Saturday, April 28, 2018

We Wear the Mask

A while ago, I saw an exchange on Facebook of some old students, very smart and woke kids and different ethnicities, who grew up together in a unique multicultural school, where the white kids were usually the minority. One of the white students was asking - genuinely asking - if it would be too much to wear an African dress to the Black Panther premiere. She was really excited about the movie and everything that it stood for, and she wanted to go all out. This is what I love about this group of kids - not only do they think about things like that, but they reach across these ethnic barriers and share their experiences and wisdom with each other. And the best thing is that they do this before they act, instead of apologizing afterward. About five or six friends joined in the conversation, and the consensus was that a white girl wearing a dashiki or other African garb to the would definitely draw the wrong kind of attention, and would probably be seen as insensitive or thoughtless. It would have the exact opposite effect that the young woman wanted to project, and would distract from the event itself. The suggestion was to wear a Black Panther t-shirt or any other Black Panther gear to get in the mood and show some solidarity with the fans, and the added bonus is that she could actually wear those items again, almost any place, and get more value out of them.

It was a really beautiful exchange to watch, and one of the most interesting things about it was that it ended with the white girl completely understanding the situation, and remarking that it just felt weird that she couldn't wear something because of the color of her skin.

I think a lot of us white folks have this reaction to cultural appropriation, and all of those articles and YouTube videos telling us that wearing African garb, or saris, or cornrows, or Native American accessories is offensive to the cultures that produced them. Why can't I wear what I want to? I thought that was the whole point of defeating racism, we say.

The truth is, if you're white, nobody is saying you can't wear a dashiki, or African accessories, or whatever other cultural items you want. There is no force to stop you from doing this. The only consequence is that you risk offending people. If you're okay with that, then there probably isn't any other consequence at all. But that isn't true for everyone from every background or ethnicity.

For people of color, wearing cultural attire or hairstyles can have real consequences, far more severe that just hurting someone's feelings. There are a couple of Nigerian families in my church, and they often wear their long robes and head dresses to church, because that's considered formal in their culture, and hey want to dress up for church. I, on the other hand, wear jeans and a comfortable shirt, because I hate formal clothes. But if some of these same men and women wore their formal robes to work, they could get written up for being out of dress code. My wife has been told on several occasions that her natural hair was inappropriate for the workplace. Her hair is about as tight and kinky as possible, and its most natural shape is a low, tight afro that always looks neat, but apparently is unbecoming of an accountant, even one who doesn't deal with clients. For white folks, there is no comparison on this issue. A white woman with straight or wavy hair can pull it back in a ponytail if she's in a rush, and still be considered perfectly professional, but a woman with hair like my wife's has to spend time and effort on changing the natural texture and shape of her hair or she risks losing her job.

Attitudes matter, and ideas have consequences, but some ideas have more consequence than others, depending on whose ideas they are. In her famous essay, "On Seeing England for the First Time," Jamaica Kincaid wrote "I may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them, my prejudices have no force behind them, my prejudices remain opinions, my prejudices remain my personal opinion." The opinion that white folks shouldn't wear cornrows or dashikis is an opinion that has no force behind it. Their jobs are not threatened, and they are not profiled as criminals or foreigners as a result. In fact, it works the other way. White folks can wear cornrows or dashikis or saris and be considered avant garde or exotic. They can walk down runways in New York or Paris wearing culturally appropriated attire and be lauded as "cutting edge" or "the next big thing." Not only doesn't it cost them anything, but it brings them very positive attention, except from a small, but growing, group who object to this. On the other hand, if some of my church members decides to wear clothes that are representative of their own culture, clothes that they consider professional or formal, they can be threatened with the loss of their jobs. Furthermore, they risk marking themselves as foreigners or immigrants, and incurring a very negative kind of attention from authorities and even neighbors. My wife is very blessed to have a job where she works in a very small company, and where she is surrounded by friends who grew up together and now work together, but, again, when she was working for more corporate accounting firms, the policy was that she would conform her appearance to the white norm of hairstyles. This was far more that just a cultural issue, since it meant that she had to spend $200-$300 each month on products and stylists in order to achieve this unnatural feat. This is the point I want to make to white folks who still don't understand the backlash against cultural appropriation. It doesn't seem fair that in order to keep her job, one woman should have to spend hundreds of dollars to achieve an appearance that another woman gets for ten dollars in shampoo and scrunchies.

That's the real source of the offense in cultural appropriation. Imagine if you had to wear a special mask in order to get a job or even move about safely in your neighborhood. Imagine if that mask covered up so many of the things that are inherently beautiful about you, things that you were proud or. Imagine that this mask was also expensive, so much so that you were aware that for the first day or two in any month, you were basically working just to pay for the mask you have to wear to keep the job in the first place. Imagine that this mask was a hassle to put on, but you couldn't really get by without it, because other people don't want to see the real you, because the real you is unprofessional or ugly or "thuggish."

