery has always been economically based, and it didn’t begin in this country. But historically it had always been perpetrated by one group of color against another group of the same color. Ethnically different, yes, but of the same people. It was only in the western world that, finally, it became about color. The entire concept of one race hating another and thinking in terms of inherent superiority or inferiority denies the basic intelligence of God in his creation of humans.
And there you have it.
Happy Good Friday, everyone. And God bless us all.