My Classism: (Christian) Othering through Food

11 11 2013

I’m in a confessing mood (or perhaps season), so here goes!

What’s the connection between my comprehensive look of surprise and disgust when my grandmother eats a two week old stew from the fridge and that moment when I make a (not quite) joke about my church’s potluck being all brown (casseroles, starches, and desserts) and lacking “any” green? What is happening when in the communal and sacred space of meal sharing at church, someone labels their food “socially conscious quinoa”?

Othering.

Othering holds them in common because othering is happening.

In moments of not-so-great decision-making, I and others in those moments of consumptive superiority have othered those that we care about – through food.

But I’ll speak from my perspective alone since I can only confess what I’ve done.

In my food othering, I have taken that which often theologically signifies inclusiveness despite class distinction and have made it the latest exercise in classism. I have turned the great feast into a space of reservations only fueling the reservations of fellow Christians to desire to be church with me. I have turned a meal together into something it was never intended to be – about me.

And I do this not realizing that I am tearing others down, but I do it in a fleeting attempt to self-name. I do it for no one other than myself. I want to name my perspective important and enriching.

But I and everyone else knows that this food-othering has nothing to do with the food.

I desire to be recognized not because of my food choices, but because something about my food choices reflect my quality of life. What I do and do not eat speaks something about my intelligence, my morality, my ability to be human properly. If I can make the right choices over and against so and so, then I win. I am ultimately (subconsciously) judged as the smarter one, the better one, the more intelligent one in this (non-existent) competition. Something about my perceived quality of life renders me in competition against my family and church.

I neglect the fact that this so called quality of life is only a melancholic myth and really an exposé on my own insufficiencies.

My disapproval of people not following in my nutritional footsteps (or to be honest, my attempt to follow the latest eating trend) disturbs any chance of life with everyone. I let food fantasy disrupt the chances of community.

And, again, the sad part is that it is all in my head. This mentality that I subtly try to push on others through my disapproving looks, or biting words, or conscious decision to not eat certain things because “It’s not good for your health,” “It’s not organic,” etc./“insert classist comment here” only speaks to my shortcomings that I try to push off onto others.

It is not that “they” have managed to do eating wrong, it is that I have managed to misunderstand food and the table as a place where I meet God in meeting with others. I have managed to allow the vanguard movements around food culture to dismantle the Christ movement demonstrated in the moments surrounding food, and not the food itself.

I have missed the purity of communal eating not being in the food itself, but in being with the people with which I am blessed to have food.

I have missed the fact that my grandmother eats what I would not because she has been taught to not waste food if one has the opportunity to have it. And I missed the opportunity to sit with her as she ate and ask her stories about her life. Instead of a communal moment, I saw her food choice as a place of generational (and if I may be honest, cultural) difference. I uplifted my fabrication of difference in the face of communal opportunity.

When I make wise-cracks about the fact that there is fried chicken instead of roasted chicken at the potluck, on a basic level, I’m just being a jerk. But on a deeper level, my comments are not about the food or the people who brought the food. My comments are about me and the fact that I find it most important to create class separation rather than see the special moment I have to eat a meal with and be in relationship with someone who I call my brother or sister in Christ.

I don’t have it all figured out, but I imagine the best thing to do is to call out what needs to change so that others can join in in keeping me accountable.

But I also hope to spark another movement. I know that food culture is important in Durham, but I really do pray that we don’t let this food trend get in the way of what food could mean and has always meant in the church: it signifies togetherness and making sure everyone has enough, not a middle-class cultural trend of showing off our retro-something awesomeness (aka trying to “find myself” through following the latest trends – so a word of advice would be to learn myself in hearing what God has said about me and what my family, friends and church loves and cherishes about me. When I leave discovering my own identity to my own devices, I trend, I shop around, and I falsely think that I am the sole author of myself).

So maybe we can let Jesus and the church be, not awesome, but certainly bigger than us and our classist practices – just this once. Okay, or forever.





The Wisdom of Proverbs (Proverbs 3:9-10)

17 12 2010

Proverbs 3:9-10

9Honor the Lord with your substance
and with the first fruits of all your produce;
10then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.

These verses remind me of the prime texts some preachers would use to preach a Prosperity Gospel that doesn’t really honor God. Their sermon or lesson begins off as something legitimate but then quickly turns into something that exerts “God has to fix your credit”, “God will give you a check in the mail”, “God shall eliminate your debt” and the list goes on and on. These things aren’t entirely bad and I’m sure they are the wish of every single person who has some sort of school loan or mortgage to pay (I have gone through periods where I literally prayed that God would send me a check in the mail to cover this or that. But over time I realized that this type of testimony is most likely the exception more than the rule which says something awesome about our God that God doesn’t do the same thing for everyone). Trusting God to be present and active, working out our problems is not a bad thing at all, but the misrepresentation of God and the misunderstanding of our purpose through our misunderstanding of God is a bad thing, a moral mistake.

If our hearts are so consumed with stuff like debt, aesthetics, or buying the best Christmas gifts so we can get praise and feel good about ourselves for five minutes, then we’ve succeeded at honoring ourselves but we haven’t done a good job in honoring the Lord. Sure, we can argue that our concern and love for our appearance and the material well-being of others is not about us, but it’s about making others happy. But at best this is a weak argument avoiding the deeper layers of true motive and honest intention.

Where Prosperity preaching goes wrong is the order in which they approach the text. They speak about God first. To be fair, it doesn’t always begin with money. In fact, it begins with exploring God within the text, but then what God does for us takes over and becomes the focal point of being God’s child, worship, church, tithing, etc. God doesn’t remain the focus but we place ourselves as the focal point of God’s word.

