race

Two Practical Reasons Why Betsy’s Flag is Offensive

Two Practical Reasons Why Betsy’s Flag is Offensive 1200 600 Corey Leak

Before eight hours ago, “Who is Betsy Ross?” would have stumped me in a trivia game. I’m sure she is someone that came up at some point in my elementary education at Christian Life, but I can’t say I remember much about her.

The folks over at Nike are aware of who she was. They designed a special edition sneaker that featured the American flag she created on the heel of it.

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Nike decided to cancel the release of the shoes after Colin Kaepernick informed them that the “Betsy Ross flag” was offensive to people of color. However, I’m sure there is a preacher or two who got their hands on a pair and will be featured on preachers n sneakers later this month.

This story seems pretty straight forward and non-offensive to me. A company plans to release a product. One of their spokespeople informs them that it has the potential to alienate a large number of its customer base, so the company chooses to change course. But, maybe it’s simple to me because I’m not white.

I don’t have a deep attachment to American history. The role my ancestors played in America’s history was as extras and props in a story about the excellence of white people.

That’s the excellence and pride that Nike was headed towards celebrating with the flag they originally chose for their shoe. Thankfully Kap stepped in and spoke up.

Today a couple of white friends asked me what I thought about the uproar. Neither of them understood why the flag was a problem. I explained to them why the flag that Nike initially chose was problematic (see the list below), and after I did, one of the friends asked me if I was personally offended by the flag.

I pondered the question for a bit. I hadn’t given the Betsy Ross flag much thought before today. As I thought about my friend’s question, Cracker Barrell immediately came to mind – I ate there this morning with my family.

I remembered what it felt like walking around the gift shop and seeing the antique decor and old-time American trinkets and images, and I text back: “Bro… Some days I find Cracker Barrell offensive.”.

Imagine you’re the offspring of a good man who is beheaded by an evil king. It’s been a few years since your father was beheaded, but you still live in the region. Every year there is a celebration of the king’s “victory” over your father.

The locals celebrate with images of the king, songs, re-enactments of your father’s demise and the banner of the king. How would you feel? I’m going to guess like a black man walking around Cracker Barrell or staring at an image of the Betsy Ross flag.

For those of you looking for practical reasons why POC would find this flag offensive, I’ll give you two.

1. The America of Betsy Ross was oppressive to black people. 

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America has had 26 official flags. The latest was officially recognized in July of 1960, and while blatant, state-sanctioned racism, riddled the US in the 60s, the country was progressing toward equality.

There has yet to be a time in American history unplagued by the disease of white supremacy, but at least our latest flag comes from an era where blacks are legally 100 percent human.

2. White Supremacist hate groups use the Betsy Ross flag as a symbol.

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Perhaps Betsy is rolling over in her grave knowing that racist bigots have taken to her flag as a symbol of their supremacy and hatred for POC. That wouldn’t change the fact that it has come to represent hate by virtue of the fact that hate groups use it.

I highly doubt Betsy would be too upset to know that white people are using her flag to remind upity niggers that they aren’t white, but even if she would mind, that flag is problematic today. Some would argue it always has been.

 

How do we as Americans manage the tension between remembering our history and being sensitive to the groups that suffered to make the American dream come true?

 

Let’s Talk About Reparations

Let’s Talk About Reparations 1484 989 Corey Leak

We aren’t the first civilization to debate reparations. In an excerpt from an ancient Jewish scroll known as “The Scroll of Fasting” Egyptians lodged a complaint about how the Jewish people plundered them on their way out of Egypt.

The Egyptians [once lodged a complaint against the Jews centuries after the Exodus and] said: It is written in the Torah, “Let every woman ask her neighbor jewelry or silver and gold…” [Exod. 11:2]. Now give us back what is ours! Gebiha replied: For four hundred and thirty years Israel was enslaved in your midst, six hundred thousand people [inn all]: give each of them two hundred zuz per year, which totals eith million six hundred mina, and then we will return to you what is yours!

The enslavement of black people lasted 246 years conservatively. There were more than 10,000,000 slaves,  and unlike the Jews from the story of the Exodus, blacks in America did not plunder their captors. Now hundreds of years later, there is a debate about whether or not reparations for American slavery are possible, appropriate, or warranted for black Americans living today.

Possible

There is a bill that was introduced to the House in January of this year to address the issue of reparations. Bill H.R.40 is a bill that would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. The commission would examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. Among other requirements, the commission would identify:

(1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery

(2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants

(3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society

I’m not sure what the resistance to this commission is. We’ve studied the lingering effects of slavery on white and black people for years now. It’s pretty apparent to anyone paying attention that slavery had a dramatic impact on America. It set us on a trajectory that limits the ability of descendants of slaves and people who look like them from enjoying the kind of education, housing, and general quality of life that the descendants of slave owners and those who look like them do.

A commission to dive deeper into the social ramifications of slavery in modern society would be better than any of us at determining the details of how we might go about righting the wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, segregation, and the dog whistle politics of the 80s and 90s that militarized black communities with brutal policing. We may not have the answers to how to distribute reparations, but tasking a group of smart people to figure it out is within our grasp. Why would anyone fight that?

Appropriate

The Jews and their God talked about the Exodus for THOUSANDS of years. It became a central part of their identity. It marked them. They told their children about what had happened to them. You don’t lose hundreds of years and multiple generations to forced labor and shrug it off like it never happened EVER. Based on The Scroll of Fasting, the Egyptians didn’t forget either. In fact, as recently as 2003, there was another complaint lodged against Jews by an Egyptian law professor wanting their money back.

