Adventures of a Racist Diner, What Happens when Rich White Ladies Think They Can Tell Black People About Themselves

16 07 2015

So, a few months ago I took this post down that I wrote either last year or the year before out of a stupid fear of being judged as too controversial or combative. Now I know that there is no such thing. My experience deserves to be heard as just as credible as anyone else’s. So alas, it is back!

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Rich White Ladies

I have often found that racism veers its ugly head in the strange course and condition of vocal accents.

And it is always so strange meeting this ugly monster that so many are positive has already been slain in such a slight place, the accent.

It is one thing to theorize racism and one thing to face it head on, full force – clothed in subtlety and language of reconciliation. Clothed in the muddy waters of how language is received and heard, even the English language.

It is one thing to think that racism is still living, but not be so sure. It is the creeping suspicion that it is not a coincidence that retailers try to dupe your parents because they speak with an accent; that you have to step in and act as the translator, even though they speak English perfectly fine. English from a Masters and Doctoral education.

It’s one thing to think they are being overcharged. It’s another to see your American accent wield its power and stun the retailer back to reality that they can’t pull the wool over your eyes, because they are American eyes decorated by an American accent.

Racism. It is one thing to theorize it; it is another to encounter it. For encountering it is always a surreal place.

In my experience in the South it is the Christian space between already conquered and not yet destroyed.

It is the well-meaning white woman asking someone from central Africa with all sincerity, “How on earth did you get to Duke?” in one breath and in the next breath, “So many people in my church don’t understand reconciliation. They’re so close-minded.”

I was invited to a very important dinner yesterday. I lot of rich people were there and a lot of non-rich people were there as well.

And what I gathered from my time there was that rich people have certain perceptions about poor people, especially poor minorities, especially minorities, especially Africans.

But perhaps I should be fairer than this and offer some back story.

I encountered one rich woman who held interesting (at best) views about minorities, but particularly Africans. And in that encounter I came face to face with ignorance so extreme that it was laughable. When I arrived home, away from the shock of that interesting environment, I sat on my bed and literally laughed out loud.

And then I cried.

Because it was ludicrous. I cried because even though I have taken multiple classes where racism is being theorized, it is another thing to see the subject of our study, to see the specimen of prejudice, and assumption, idealism and whiteness sitting in front of me speaking some of the most ignorant things I have heard in a while and assuming that her speech represents a progressive viewpoint.

Let me name a few quotes from last night:

Rich white woman to my fellow colleague from another country in Africa:

“How in the world did you get to Duke? I mean how did you hear about it from your country? Did the Center for Reconciliation bring you here?”

Rich white woman to me:

“Oh, you’re from Nigeria! Isn’t that a Muslim country?”

And when I tell rich white woman that the northern half of the country is mainly Muslim, and the southern half mostly Christian, she asks:

“Do the Muslims try to kill the Christians?”

Oh, so now we’re getting somewhere!

She sheds some light on her racism.

This racism is not some isolated misconception from a white lady from the mid-West. No, this racism is deeply intertwined with her faith.

As her world-view continues to irritate myself and my colleague beside me, I see that her “progressive” (her words, not mine) views have everything to do with a Christianity that taught her to view Africans and Africanness in a certain way.

Her Muslim comment was not random, nor the only comment.

Her fear, or in other words, her faith is rooted in her desire to see a Christian world and to bring that dream to pass.

Her desire for “reconciliation” (her words, not mine) is a desire to reconcile the world to herself, and to those like her.

Her faith colors her whiteness. Because somewhere along the line for her, Christian equated to “like me.”

Her identity as a Christian is one where she “encourages missions” at her church “not just to India” but a need “to go to Africa too!”

Her faith is a missionizing faith towards a Christianity that somehow stopped being for the Gentiles and started being for the black people of the world. It was no longer Gentiles joining the movement of Jews who followed Jesus, but it became black people (or those who were non-white) joining the moral, ethical, and aesthetic cult of white people who all-of-a-sudden are kind of, maybe, perhaps, definitely starting to think, and act and believe that they are Jesus.

Her speaking slowly and demeaning to my colleague (who is also pursuing a doctorate) was not a coincidence. The change in her body language once she saw that she would be sitting beside me did not go unnoticed

(And just a quick note to my white sisters and brothers in Christ, when your body language changes around a person of color, we always notice).

