pre-flight safety instructions: how the church can uniquely respond to the cost of whiteness

a yellow-haired woman in a tight scarf is going through the pre-flight safety procedures from the front of our flight—“in the event that anything should happen,” a disembodied voice speaks over the intercom—while i watch and wonder, is anyone even paying attention? who, if anyone, is this helping?

soon, i’m no longer watching this stewardess unfold and fold a laminated pamphlet in the unconscious movements she’s made countless times before, but looking around at fellow passengers: asleep, reading, talking loudly to one another. i see only one woman who seems to be following along. but as soon as i spot her, eyes forward, she is soon flipping through a magazine.

what else happens right in front of us, i wonder, that we blindly allow to unfold before us?

• • •

returning home after speaking on reconciliation at a private Christian university in the midwest, the theme of whiteness is fresh in my mind. in particular, the way it exists largely unnoticed. one of the themes that arose during my visit is the fact that whites can choose to think about race or not.

“i’m always aware of the fact that i am a large black man when i enter a room,” demetrius (“Meech”) edwards, an oakland pastor shared with a group of students and church members in berkeley last fall. humor, meech shared, is a way to make sure others aren’t afraid of his body.

i realized then that I have never had to think about how to make sure others aren’t afraid of my body.

• • •

are there other processes playing out in front of our eyes that we intentionally don’t attend to? i wondered from this late afternoon flight. are there any parallels to the stewardess going through safety protocol, now wrapping a plastic tube around one fist and pulling down on a cup-shaped facemask with the other? what rituals, what processes, what people are we aware of but choosing to ignore?

growing up, i don’t remember thinking much about race. i spent my elementary through high school years in a small farm town, where dairy cows outnumber people 10-to-one and the lone, blinking stoplight is more of a luxury than a necessity. people of color were far and away the minority at my school.

one of the largest producers of raspberries in the world, our valley’s fertile soil was home to many hispanic migrant workers, though their children largely kept to themselves. in a high school of less than 500 students, there were fewer than five black students—three of whom were related—and only two indian students, who were siblings.

• • •

“there’s no such thing as ‘white,'” someone on the panel said at one point in our evening conversation at this Christian university. “it’s not real; it’s made up.”

i took her point. race, and especially whiteness, is a social construct, conceived for the systematic, preferential treatment of some over others. but to call whiteness “not real” was insufficient, and disrespectful to those who have felt its destructive reality.

less than a year earlier, minutes from where we were seated, philando castille was shot to death by a police officer inside his own car while reaching for his identification. the aftermath was famously live-streamed by his girlfriend, while his four-year-old daughter tried to console her from the backseat. rather than say whiteness is “not real,” i prefer ta-nehisi coates’s language: “she thinks she’s white.”

whiteness is an individual and communal mindset, voluntary or involuntary, with real effects. the worst of which is not a visible mob of white men carrying citronella tiki torches, but an invisible assumption of superiority that overlooks more insidious violence.

• • •

as a graduate student in durham, north carolina, public transit became a part of my daily life. when a bus route was introduced that stopped near our home, i was grateful to no longer ride my bike to and from campus, to no longer be the stinky guy in seminar.

taking the bus home one evening, i boarded alongside other backpack-clad students. so engrossed in my book that evening, i didn’t realize when i had boarded the wrong bus. when it stopped to unload passengers at a city bus station, and allow others to board before changing routes, i sill didn’t notice, head down in my book.

fifteen minutes into this new route, i looked up and realized i had no idea where I was. those on the bus no longer looked or sounded like me. they talked loudly, laughed loudly, and cussed openly. music played from somewhere on the bus at a high volume. the streets outside didn’t look like the streets i knew. i didn’t recognize any of the homes nor any of the stores.

with no social or geographic handholds to locate myself, i was completely disoriented. i suddenly felt i should act different—change my posture, maybe, change my tone when i speak up to ask the bus driver for help—so as not to stand out, but i didn’t know how. i also wondered if that would only make my presence more glaringly out of place.

reflecting on this experience, i began to wonder how many others feel the same way in what i might describe as “normal” situations: the classroom, worship, the grocery store.

• • •

our son was born in oakland a year and a half ago. a historically multi-ethnic and economically depressed city, oakland is becoming increasingly gentrified by the day—thanks, in large part, to the influx of tech employees spilling across the bay from san francisco. last i heard, oakland is now tied for the third most-expensive city to live in the united states.

what will it mean for our son to one day tell others that he was born in oakland?

growing up in an area where she is an ethnic minority, the lone white girl in her preschool, our daughter will be forced to think about race in a way that i never did—thank God.

as we are slowly becoming more aware of our own whiteness, my wife and i are thinking and talking about helpful ways to discuss this with her, attending classes at church, bringing it up in family conversation.

on a recent drive home we asked emma what Jesus looked like.

“i don’t know,” she said.

a fair enough answer.

“how about his hair,” i asked. “what color do you think Jesus’s hair is?”

“black,” she said.

my wife raised her eyebrows. potential good news.

“how about his skin,” she probed. “what color is Jesus’s skin?”

“white.”

that our then-four-year-old daughter thinks a middle-eastern, jewish man is white—without any effort on our part—reveals the power and prevalence of whiteness in shaping our collective imagination.

we’re not likely to always get it right, but fumbling our way is better than blindly pretending it doesn’t exist, or isn’t happening right in front of our eyes while we laugh, read, chat, or sleep.

• • •

“where are you finding hope on this topic?” dr. claudia may, associate professor of reconciliation studies at bethel university and the panel’s host, asked the six of us from our seats in the front of the lecture hall. i mentioned the fact that these conversations are beginning to happen in our churches and on our Christian university campuses as a sign of hope.

“i’m hesitant to beat the drum for progress, but i think we’re becoming aware of the fact that whiteness is costly,” i said. “not just to others, but to us, too. i don’t think we’re as aware of the ways that it’s costing us, which is why we need others to help us see.”

“one of the ways your privilege is costly to you,” rev. jim bear spoke up from his seat in the front of the room, “is that it has costed you your people.”

rev. jim bear pointed out the fact that when we were invited to share our stories at the start of the evening, all of us referred to our ancestors, but several of us referred to our family’s history as ‘they,’ rather than ‘we.’

“you’re separated from your people, your ancestors. ‘white’ is not a community.”

this is, i think, one of the great benefits the body of Christ can offer in our unique moment.

amidst what has been called a shame culture, where people cannot speak about deeply important matters like race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, and more without fear of being publicly shamed, the church can be a safe space for us to think and talk about the issues affecting not just some of us, but all of us, without fear.

only when we can talk freely and openly, with those whose experience has been unlike our own, will we will be able to begin to imagine how to move toward positive change. as the writer eula biss has put it, “if you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something.”

the church has the unique opportunity to be such a space: a diverse body of sisters and brothers of every color whose primary identity is not rooted in who we voted for. it’s a place where the starting assumption is that we’re imperfect, and so we do not have to be crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing. a place where we can offer loving correction where needed, as God works in and through us toward peace, justice, and reconciliation.

• • •

are there other processes, systems, and social realities carried out in front of our eyes in such banal ways as the stewardess’s pre-flight safety instructions that we choose to ignore or simply fail to see them?

there must be. but i cannot think of any at the moment, try as i might. most likely blind to them, i need a loving community that includes those whose position differs from my own to point them out for me.

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