With this text even the Prosperity preacher would engage God first: “Tithing is a form of honoring God with our substance. We pay respect to, we worship the Lord fully through what we have. Giving to, supporting, and upholding the church should be your first priority if God is first in your life. And even if you’re new the faith or church hasn’t clicked all the way for you yet or if you’re still learning the word of God, tithe now and God will build up something in you in time. God will honor your sacrifice.”

And this is legitimate, but it is ultimately a set-up for our reward, what we receive as a result of honoring God. The rest of the sermon may entail exhortation that “Tithing opens up the floodgates for financial reward! You will be blessed with more than you can imagine! You will receive material and financial blessing that only God can give! God multiplies spiritually so that we reap those rewards when we honor God and give ten percent! God sees the little that you are willing to give and multiples it beyond what you can count. God will turn that seed you sow into the church into a plant that you can feed off later. Like the widow who gave her last in 1 Kings 17, God will not let your oil and flour run out!”

And this is true, but again, this is not the focus. When we praise God for what God is going to do more than we praise God for just being God, something is amiss. When we question that God has randomly provided $100 for our electricity bill rather than sending a check in the mail to pay our $15,000 credit card debt, something is wrong. We are not the focus. We need to remove ourselves from the center. We need to get off the throne and reposition ourselves at the foot of the throne. The text says that if we honor God with our substance, the stuff from us, what lies at the heart of our cherished things, and give God the best of it, then we will have plenty. If we give the best of our time, writing, art, singing, cooking, administrative skills, business savvy, warmth, smiles, hugs, prayer, love, and even stuff like clothing and money, then we will get enough to eat and drink, enough to live off of. We will get enough, we won’t always get it all, but we will get enough.

Perhaps we need to shed the “exception” mindset and preaching that we wish for and thus place within God’s word and embrace the “rule reality”. The reality is, God works amidst our working and 9 times out of 10 it won’t be with what we dreamed of.

God gives enough. If we ask for a 3 story house, God gives us a three-bedroom one story condo. If we ask for a Mercedes-Benz, God will give us a Honda we can name Mercedes. If we ask for $200,000 to pay off loans, God will give us a job that makes enough where we can begin to pay off those loans over the course of time. If we ask for a husband or wife, God will keep us single another 10 years to be sharpened and made wise, kind, loving, and ready for that person (if that is what God even intends for us…maybe we should ask God to show us what we are supposed to be doing and get busy doing that instead).

I think pastors who make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year are an exception; they are like kings who owned tons of land and money and had influence were. Perhaps this pastor-king parallel provides a warning of us moving away from God towards governance by people (let’s learn from Israel).

I think that true prophets and prophetesses are exceptions; they do not claim their title with joy but remorse for their life is a continuous cycle of rejection because of the message they not only give but carry within themselves. Their office isn’t one that was designed to be exploited for conferences, but their office imprints on their lives loneliness and pursuit. As they pursue God, they are pursued. They are chased, hated, stoned, and killed. They aren’t accommodated, they are exiled. Modern day exhorters claiming to be prophets should consider this; the prophetic office is not one to be utilized for fame or feeling that you’re finally existing within a “purpose”. We have to be very careful about this…  

I think that checks can come in the mail, but that they will most likely come as a salary reimbursement God withheld from you until you needed it. I think that your debt can be paid, but that it can be done the old-fashioned way, with a job. I think that you can get a nice car or house if God gives you the wisdom to save and pay for it yourself. God holds, changes, draws from and utilizes things we first step out and do. God blesses our commitment to live faithfully, not lazily. God blesses the foot we put forward by giving us more stable ground to walk on. But we must walk, sometimes run, sometimes limp, but it is us making the decision and taking the action to move forward. I believe that God never lifts us up on a cloud to fly above and way from our problems; we’re not Elijah. And we don’t want to be. Elijah received this rare event after a life-time of fulfilling his difficult prophetic calling. Hard work is involved in the blessing, heck, work is involved in the blessing.

I know what I’m describing isn’t exciting blessing, but it is the blessing of “plenty and bursting”. God gives us plenty and this plenty bursts forth so that others may see what God has done and inquires about our God. And God is introduced as a faithful Father, a loving Provider, and a Keeper of our minds and bodies so that we may honor God with our beings. God is not the debt-eraser, but the sin-eliminator. God is not the house-giver, but the mercy-granter. God is not the love-doctor, but God is love.  

Don’t get me wrong, God owns everything. I’m sure God could give us money and a comfortable lifestyle, but I’m not sure God would want to. If getting what we want means that we look to God as Provider only, that we curse God to be Jehovah Jireh alone, we’ve moved away from the purpose God created us for, to worship God. Our purpose isn’t to exist comfortably, but to be God’s, not to belong to money or comfort. If getting what we want implodes a religious pluralism within our beings where the money-god and comfort-god take root alongside God, then it’s not worth it. God can’t be limited to financial healer or “blesser” alone. God is too God to be limited. So I ask that God not give me what I want, but only what I need. I ask that God give me “just plenty” so that I may burst forth with joy and gratitude that a loving God who already did it all in dying for me and my sins loves me enough to still give me anything at all.

I guess it’s about perspective. But I’m afraid that humanity is too fickle to promise not to worship what we get. Therefore I don’t want us to get it all, but just some of it. I want us to do what we are supposed to do anyway giving God our substance and produce: our time, family, and talents and anything else that means everything to us. I want us to give back to God what God has already blessed us tremendously with.

