Thursday, April 21, 2022

CRT, Amoebas, and Venn Diagrams

CRT is the new boogeyman, in the sense that it's become a shapeless, formless specter that haunts our schools and churches. For those who are vehemently against it, it seems to include almost everything about race or racism, like some amoeba floating around absorbing everything in the water, or like the blob from the old horror movie, assimilating everything in its path. Being the skeptical person I am, every time I see a list of authors that I'm warned against because they are CRT (or do CRT, or believe CRT, or practice CRT. Honestly, even the language used to describe it is exhaustingly vague), I look them up to see if that's the case. Sometimes, they are authors who speak against racism or promote anti-racism, but who never claim to embrace CRT, sometimes even openly disclaiming it, like Ibram X. Kendi.

And yet, fellow Christians are constantly warning me that every book on anti-racism is CRT, and that CRT is the devil, to quote Mama Boucher. Usually, these accusations come from people who haven't read the books they warn against, and haven't read any CRT scholars of note. Instead, they lambast the (decidedly vague) notion of CRT at face value. It makes me wonder what we would think about the Christian faith itself, if we only ever listened to its detractors.

The most recent warning I've heard is against Ijeoma Olua's So You Want to Talk About Race? As far as I know, Olua doesn't claim CRT scholarship, but she writes primarily about anti-racism. I got an email with warnings from Christian ministries and Neil Shenvi concerning the book. One specific issue they take with the book is that she says a thing is about race if a person of color says it is. This feeds into the claim that CRT is all about feelings, that it places a higher priority on the subjective experience that on objective truth or statistics. I'm no CRT scholar myself, but in reading some of these anti-racist works, I can definitely say that these authors rely pretty heavily on studies and statistics, while still giving credence to the lived experiences of minorities in our culture. In fact, from what I can tell, a major function of true CRT is to explain the racial differences in legal and economic outcomes, based on the data collected by experts. 

Still, the contention is that CRT, and Olua's book by association, wants to elevate the lived experiences of people of color, particularly when it pertains to racism. But what Olua and others are getting at is that Black folks might just live in a different world than white folks, where the rules are written in stone, but somehow not applied in the same way. If that's true, then denying their lived experiences is like a lactose tolerant person telling a lactose intolerant person that their reactions to ice cream are imagined or made up or unimportant. What is really a very nuanced discussion of race gets reduced to the most controversial, cherry-picked statement in the book. And it's not even the most controversial statement in the book; just wait until the penultimate chapter.

To put it another way, consider how Christians often talk about the solution to racism. Those who are willing to accept that it exists, but often limit that existence to individual feelings of animosity towards other races, will often say that we should "just preach the Gospel," pray for changed hearts and minds. One quote from Olua's book reminded me of this approach to racism.

"When we look at racism simply as any racial prejudice we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter, fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it's a pretty useless one."

This struck me as extremely poignant and sad, considering that I hear Christians saying all the time that the response to racism should be preaching the gospel until hearts change. How exhausting must this be, to be tasked with the never-ending mission of reaching every heart who discriminates against me? And what if the heart belongs to my professor, a banker, a police officer, or anyone with the power to change my life for the worse? What if my livelihood, my legal status, or my safety depend on eliminating racism? How can I be expected to wait until every heart changes, and what if some hearts just never respond to the gospel? This is the basic premise of Dr. Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait.

There are other parts of the book that are tougher to read, and some points that are harder to agree with, but overall, there's a lot to learn, and it definitely isn't the devil. So, why do books like this get lumped all together in this supposedly evil category of CRT?

It's like looking at a Venn diagram of Christianity and capitalism, or socialism, or social justice, or Americana. If we're honest, there's bound to be some overlap, but never a complete alignment. All of creation is fallen and all of man’s systems are corrupt. Arguing that capitalism is better than socialism is like arguing that lying is better than murder. You might have a case, but don’t go printing the t-shirts with logos for your liars club just yet. 