Yet, somehow in America, white people want us to forget about slavery. We hear things like… “No one around today was affected by slavery” or “We settled our debt by electing Barak Obama.”

The facts are, America’s history with race is still affecting us today, and no amount of ostrich imitations are going to heal the damage. Reparations alone won’t either, but let’s not conflate healing with what’s appropriate morally when an injustice has been endured. I often hear people wanting to drag the reparations conversation into the reconciliation dialog. They aren’t the same. If we stick with whether or not it’s appropriate to repay black people for 335 years of slavery and segregation, I’m not sure how any answer but HELL YES is an appropriate response.

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Warranted

Many black people today are doing quite well for themselves. We have black business owners, athletes, entertainers, doctors, lawyers… the list goes on and on of black folks who make well above six-figure incomes. So, if someone were to ask if they “need” reparations, the answer is probably no, but that’s not the question. We aren’t asking if they need it. We are asking if giving them repayment for injustices done to their forefathers is warranted.

Do we ask the same question about whether it’s justified that we pay our debt to Capital One? Could I call my credit card company when my bill is due and say: “You know, you guys have plenty of money already. You don’t need my little ole payment. I think I’ll hold onto this because you folks seem to be doing pretty well for yourselves.”?

It’s ridiculous to ask whether the repayment of a debt is warranted based on the well being of the lender. We all know that. A great deal of the resistance to giving black people reparations is rooted in the objection to black folks getting more than we deserve. At the same time, people will argue that no dollar amount can repay taking away generations of wealth building, education, and property ownership. I can agree with the latter. The former I take issue with because the idea still draws its strength from racism.

The idea that black people can be rich, but not too rich or successful, but not too successful is racist. The feeling of frustration white people have when a black person drives a nicer car or lives in a nicer house than they do, is racist. It’s the age-old demon of black suppression that gave us slavery and Jim Crow, to begin with.

I understand the complexity of reparations. It’s not simple and straight forward. However, people who dig their heels in and refuse to allow us to examine the validity and possibility of repairing the gap between black communities and white communities are ignorant of how history has and still is affecting us. For those folks, there is one question worth considering. Why is there an economic, educational, and imprisonment gap between black and white humans in America?

No one can deny we have a race problem in America, and as I stated above, reparations won’t fix the entirety of the problem, but it’s more of step in the right direction than doing nothing.

 

A Black Man’s Response to Four FAQs From White People Waking Up to Racism

A Black Man’s Response to Four FAQs From White People Waking Up to Racism 760 400 Corey Leak

Here is a list of questions I’m frequently asked about race and racism by white people who are waking up to the realities of racism in America.

“Is ______ Racist?”

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Racism is not easily defined, and it can often be even harder to identify in real time. Is it in the eye of the beholder? If a black person feels like an interaction is racist, does that automatically make it so? I think we can all agree that human beings are capable of misinterpreting situations, but that’s not a license to gaslight black people when they share their stories. The safest way to understand what racism looks like in our daily interactions is to trust POC to identify it.

Usually, when someone asks me if something is racist, it’s because someone accused them of saying or doing something racist. My first question to them is, “who accused you of racism?”. I ask that because I have almost zero interest in what white people consider racist, and I want to make sure that the person who called foul was credible. Part of our healing as a Nation is for white people to position themselves as the pupils of POC, educating them about racism.

If you enter into a conversation or action that makes you feel like you could be wandering into racist territory, chances are, you are wandering into racist territory. You should stop and run to the nearest black friend you have and have a conversation. If you don’t have any close black friends you can have that conversation with…

Maybe start by fixing that.

No ethnicity can claim to be the experts on racism. However, the voices of people who have felt the sting of racism are far more valid than those who have cracked the whip of it. If you want to know if something is racist, ask a close friend and listen to them carefully.

 

“How can we get more diversity at our church?”

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I was having a conversation with a good friend today who told me about a church conference that featured a worship team with all black BGVs and a white worship leader who lead all the songs. I laughed. I don’t know the leaders of the church putting that conference on, but I can infer from what I heard from my friend that this church wanted to appear like diversity was a value to their audience. I’ve had countless conversations with church leaders who want to show the world that they are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-race rainbow of color.

When a church leader asks me how a church can grow more diverse, I encourage them emphatically NOT to do what the leaders putting on that men’s conference did. Unfortunately, a lot of churches unwilling to do the actual work of deconstructing racism, take the short cut of pandering to look like advocates of racial justice. Church leadership has to be willing to put the work in and commit to a long, messy, arduous process. This dirty work requires level five security clearance within the organization, so I inevitably wind up asking a question at the start of the conversation.

“Is the lead pastor committed to change, or is there a sub-committee in charge of helping the church become more diverse?” If the answer is “sub-committee,” I tell them to stop immediately. This project will go nowhere, and if the chair of the committee is deeply passionate about diversity, they should update their resume. Frustrating days are ahead.

The reason for the “abandon ship” advise is not because I’m a pessimist. I’m not. I’m a 7 on the Enneagram, which is The Enthusiast. I believed the Warriors would still find a way to come back and win the championship even after KD and Klay Thompson went down last week. The reason I encourage a shut down of the operation is that unless the leader of any organization is personally passionate about deconstructing racism within their church or business, it will never happen. It’s especially true in a church context. The lead pastor is the primary communicator in 99 percent of church organizations and sets the course for the vision.