Maybe we would preach a Prosperity Gospel that emphasizes tithing 100% of our best qualities, our best abilities, our time, our love, our concentration and attention. We would preach a Gospel that sees our best as unable to be enhanced with money, but with and through God. We would preach giving God us first and foremost and what it would feel and be like to experience this; what joy, happiness, love, and kind-heartedness we would not simply feel but be. We would be like God. What if Prosperity was a process of becoming God-like? One thing is for sure, there would be enough for everyone.

Prayer: Lord, I pray that our transformation to be like and look like Jesus doesn’t come to us through the mail or a debt cancellation or a tummy tuck, but that it comes quickly and slowly all in the same moment into our hearts, a peaceful and painful process that yields a different kind of wealth unhindered. Lord, may we rejoice in enough. It’s in the name of the Savior who is enough and more than enough, Jesus the Christ, Amen.





Ambitious Young Adults and All Things Pimped

8 11 2010

My generation knows foolishness. But back when we were adolescents and teenagers, we called it cool. Or we called you a fool for not thinking it was cool.

Well actually some of us still do. Or is it many of us?

I remember MTV very well in the 1990s and early 2000s when they actually showed music videos broadcast on awesome shows such as Total Request Live counting down the top ten videos of the week. It was a staple to sit at the feet of the televised idol and have our faith renewed in the coolest music, artists, clothes, houses and cars out there.

Yes, to pre-pubescent and post-pubescent beings, material things were the future. Being grown up entailed having things magically appear, remain in good condition, and look good in our lives without those pesky things called bills, mortgages or car notes.

Yes, the kids of the 1990s and early 2000s saw and coveted the best of the best simply because those our eyes saw on TV living the life, walked in them, flashed them, lived in them, and rode in them.

The first sign of our being on our way to stardom, fame, fortune and an easy life was in our cars, our rides. If we had an old, beat-up, run-down car, we would be the butt of many jokes, but if our parents or our savings worked with us, we’d have a start-up accessory to our glamorous, ambitious lifestyle.

I was one of those kids with a run-down car. The second child to receive the Ford Escort, it was losing the battle with teenage driving. The inside was breaking apart, the paint was starting to chip a little, as I saw my classmates getting cars made in the 2000s, I became more embarrassed of “Ford,” that’s right; I was so embarrassed of my car that I did not name it like practically all of my classmates did for their cars.  

I was embarrassed of my car and soon became obsessed with a show that I knew would solve all of my teenage problems: Pimp My Ride.

Launched in 2004, “Pimp My Ride” was a car-revitalization show hosted by well-known rapper, Xzibit. He would surprise unsuspecting young adults who were working hard but not realizing their dream of unmitigated wealth yet. Many lived at home with their parents, or rented – in other words they didn’t own a home, but were working their way up. They had ordinary jobs and looked ordinary except for their horrendous vehicles. They would demonstrate just how bad their cars were as they would enter through the passenger side or window since their driver side door wouldn’t open, their ignitions needed forks and other contraptions to work, the interior fabric of their cars were worn so thin that the metal framework at the bottom or side of the car would be dangerously visible, wires would be exposed, mirrors were missing, windshields were taped; you name it, these poor young ambitions Californians suffered from it.

Their car needed severe work, but they could not afford it. Their salaries wouldn’t allow them to. So they sent into a video tape (yeah, not a DVD, we weren’t there yet) of their car’s condition and Xzibit would show up to their houses with the surprise of their life: their car would be improved lavishly. It would be pimped!

I didn’t realize what was going on until recently, flashbacks of the show randomly rushed through my mind. Wait a minute, I thought, was this show really called Pimp My Ride? We all know what “pimp” implies. Are we really using it towards cars now instead of women? There was something wrong the show’s title as disrespecting of the terrible notion, practice and industry of pimping. It is simply linguistically irresponsible.

Since I’m no English major, I went to my trusty friends at dictionary.com to look up the definition of “pimp”.

  Pimp

–noun

1. a person, esp. a man, who solicits customers for a prostitute or a brothel, usually in return for a share of the earnings; pander; procurer.

2. a despicable person.

To pimp:

–verb (used with object)

5. to act as a pimp for.

6. to exploit

Pimping although in the show’s context, used as synonymous with “drastically improved” ultimately has a root in a type of exploitation. It’s despicable action. This seemingly good thing being done for these young adults is actually birthing a confusing message of material wealth. It is drastically approving the appearance of something, although the “owner” isn’t improved at all. It’s all about appearances. I don’t know much about sex-trafficking, which I believe pimping and prostitution is, but the property of the pimp, the lady, would dress up an extravagant sexually suggestive ways and thus draw attention to herself. Her appearance and “work” would ultimately profit the pimp financially but his social, sexual and machismo issues remain untouched. He uses his “property” to appear wealthy and well off.  In pimping, appearance is industry.

In “Pimp My Ride” hard-working young souls with cars on their last leg are given the cars of their dreams, but what if their dreams are dreams of appearances? What if the car improvements are saying something false? The car-pimping gives the owner what they thought they would enjoy or like but don’t need. They are transformed from ordinary people with dying cars to ordinary people with excessive cars and subsequently pseudo-embellished lifestyles. Now they have to keep up appearances with their car. They are sucked into and trapped into a system of aesthetic embellishment.

