Tag Archives: Anti-Racist Reads

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

For thousands of years, India has maintained a caste system, and even though it has been abolished legally, still it lives on, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the nation. The Brahmin caste, it is believed, had sprung directly from the gods, and so it was irrefutable that they were to be honored. The lower castes had surnames that described their occupations and their place in society, and the very lowest caste, the Dalit, were “untouchable.” Nothing they could ever do would change their fate or that of their children.

Isabel Wilkerson believes that all of humanity will organize itself into some sort of caste system in order to maintain structure in society. She has met Dalit Indian immigrants in the United States who cannot look other Indian Americans in the eye if they would have occupied a higher caste in India. She also traveled to Germany, where the mid-twentieth century produced a caste system based on religion and other factors that allowed those in power to blame everything on a scapegoat, a necessary feature of every caste system.

In the United States, caste is largely based on race. For a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, the economy of at least the southern portion of the country was dependent on slavery. Wilkerson does not hold back on the descriptions of the cruelty of slaveholders and the ruthless ways that the white people in power kept hold of the reins of hierarchy. Furthermore, she shows— through scholarly research, news stories, and personal accounts— that it is easier to change laws than to change human hearts.

Wilkerson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This new work, subtitled The Origins of Our Discontent, is certainly the most scholarly and well-researched of the many anti-racist titles I’ve read in the past year. The author goes beyond the current headlines to delve into the human condition and discover the causes of such evil. Her research and presentation are thorough, yet readable, and her conclusions are convincing. Even in the smallest human groups—your office, your church, and your homeowner’s association, for example—we see people sorting into hierarchies. Some are helpful, while others are toxic. Those at the top will ruthlessly use their power to keep themselves on top. Those in the middle have a vested interest in maintaining the lowest caste, congratulating themselves that at least they are better than those beneath them on the ladder, while those on the very bottom, like crabs in a bucket, keep pulling each other back down so that they won’t be alone in despair.

Other titles that I have reviewed may have been more practical about steps that readers can take to heal past hurts, but this book will help many people to understand the concept of “systemic” racism. Wilkerson does have a pointedly partisan take on current politics, and some readers may be offended. However, it is important that we explore the origins of our unrest in a serious and unflinching manner. It’s not about the laws we pass or even the century or country we live in. Caste is a compulsion we all have as one of the darker sides of our human nature.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison

Latasha Morrison, a North Carolina native, moved to Austin, Texas, to serve on the staff of a huge church. She was the only person of color—not on the staff, in the whole church. No worries, she was up on White culture. She watched Gilmore Girls and Friends and sang Hillsong tunes. However, at one point, while talking to her father on the phone, she realized that she had not seen or talked to a Black person in over a week. After a few well-meaning but cringe-inducing conversations with people in her church, she realized that White people did not understand Black culture at all, and when she decided to gently educate them, she realized that she didn’t, either.

Neil Gaiman once said, “Like all oppressed people, [they] know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.”* He was speaking of children, but it applies universally. For their own safety, the oppressed study their oppressors carefully, but since the powerless seem unimportant, the powerful do not care enough to learn about them. Latasha realized that her ancestors’ history had been erased from all of the textbooks that she had used in school. She was told that her forebears were sharecroppers, but there had to be more to it than that. She set out to learn her own rich and tragic history, and the reader of Be the Bridge will learn with her.

This book is designed to be used by the more than a thousand groups of “Bridge Builders” that Morrison’s ministry has created, so a list of discussion questions closes each chapter. In addition, there are prayers for the various topics, as well as a few liturgies that the groups can follow. The book does not have an instructional tone, though. Morrison is an enthralling storyteller, relating episodes from her own life and from history. She also brings in the perspective of various people from Bridge Builder groups that may mirror the experiences or feelings of her readers.

David and I read this book aloud and discussed our own encounters with racism and race relations from our childhoods in the segregated South to the present. Although we did not agree with all of Morrison’s conclusions and prescriptions, we learned an enormous amount about Black history. Just one example is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a horrifying event that marks the first time the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens. Neither David nor I had ever heard of it. There were many other such revelations in these pages, as well as encouraging stories of people who are taking steps to overcome the damage of our past.

I picked up this book shortly after the George Floyd tragedy, at a brief moment in time when the nation seemed ready to openly examine our past and to listen to the voices of those who were peacefully protesting injustice. That hopeful moment has since been burned in the flames of rioters and stolen by the crimes of looters. However, the church must always be about the work of reconciliation and justice, eschewing partisan politics and rising above the headlines of the day. Morrison’s book was written in 2019, before Floyd’s death and before the Coronavirus lockdown changed our perspective on normal life. Churches everywhere are engaging in Bridge Builder groups. Morrison reports that 92.5% of America’s churches are completely segregated. It is way past time for us to admit that this is not normal and cannot possibly be God’s will for His people.

Whereas David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here) is meant more for pastors and church leaders, Be the Bridge is for all Christians who want to understand the suffering of Black people in America and to see the church in the forefront of reconciliation.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

*Neil Gaiman’s Zena Sutherland lecture, May 4, 2012.