To become a diverse church, churches need diverse leadership. For there to be diverse leadership, the white male leader of the church has to be willing to listen to diverse voices and subject himself to hearing prospectives he hasn’t previously given an audience to theologically, philosophically, or practically. I’ve already written pretty extensively in previous blog posts about how frequently white pastors and leaders surround themselves with white male voices. In that echo chamber, how could authentic diversity ever immerge?

If a church is genuinely interested in being diverse, let black singers sing gospel music in a style that resonates with black people. Celebrate Juneteenth (google it), Black History Month, and MLK weekend in significant ways. Hire black leaders and support their leadership by providing the clarity and autonomy that helps them flourish. Make heroes out of black people in history and within the church. DO AWAY WITH DRAMATIC GESTURES. Using black people as props to show the world how anti-racist you are, only makes you look good, and does nothing to tear down the racist structures built up in your church over years of white Jesus taking center stage. Who is centered in the titles “Pastor fights racism by washing black man’s feet” or “White Pastor fights racism by hugging a black man in front of his congregation? Who are the main characters in those stories?

 

“How do I raise my black child as a white parent in a way that safeguards their dignity?”

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White people be adopting black kids!!!

Every parent I know who has adopted black kids or married a POC and had bi-racial children of their own is a wonderful parent, and almost all of them are advocates for racial justice. They have allowed themselves to see the world through the eyes of their children, and it seems to have genuinely changed them. That alone is part of the answer to the question. Listen to your black son tell you how they felt in the grocery store, at church, at school, and on their sports team.  Feel the pain of your black daughter asking you why her hair isn’t like her friends in class, or why none one at school expresses romantic interest in her.

You’re raising black children in environments where they are “the other” EVERYWHERE, including at home.  My wife and I raise our girls in a predominantly white area of the country. It’s difficult, but at least they come home to an environment that celebrates their rich heritage, and we can speak to what they feel from intimate knowledge and experience. Your kids don’t have anywhere they can be free of the emotional toll of being the one person who looks like them in the room unless you’re intentional about surrounding them with other black bodies.

To put it plainly, put your kids in sports that black kids play. Take them to black barbershops and beauty shops. Educate yourself on how to style your black daughter’s hair. Find out what products to use and which ones to avoid. Don’t do it yourself if yourself without educating yourself first. Make sure they learn about Malcolm X, Dr. King, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth. Let them know that they come from a rich heritage. If at all possible, expose them to any of their blood relatives you can find. They need to see who they are through a black lens.

Thank you for loving black babies, and wanting to provide a great life for them. Remember, they are not white. See their color and raise them to see and appreciate it too.

 

“What can I, as a white person do?”

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Share this blog. Read Andre Henry’s work. Follow Andre Henry, Bree Newsome, Angela Rye, Michael McBride, Ben McBride, Christina Cleveland, and myself on social media. Listen before you speak. Don’t argue with black people about their experiences. Speak up when you see or hear something racist happened even when black people aren’t around to applaud you for it. Be our advocates once you’ve done your work to learn history. Be willing to attend a church lead by black people or work for a black boss. Do these things, and I think you’re off to a good start.

Three of Racism’s Most Dangerous Covert Allies

Three of Racism’s Most Dangerous Covert Allies 730 486 Corey Leak

I think it’s safe to say that most people in today’s society try and avoid blatantly racist behavior. Of course, there are examples of blatant racism all around us. We see videos of people using racial slurs toward black and brown people all the time. People still say ignorant things to non-whites like “This is America” or “Go back to your own country.” Underdeveloped (Unconcious) humans like that are not the majority. Most people are sensible enough not to exhibit overt racism in public.

When we talk about racism being an issue in America, we’re usually talking about systemic racism. That’s the kind of racism that no one needs to activate. It was activated the moment the first slaves stepped foot on American soil. Dismantling racism is not about getting rid of ideology alone or waiting for old, white, racist southerners to die off. It’s about much more than that. It’s about naming it when we see it in any form so that we can go about the business of deconstructing the systems that support it.

Almost everyone can recognize outright racism when they see it, but what’s harder to see is how well-meaning and some not so well-meaning people enable racism. Here are three of the most dangerous secret allies of systemic racism.

Sincere Justifications

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I’ve learned that it’s essential for POC to trust their instincts when it comes to racism. If something happens and it doesn’t feel right, 90 percent of the time it’s because it ain’t right. That store clerk didn’t just happen to start stocking the shelves in an empty beauty supply store right as you came in. Yes, that woman was following your family around the Louis Vuitton store until you left. No, it’s not a coincidence that you were passed over for a promotion after you decided to wear your hair natural. Your first instinct was correct. These things were racially motivated.

If you’ve experienced any instances like these and told people about it, there is a decent chance that someone said something like:

“They would have probably done that to anyone in the beauty supply store.”

“I bet they watch everyone at  Louis V. Its probably just standard protocol.”

“Maybe that promotion just wasn’t for you, or maybe the white guy they hired was better suited for the role.”

Statements like these are sincere justifications. Often people offer up alternative possibilities upon hearing of racist interactions as an opioid for the discomfort of racism. However, whose suffering is the opioid for? I would argue it’s more for their pain than for yours. It’s easier to downplay racism than it is to take on the harrowing process of dismantling it.

Justification is always shrouded in good intentions. We tend to use it to give ourselves a pass for missing the mark in one way or another in our own lives. It often makes us feel better about something we shouldn’t be comfortable with.

That’s why justification is such a powerful ally for racism. As long as we can give reasonable explanations for racist behaviors, we can deceive ourselves into believing we’re making more progress than we are. Joining POC in naming and condemning discriminatory practices and racist acts is a step toward deconstruction.

