Rev. EJ's Anti-Racist Origin Story
Anti-Racist Origin Story
By: Rev. Emily Joye
Ezekiel 18: 25-32
25 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.27Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.28Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket
A] vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of the mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Prayer of Obedience...
So when I think about what got me started on this path, I must admit that it wasn’t creation ex-nihilo but rather a process full of starts, stops, contractions, birth, death and rebirth. And I’m still so on it, yall. Like daily trying to figure out how to claim anti-racist as a white person in a way that isn’t just about an identity but a way of being in the world that results in humility and justice and is ultimately pleasing to God. This is absolutely about personal and collective salvation for me. But it doesn’t stop there. The salvific hinges upon earthly, material transformation away from white supremacy to racial justice. I believe I will be met by my maker and that I will be asked what I did with the inheritance of white supremacy during my time on earth, and what awaits me in the hereafter hinges on my response--not what I hoped to do, but what I did. And it’s daily blood, bread and poetry as white, dyke, activist, poet Adrienne Rich reminds me.
Having said that, I can share with you that there were choice points along the way that stand out, big time, upon reflection. Moments when it was go or grow, moments when I could break with whiteness and live, or make the choice (which isn’t really a choice) of putting my head back in the sand about white supremacy and spiritually die. So I’m going to share some of those moments with you. But before I do that, I have to acknowledge that any knowing I have in the area of anti-racism comes from racism itself, which is the most tragic paradox of this work. We white people don’t awaken from racism without some cataclysmic aha moment that usually comes by way of reckoning with our ignorance or outright racist nonsense, both of which come at the expense of people of color. So in recalling my aha moments I just have to say that I wish these stories didn’t come by way of pain in communities and people of color, but they do.
I was ten years old, living on the Eastside of Los Angeles County, when over 20 members of the Los Angeles Police Department, beat Rodney King to his almost death. That beating, one of countless episodes of police brutality at the hands of LAPD, happened to be caught on tape. In the Spring of the next year, a jury refused to indict the 17 officers who stood by and did nothing. A month later the four officers charged with the beating were acquitted. The city started to burn within minutes of the press releases about the case. For days and weeks uprisings calling for justice in black and brown communities filled the streets and media. I went to a predominantly black school and it became apparent to me in that political moment that something different was happening for my classmates of color than was happening for me in the midst of the uprisings.
It was then that I learned the police weren’t safe for everyone. It was then that I learned black people weren’t protected by the state, but rather endangered by it. It was then that I learned where I lived and the skin I was in granted me a kind of protection, though I couldn’t tell you what that protection was at the time. I knew skin color differences before I could even talk, but the Los Angeles Uprisings in 1991 opened my eyes to a forms of violence that accompanied skin color.
Unlike many of the stories I hear from white people in dialogues about race, I actually had many people of color in my life from an early age. My kindergarten teacher was a black womxn. My second grade teacher was an Asian womxn. One of my volleyball coaches was a black man. One of my soccer coaches was a Latino male. Our next door neighbors were immigrants from Mexico. One of the gifts of growing up in Los Angeles was the inherent diversity in many of the institutions I happened to attend. I didn’t grow up fearing difference. And yet in some ways, I think it was this proximity to people of color and the many relationships of depth and substance I had across race that kept me from grasping my whiteness and whiteness in general. That is, I unknowingly assumed that because I had POC in my life that I couldn’t possibly be racist. And I’m claiming this part of my story because I think it’s a fairly common form of particularly white liberal racism that’s like rampant.
To be completely transparent, I think I overly identified with black culture as a young person due to my social and athletic circles. I’m not proud to admit this, but it was true. So in 2008 when a black womxn whom I considered a personal friend and colleague let me go because of my racism, I was thrown into a serious identity crisis. AKA: I realized I was white for the first time in my life.
I want to get into some of the details of that story, but first want to say that I have asked her permission to share it and am indebted to her boundaries for being one of the most revolutionary forces in my anti-racist development.
Chauncey Bailey, an African American journalist, who spent most of his career covering stories in black communities in Detroit and Oakland, was gunned down in August of 2007 in Oakland CA. He was, according to almost all accounts, a journalist of and for the people. He was as committed to truth, and getting truth out, as he was to the disciplines of investigating and writing. His career spanned a 37 year stretch and his murder, at the hands of Yusef Bey IV, left a devastating whole in the black community of Oakland in specific and the journalism world in general. Chauncey Bailey was the first American journalist killed for domestic reporting in over 30 years. Some might call his murder a crucifixion of a kind.
In the Spring of 2008 I was enrolled in a Senior Seminar at my seminary in Berkeley, CA, just a couple miles away from Oakland where just a year prior Bailey had been killed. The class was taught by an African American man, a PhD in the area of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Our class was primarily white with one black womxn and one asian man. The goal of the senior seminar was to essentially prove that we’d learned what we needed to know to go out in the world and do ministry competently. It’s where we were supposed to demonstrate our mastery in the areas of theology, biblical studies, history, ethics and spiritual care. The instructor decided on bringing the Chauncey Bailey case in as our chosen text to demonstrate our competencies. And most of us failed miserably. It became apparent early on in the seminar that a bunch of third year M-Div students didn’t know how to make spiritual meaning about the entire Body of Christ, which included realities of black life, death and resurrection.
