I need to say something. It won’t be anything new for black people, having been voiced often in our homes, beauty shops and holy church huddles for only God knows how long. Perhaps a trigger warning should be denoted because there is nearly no circumventing the feelings of unfairness and insult this statement will stir up in some, if not most, white people.
“White people can be exhausting.”
Actually, I’m quoting the first sentence in the opening chapter of Austin Channing Brown’s 2018 book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. If this culturally held sentiment contributes to white discomfort, that’s not a bad thing. People of color in America are in a constant state of unease. The least white people can do is increase their aptitude to confront and persist through prickly racial discussions.
“‘American history is a symphony of carnage, an orchestra of murder.’”
Naturally, people of all backgrounds can be exhausting, but that isn’t the point. Being black in America is a peculiar hazard ripe with the kind of disparity, as the nation has witnessed more fully lately, that has, can and does often end in our unjust demise. White people can be exhausting partly because there is so much that they are ignorant of or unequivocally wrong about on crucial, literally life-and-death issues. And that gets old.
In the year 2020 it is absurd for there to still be nonstop declarations about how great America is. Yes, she is prodigiously prosperous and dominant, but not solely or primarily due to any utopic, morally superior efforts of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. By way of murder, corruption and degradation, our founding European forefathers, fleeing religious persecution and hell-bent on colonization, seized free land from Indigenous peoples already here and seized free labor from Africans through the transatlantic slave trade. It was theft and murder; no ifs, ands or buts about it. Words from Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Chicago’s century-old Progressive Baptist Church, ring true: “American history is a symphony of carnage, an orchestra of murder.”
Without this hugely obvious competitive advantage and built-in systems of oppression to champion white supremacy, the feats accomplished by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Orville and Wilbur Wright and countless others for self and country would not have transpired.
America isn’t America without the contributions of people of color. But even as black lives are being flippantly discarded like a used cigarette, some white people refuse to admit having labeled evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). This isn’t discrete mathematics we are talking here. It is elementary-level history and theology.
We have seen this play out countless times. Take, for instance, the recent comment star NFL quarterback Drew Brees made about fellow players taking a knee in protest during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
Any relatively informed, decent-minded individual can see that peaceful protest, whatever shape it takes, has no correlation to disrespecting the flag. If one person decides to put their hand over their heart during the playing of the National Anthem while another chooses to sit or kneel to highlight the reality that the ultimate American symbol of freedom historically has not included, and still today does not include, equal opportunities for all people, it is a silly, unconstitutional posture to label them unpatriotic. Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of taking a knee back in 2016 wasn’t about the U.S. flag; rather, it was rooted in hopes that four years later we wouldn’t watch a black man uttering “I can’t breathe” while pinned to the ground with a white police officer’s knee pressed into his neck for a span of nearly nine minutes while three fellow officers chose not to intervene.
“The least white people can do is increase their aptitude to confront and persist through prickly racial discussions.”
After a torrent of criticism about his comments, including statements by current and former teammates, Brees was contrite. Still, his immediate reaction was to double down on his comment before then issuing two separate apologies. In his initial response, Brees unsurprisingly danced around a straightforward apology. That’s the kind of cover whiteness provides to white people.
Roxane Gay, in a New York Times article, noted that white people “put energy into being outraged about the name ‘Karen’ as shorthand for entitled white women rather than doing the difficult, self-reflective work of examining their own prejudices.” She referenced Amy Cooper, the white woman who on May 15 phoned the police attempting to disparage – and, as every black person knows – potentially bring harm to Christian Cooper, a black man who had asked her to leash her dog as required in the area of Central Park where he was birdwatching.
Thankfully, Christian Cooper video-recorded what ensued as Amy Cooper erratically and aggressively approached him, saying, “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops. I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” The fact is, she was the doing the threatening, and he was the one in danger. Later, her public “apology” also was telling: “I am not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way. I think I was just scared.” Her employer, the investment firm Franklin Templeton, made the right move by swiftly firing her.
While Amy Cooper lost her job, black men – automatically viewed with suspicion or assumed guilty – have lost their jobs and very lives in situations that began with a white woman lying, espousing some half-truth or otherwise behaving inappropriately.
Because whiteness, and its enforcer we know as racism, represent an intentional and engrained web of subjugation, whereby white people are viewed as better than others, a tendency exists for heightened protection and excused fragility where white people, especially white women, are concerned. Generation after generation, the impact of enslavement and racial prejudice contributes to a mixture of bad standards, on the one hand, and bigoted standards, on the other. White people get to operate with practical impunity and then toss the bones of halfhearted apologies that burdened victims are supposed to embrace with no questions asked.
Well, no thank you.
Choreographed by New Zealand’s Parris Goebel, the video for Justin Bieber’s song “Sorry” has been viewed on YouTube almost 3.3 billion times. The chorus asks, “Yeah, I know that I let you down. Is it too late to say I’m sorry now?”
From my vantage point as a black man, it is never too late for a white person to say sorry, but let the apology be proportional to the offense; and don’t play footsies with it. Like other black people, I really don’t want to hear that you misspoke or were misunderstood. For the record, I don’t care that your parents didn’t raise you “that way.” I don’t have time for any manipulative tears you plan to shed.
“It is never too late for a white person to say sorry, but let the apology be proportional to the offense; and don’t play footsies with it.”
Likewise, my patience has dried up for the deflections about the ills of looting and subsequent property loss, or, Lord knows, the namedropping of your black friends or the title of a race-based book you have read or podcast you have listened to while working out at the gym. You need to know that such efforts are going to fall on deaf, weary, annoyed ears.
Stop talking about what you meant to say. Please, just stop it! Instead, acknowledge what you said and why it was wrong and then commit to actionable steps, accompanied by appropriate accountability, toward learning and behaving more humanely.
Being in Jesus’ employ, at the price of his shed, redeemed blood, means forgiveness must be a way of life for me. Jesus told Peter in so many words that we should have no expiration date on showing mercy to others, forgiving “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” because God has forgiven us (Matthew 18:21-22). But let’s not fall for the okey doke. Scripture never indicates that to forgive is to excuse consequences; nor does it require that relationships return to their former glory.
Black people don’t receive a racial hardship subsidy, but we probably should. I mean that tongue-in-cheek most days, but not always. It is hard out in these streets, navigating the tsunami-sized waves and water-gun saturations of white supremacy. I write as someone who for the past several years has painstakingly discipled, mentored and ministered to predominately white communities. It is a sacrifice, one that I have accepted because I believe it has been the Lord’s call for my life. And I love the students and adults I get to shepherd.
Still, as my courageous, God-fearing ancestors would sing, you need to know:
Oh, freedom over me!
And before I’d be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free!
I don’t share the opt-in, opt-out privileges my white sisters and brothers do, and you will hear no apologies from me for affirming my identity as a child of God first and then as a citizen of these United States of America. To love me and those like me with higher melanin counts is not to tolerate, but to protect and celebrate who we are.
Wendell Griffen | Justice for George Floyd: what went wrong and how to make it right
Andrew Manis | George Floyd and the silence of white evangelical America
Cody J. Sanders | ‘We can’t breathe’: an apt Pentecost prayer for white Christians