Then imagine that other people were wearing other masks, masks that look like the real you, and somehow nobody seemed to think that they were ugly. Whenever they wear the mask that looks like you, everyone seems to think it's beautiful, even though it's just an imitation of your real self. The same features that you have to hide, out of self-preservation, they can flaunt, and be celebrated for it. Even though you couldn't do anything about it, you'd probably be offended too.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Pray for Those in Authority

Over and over lately I keep hearing people remind me that I have to support our current president, because the Bible says so. They post memes on Facebook and Instagram telling me that the Bible says to obey all authorities, and pray for those in power. And it seems as if no matter what Trump does, whatever prejudice or hatefulness or stupidity comes out of his mouth, through his Twitter feed, or across his desk, I'm supposed to support it and find some reason to rationalize it, because the Bible says so.

The bigger issue is that I'm starting to think that some of these people really do support the prejudice and hatefulness and stupidity, and this whole "Bible says so" thing is just the cover story.

It's ironic to me that we love stories of rebellion against unjust and corrupt governments in the Bible, but when they happen in real life, against our party or our elected official, we shake our fingers and call the rebels unChristian. We love to hear the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow down to idols set up by a tyrant, but we excoriate men for refusing to salute the American flag. We celebrate Nathan pointing his finger in the face of King David, exposing his wickedness and telling him, "You are the man," but we either blast or unfriend anyone who dares to call Trump's lack of morals into question. We rally behind young David as he gathers forces to fight against King Saul, only stopping short of killing him in ambush, but my Facebook feed is full of so-called Christians calling down hate and wishing harm to a bunch of teenagers daring to gather together to ask for a safer country. Just imagine what Christ would think about the members of his church persecuting a young person asking for peace and safety, just a couple of months after he or she watched his friends being gunned down while running for their lives. Does that sound like the kind of thing that should happen among God's people? Does it even sound like the kind of thing that should happen among Americans?

The truth is, we are very selective about how we apply the doctrine of obeying the authorities. We glorify the men who dumped crate after crate of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest the British government, but we encourage people to run over protestors with trucks if they block streets in a peaceful, if inconvenient, protest.

One of my favorite passages about Jesus is in Luke 13:31-35. Jesus had been healing and preaching on his way to Jerusalem, staying in one spot for two or three days before moving on. The Pharisees told him to stop, to go hide somewhere, because Herod wanted to kill him. Instead of showing fear, instead of blindly obeying Herod's authority, and instead of praying for him, Jesus said, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.'" It's worth noting that this was after Herod had already had Jesus' cousin John imprisoned and ultimately beheaded, so Jesus definitely knew what he was capable of. Still, Jesus not only defies the authority figure, but broadcasts his location for the next three days, and dares Herod to do something about it. He even calls Herod a fox, which did not have the positive connotation that it does today in our culture.

For the record, I am praying for President Trump. I pray several things in connection with him. First of all, I pray that God's will be done in America, just like I pray for God's will in my personal life, because I know that whatever the outcome, His will is perfection. After that I make my petitions. I petition God to move in the president's heart to make a radical change of spirit, to rescue him from his own sin and stupidity and darkness, and repent, publicly, of his ways and embrace goodness and wisdom. Failing that, I pray that those around him, his cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court, would all make it their business to break from party loyalty and show some loyalty to righteousness and reason for a change. I pray that they would block his harmful and foolish policies and edicts, that they would condemn his sins and faults, and praise his achievements and good works, instead of the other way around. I pray this for myself, for my family, for the families that his policies might hurt, and for the president himself, as well. I pray that, for his own sake as well as ours, that he doesn't go down in history as the president who started World War III, or recreated apartheid in America, or otherwise destroyed the lives of the people he was elected to protect. And failing all of that, I pray that God removes him from office in the most peaceful way possible.

But no, I don't support the president. I don't support the racist and prejudiced things he says and the harmful policies that he promotes, his attacks on the media and anyone who speaks out against him, or his immoral lifestyle, whether we're talking about ten years ago or this week. Not only do I refuse to support such a man, I condemn his words and actions as unrighteous and dangerous. Furthermore, I don't want to hear about any other president that he was supposedly better, smarter, or more Christian than. Even a "baby Christian" should know that the life of a believer is not about trying to be just a little bit less sinful and repulsive than the next guy. Besides, I can only deal with one president at a time, and so should everyone else.

The result of all this "support" has been devastating to the church of Christ in America. While disciples are being made around the world, in the harshest, poorest, and most dangerous situations, American Christians are having a hard time defining what a lie is, or what constitutes adultery, or who wins the horseshoe game of getting as close as possible to outright depravity without getting caught. The word "evangelical" has become synonymous with "hypocrite" in the minds of many Americans and people around the world. Michael Steele, a man who led the Republican party to unbelievable victory in 2009 and 2010 before being told recently that he was only elected because he is Black, put it best when he said, "I have a very simple admonition at this point: Just shut the hell up and don’t ever preach to me about anything ever again. I don’t want to hear it, ... After telling me how to live my life, who to love, what to believe, what not to believe, what to do and what not to do and now you want to sit back and the prostitutes don't matter? The grabbing the you-know-what doesn't matter? The outright behavior and lies don't matter? Just shut up." I think a lot of Americans are looking at the evangelical or Christian support for President Trump and thinking exactly that. And they're right. If we can only condemn immorality, racism, and ignorance in our enemies, and either overlook, rationalize, or "support" them in our allies, then we really are hypocrites, and the Scriptures are just another weapon we use against others.