The Black Smuggler

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As you know, whiteness is a construct, not a race. People with black skin are just as capable of participating in anti-black sentiment as people with white skin. Black people aren’t immune to participating in their own oppression, and there may be no more dangerous ally to racism than the black smuggler.

They create a sense of comfort for people who hold racist beliefs. Black smugglers say what white people would say if they weren’t afraid of being called a racist for saying it. The irony is that using black carriers to deliver your racist thoughts is no less racist than saying it yourself.

I cringe every time I see a video of someone black being used to propagate sentiments that keep the racist power structure in place.  What is a more perfect ally for systemic racism than black bodies to express racist philosophy?

When we think about slavery, we think about the racism of the slave owner, but we don’t often bear in mind the aid they received from the house negro. The house negro felt just as much obligation to keep the slaves in line as the master did. A command from “massuh” was just as oppressive and racist in the house negro’s mouth as it was in the slave master’s.

As long as black people are willing to cooperate with racist agenda and propaganda, racism will have an ally that makes racial hierarchy seem legitimate. These outliers from the black community willing to stand in for white people and share their thoughts are a distraction from the work of dismantling cultural structures of racial inequity.

The White Evangelical Church

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This one is tough for me. I’m a pastor. I have worked at several churches and remain committed to the church right now, but the truth is the American church has been one of racisms chief allies for hundreds of years now.

Of course, we all know about how religious people, including clergy, justified, and even advocated for slavery. Dr. King wrote a letter to white clergy from a Birmingham jail cell, calling them out for their apathy toward racism during the civil rights movement. Has the white evangelical church come that far from those days?

As recently as this week, there was a panel of all white male clergy assembled to distance the gospel from social justice, and while there are plenty of white clergymen who would denounce the group as heretical, there are also plenty who do very little to dismantle racism within their churches.

Several churches have done sermons and series on racism, but fail to wrestle with the deep-rooted power dynamics at play within their organizations that keep racism intact within their churches.

This failure to do the deep work required gives churchgoers the false notion that their church is battling racism. When, in fact, their church is not. Paritioners are given little to no tools to recognize racism when they see it in public or within themselves, and as a result, many of them remain racist – bosses, parents, law enforcement officers, teachers, and spouses. The failure of the church to adequately address racism when they are the most equipped morally and theologically to do so is tantamount to standing hand in hand with David Duke, which unfortunately many clergymen throughout history have literally done.

All three of these allies take on the form of well-intentioned attempts at racial reconciliation from time to time. None of the three are evil by themselves, but without the proper examination of what lies beneath their primary motivations, all three are dangerous co-conspirators with racism – masquerading as champions of peace and unity.

The Talk – Part 2 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Poem)

The Talk – Part 2 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Poem) 3000 2000 Corey Leak

We had driven out of the neighborhood, and my mind was working hard to try and answer my daughter’s questions. I knew that she was asking a simple question that had deep philosophical handles. She wasn’t merely asking about this particular neighborhood. She was asking a universal question about race. She was asking about justice.

A few weeks before our visit to the gated community, our daughter came home from a dance and told my wife and me that she was feeling some tension. We asked why, and she went on to explain that she noticed how all of her friends had had at least one boy be interested in them this year. She hadn’t had any. She’s in middle school!!! I’m a dad who hates boys because I have three daughters. (no offense to any boys or parents of sons reading this) So, I was unapologetically glad to hear that I wouldn’t have to go all Bad boys 2 on a middle school boy.

But, I also understood that my daughter was beginning to feel the stinging truth of my dads words. She was feeling unseen, and that feeling was confusing and uncomfortable. She wondered if it was her dark skin that kept boys from expressing interest in her.

She is a beautiful young woman like her two older sisters and her mama. I think she knows she’s pretty, but what teenage girl wants to be the only one in their friend group the boys don’t like? Our daughter wants to know that black beauty, creativity, and work are rewarded. I believe that’s what was lying beneath the questions she asked me while we were driving through that neighborhood.

As a parent, I didn’t want to share truth with my 13-year-old that would leave her feeling hopeless or sad, but I also wanted to be honest. I began by telling her that there aren’t as many black people in America as there are white. I told her that if there are 100 Americans in a room, only 13 of those would be black Americans, and only 2 to 3 of the 100 would be “rich.” That alone makes it tough. How likely is it that one of the 13 blacks would be one of the 2 or 3 rich folks in the room? I honestly can’t tell you why I started there. Maybe it was because I didn’t want her to be bitter or because I didn’t want to blame whiteness right away. Perhaps I wanted to give myself a moment to calibrate emotionally before I told my daughter the rest of the story. For whatever reason, I chose to ease into the talk.

After explaining the math, I shared a brief overview of American history. She had heard it before, but I guess she hadn’t understood what that history had to do with that neighborhood. We talked about slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day racism. She was visibly bothered by it. Her heart is so tender to the world, and she asked me how people could treat other people with such cruelty for no reason at all. I had no answer.

I told her human beings had mistreated other people for stupid reasons since the dawn of time. Still wanting her not to grow up believing white people are evil, I felt like I needed to mention that human beings have all done bad stuff – not just white people. I want her to see the race issue wholistically without giving in to fear and anger. I don’t want her to hate. I don’t want her to be a victim. I also want her to see the world as it is because that’s the only way she will ever have the courage and resolve to work to change it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37eTvNjcaSY

My daughter has wrestled with similar tensions around the flag, anthem, and the pledge.