Still, in that overlap, we can find lots of space for agreement, plenty of room to work with people who don't believe exactly the same things we do, but who share some of the same values and goals. By our own Scriptures, Christians should crave opportunities to seek justice, as much or more than anti-racist activists do. Christians should want their neighbors to have the best health care and education opportunities as much or more than any so-called leftist. In so many ways, we should be looking for bridges and making allies to work towards our common goals.

Instead, what we often do is look at these Venn diagrams of Christianity and other systems of thought, with their varying slivers of overlap, and, instead of focusing on the shared values, we first decide whether the opposing system of thought is convenient to us, or something that we're predisposed to accept. If it is, then we try to pull every other tenet of the other circle into the Christian one, whether they fit or not. We force things like rugged individualism or market dynamics into the Christian circle and cherry-pick verses to support it, often twisting them from their original meanings. Conversely, if the system of thought is one we disagree with, then we try to shove every overlapping value into the other circle, whether it's social justice or universal health care, and pretend as if they were never a part of the Christian faith. Ultimately, we alter and deform the faith to suit whatever philosophy we want to support or deny.

At some point, we have to start reading the books for ourselves, starting with our own Bible, instead of just letting others tell us what they mean. We have to decide that we're Christians first, with the primary mandate to love God and love others, and be willing to work with a variety of people to accomplish those two important goals.

Monday, April 11, 2022


This is another chapter from the YA novel that I gave up on. It was over a decade ago, and I was trying to write something that I thought would be more marketable, but not really my passion. Turns out, it was really difficult to write and really easy to quit. Still, I liked some of the characters, especially Norman, from my last post, and Eleina, the girl he's crushing on at school.In this chapter, I tried to give her perspective on the whole Norman issue, and why she seems not to notice him. Hope you enjoy it.


by Jeffray Harrison

He said that? He never told me he liked me. Sure, I knew he liked me, and I knew his name was Norman, too. I just pretended like I didn’t know. Wow, that sounds harsh. Okay, Norman is a very nice guy and all, and he’s even kind of cute when he wants to be, and he does a lot of things well. The problem with nice guys like him is that they change. They get their feelings worked up over a pretty girl so fast, and they don’t even know her. Before you even know they like you, they already think you’re going out with them or you’re their girlfriend or something. They take every little thing the wrong way, and then they get their feelings hurt when you don’t feel the same.

Guys like Jordan are the opposite. They don’t know you either, and they don’t want to know you. They just want to have you, in every way. It’s not enough for them to be able to touch you or tell everybody else that you belong to them – they want to own you. They want you to obey them, and so they tell you to do ridiculous things just to see how much you will take. Then when you reach your limit, no matter where that is, they try to push you just past it, to prove to themselves that they own you. That’s why Jordan’s not my boyfriend either.

I learned all this from my mom, where else. People say I’m pretty, but they all forget about me when they see my mom - boys and girls. But she taught me that pretty isn’t everything you think it is. My dad wanted my mom because she’s pretty, but then when she got pregnant with me, he left her for some other pretty girl. He’d already gotten her to go past her limit. Then when I was growing up, these men would come around and try to get at her, always making promises, but never even knowing who she is. They know what she looks like, and they find out just enough to try to get their way, but they don’t know her. My mom is more than just pretty, you know? She’s way smarter than me, even if I don’t tell her so. She runs her own business and helps everybody. But nobody helps her, least of all these men. They just want to see her limits. They want to spend the night, or take her away for the weekend, or start telling me what to do. Then when she says “no,” they call her names, tell her she’s worthless, even tell her she’s not that pretty, like anyone believes that.

The last one that she believed in asked her to marry him, and she said “yes.” That was six years ago and now we don’t even know where he is. He promised her he would take care of her, that he was going to make it so she didn’t have to work, like she was asking anybody for that. He promised to be faithful, but then once he got her where he wanted her, he left. He promised me things, too.

I remember the day Steve left for good. I was nine years old, ten in another month. I remember exactly when, because we had already started planning my tenth birthday and everything. It was supposed to be this big party, double digits and everything, right? Well, they hadn’t been fighting or anything, at least not where I could see, but it was obviously different. My mom had come home from the salon early to start writing invitations and planning the food for the party with me. We were sitting on the floor in the living room looking at some menus and putting together a guest list. She kept looking at the clock and looking at the door.