Car-pimping highlights a false dichotomy. This exploiting prostitutes the image of the hard-working young adult to their fantasy image. This is my problem with “pimping”: it is not only damaging to the one being pimped, but it advocates for a certain lifestyle that is unhealthy and often unattainable. It is a demonic fantasmal agent. It perpetuates fanaticism and anthro-centric purpose with no satiability. The owner can never be satisfied.

Furthermore, it furthers the “power of pimping” to encapsulate and thus convert the car’s owner. The car owner is now prostitute; they appear a certain way and attract attention for their own end and ultimately another’s end. The young-adult turned prostitute is now being pimped too. They are now exploited to look like something they are not in order for the body shop, MTV or whoever to receive the overall good ratings and benefits. The pimping doesn’t stop with the car but latches onto the hard-working ambitious young adult herself and exploits her being, her life, her ambitions with a over-zealous car-concealment. Like make-up (you can disagree with me here if you want to), the car is concealed in something to look better but the real issue at hand, safe transportion, isn’t simply treated; it is made to look like something else and thus its purpose has been highjacked by the appearance of appearance.

All this material and aesthetic prostitution is the pseudo reality of a televised-created-world and often ecclesially-created world.

Pimping has become commonplace in society. People who engage in excessive plastic surgery pimp their appearance. People who unnecessarily spend money and time on weaves, make-up etc are pimping their God-given appearance. People who spend money they don’t have to wear clothes that speak false divinations over their lives are pimping their state of existence. And all this pimping is towards a goal of a certain appearance, not a reality.

This pimping is unfortunately also readily and happily adopted into church dogmatics. What is the church doing with this obsession with appearance and materialism as their young adults (and older adults) are being pimped into an industry and reality that remains out of reach and necessity? Little. What is the church doing when wealth and the appearance of wealth begins the pimp its own members, leadership, pastors?! Encouraging the message of false hope, happiness, and false faith.

Unfortunately in my experiences with black churches, they accept the pimping in their material life and gladly take on a prostitution role. Oftentimes, the black church worships the prospect of the material instead of God’s wisdom, but attribute the pimping of their bank accounts, cars, house, clothing, jewelry, pools, vacations etc. to God’s blessing hand.

But the black church may disagree with me. One might argue that God is blessing this ordinary person with extraordinary things. An incredible God deserves incredible praise. He made a way out of no way. He is giving a “Job blessing” to those who have suffered without a Benz, three-story house, TIVO, 5 TVs in their house, the latest 4G cell phone, the BEST church suits and church hats, the finest silk lapkins! (lapkins = lap napkins women whose skirts are too short in the pulpit wear in order not to overexpose herself and subsequently tempt the men of the church causing the men to fall and stumble…but it’s for HER own good, really! *sarcasm*)

I respectfully disagree.

Our God, is a good God, a King over all the earth, the Ruler of all, in complete control, but our God is not irresponsible. I personally don’t believe that God would bless someone solely aesthetically so that they would fall into being used to purport a certain unattainable message of wealth.

Now, of course there isn’t a follow-up show to see how the young adults on “Pimp My Ride” are doing with their new-found aesthetic. Perhaps the pimped out car with the play station in the back, speakers, rims, interior TV’s, refrigerators etc. impacted this young Californian’s life so much so that they got a high-paying job, bought a house, got married (and lived happily until they), had kids. But I doubt it. The only thing I could foresee with this “blessing” would be the lottery-affect: friends, families and foes appear out of nowhere wanting what you have and secretly hating you for it while the profit has already been made. The car-owner took the deal, umm, I mean, the blessing and now their souls cannot rest as trouble, jealousy, greed, coveting, pride enter their lives and remain with them as long as that car does. They are soul-tied to it.

I don’t know if God would bless someone to simply live in hardship and not experience positive change or growth in any other area of their life. The car doesn’t give someone a higher paying job. A higher paying job would allow the car-owner to afford an operative car –  it may not be a BMW, but it will serve its basic purpose.  

I think aesthetic blessings are the work of the church’s imagination and deception of what it means to be a Christian on earth – being Christian is hard, long, painful work of self-transformation, not stuff-transformation. Many churches are promoting a work where appearances replace true positive change.

And it’s terrible work. Expensive work. Excessive work. It will cause extraordinary expenses that one will not be prepared to pay for.

(And let me be clear, this is not only a problem with black churches, it’s simply where I’ve seen this done the most. I would argue the same thing is happening with white wealthy churches who hoard their wealth. They want to appear a certain way instead of live with their basic functions and distributing the rest elsewhere. It’s hard to do that because wealth and the appearance of wealth has a firm grip on so many of us in the church, black or white.)

So maybe we should be content with our Ford Escorts or Toyota Corollas as long as they serve their purpose and get us where we need to go so in our hard work we can learn responsibility, careful spending, realistic goal-setting and that wealth and the appearance of wealth may not always be God’s urging but our own. Maybe we can live into Godly responsibility and consider our neighbors higher than ourselves instead of treating ourselves to the appearance of wealth but the reality of multiplied hardships.

To be honest, shows like “Pimp My Ride” and “Trick My Truck” are also doing something else that I alluded to earlier. The term and process, “pimp” used to describe ownership of sexually engaged women are now applied to objects, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me. In pimping, in sex-trafficking, women ARE objects. They are made-up and sent out, changed forever – and not for the best. I think the church should speak out against the concepts behind these shows instead of engaging in the “cleaner or lesser” form of prostitution wrapped up in language of blessing and God giving you a “nice” car to demonstrate how God is King and as God’s children, we should be rich like the King too. What we don’t realize is that God has so that we can have. God doesn’t hoard, but God freely gives to us, God’s children. God is rich because God created everything; we can’t do that. God is rich because God is powerful enough to enter into flesh and be perfect. We can’t do that. So let’s take what God gives us and give thanks instead of demanding things we don’t need. It is ONLY by God’s grace that we have anything. Let’s retire from the pimping industry and begin to force its retirement elsewhere. Pimping is often preached from the pulpit. Prostitutes influencing people to prostitute themselves towards a materialist end-goal are proof-texted with scripture. Pimping has become a spiritual practice: it’s all over the prosperity Gospel. Let’s eliminate prospertiy as our salvation and simply cling to the Gospel.