Seeing the world as it truly is gives us the inspiration to imagine a new one – a better one. I want my children to see the world’s cruelty and beauty. I want them to hear about things like the above stories. I want them to know these things are happening to people who look like them.

I have never given my dad’s speech to my daughters, but life has. School, church, and social media scream loud and clear: “remember, you still a nigga.”

I’m grateful that God has blessed my wife and me with kids who can accept that the world treats them as other, but still hope and dream of a just society. Almost a month before my youngest and I had our talk, she wrote the following poem. It’s the hope of a teenage girl who is fighting to imagine a new world.

“I Wish on the World”

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that people of color don’t get the stares

The loudness that we portray that they can’t bear  

That people of color can be treated equally

And cross the border legally

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that all immigrants can be able to come home

In American streets they can roam

That little kids won’t be taken away from their mothers

And live a life filled with color

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that world hunger would disappear

That the word without turns to fear

As people are sitting by the stores waiting for more

A chance to live life just before

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that self love was a priority

For putting themselves first as an authority

For women to think they are beautiful

And just like men are suitable

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that we as a people would treat the world with kindness,

And clear the blindness

The world that needs love

And that we need to take care of

I wish I wish I wish

I wish that hate could just dissolve

And for us to install

Acceptance as we evolve

I wish I wish I wish

I know our world has beautiful features,

I know our world has magnificent creatures

But what I ask you is,

What do you wish?  

The Talk – Part 1 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Question)

The Talk – Part 1 (A Black Teenage Girl’s Question) 3000 2000 Corey Leak

I remember my dad giving me the talk as a thirteen-year-old boy. It wasn’t a sit-down. It wasn’t an awkward, choppy speech delivered in an uncomfortable tone, and it wasn’t the last time we had the conversation. We were riding home from school one day when my dad looked over at me and said: “Remember, you still a nigga.”

Over the next few years, those words would be a repeated theme from my dad as he taught us how he believed the world would always see us. My dad didn’t want us to be shocked when we would inevitably have a racist encounter with someone in the world. He knew that we were just as likely to experience racism at school, work, church, or at a routine traffic stop. We were young black men, and we needed to be prepared to enter a world that would remind us of our blackness whether we liked it or not.

I used to hate that my dad would say that. As most teenagers do, I thought my dad was out of touch with a changing world. I didn’t want to grow up limited by the belief that racism would be an obstacle for me. I went to Christian schools my whole life with mostly white students, where the Biblical base of our education held explicit racism at bay. I had a lot of white friends that all treated me just fine. I didn’t notice my teachers ever treating me like I was any different than any other student, but my dad was skeptical. He believed that me and my brothers we singled out at school because we were the only black kids in our classes.

In hindsight, I can’t say he was wrong. I wasn’t much of a trouble maker, but I can remember spending a lot of time writing Bible verses on the chalkboard after school and mopping the floors of the classroom in detention. I remember getting in a fight with one of my teacher’s sons. We both threw hands, and only one of us got in trouble for it. You can probably guess who that was.

I can look back on several other experiences like the time Amy, the white girl I had a crush on in elementary school poured her apple juice on the ground and said “there you go” after I asked her for a drink. Or there was the one time in high-school when a white student looked me in my face and called me a “stupid black person.” I laugh at that one because he was racist enough to call me stupid, but not brave enough to call me a nigger. These are the things my dad wanted me to be prepared for.

My dad was trying to communicate with my brothers and me that the world we were growing up in was one where we would be treated as “other.” He grew up during the Jim Crow era. He was a 31-year-old black preacher when Dr. King was killed, and he knew that even though that era had ended, his sons would still have to endure the trauma of not being white in a society that demonized blackness. All the black families in our town would have the same talk about what our blackness means in society. All us black sons and daughters would get the message. We would have to work twice as hard, be twice as educated, speak twice as articulate to make up for the deficit of being considered half as human.

Black families across America have this in common. We have all had to endure the sting of racism at some point or another, and with each new generation, we hope that we won’t have to have the same talk with our kids that our parents had with us. Perhaps someday black parents won’t have to have “the talk,” but as of today, we still do.

Three days ago, I was with my youngest daughter. She’s thirteen. We were attending her end of the year volleyball party inside a gated community here in the Bay Area. As you can imagine, the houses in this neighborhood are breath-taking.

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We drove past one multi-million dollar house after another. She and I would point out any particularly gorgeous homes we saw, and she asked me how much I thought each house was worth. I thought she would have been dreaming of one day living in a neighborhood like this, but when I asked her if she’d want to live there, her answer surprised me.

She told me she would be bored living in a gated community. She said it seemed stuffy. (no offense to any of you who live in gated communities) But, what I think she was really feeling came out in the form of a question she asked me after that. She looked over at me and asked: “Dad, how many black families do you think live here?” I said I’m sure there aren’t that many, but this neighborhood is mostly white. Of course, she wanted to know why, and it was at that moment that I knew I too was about to have “the talk” with my daughter.

To be continued…

 

 

Still Hovering

Still Hovering 1500 900 Corey Leak

By now it’s no secret that I believe institutional racism is a thing. I’ve lost friends over my beliefs that whiteness is the root cause of that racism, and I’m honestly unbothered by the loss. All of the people I admire most throughout history lost friends, followers, and associates over their convictions. I will never have the impact of Jesus, Paul, or Dr. King, but I feel allied with them whenever another person decides that my beliefs about a racially just society are too far gone for them to continue to journey with me.

