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As a theologically liberal clergy person, I receive a lot of drivel masked as thoughtful, contemporary writing addressing the most urgent issue of our day: How can we make life better for nice, middle-class white people? These things come with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and are often written by black people, but they are really about white folk (and people “passing for white,” which I think includes people like Condi and Ben?)
Two big clues to who these missives are for, and what they’re really about: Pronouns. Also: verbs.
As a representative example, I offer the following, penned by Amira Sakallah and presented courtesy of the Theology of Ferguson project. “Ferguson,” you will recall, is the small city in Missouri where an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer. This is important, because a) Michael Brown is dead; and b) it sparked huge demonstrations and riots that went on all year, and resulted in massive property damage and further loss of life. So: serious business! Something for the clerical-collar-clad social warrior to really sink her straight, white teeth into! The essay is called Being a Do-Gooder, Becoming a Freedom Fighter: BlackLivesMatter:
In fact, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledging the truth of how you have benefited from white or white-passing privilege at the expense of Americans of color, whether you know them from your nonprofit work or personally, can be very painful.
If you really want world peace, challenge your intentions. When you really start working for the powerless, the powerful will not be as excited about you anymore. You will not be praised for your selflessness. You will not be complimented. Your return on investment for taking this next step of service in the world will not be of benefit to you. In fact, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledging the truth of how you have benefited from white or white-passing privilege at the expense of Americans of color, whether you know them from your nonprofit work or personally, can be very painful.
But this truth sets you free. It removes the paralysis you have often sensed within yourself but have been unable to identify. It makes you useful. It makes your work full, as a servant to your sisters and brothers in humanity. All of the benefit, then, goes to the betterment of black lives in America. The uplifting of black value in society. Where it belongs.
As a citizen of a country that has white supremacy sewn into its very fabric, your job now is to check your privilege, or in more religious terms, humble yourselves. In pursuit of well being for all, your job now is to sacrifice your comfort, and hear the stories of the Black Lives Matter movement. Your job now, is to show up and listen.
Pronoun problem: “your privilege,” “humble yourself,” “sacrifice your comfort,” “acknowledge the benefits of white (or white-passing ?!?!?) privilege,” and, of course, “this truth sets you free.”
Even assuming all this acknowledging, checking, and humbling does indeed set me free, so what? I thought this was about a young black man who — do we need to be reminded of this? — is dead.
I am a privileged person and a lucky, lucky girl. My sons do not stand a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated in their lifetimes, nor are they at high risk of murdering or being murdered, nor of being shot by a police officer, for that matter. My daughters do not have a better-than-even likelihood of bearing their children out of wedlock and rearing them alone.
The pronoun problem (and the limp verb problem) is endemic to liberal discourse; anti-racism is about the souls of the white and middle-class, not the well-being of the black and poor. Even calls for “action” are about white being (acknowledging, checking, humbling), not white doing. This is about whether the rich get through the eye of the needle, not whether the poor live and eventually prosper.
Where is the passage that begins, “This is what poor and African-American people need in order to not be poor anymore, and to lead lives that are as happy, healthy, and interesting as the lives of the lucky and privileged?”