Her eyes were trained to do the simple math of dark-skinned equal marked-sin.

But I noticed something interesting.

She never talked about African-Americans. She never mentioned slavery (thank God!)

In fact the only time she mentioned America was in relation to missions work in Africa or India.

That caught my attention. In America, how does one slow down and pay attention to racism’s roots?

I am of the belief that the history of American slavery was once of the most atrocious acts of human sin and evil to ever exist on earth. But this belief is rooted in one truth: African bodies were deemed enslavable.

So American and Caribbean slavery hinge on the fact that Africanness as an essence (of being non-white) deemed black bodies unhuman and worthy of treatment as such.

For rich white lady, something about Africanness is unsettling. Perhaps it is the contrast of skin tone, language, hair, food, family structure. But perhaps it is something else.

Perhaps it is religion.

But what makes African faith so scary to rich white woman from Indiana?

Perhaps what is ultimately and glaringly being exposed is the fact that there is another way of living life, which confronts the reality that her life might not be the only right way to live.

Her way of life comes into question if other peoples, other ways of life, other views about God may be right as well.

So to be clear, her issue is and is not one about faith.

For her being White-Christian is proper and correct. Being black-christian is still a phenomenon to her. But being black-religious or black-non-religious is entirely unfathomable and completely wrong.

The issue is that her faith has to be the right way of being. In her mind, her ontology is the only ontology there is. Everyone else is reaching for but is not quite nor will ever be, her. She is the God-man (shout out to Anselm!) or, excuse me, the God-woman.

Her being, her being a creature of God is in jeopardy if there is space for others to know God in their own way, through their own culture, on their own terms.

My colleague and I, “those people in India”, “those people in Uganda and Rwanda” etc. pose a threat to rich white lady’s omnipotence.

And the amazing thing is, her power is in her control: in feeling elevated because she gives money to Africa, that she loves reconciliation, that she can tell my colleague and I precisely who are the bad people in Africa, who are starting wars, and confidently tell us that American presence is necessary, because global pursuit of oil and precious stones really is not the problem – the lack of democracy is.

I am sure that she felt proud that she could enlighten the Africans at her table that Africans are Africa’s problem, Muslims are a threat, and that churches like hers need to help them.

Well, thank you ma’am! I had no idea!

I tried my best to offer my diplomatic (and fluffy) view of colonialism’s role in world affairs, but she brushed it off continuing to name other countries that she cared about but her church did not and how that saddened her.

It is safe to say that sad is the appropriate word here.

And scary.

It is especially scary because she considers herself the progressive one. She loves reconciliation efforts in North Carolina. She is the progressive racist with Christian prejudice and Enlightenment enlightenment.

But I hope that Durham, that this place can speak back to her that there is certainly more to faith and reality in general other than the fantasy going on in her mind.

I hope.

Until then, I think that I will attend as many of these dinners as I can, because they prove to me that I am not living in a fantasy world. Rich white lady proves that my interests and work to offer a rich account of African and African Diasporic theology is necessary.

But most importantly, conversations (of monologues) like last nights’ grant me an opportunity to offer gentle correction to a sister in Christ.

That is the hard yet amazing part. We are in the same body of Christ and I have to figure out how to be church with and to her. We all do!

I hope to speak out and correct her views. I hope to call out her eschatological racism where the already but not yet of Christ’s return has somehow become co-opted by a mentality that blackness has already been conquered but not yet destroyed.

Blackness is not something to be rescued from nor blamed, but celebrated as what God called good. I hope that she learns that God called everything God made very good. Including humanity, not just white people.

I think it is time for the body of Christ to grow a backbone or perhaps stand on the cornerstone and ask, especially people of power (who are not always just white) who claim to be serious about reconciliation or who affiliate themselves with organizations or spaces as such, why is reconciliation needed in the first place? What role do I play in diluting the goodness of God’s creation even now?

Until this accountability happens (and I mean really happens and is not just discussed about at a cool talk or amazing conference), I will attend as many of these dinners as I can and missionally minister to the rich white women of the South, Mid-West, North, West and Europe who also need salvation too – who need Jesus.

But I don’t think I’ll bug my church about starting a ministry for them just yet. Emphasis on yet.

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