Even though, our God owns land, vineyards and houses, God owns them only so that we can take part in them. God wants us all to live within our means so that we can all live. Material accumulation isn’t living well. It’s living aesthetically. If for nothing else, think about what your wealth or pursuit of wealth is about. If it’s not about honoring God by turning right back around and giving it to someone else, then it’s not for you. You haven’t gotten the memo yet that we are in God’s image and that images are copies. God has so that God can give. Are we doing the same? God gives so we must give. God doesn’t appear any way; God is. And as God is, so we must be.





White Rappers and Theology: Racial Reconciliation?

19 10 2010

Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century

 

White Rappers

Or rather, white rapper.

BET (Black Entertainment Television) just released its list of the top 10 rappers of the 21st century. Excited to see if rappers like Andre 3000, Nas, and Jay-Z were on the list, I was disappointed when I did not them on the list to even be considered for the honor. The newcomer, Drake and even decent rappers like Jadakiss made the list, but the greats who had been rapping since the 1980s and 1990s and well into the 2000s did not.

I was confused.

What actually confused me most was not just the list, but the number one rapper of the 21st century: Eminem. I was shocked because, like so many other Caucasians, his being white gave him that spot.

Now before I get a bunch of hateful responses, let me qualify my reasoning. It is pretty obvious that Eminem is lyrically one of the best rappers today. He is clever, poignant, and even utters some of the violently honest lyrics we’d love to hurl at our bosses, enemies, significant others etc. He is definitely a voice for the people. Record sales can tell you that.

But what record sales can also tell you is that his support is mainly from the white community. In fact, all the rappers of the lists’ support are mainly from the white community. It’s been a trend for a while now: Caucasian people love and therefore are the main consumers of black rap and hip-hop music.

Eminem’s sales, though, are much more precisely because he is Caucasian. Who wouldn’t get excited to see “one of their own” making amazing strides in an industry where their race is hardly represented? That sounds pretty familiar for the black community.

Caucasians aren’t supposed to be dominating rap and hip hop but Eminem clearly is. He is the best; and the best denotes prestige, power and control in that area of entertainment, sports, business or whatever.

The black community cannot get upset at the overwhelming Caucasian support because we do it too. We cheer on Omarosa on The Apprentice, the Williams sisters in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf (or at least some of us used to). We cheer on the black person in that unconventional vocation where they stick out like a sore thumb because we want to be (or at least our token representatives to be) the best at something that we are not supposed to be good at.

But what if being the best minority isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. What if being the best also denotes communal ownership of that token, that representative. Something evil even, since possession of a title, reinforces superior ability over and against another.

What if minority tokenism violates something sacred, like the space to be individual and unique and not have to rely on a “chosen one” to defeat the forces of the majority?

What if?

Theology

I wonder about our competitive nature and need to have a representative in order to make a splash or be the best. It’s as if we can’t be happy if another group is doing better than “us.” This silent competition redraws the “us”/”them” binary. It recreates division where the unity is supposed to be in the craft. In a strange way it creates race dynamics. It hurts feelings when a white person is dominating a black enterprise. It turns heads. Despite whether he deserves the title or not (and I understand that both sides can be argued), Eminem is a white man at the top of an industry that is culturally a black one.

It begs the question of ownership. And worship.

What do we worship? What we own? What believe is ours? What we know belongs to us?

Honestly, when I pose this question I’m asking myself. I’m asking myself can hardship’s transformation into rap lyrics belong solely to black people. Do the streets just belong to one demographic? Is transfiguring one’s pain into a catalyst for success a black thing? Not necessarily.

Sure I have named potential sins: tokenism, domination, competition, but perhaps the biggest sin of all is this false right of ownership. Maybe Eminem is legitimate. Maybe he’s the best not because he raps about material things all the time but about the painfully true abjections in life. Maybe he’s the best because of white consumerism, but maybe he’s the best because lyrically he does something that a lot of us are afraid to do: he speaks the truth about himself and others. He doesn’t focus on “hating” but hates himself and others when they do wrong and loves himself and other when they are wronged. He loves enough to be angry.

Sitting on this list after a few days shows me that I have racialized rap. I rejected the list solely because Eminem is white. I have fallen prey to the same practices that spurned hate the mess that we’re still wading through today.

I have sinned because I rejected Eminem’s act of confession. I don’t know everything about him. He may be very disturbed or he may not be, but that doesn’t change the fact that his message is in the music and in his skin.

Petty lying doesn’t quite work for Eminem. He has to speak straight from the heart even if it’s too violent or disturbing for some of us. Maybe he’s alerting us to the fact that we lie to feel safe in a disturbing world. Maybe he’s at the top of the list because of the social commentary laced within his lyrics. Or maybe not.

All I know is that Jesus hated petty lying. He hated falsity for the sake of keeping something the same and untouched. No, he wanted the truth to be the norm. His words touched not only ears but hearts. Jesus made people angry and changed the social situation, or at least how people thought about it. And it worked.