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So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

Ijeoma Oluo has lived it. Daughter of a white American mother and a Nigerian father, she has a wide perspective on the racial issues our country is dealing with today. A writer and blogger, Oluo says that she would much rather be writing mystery novels than this, but she gets so many questions about race that she thought she would just put all of her answers into book form and be done with it.

If there were ever an antidote to White Fragility (reviewed here), this is it. While the former work is all about problems with no answers, Oluo presents this book with one question per chapter, and then sets out to answer it in both anecdotal and practical terms. She pulls no punches, is often profane, and is frank and honest. Reading this book is like listening to a particularly sassy girlfriend who has just gotten to her last nerve.

Oluo sets out with the basics, such as the definition of racism and whether or not police brutality actually exists, and then moves on to a very helpful chapter on intersectionality, followed by microaggressions, use of the “n” word, and why you cannot touch her hair, as well as many other relevant topics. She keeps the issues very discrete, and the chapter title tells you what you’re getting into, such as, “What Is Cultural Appropriation?” Her stories are fascinating and often horrifying, and her prescriptions are well laid out and achievable. Don’t misunderstand; she will not comfort you or pat your hand. She believes that racism is very real, and that white people who remain silent are complicit. So be sure to put on your Big Girl Panties before you start.

Of the anti-racist books that I have read so far for a general audience, this is the book I would recommend the most. It is conversational in tone, but with plenty of supporting data, and the layout is genius. If you want to be able to discuss race in the workplace, at the Thanksgiving table, or at the school board meeting, So You Want to Talk About Race will arm you with facts and also clue you in to the underlying cultural assumptions held by People of Color. If you’re reading the book, you obviously don’t want to offend on purpose, and the information here will help you not to offend accidentally. Since misunderstandings are inevitable, though, she also teaches you how to apologize.

Get it; read it.

_____

Next up in anti-racist reads: Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison, one for Christians and churches.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book, which is a good thing, since I spilled coffee all over it. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo

White FragilityRobin Diangelo, formerly a tenured professor of Multicultural Studies, has spent years presenting workshops to various organizations in an effort to help white people to recognize and overcome the racism that she believes they hold, but often do not see. It is in these workshops, as well as in her own life and in the public conversation at large, that she has observed and defined the phenomenon that she describes as “white fragility.” As one may imagine, a large portion of her audience is not pleased to be accused of racism, and they will deny it, become angry, burst into tears, and generally push back at the idea that they harbor racist beliefs.

According to Diangelo, prejudice is when an individual holds belittling or negative views of a person of another race, and discrimination is when a person or group acts in such a way as to harm someone against whom they are prejudiced. Racism, however, is a larger, societal concept whereby the laws and accepted culture of the entire nation discriminate against a particular group. She believes that the history of the United States has inculcated racist views into every American, despite the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow. We may not recognize these attitudes within ourselves, but they continue to operate underneath all of our social, professional, and legal transactions, keeping the white-dominated hierarchy in place.

Once Diangelo establishes her thesis, she continues to repeat it relentlessly until the reader despairs of there being any proper response to her claims. Although the book has only 154 pages, it is about 125 pages too long. One anecdote after another parades her hapless workshop participants being berated for having the wrong reaction to a charge of racism. Eventually, we learn that Diangelo believes that white people are going to be racist forever, but that they can learn how not to treat people of color. The last chapter gives some practical suggestions.

How can the same book be simultaneously the #1 national bestseller and the most hated book in America? It depends on your viewpoint. I was prepared to be terribly offended by this book, but in the introduction, Diangelo points out that she is aiming at white progressives, who, she believes, have caused more trouble for people of color than anyone else. (p. 5) Since I am not a progressive, I was then able to listen with an open mind. Truthfully, I was very rarely offended in these pages, and I did learn a few things. Interestingly, she shares two opinions with Pastor Swanson, the author of Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here), that white people are much more likely to emphasize the individual, rather than the group, and that white people use their own experiences and beliefs as the yardstick for measuring the world. White people generally believe that their culture is the neutral norm.

Reading this book as a Christian, Diangelo’s solution, when she finally gets to it, sounds  like a watered-down version of what is already laid out in scripture. We could probably all find some prejudice in our hearts because we are all sinners by nature. Matthew 18 tells us to be open and honest with one another and to apologize when we’ve hurt someone. The purpose of loving confrontation is not to be defensive– or “fragile”– but to restore relationships. The Bible tells us to lift up the oppressed and to avoid favoritism, and since we live in a democracy, we can protest oppression and advocate for just laws.

The neverending masochism that Ms. Diangelo prescribes seems to be the modern, secular version of wearing a hair shirt and whipping one’s back. This exhausting obsession offers no solutions, just incurable guilt. The problem is real, but we can look to other voices for better answers.

Coming up in the Anti-Racist Reads category: James Baldwin and Ijeoma Oluo.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.

Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.

David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.

First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.

Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.

Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.

Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.

Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?

In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.

We can start here.

Disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or any group.

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