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White People Must Study Critical Race Theory

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” David Foster Wallace

I was too young to fully appreciate my first introduction to the philosopher, Ludwig Von Wittgenstein. What I remember from this Austrian/British philosopher of mind was his insistence on perspective being determinative of reality. That is, a person who looks at a table from above the table is not seeing the same table as a person who is looking at the table from underneath.

It was a hard sell on a 17-year-old college student, and it prompted my father to ask, “I’m paying for this?” But the older I get, the more that I realize that Wittgenstein was right. 

I am a white, American, male, heterosexual and though I have traveled over much of the world and have enjoyed a lot of educational and diverse social experiences, I cannot see the police through the eyes of a Black mother whose sons are regularly pulled over and questioned for no apparent reason.

Though I have traveled over much of the world and have enjoyed a lot of educational and diverse social experiences, I cannot see the police through the eyes of a Black mother whose sons are regularly pulled over and questioned for no apparent reason.

I can’t speak to violence against trans folk the way that people within the trans community feel it. I grew up around people who claimed that white privilege didn’t exist because our lives were also very hard in lots of ways, and, as people would say, “I never owned a slave, I never killed an Indian, and I’m not prejudiced.” 

And, it is true enough, that I and my white cis friends have never owned a slave, nor have we killed a Native American. And, in my case, it is also true that I didn’t inherit economic gain from my white family. To the contrary, I had to help them. But that doesn’t mean that I have not enjoyed white privilege. And that doesn’t mean that reverse discrimination does not exist. In specific cases there have been times when being a white male may have excluded me from some opportunities but that is because the white male quota has been filled up for a few centuries now.

Just like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous parable who have lived their entire lives in water but do not know that water exists or what water is, we live in a universe where absolutely everything that we know, we know from our own perspective.

I have been an pastor for 43 years and I can tell you a lot about the abuses of church politics, the presumptions of sociopaths and con artists on church boards, but what I will never be able to feel is what it would be like to be a woman who never even got a chance to be hired to be the pastor of a church, no matter how smart, insightful, or well educated she was, because, in most of the world, churches hire men.

I have complained loudly about a lot of toxic aspects of working for the church and have rarely paused to consider that there were tens of thousands of seminary educated women who would have loved to have had a chance to be in my shoes. . . even with a lot of toxic sociopath board meetings along the way.

You all know how much I love and adore my daughter, and, you locals have seen the mutual admiration society the two of us enjoy. What we never saw was what that whole international adoption would have looked like from the prospective of the young woman in Korea who gave birth to her and likely had little choice in the matter of leaving the hospital without her on the day when she gave birth.

My greatest life joy was the greatest source of pain to a woman whose name I have never even known. You see, Wittgenstein is right, both perspectives are true, even though they are entirely different. And the mere fact that thinking about Valerie’s birth mother makes me sad, uncomfortable, and has made me feel very guilty about my own good fortune, doesn’t change any of the facts.

I think that I am a fairly clever boy most of the time. But when David and I have our weekly meetings and we talk about the issues we feel compelled to write about, to talk about to you and to the world, sometimes, when we talk about matters of sexual orientation, of gay and trans rights, I can see a look on David’s face that let’s me know that there are some things that I just can’t see, and maybe never will.

I was fighting for gay rights before David was even aware of their own orientation but, even with longer tenure in the fight, there are things that I will never understand because, while I can be an advocate, I can’t see the table from the top side.

And we have both been members of the NAACP and have demonstrated with Black Lives Matter but there are times when we feel like we need to address a subject that is just so far outside of our experience that we have called upon persons of color to deliver that message. It is a part of our regular conversations, do we have the right to speak to certain issues, even to use certain music in our services? Are we wrong not to speak to these issues, but are we the right people to do it?

The Black Lives Matter movement, especially during the Trump administration’s overtly racist policies, has helped a lot of us to become awakened to how much racism has been a part the cultural water we have been swimming in all of our lives. 

But just look at the backlash we’re seeing from white folks who do not want Critical Race Theory taught in schools. You cannot rationally dispute the historical facts, but people will dismiss the facts because the facts make them feel uncomfortable.

I am certain that many German kids are made to feel uncomfortable talking about the holocaust and Germany’s fascist history, however, their discomfort doesn’t keep Germany from teaching their students about a history they must understand to avoid repeating. Still, the resistance of right wing America to facts is something that certainly doesn’t surprise me. 

I have written nearly a thousand newspaper articles over the past many years but only one for the little paper in my hometown of Glasgow, KY. 

I have told you about when I learned that the bronze statue to “Our Confederate Dead” still stood on the courthouse lawn in my hometown, I wrote an essay suggesting that it be moved to the Civil War era cemetery a couple of miles away from the courthouse so that it could be an appropriate tribute to those who died in the war and not a symbol of white supremacy at the seat of justice in the country where race should not be a factor. 

I had no idea that so many people in Glasgow read the newspaper, especially online, but within an hour of my article being posted, there were more than 75 angry responses, many of which told me that I was not welcome to ever visit my hometown again and a few assuring me that they would kill me on sight if I ever did come back. But there was one entry from a thoughtful black man who talked about having to walk by that monument daily when he was young and how sick it made him feel. 

Many who threatened me also took the time to assure me that they were not racist in the least but, what was clear, was that they were not able to see such monuments through the eyes of a black man living in the American south.

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Everyone else who penned an angry response was just certain that a Civil War memorial wasn’t racist, it is just that they had never been aware of the racism they swim in every day. We should understand that a fish that doesn’t know what water is, is not necessarily an evil fish, just an unaware fish. Our neighbors and family members who have refused to acknowledge that Civil War monuments are almost always a statement of white supremacy also doesn’t mean that they are inherently evil. Being wrong doesn’t make you evil. However, refusing to understand, refusing to grow, refusing to think critically, that is the gateway to being evil. 