Let’s be clear: I’m not calling Eminem, Jesus. He is a figure of sorts, not a salvific one, but a figure nonetheless.

What I am saying is that after harshly judging Eminem on this list, I believe he deserves to be on this list precisely because he is a different rapper with a slightly different message. Sure socially conscious rappers are out there and have been out there for a number of years. But in the 21st century Eminem is arguable doing a pretty good job of being a white male talking about the social issues that we don’t even want to talk about too in-depth (like domestic violence for example).

So I retract the hate behind the first part of this blog entry. I still do believe that whiteness has propelled his record sales. Like I said earlier, white people buy hip-hop and rap albums. His race definitely has played a role in his sales.

But, I can say that Eminem is deserving of being in the list of the top ten rappers of the 21st century. His message/lyrics alone say something. He is speaking out honestly and it’s not always about his women, cars, and house or people who want his women, cars, and house. He is speaking for some people who didn’t really have a voice until he came on the scene and started confessing for them, their issues to the world.  He speaks for a white lower-class and white middle class (even the white upper-class) concerning their social and cultural issues. He speaks through lyrical confession.

Confession is healing. I wonder if Eminem is bridge-building. I wonder if his presence is saying “Hey black world, white people exist and hurt too. And here’s how we react to it or want to do better about how we react towards it.” And I wonder if black people can and will respond to that knowing, or just become jealous or upset (like I was at first).

Or will we continue to fight to reclaim the top spot, always imagining rap and hip-hop as a game to be won and conquered instead of an expressive social movement with hopes of invoking healing for many.

Eminem is making some issues of his race, class and culture known. I wonder if black people will listen and listen well and engage this whole community thing where we love each other not because of race but because of our journeys in life. Maybe Eminem is (drum roll please) doing racial reconciliation is a subtle way by taking step one and honestly informing others about himself and many like him so that responses can be made.  

He could be or I could be giving him way more credit than necessary, but I know for sure that I’ll be paying more attention to his lyrics and hopefully his life and the lives of many others.





Jesus Did Miracles, Why Can’t Dr. Miracle?

13 09 2010

The Commercials

Take a look at this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/user/drmiracles#p/a/u/1/-AyHvYWpINM

Now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7V4G_87iOE

And now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oblcI5uqck

What do you see?

The Message

In twenty seconds or less, each of these advertisements narrate something profoundly common and yet distinctly disturbing: kinkiness, nappyness, unkemptness in black hair is unacceptable. In twenty-seconds or less, a frightening pattern of a white aesthetic is pitched and fed to a black woman by, get this, a black man, or rather a black-man-arm. A black arm (and deep voice) miraculous emerges from a mirror (or from behind a plant) with the solution, the miraculous product that will perform the magic of straightening out her hair which in turn will straighten out her life. It is a miracle that will eliminate the hair problem and pronounce beauty on the former victim now turned victor. What’s worse is that this white aesthetic is additionally affirmed by black men and black women alike. Both parties agree that the black woman’s hair needs to be and look a certain way for it to be acceptable and beautiful; and both agree that this product from Dr. Miracle will get this poor, lost woman to her aesthetic destination.

What these commercials don’t narrate is the well-known and unknown message being sold: straight hair is a miracle and Dr. Miracle the said miracle-worker. Dr. Miracle’s products pronounce a continuation and perpetuation of performance by black women, egged on by this mysterious man; this is the aesthetic norm that many black women are captive to, a norm that relegates her hair, her look, her natural aesthetic encouraging her to buy into a different aesthetic.

Even if this is the first time you’re seeing these commercials, I can tell you where to find a steady stream of them. If you’ve ever watched the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into one of these Dr. Miracle Hair and Skin Care commercials. Curious about the origin behind this product I went to the website and could not find a picture or any information about the founder, president or CEO…nothing.

I had to do some Google-digging and came across some interesting stuff. According to the New York Times, Dr. Miracle was founded by Brian K. Marks; this is what he looks like.

He’s white.

The Structure of Mediation

This complicates the aesthetic picture just a bit, or perhaps allows the Dr. Miracle narrative to fit into the natural mold of the white-male mediated beauty aesthetic. Beauty is mediated by the figure behind the product. The Caucasian male determines what beauty is through shaping the aesthetics of Caucasian women and deeming that the norm. This norm is inherited by the African-American male. He may prefer lighter skin, smaller hips, longer and straighter hair on his female companion. What choice does the African-American woman have but to cater, to adjust, to deviate from her norm in a rash attempt to look pleasant, beautiful, a bit more white?

Without hesitation, even with a sense of severe urgency, she takes the product from the black arm and black voice with no face. In that exchange is a contract co-signing her ugliness. In that exchange she confirms that her body is an emergency that needs some serious help. She accepts the solution from a faceless figure seeming to have all the answers. What she does not account for is the body of the arm. The arm and voice may be black, but the body of this “Doctor” is a white male’s body. And this body purports this extension of white aesthetic. What she doesn’t see is that her being is a market; she ingests the message that there is plenty on and about her body that “needs” to be fixed, changed, shaped, re-sculpted. What she doesn’t realize is that her “look” is being handed down to her from a Caucasian puppeteer (perhaps a subtle re-emergence of black face) capitalizing off of her insecurity and pressure to appear beautifully white.

The “doctor” character on the product packaging is a black man signaling this hierarchical mediation from white male to black male and ultimately down to the black female. The product  packaging is only a means to ensure safe delivery. Certain concepts of normalcy infiltrate the black female consciousness about her own body using her own kind.