Like many of my friends who write, organize, create art, or speak out about racial equality and justice, I started out believing my voice was moderate. I never thought anything I was saying was radical or polarizing. Everyone I know using their influence to bring about change in the area of race is stating the truth about their own experiences and the facts about America’s history of racism. That’s why people’s reactions to the truth are often puzzling to me. Mostly I’m taken aback because very frequently the dissenters, detractors, and critics of racial justice work are Christians.

I’m not the only one disturbed by that. People have asked me on a few different occasions about how I can keep a faith associated with chaos like…

  • Slave owners removing pages from the Bible to ensure that their black slaves wouldn’t get any ideas about how God feels about liberation.
  • American Nationalism leading to phrases like

“I kneel for the cross, but I stand for the flag”   

  • White Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, Paula White, and Jon MacArthur making it demonstratively clear that racism is not an issue that Christians should concern themselves with. It’s a distraction from the real issues that Christians should be concerned about like abortion and human sexuality.

There is no sugar coating that the above list is ugly. There is also no denying that people believing themselves to be agents of God have been behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history. Evil has dressed up as good. Racism has hidden behind a cross draped in an American flag. Christianity has come dangerously close to being the religion of white men – white men who build their churches to pander to white women and leave a few pews open for POC so that no one can claim their churches aren’t diverse.

I still believe in the God of the Bible. In large part because of one of the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written.

After the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery, they would need to establish their own identity which in antiquity meant telling the story of how the world and man came to be. Ancient tribes told stories of how the world was made. They would share these stories around campfires and teach them to their children. Origin stories were popular. In some ways, it helped tribes define their identity and define the character of whatever god (s) they worshiped. The Hebrew creation story is not so much about the exact details of how God made the world, but about how ancient Hebrews viewed God and human beings relationship to that God.

Scholars believe that the authors of the book we call Genesis (aka B’resheet) wrote it after God rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression. The poem explaining “the beginning” in Genesis 1 2, and 3 is primarily influenced by what they experienced during their liberation from slavery. It’s no wonder Genesis 2 describes a Divine Being hovering over a chaotic mess from the start of the story. The Hebrew people introduce their God alongside chaos, and that God is not chased off by it. The Hebrew Deity speaks into it.

Perhaps it’s that image of God that keeps me believing despite the messiness of the Christian faith over the years. A story inspired by 400 years of slavery gave us our first glimpse of God. Black people in America should all be able to shout a resounding amen to a story like that!

I believe God is always working, always speaking, and still hovering near chaos. I no longer expect that God eliminates all of life’s messiness. I think Divinity and chaos are found together throughout human history. That’s probably what the liberated, no longer enslaved, Hebrew people saw, understood, and experienced. Throughout their writings of history, poetry, and law they were in and out of exile – always facing turmoil and pain. Many times they blamed God in their books and many times they wrote that God blamed them, but through it all, they continued to believe in the God they saw present next to and inside all of the chaos. I choose to believe in the same God.

America is a strange place for black people. Often church can be even more bizarre. My faith doesn’t rest in America becoming more racially just. I do hope, pray, and work alongside many great activists and leaders for it to be. I don’t believe white evangelical pastors across America will all in unison turn from all forms of white supremacy and racism. I hope and pray that I’m wrong. Even if I’m not, I find myself able to smile at the beauty of a God hovering near the chaos getting ready to speak. Somehow that brings me great comfort and helps me look past the ugliness to trust God’s plan.

 

Why We Must Abandon Whiteness

Why We Must Abandon Whiteness 700 467 Corey Leak

To my white friends out there reading this – You weren’t born white. You learned whiteness.

If you’ve never heard that before, I can imagine you’re feeling any number of emotions right now. You might be angry, confused, offended (which is probably a combo of angry and confused), or maybe you don’t feel anything at all or think I’m out of my mind. Either way, whiteness is a problem we will need to leave behind if we are ever going to move into a future where all humans flourish in the world.

Have you ever noticed how in America the only people groups we classify by their color are “blacks” and “whites”?  We don’t use color to describe Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or Japanese American’s. Some folks use “African American” instead of black, which technically leaves whites as the only people group in America without the hyphen.  We don’t typically hear white people referred to as Scandinavian-Americans, Swedish-Americans, or Dutch-Americans. Why don’t we call all people born in this country simply “American”? I have a theory.

Whiteness is the default culture of America and the culture at the center of American DNA. What we consider exceptional, average, abstract, or acceptable is primarily determined by how it resonates with white culture. Many of my black friends can attest to the low key surprise reactions we get from white people when we speak “articulately.” Intelligence not born out of whiteness is mysterious in a country that centers its dominant culture.

I want to say that whiteness has brought unintended consequences of racial division on our society, but the reality is those consequences were absolutely intentional. I’m not going to deep dive into that long tattered history in this blog. You can do that work if you’d like. All you need to know to read this post is that whiteness is a construct, not a race or ethnicity. 

Whiteness was created to divide America into slave and free, up and down, in and out. The construct helped slave owners bypass the psychological barrier that should’ve prevented them from treating other humans worse than animals. It was a way of picking teams so to speak, Europeans coming into the new land determined that “white” was the team that would win. By default, the “black” team would lose, but probably even more sinister than ensuring blacks would lose; they forced blacks to help build the game that whites would go on to win for centuries.Image result for American Slaves picking cotton

To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” We have racism because we have whiteness. We didn’t come to America black and white. We came to America as people who descended from Europe and Africa – albeit some of us in chains. When slave owners separated us into teams racism was the natural outcome. I’m not black because that’s how God made me. I’m black because whiteness exists. The founding fathers created a system where because there is white there must also be black.