I knew it was something with Steve. I knew he should have been home by then. Then after we ordered some pizza for dinner, got it delivered, ate, and cleaned up, he comes walking in the door. 

I’ll never forget the look on his face, not because of the moment so much, but because I’ve seen it on so many men. I saw it on at least three or four of my mom’s boyfriends before that. I saw it on the one married man my mom ever dated, even though she said she never would. I saw it on my father’s face whenever he would come get me for the weekend, which was almost never.

I saw it on my first boyfriend’s face right after I slept with him.

The look on his face was like someone delivering the worst news, that they had done something so horrible that they knew would ruin your life. It’s really two looks – the look of being sorry mixed with the look of wanting to get away, run away, be somewhere else.

“Hey kiddo,” he said in that fakey smiley way, “Can you go into your room so I can talk to your mom for a sec?”

I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been bad because my mom grabbed me and covered my mouth. I remember fighting her off and throwing all of the invitations at Steve.

“Why don’t you just say it?” I yelled, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do, what men always do?”

“Eleina,” my mom put her arms around me and held me close, covering my mouth again with her hand, “settle down, mija.”

“No, I don’t want to,” I broke away from her and pushed Steve back to the door. “I know what you’re doing. So just go.”

Steve grabbed my arms to stop me from pushing him, but I got one free and punched him in the chest. 

“Stop, Eleina,” Steve coughed and grabbed my arms again, turning me around and holding my back to his chest with my arms crossed in front of me. “Let’s talk about it first.”

I felt so angry and so stupid. I kept trying to kick him or get away from him, but I couldn’t. I tried so hard not to cry, but I couldn’t help it. Finally, I just stopped fighting and cried. Steve let me go and I sat down on the floor.

“Just go,” my mom said, “I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t care.” She walked over to the door and opened it, standing there just like she did when she opened up the salon for her clients in the morning. “I’ll get your things ready and you can pick them up tomorrow. Just go now before you make Eleina more upset.”

He looked at her for a second, and then he looked down at me, and then he started out the door.

“And don’t come to my birthday party either,” I yelled at him as he left. He turned around once, looked like he was going to say something, and then looked down and walked out. I don’t know why I said it. It seems stupid now, but I wanted to find some way to hurt him. The worst thing is when he really didn’t come to the party. That was in October. Then he didn’t come for Christmas, or for Mom’s birthday, or for my next birthday. I think I only saw him two or three times after that, mostly when they were settling the divorce. That’s when I knew that all of those things he said to me, all of the special things he did with me, taking me places and buying me things and everything, it was all just one more way to get at my mom, to get her to go past her limits, just to see if he could.

I cried all that whole night, and then most of the next day, too. But my mom never did. She just slept in my bed with me that night and held me and sang to me, but she never cried. Even now I remember not just the look on his face, but what he must have seen – me crying on the floor and my mom holding the door for him just like she would for anybody else coming through her salon. That’s what my mom taught me, that when a guy leaves, just pretend like you don’t care, like you expected it all along.

Sometimes I look at pictures of my mom when she was a teenager. She had the same long black hair like mine, even though mine doesn’t go all the way to my waist like hers, thank God. She had the same brown eyes. And just like me, she, kind of, you know developed early. I’ve been looking at those pictures ever since I can remember, almost like watching my mom grow up with me. I used to look forward to being like her. Not that I don’t want to be like her now, but, well, when I look at the pictures of her with Dad, or with Steve, or with other guys that don’t come around anymore, I wonder if I’m going to grow into that to, just like the rest of it. Maybe one day I’ll just be the pretty woman with no husband.