All of us who have lost contact with family members and old friends during the Trump era, have expressed both moral shock and outrage at the racist sentiments either tacitly or directly supported by people we used to think had more sense, but the really breathtaking aspect of it all is that they sincerely do not see how racist Trump’s policies and tweets really were.

For most of us, white privilege is exactly like a fish swimming in water. It is so much a part of us, of our cultural assumptions, our ways of speaking that become our decisions about who to hire, to whom you will rent an apartment, and, now, what we will allow to be taught in our schools. 

It may be an indisputable historical fact that white European settlers stole the wealth of natural resources and land of North America through a genocide of tens of millions of Native Americans, developed the wealth of the nation through African slavery, and expanded our boarders through pathological land theft from Latin Americans, but the truth of these things does not mean that this generation of white people want their children to learn honest history because it implies that somehow we did not earn our place in society fairly. The mere fact that we did not earn it fairly is immaterial. It makes the “Karens” of the world uncomfortable and so we are not supposed to say it.

I don’t know what all of the necessary elements of ending racism in America are, but this one thing I am certain of, not being willing to tolerate the teaching of historical facts is going to prevent progress in one generation after another. I think that we are at a unique time in history when a number of things have worked together to heighten our awareness of how race has been a factor in every aspect of the building of our modern society. 

The advent of cameras in cell phones alone has made it possible for the public to see the real events behind the police’s polished propaganda about police killings. 

The whole of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought leaders to the front of a movement to educate America. Still, very sadly, it is entirely possible that we could let this opportunity slip through our fingers. 

A decade ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement came into being as a response to the way the government bailed out banks in the 2008 financial crisis rather than bailing out homeowners and wage earners. They were sounding the right notes, they were occupying the moral high ground, but somehow, it all fell apart. Maybe because they didn’t have visible leadership but more likely, it was just because the winter came early that fall and the protestors lost the will to continue to fight for their public camps. (Note: LA Progressive article reporting on Occupy Encampments being shut down by city authorities)

As my British friend, John Churcher, observed: Great Britain will never have another revolution because it rains too often. With all of the media coverage of police killings and the progress made in electing people of color, and the naked power grab behind voter suppression moves being made in Republican legislatures, we really must not let this moment pass.

This is no time for weak liberalism. It is not enough to simply “not be a racist.” 

We have to figure out how to meaningfully be anti-racist. That does not mean that white liberals need to posture themselves as saviors of down-trodden American blacks, but folks, it isn’t like racism was the brainchild of black and brown people. Racism is, primarily, a white disease. We are not called to cheer from the sidelines, we are in control of the ball on the field

White people invented racism, defended it, sustained it, and passed it along to generation after generation. So, reading books by prominent black authors, listening to historians and sociologists as they expose the role that race has played in wealth disparity, inequitable prison sentences, police violence, employment and housing discrimination and roadblocks to higher education, that is part of being anti-racist.

So, yes, Critical Race Theory needs to be taught in schools, but I am not sure that it needs such an unusual title because all we are talking about is offering honest history classes. Less fiction, and more facts . . . which wouldn’t hurt religion and politics either. 

What’s Up with the Sudden Attacks on Schools That Teach Critical Race Theory? #WhiteWashedHistory#EthnicStudies#CriticalRaceTheory#racismisreal #racisminamerica

— Sharon Kyle 🌹 (@SharonKyle00) June 14, 2021

">Critical Race Theory

And I need to say this to you, my closest friends and allies, we must never underestimate the power in changing the way that we and our peers think. American democracy, liberty, freedom, equality, does not exist as an external fact. Christopher Columbus didn’t land in the New World and report to his European backers that he had discovered democracy, liberty, freedom, and equality. These things to not exist in physical form, they are ideas, perfected in critical thought.

Irrational prejudice against gay, lesbian, and trans folk has been a part of Western civilization for centuries but it only began to change when the majority of people started to change the way they think. The reality for minority people in the world improves through better education and awareness, not on the part of the minority people but on the part of the majority who are the ones doing the oppressing.

Consider the matter of the XL pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Huge international investment was behind it . . . Obama was nervous about it but didn’t make definitive decisions. Trump gave it the green light and pushed for its completion. Years of protests, in which most of us have played a part, has finally ended this stupid, ecologically and morally corrupt project. We have won. It took years and a lot of sacrifice, and some real leaders are still in prison for what they did, but, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. 

You need only consider our current predicament with the pandemic. Safe, effective vaccines are available to everyone now but more than half of our neighbors have refused to be vaccinated. The city recently withdrew all covid restrictions about masks and distance and almost immediately the hospitalizations of covid patients has tripled. I have only been back in the USA for a day but my trips into public have looked like it was 2019, no masks to be seen anywhere. This is a perfect example of how refusing to believe the truth, insisting upon believing untruths, will result in death and permanent disability for many. How we think shapes how we live. It is that simple. 

Compassion leads us to take care of those who are sick, as well as those who are victims of racism and other kinds of prejudice. But our faith, our spirituality, inspires us to help people to stay healthy, to avoid the stinking thinking that leads to wealth disparity, racism, prejudice, and ignorance.

Dr. Roger Ray

We are to be, first and foremost, a prophetic community . . . a real danger to ignorance . . . and a source for the kind of thinking that can make the world a better place. Have courage. Believe what is true. Reject what is false. Question everything. . . especially authority. 

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church