Strangely enough her insecurities are solidified by other black women who have also conformed to the same norms and now deem her as ugly if her hair is not relaxed or straightened like their hair is. They have both bought into the product that advertises against their natural look and advocates another look. The solidarity is somewhat awkward and misplaced, with traces of self-rejection, self-importance, competition and unity under a contradictory cause. The black women in these commercials do not affirm beauty outside of straightened hair, but the solidarity rests in the assimilation to straight hair. They both fall into a space of beauty that only whiteness can truly inhabit so they powder it on their face, and rub it in their hair in a desperate attempt to be as white as possible until the next time they need it. They fight off everything black about them until they need the product one more time. They change what they can. In solidarity tied to rejection, labeling as ugly (or reverting to their natural hair texture), and desiring to be sexually acceptable to the black male, these black women nervously (and even confidently) adopt self-hate and subtly spew it on one another.  

The black woman is introduced into the aesthetic that a Caucasian man has set, pressured to look unlike her natural self and perform into a white female aesthetic endorsed by the black male, and peer-pressured into maintenance of this aesthetic from similarly conforming black females.  

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Oh yeah, Jesus

This entire Dr. Miracle campaign is showing us that we’ve moved dangerously far away from what Jesus wanted us to value. The black woman falls into their downward spiral where she doesn’t know that she’s accepting a message that her transformation into a white aesthetic is a miracle that only a white man disguised as, then through a black man can work. She falls into a religious trap that prompts her to worship in order to receive her miracle. Thus the white man becomes her miracle worker, a savior of sorts, a god.

Jesus wouldn’t approve of this savior guy. As Dr. Amy Laura Hall would say, “that job’s been taken.”

I’m no expert, but I don’t recall Jesus performing any miracles on hair, or nails, or make-up. He never invited a prostitute to the table to eat and fellowship with Him in order to extend an ambiguous hand to her and in His best Barry White voice, explain how this product will work wonders on her hair.

Jesus certainly performed bodily miracles like healing (my favorite parable is in John 9), but the purpose extended a bit deeper than looking or even feeling good. He gave people back their lives and introduced them to a new life centered on believing in Him. He never wanted the focus to be the miracle itself, but the provider of the miracle. He wanted the people He encountered and loved to focus on Him.

He did not advocate focusing on one’s “problems” or “shortcomings” in order to fix them for three weeks at a time or one $800 sew-in at a time. Jesus never miracled a relaxer or a hair weave.

Jesus advocated love outside of the normal understanding of aesthetic. He lived a new aesthetic where things like love and charity, mercy and grace were the trends people were in awe about and in need of. He painted pictures that had no picture except through human action and genuineness.

Dr. Miracle does miracles, and Jesus does miracles. I guess the difference between them is that Jesus jumped over the hoops instead of jumping through them (or perhaps Jesus destroyed the hoops that have been re-constructed by the greedy platform of the black hair market). Plus He didn’t have money to gain. Plus He loved us so much, black women and white women, black men and white men alike that He only cared what our souls looked like and not our hair.





The White Tennis Aesthetic

10 09 2010

                        

 As an avid tennis fan, I’ve learned that everything in life relates to tennis.

As a fan of theology inherited from such greats as Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter, I’ve learned that there are tons of things that speak theology that we simply have to train our ears to hear.

Everything relates to tennis, everything relates to theology.

Even tennis outfits.

At first my reaction to Venus William’s dress was one of embarrassment (see left-hand picture above). I asked aloud: what is she wearing? What is she trying to prove?

But as the matched wore on and the majority of the comments issued were that her dress  made her miss that volley or affected that backhand, I noticed something. The commentators were being unfair and in her outfit alone, making excuses to criticize and take cheap shots at her game (she won the match by the way). Outside of the matches where she wore two similar outfits which received passing comments of its shortness came courtesy of the Huffington Post, it’s flair from Lifestyle, its unconventionality from CBS News, all culminating with the slide show of Venus’ most controversial and interesting outfits from Bleacher report – all attempts to draw negative attention to her outfit, which somehow either directly “paralleled her talent” or “spoke of her flimsy judgment”.  

After processing her outfit, I came to a realization: I was being just as unfair as the commentators were for doing what many black people automatically turn to out of fear of judgment: secretly hope that her outfit was not received by Caucasians as misrepresenting the entire black race. I didn’t want people in the “classy” sport of tennis to have a bad perception of black people based on this one outfit.

I’ve repented since then.

I repented because I realized that her outfit had nothing to do with me, with us, with the black race, but it has everything to do with her and what we – commentators, true fans, enemies, and fans simply because she’s a black tennis player – place on her as prerequisites to be a black tennis player: a tight mold that only gives her the freedom and space to act and dress like a typical tennis player, a white (European) woman. I re-placed her into a mold she’s probably been trying to break out of, escape and deal with since she came stood out in the professional tennis scene in 1997.

I realized that her fashion was not about shame falling on an entire race, but it is about the fact that shameful fear can cause me to turn on someone who is advocating through her body and how she presents her body that different is okay. She doesn’t have to cater to a certain way of being and looking on a European surface; this exposes the expectations wrapped up in and bound to white women’s bodies that, I was afraid to point out, Venus (and Serena) cannot fit!  The mold is too small, too white, too one-dimensional.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. Some have begun to see that something about tennis fashion speaks to tennis culture. The only commentators who had something fairly concrete and positive to say about Venus Williams (Serena Williams) and tennis fashion came from two men. Commentators, Chris Muther (a white gentleman) and Bomani Jones (a black gentlemen) on ESPN commentary somehow got it! They, in an innovative and honest way, gave truthful (not judgmental) commentary about Venus’ other controversial outfit from the 2010 French Open. Muther said that she was willing to express herself, she was willing to be herself and “take a racquet to” the normal white way of dress.