On the second to last class, my friend, the one black womxn in the class, had had it. She let the class know, with direct, clear anger about the ways whiteness stood between us and Chauncey Bailey, between us and being good pastors, between us and her, between us and the enfleshed, incarnate world. She made it plain, like any prophet can, indicting the many faces of white supremacy sitting there that day and most of went silent, including me. Turns out she needed me to have her back in that moment. Turns out she needed me to say something to the class. But the truth is: I didn’t know what to say. Literally. So I didn’t. I learned that day that my ignorance wasn’t innocent, that my obliviousness *was* my whiteness.
A week later was the last class; she came back and let us know that her parents had encouraged her throughout her childhood not to trust white people, that even the ones you think are “good” end up betraying you. She confirmed as a result of this class, she now knew why that childhood advice made sense. Something inside of me broke that day, hearing her say that because I knew something I’d done--actually something I’d failed to do--resulted in her lack of trust. And it wasn’t just about me, Emily Joye. It was about us, white people. And I realized Emily Joye was part of that us, white people, in a way I never had.
I lost her as a colleague and friend as a result of my ignorance and silence and participation in an oppressive group that I wasn’t even acknowledging my membership in. It devastated me. I was also devastated by the fact that I’d spent all this time and money in seminary and I still couldn’t materialize theology relevant to Bailey’s life, death and resurrection--and perhaps more concretely, that my racism was keeping me from pastoral solidarity with communities of color.
So I wanna pause at this point and say that every BIG growth moment in my life has been preceded by a devastating loss of some kind. Losing my friend and losing my sense of goodness kindled the kind of suffering within me that leads to transformation. As they say in 12-step: you gotta hit bottom. And I had. For the next two years, I couldn’t kick a pretty serious depression and sense that things were completely falling apart for me. And they were; in all the right ways. I know now that white people have to lose and lose big in order to wake up, that is lose the world and gain our souls. Or as Jesus says in Matthew 10:39 “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I didn’t create white supremacy but I did inherit it. It’s an intergenerational legacy that I received as a result of the family I was born into, the groups of Europeans that I descend from, and from having low levels of melanin in a society that structures our lives inside of a racialized hierarchy. I believe I can choose to intervene on and interrupt the legacy of racial oppression passed on to me and that this choice will benefit future generations and hopefully the world concretely in my lifetime. This is a choice for absolutely every white person who shares the inheritance of white supremacy. Beverly Daniel Tatum says that white supremacy is a lot like one of those conveyor belts at an airport; it just carries us unless we actively walk against its momentum. So white people listening, I ask, are you actively resisting or just getting carried by a society that unjustly benefits you at the expense of POC?
In the midst of that loss ten years ago I found myself reaching out for new resources and support. I made myself the goal of becoming a trustworthy white person; I had no idea what that meant or how I’d have to change to get there, but I promised myself that I’d learn and do it because that was the living amends my former friend deserved. I also realized that this whole “whiteness” thing was a real, concrete, deadly thing and that it was in me and I needed to get a sense of how I was personally infected.
That was about 10 years ago. And I am no expert today. And race isn’t the only identity I’ve had to reckon with in order to get free of oppression. And i’ve learned so much. And I am open and willing to divest from white supremacy in all the ways I can and to be accountable to and in partnership with people of color and other white anti-racist people in bringing about worlds of racial justice. Before closing I want to share just a few key resources that have helped me in my journey as a white person:
- Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
- Two articles from Tema Okun, one entitled “White Supremacy Culture” and the other “From White Obliviousness to White Anti-Racist.”
- Lots of stuff by Tim Wise, but particularly his book “White Like Me.”
- Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror.”
- Race The Power of An Illusion, which is a three part film series by PBS
- Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.”
- Everything Shakti Butler has ever produced
- Everything James Baldwin has ever written
- And the MOST important thing is that I have found long term accountability partners, POC and white people committed to loving and challenging me in the struggle. I am grateful for them every single day, particularly Melanie Morrison, Jo Ann Morris, Aaron Ahlstrom, Jorge Zeballos, Alma Crawford, Dionardo Pizana, Lois Parr, Tha Par, Meredith Stravers, Marquita Chamblee, Wade Meyer and two of my colleagues up on here: Tom Ryberg and Dominique Atchison.
- And connected to the most important thing: this didn’t happen for me in a workshop or a training. Or five workshops or ten trainings. Or reading the right book. Or getting the right job. This is a calling for me every day, every minute as I continue to struggle, continue to try and often times fail and try again. It’s a lifetime and I’m not doing it alone.
Now: having said all of that I want to ask you, if you are getting spiritual substance from the Anti-Racist Devotional, for you to offer some money in Rev. Dominique’s direction. She is laboring to organize this thing FOR FREE as an ordained womxn of color and I hope you’ll match my $10 gift in her paypal to compensate. If you feel it in your heart to stretch further, I want to ask that you match my $10 gift to the Ida B. Wells Society For Investigative Reporting in memory of journalist Chauncey Bailey. I’ll provide links for giving below.
A closing word on Chauncey Bailey. Getting deeper and more disciplined in the ways of anti-racism has shown me many things, but high on that list is how much the work of God is about the work of incarnating truth, particularly the truth most people don’t want to see/hear or know. That’s what Bailey did. He was a truth telling journalist who dedicated his life to incarnating truth for black folks. And he was killed for it. But the people who loved him and his work didn’t let the legacy of his spirit die; they took up his work in the Chauncey Bailey project. Does this sound familiar to you? In many ways, Bailey is like Jesus. May their memories be eternal.
My prayer today is that we recognize and reward prophets and truth-tellers in and out of churches, in and out of our traditions, alive, dead and rising. But more importantly, that we become them in ways that are unique to our earthly inheritances. For certainly it is the truth and truth alone which makes us free.
Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you just in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Hebrews 13:20,21