ethical discourse

White Need to Talk About Race and Privilege

By J.C. Mitchell

I remember getting ready for school when I was a pre-teen on March 17.  I was certainly wearing green and then I put my favorite jacket as it was a chilly morning.  My mother was adamant I not wear the Mets jacket I wore most days.  She was yelling at me about wearing orange.  I argued that the jacket was blue and simply had orange lettering for the Mets, I was sure that was fine since it was clear I was wearing green and would take my jacket off when I would arrive at school.  My mom was not happy with me, and needless to say I went to school with an older jacket.  I knew we were Irish, but I had no clue about the Troubles and that Orange was the color of the Loyalists and Green the color of the Nationalists, and I certainly did not understand why that should matter in my Connecticut School.

I share this experience because I find it funny, and I believe my mother’s passion should be honored.  One should be proud of their heritage and should not forget the injustices and oppression of your ancestors, be it because of ethnicity, ability, sexuality, gender, skin color, or whatever I might have missed.  I believe there was certainly oppression to the Irish, and I had experienced some of this reality when I lived in Northern Ireland.  However, this reflection is not about The Troubles, or even about immigration; it is about being White.

I had no idea what it meant to be White, when I had to put my Mets jacket aside that day.  I thought I was White, but that was always defined against other people, specifically skin color and/or language--specifically Spanish, yet not those that spoke Castilian Spanish.  I learned between my argument with my mother and living in Belfast that Irish immigrants became White, and not simply because of our pink complexion.  There are certainly many social and political things that occurred that made me, my ancestors and my descendants, White.

However, of all of us that are now in the privileged status of White in the United States, we don’t talk about our inclusion in this label (and it is a label, but with much privilege).  We avoid the subject.  We often invite people that are not White to talk about this subject.  I have been at many conferences and assemblies where the conversation on race, immigration, ethnicity, or diversity is being ran by the small group of people assembled at the gathering that are not White. 

I remember watching the film Traces of the Trade. I was moved by such a film maker who challenged White people to talk about slavery and the economy that all of us benefited from such cheap labor.  She traced her family roots, discovered not only did her family have slaves, profited greatly from the slave trade.  Even us Irish, who came later, benefited from this reality, which we cannot deny.  If we do not have this conversation, we are doomed to keep seeing people who are not White as a deficit that we must find a way to include in our discourse, because White will only be defined by those not.  So even when we desire diversity, we are looking for those that are non-White to give us the answer, instead of having the real conversation ourselves.   It will be difficult, especially as it will often reveal privilege, even for those that worked hard.   If we have the hard discussion, and read and interact with theologies from non-White perspectives, we will benefit, even if it means a larger table.

I know this to be important because I observe that my experience as a child of a first generation mother has many similarities with immigrants today.  But I don’t want to be naïve to claim my experience is just like theirs, for there is a great complexity, but if those who are White are not able to admit this complexity of our own history, how are we truly to live into the diversity we uphold?

Currently I often speak and write about inclusion of people with disabilities, and many of us who do promote the civil rights of those with different abilities, are directly affected by disabilities.  One of the things I often dream of is for people without disabilities to have the conversation (in an intelligent and educated way) of what it means to inclusive of people of all abilities.  It would require very thoughtful and real conversation about the privileges one has in a society and how we assume normal.  We do the same thing with race—even with great intentions; we assume what is normal, if we do not talk about it. We need to be open to different views, our privilege, and the fact sometimes we are wrong.  And certainly we do learn from being wrong—well, at least I know I do.




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It's Complicated

The KONY 2012 explosion that recently happened online ignited in me what has been a sustained theological musing on complexity, tension, and rhetoric regarding people’s engagement of important conversations. I don’t care to unpack my personal feelings regarding the KONY issue in this piece other than to let it be an entryway into some of the more theoretical thoughts I’m playing with about how conversation takes place among people around things that matter. I want to begin with this observation: the KONY 2012 phenomenon and the criticism that followed serve as witness to the need for complexity in dealing with matters related to cultivating wholeness in the world. Conversations that fail to hold the tension between competing views reduced to simple answers often lack the substantive material needed to construct an adequate attempt to address important issues, whatever those may be.

Complexity stabilizes and substantiates discourse. I have observed in even casual conversation an eerily devout motivation to pick one side or another on any particular hot button issue. I have talked with those who blatantly refuse to season their positions with other perspectives or alternative viewpoints. Yet, these polarizing moves to draw lines elevate the emotional rhetoric of conversation. The substance of conversation becomes the energy, passion, anger, and emotion behind the content and not the content itself. Granted, I’m not opposed to emotion, but it’s best when checked by complexity.

Mark’s gospel provides a clear counter example of how a movement or discourse promoting wholeness can flourish in complexity. This gospel account is one of the earliest written documents that give shape and direction to the movement of Jesus followers. Yet Mark presents Jesus embroiled in mystery (complexity). This gospel resists suggesting simple answers and conclusions that might define who Jesus is. Mark’s gospel shows Jesus asking people to keep things hush-hush. “Don’t tell anybody what you saw or who you think I am,” Jesus states time and again in Mark. For Mark and his readers there is a lot more to Jesus than simple declarations.

Mark writes at a time of incredible crisis. The temple has been destroyed. The future of Jewish faith is up in the air. So those who have followed Jesus would want to know how his story might inform this new reality. If Mark tries to give some concrete solutions he doesn’t do a very good job. Mark leaves questions about Jesus and lets them hang there, often unanswered. Through Mark’s narrative the disciples are constantly stumbling into new insights about Jesus while typically operating out of a set of wrong assumptions. They come to know him by surprise. And abruptly, at the end of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is gone. The disciples have fled. The women are afraid. Silence.

The burden to discover the importance of Jesus in addressing faith and going forward does not rest on a simple “hallelujah!” for Mark. The burden is passed to the readers of Mark to deal with the complex nature of Jesus in their own situation, to discover his empowering life in their own journey. The question left to answer is implicitly posed to the reader: “What will you make of this Jesus now?” As readers, you and I might discover we only thought we knew Jesus and what he was about. We learn fairly quickly, through Mark’s story, that the relationship we only assumed we might have understood is much more complicated.

Mark’s theological account of a mysterious Jesus reflects a narrative force that initially propelled a movement that has, at times good and bad, continued to this day. Along the way of history, people have allowed the complex person of Jesus to intersect their lives in transformative and productive ways. But it has been the appropriation of a reduced and simplistic understanding of Jesus that has resulted in a more fractured world. If we are to take a cue from Mark’s gospel, any significant or transformative encounter with Jesus—indeed, any movement, discourse, or conversation for wholeness—should be complicated.