Even after the end of slavery and the Jim Crow laws of the South, whiteness has continued to inform the police, bankers, politicians, judges, teachers, pastors, coaches, and even marketing algorithms who has privilege and who doesn’t. America built all the institutions mentioned above on the concept that white people are superior to all other humans. As long as we have “white” as a category, we will inherently have segregation, injustice, implicit bias, and racism in America. As whiteness is maintained and nurtured, we inextricably continue to strip blacks of the dignity found in our rich history and culture along the way.

Can black as a designation for my ethnicity communicate the fascinating history of my African heritage, culture, and history?  Black is mostly useful to define me as “other” in the United States and cause other Americans to fear me or see me as less than them. It’d be great to abandon blackness, but it’s impossible as long as there is whiteness.

Now, lest there be any confusion, I want to be very clear about what I’m NOT saying.

We should all abandon our ethnicity.

When I talk about the concept of blacks and whites being a human-made construct, I can see how it would be easy to conclude that I’m advocating for abandoning cultural identity. I think it’s a leap, but I can understand why someone one would make that jump. I’m not suggesting that we should forsake cultural identity. I am proposing that whiteness doesn’t enable whites or blacks to carry the dignity and fantastic history of the people from which we derive.

We should call all “black people” African Americans. 

I know that it can be confusing to know what to call a POC. I know some prefer to be called black, others Afro-American, and still others African-American. I don’t speak for all POC. I’m not even sure at this point in history how I want people to describe my ethnicity. I do know that throughout history dark-skinned people in America have redeemed the labels meant to demean us, and used them as terms of brother and sisterhood in our culture. Maybe that’s why many of us have accepted black to describe us even after we’re made aware of the history of that moniker.

It takes a new imagination to move into an unknown future. The work that’s ahead of us is to imagine what a world without our tainted constructs and labels might look like. We have to be willing to see walking away from our toxic history as gain and not a loss. It’s frustrating, scary, and complicated to frame new constructs within a country that has had 200 plus years of entrenched ideas that can sometimes even pose as values. But, if you and I are going to live in a world of dignity and peace, that’s the work we have to be willing to do.

 

What would America look like if we had never had “whiteness” introduced to our ethos? 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Claims that DON’T Prove You’re Not Racist

Ten Claims that DON’T Prove You’re Not Racist 620 330 Corey Leak

There are specific labels in our society that no one wants to be attached to their character. Near the top of that list is the moniker of “racist.” People will go to great lengths to avoid being saddled with that designation. Here are ten claims that don’t prove you’re not racist.

I have black friends.

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This is the most common of all of the false proofs. People faced with the heat of having their racist actions or words challenged site the one black person whose name they can remember to prove that they are not a racist. It’s such an old and tired tactic that in recent years it’s come to be more of a proof of racism than a disclaimer. If you genuinely have friends from different ethnicities, you’re doing them a disservice by trying to hide behind that friendship to avoid sitting with whatever you said or did that offended a person of color.

I helped some at-risk kids.

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I experienced this one a few years ago. I was having a conversation with a woman who was proactively trying to prove to me she wasn’t racist. The funny thing was, I didn’t ask her if she was. We weren’t having a conversation about anything related to race or racism, but she felt the need to start running down her resume of anti-racist behavior. She talked to me about some at-risk kids that use to call her grandma or something like that.

Working in an after-school program, being a big brother or big sister, or babysitting black kids don’t make white people incapable of perpetuating, benefiting from, or participating in white supremacy.

I adopted black kids.

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In the last several years I’ve seen a large number of white parents out with black children. It’s great to see so many black children who don’t have to spend their childhood in foster care, but again, raising black children as your own doesn’t make those parents immune to the disease of racism.

If parents who have taken black children into their home believe that they are unable to be racist, they run the risk of not maintaining the vigilance they will need to avoid parenting their children from a place of whiteness. They will thereby reinforce black oppression in what should be a refuge for black kids who are likely to encounter racism at school, church, or on their sports teams.

I grew up around black people.

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This “get out of racism free card” is rooted in the myth that proximity alone is a cure for racism. I have long been an advocate of being around people different from you. However, if you believe that having grown up around black or brown people has given you a natural ability to be anti-racist, you’re fooling yourself. Some black people who grew up in black neighborhoods participate in anti-black behaviors and ideas.

The mannerisms, expressions, food, and fashion you picked up from your black neighbors didn’t make you unable to hold racist ideas about the capabilities of black people.

I saw Black Panther.

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It was a fantastic movie. Who didn’t see it? Learning how to cross your arms in an “x” and say “Wakanda forever” doesn’t make you an honorary black human, nor does it prove you’re not racist. The opposite could be proven right if you’re a person who felt the need to try and use your ticket stub from that movie as a substitute for doing the actual work of learning to think and live in anti-racist ways.

I listen to rap music.

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Drake from “Degrassi” isn’t vouching for you not being a racist. I’m sure that you feel at home at a JAY-Z and Beyonce concert because – who doesn’t love them some Bay and Jay. It’s cool that you know all the lyrics to the most popular Tupac and Biggie songs and even have a vintage Run-DMC t-shirt. None of that proves that you would be ok with your kid marrying a black girl.

I’m a democrat.

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You stand with the party that 84 percent of black America supports. When it comes to politics, your interests are aligned, but once you leave the ballot boxes with your adopted black kids, bumping Dear Mama, you can still believe that black people earn less overall than whites because they are lazy or that black on black crime is the result of black people being inherently violent.

I voted for Barak Obama.