In fact, the only difference between me and my mom is our skin. She’s got that light-skinned Puerto-Rican thing, and I’m mixed. Even then, I wish I was more like her, without everyone always telling me what I’m supposed to be, wondering why I don’t do this or eat that or listen to whatever music. I tried to get into the modeling thing last year, through one of those agencies that sets up a booth in the mall. I stuck with it for almost five months, but I got tired of being called “exotic.” It made me feel so uncomfortable – I could never tell if they were calling me beautiful, or different, or slutty, so I just walked away from it.

When I was younger, I used to see the way men would look at my mom, or even say things to her, and I used to pray that I would look like her when I grew up, so that men would notice me, too. But then when I was about eleven or twelve, they started noticing, and they started saying the same things, only by then I knew what they meant.

I remember the first time my mom let me go to the mall with my friends without her. It was a month after my twelfth birthday, and a few of us girls met at my house and then took the bus together to the mall. I felt so good about being on my own. I got dressed up the way my mother did when she went shopping, “looking fierce,” she would say. At first it was the bus driver looking at me funny, but I thought maybe it was just because there were so many kids getting on at one time. But then it was the men working in the stores, and the old guys in the food court, and the security guard who kept watching me and trying to get my attention. Then it was the tall man with the Miami Heat jersey on. He must have been at least thirty. He walked right over to the group of us, ignored everyone else, and kind of shoved himself in front of me while we were walking to get me away from the group.

“What’s going on, Lil’ Mama?” he said. “What you shopping for?”

I tried to be nice. “I’m with my friends,” I said.

“I could be your friend.”

The worst thing is that my friends didn’t do anything. They thought it was so cool, an older guy talking to me. But I knew better. I’ve seen the look in his eyes from plenty of guys who came up to talk to my mom, and mostly I thought it was cool, too. But when it’s you they’re talking to, and your body they can’t take their eyes off of, it’s not cool. I pretended to be sick and left my friends there.

That’s what I like about Jordan. I mean, he looks at me the same way, and he’s always trying to touch me somehow. No matter what I let him do, he always wants to do more. But at least I know him. There’s no secrets with him – no surprises. And when I’m with him, none of the other guys look at me that way. None of the other guys come talk to me, or try to touch me – not when he’s there. But I’m not going to sleep with him just because he wants to, or just because he protects me, or just because he says he’ll drop me if I don’t, because other girls will. I did that once already.

Sometimes I think it might be different with someone like Norman. I mean, he seems like the kind of guy who would really take care of a girl he liked, and not always try to get something from her. My mom says he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do if he got it, which is really gross, but true. I see him looking at me sometimes, checking me out, but he always seems embarrassed about it. Other guys just keep looking, like some kind of hungry animal you see on those Discovery Channel shows. When he does get around to talking to me, it’s always about stuff that I like, instead of going right for what he wants, if he wants anything, that is. So, he seems like he’s the kind of guy you could trust, but then Steve seemed like that, too. I think I’d rather be with a guy like Jordan, where you know what you have and you protect yourself, than to be with a guy like Norman, let him go to work on you and get you believing him, just to get hurt. A guy like Jordan can’t hurt you, not even if he cheats on you or calls you names, or even worse, because you expect him to do those things. You see them coming. It’s when it comes from a guy like Norman or Steve, and it always does, and you get hurt, because you let yourself think he’s different, and that makes you different, and then he changes and you change too, back to the same old nothing you were.

I told you I knew he liked me, and it’s not like I don’t take him seriously. I even talked to my mom about him, and I never talk to her about boys; she gets so weird and her face looks all worried. She said I should take a chance with him, that he could be different. But she still had that worried look on her face, like she was telling me to play the lottery, I might win, or to try out for basketball, I might make it. It wouldn’t be like with Jordan. I know him. I know what he’s going to do before he does it, even before he knows he’s going to do it. Norman’s not like that. I never know what’s going on in his head. First I think he doesn’t like me, because acts like he’s ignoring me, and then he suddenly starts paying attention. For a while he would never speak to me for more than three words, and mess those up most of the time, and then he pulls something like he did in cooking class, trying to partner up with me for cupcakes. Anyway, I don’t need a boy that I have to figure out all the time. Better to stick with what you know, like my mom says.