Venus and Serena Williams are doing and saying something with their unique outfits and disregard for the backlash that we, especially theologians would do well to pay attention to. They are being themselves. They are showing people that molds are made to be broken, especially when they do not cater to your body and being.

As Dr. Jennings would say, they have entered into something only to break it open from the inside. They have a mission to destroy the norm and live out something radical and more holy, more honest, more honorable to themselves and to who God made them to be. Dr. Carter would include that their outfits and bodies push against the norms of whiteness and white performance in a game that they have been present in for a decade, but are only currently being noticed (through negative press).

Venus and Serena Williams are portraits of a God who is diverse and an artistic Creator. They are arguable the face of tennis because they are unique living into, not just with, their bodies, the color of their skin, the color of their flesh toned spanks, the fit of their tennis outfits, the curves of their arms and the texture of their hair. They are talked about so much because the tennis world has not quite figured out what to do with them. After winning numerous titles, comments must come from somewhere and unfortunately it’s centered around the way they dress their bodies.

They have infiltrated tennis with no warning and have changed the excitement around the game forever. And it was a violent infiltration, but an atypically violent one. Venus and Serena are not colonizers, they are settlers. They do not aim to force their aesthetic on others, but simply wish to have their own and it be respected and live in tennis harmony with the rest of their majority European surroundings.

Venus Williams, in commenting on her flesh-colored spanks under her 2010 French Open outfit said something so captivating that I’m still processing its exquisiteness. She said her outfit was expressive and that the flesh-color made it more beautiful.

The flesh color is beautiful. I think Jesus would agree. Refusing to submit to a certain aesthetic even in one’s undergarments is certainly making a statement about the appreciation of flesh and its skin tone.

Venus and Serena Williams (and even the style of play of Jamaican newcomer Dustin Brown who had the commentators at a loss for words with traces of condescension and disdain in the comments they did offer), I salute your mere presence and efforts to be you in the tennis world, no matter how controversial that is. Maybe we who are taken aback by unique fashion and clothing should be taken aback by our surprise. Maybe we should be surprised that we’ve been so calibrated to operate in a white tennis aesthetic that we cringe at any deviation from that norm.

Maybe we shouldn’t cringe at the black wave of candor and distinctiveness, but applaud it. Perhaps the idea of love and acceptance will take over and we’d worry less about who’s wearing what and come to grips with the notion that tennis culture is being pressured to step outside of a European standard and live atypically.

Tennis has been changed because of the Williams sisters; it looks like that trend will continue.





The Make-Up Confession

7 08 2010

I’ll be frank. I don’t wear make-up for two reasons:

First, I don’t like other people telling me what will make me important, beautiful and loved; and, second, I think we (society, even the world) wear make-up so that our flesh (and others’ flesh) can be pleased, so that our flesh can feel like we have control over something in our lives. We feel that if we control our looks we can control our love.

But I truly don’t understand this. People are made to feel bad if they don’t mask their true selves. God didn’t make me with make up so what is it saying that I make myself into the way “I want to be so others can desire me”? What is it saying about where my heart is?

It doesn’t make sense to me. I thought God loved us as we are. And we aren’t made with make up on. Nor are we made with minds that value the root of what make-up represents: dissatisfaction and disappointment with how God made us.

Make-up is learned. It’s a verb full of colors. It’s a strange attempt to recover something that we cannot, unconditional love and acceptance, by putting colors on our faces to cover up our blemishes.

Honestly, when it gets down to it, God sees our blemishes.

To me, make-up is the half-hearted sacrifice to God. It looks good; we think we’re doing something pleasing, but we’re covering up our sin and greed and mistakes by buying into the falsity that our natural beauty isn’t good enough; we must make ourselves look better.

How God made us wasn’t enough. We have to improve it. No one can see our blemishes, only God can, even if we don’t want Him to either.

Tomi. Whoa. You’re doing too much. I only wear make-up because it’s something nice. It enhances my features. I’m not hiding from anything.

Maybe not, but maybe so.

Sometimes we hide without knowing we’re hiding or sometimes we’re taught that hiding is normal and those who don’t hide, who sit with their faces: their pimples, skin blotches, creases and wrinkles exposed are the posers, are the losers, are ugly because they won’t hide too.

But what is ugly? Exposing all flaws so that nothing is out of sight, nothing is hidden; nothing is giving an untruthful impression? Or does it trick people into a perception of perfect, and cause people to love, lust over, be attracted to what really isn’t?

It’s risky, not wearing make-up, but it can be a spiritual act of confession.

The natural face confesses flaws up front and doesn’t desire to be masked. It doesn’t put a band-aid on a scar but allows the scar to show.

Jesus had scars that He gladly showed to prove one thing: He was real. (John 20:24-30)

Maybe not wearing make-up can do something similar. It can prove our humanity, imperfection and remind us and others that we don’t have it together even if make-up or clothes say so.

Maybe make-up confesses our frailty and our peace with the fact that we are really human, just as Jesus was.

Marks, blemishes, and scars, imperfections say so.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing but a faith thing.

We acknowledge our limitations and rejoice that Jesus is perfect even when we aren’t.

And that His perfection came with skin blemishes too. Divine scars.








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