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For a season of my life, I worked in what felt like the deep south in GA. Before Obama’s first term I was in the office talking with a client. He was an important white client whose business we fought hard to keep. One day as we were getting close to the election, he and I were talking. He started talking about who he was leaning toward voting for. He and I were the only ones in the office, and he looked me dead in my black face and said:

“I have friends who have told me they can’t believe I would vote for a nigger..”

So, yea, voting for Obama doesn’t mean you’re woke, and incapable of otherizing black folks.

I’ve never used the N word.

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Thank God you haven’t. You have no business using it. White people using the n-word with regularity is racist, but it’s not the line of demarcation that separates racist from non-racists. You don’t have to say that black people are n… to believe that they are inherently less intelligent than you are.

I’ve hired black people on my staff.

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In my experience, people who have black people on their team tend to think that they have diplomatic immunity when it comes to saying and doing racist things. I mean, really? White slave owners had black people working for them too. The funny thing is, they didn’t think they were racist either.

Have you ever used any of these claims to exonerate yourself of feeling racist or to shield yourself from being accused of racism?

Why did you feel you needed to?

The Black Card

The Black Card 700 441 Corey Leak

Like most black people who were raised correctly, I grew up playing spades. I played as a teenager and on into my early adult years. My wife and I had a group of friends we would play with, and the games would get so intense that we would lose track of time and miss the evening church service from the firey competition and trash talk. Spades makes you feel the pressure to pay attention to what you’re doing for a couple of reasons. First of all, being bad at spades brings great shame to your family. Secondly, you have to pay attention so that you don’t renege. Lastly, you have a partner that is counting on you.

I’ve reneged plenty of times in my life. I’ve seen people almost come to blows over how somebody played their cards, and I’ve suffered the painful embarrassment of not playing my hand as well as I should. Spades is serious business! We play it, but it’s not a game!

There are different rules people use when they play spades. Some play with Jokers as the high cards and others with the 2 of diamonds and hearts as the top cards, but either way, you don’t want to mismanage the highest card in the game. Whatever the specific rules are you’re playing with, there is one card that trumps all. Playing it at the wrong time can cost you the game and possibly reveal that you’re not that great at spades and should have never been born.

There is a lot of drama around the spades table, especially when somebody doesn’t know when to use their trump card. Your partner, as well as the inevitably gathered crowd around the table, are all watching to see how you will play your cards. That can add complexity to what should be pretty straightforward. I find that knowing when to play the black card can cause similar angst.

Unfortunately, the act of bringing attention to race as a factor in a social dynamic has been reduced to a trivial exercise of gamesmanship – as if raising the issue of race is only a tactical effort for black people to evade personal responsibility. I find it interesting that we don’t accuse white people of playing the race card. Our culture usually reserves that claim for people of color trying to grasp for equal footing in a world that assumes that all races are an offshoot of whiteness.

The irony is that race is a conjuring of racism. The concept of race was only instituted to give racists a way of knowing who the good guys are from the bad. (I’ll admit that I have been wrestling with how we label ourselves ever since I stumbled upon that information, but that’s a conversation for another day.) We balk at people calling attention to racial injustice, discrimination, or cultural insensitivity because we are afraid that life will be harder when we have to pay attention to how our actions might affect someone else. It is embarrassing to be called out for lacking the awareness of how our words or actions may have negatively affected someone with a different cultural or ethnic background, but it’s a mistake to try and transfer that embarrassment to the victim in a pathetic attempt to relieve ourselves of the burden of change.

Too often in our society, we demonize people for having the courage to share their story. Black men and women across America bite their tongues and look the other way because they don’t want to “play the black card” and be labeled as angry or too focused on race. Some of us have been told that playing that card is an excuse to get an easy win, and as a result of that ideology legitimate claims of racial tension are too easily dismissed. A friend of mine once said we couldn’t play the black card enough. I’m inclined to agree, and here’s why.

I’ve had enough conversations with white men about race in the last few years to know that it’s never been harder to be a white man in America. That may sound like something that should engender sympathy for our white brothers, but that’s not my intention. I use the term “harder” as a genuinely comparative term. America has been oriented around the whims and concerns of white men since her conception, so it’s never been as hard to be a white man in America as it is to be black. That’s how the colonizers designed race. It was intended to establish who would sit at the top of the food chain in American culture, and that seat has read “White’s Only” for most of America’s history. Today we are challenging that notion. Through the work of civil rights activists 50 years ago on through to today, we have seen a change in how we view race. We have recognized that black isn’t evil or worse than white. How have we come to that conclusion?  Courageous black men and women throughout history have dared to play the black card.

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Whenever there is an inclination that something may be off because of racial dynamics, we should stop and evaluate it. If that means that people with power have to be more sensitive, then so be it. It says that we create space for people to voice their tensions about how they are being talked about, treated, or disregarded. No one should feel unsafe sharing their truth with the world.  Just societies don’t penalize the marginalized for calling attention to their plight.

I’ve admittedly been reluctant to play the race card as if doing so is akin to reneging in a hotly contested game of spades, but lately, I’ve been challenging myself to trust my instincts more. I’ve permitted myself to share my truth, and I’ve been better for it. You’ve been better for it. I’ve realized it’s not my problem if someone responds negatively to me expressing the tension I feel over something they said or did that was culturally tone deaf. I’m realizing that I cheat my community out of the opportunity to grow if I keep my cards to myself.

The black card is not an excuse to get things to go my way. it’s not an easy out. If people in power will learn to accept the awkward tension it brings, we will find ourselves making progress in our society we never thought possible.