Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review of "The Trouble I've Seen"

Before I dive into what I love about this book, let me give you a little background on my relationship with racial justice. Also, I am a fairly affluent white woman, which means I rarely get to see the negative side of these issues. This also means I am not an expert on racial justice in any sense. What it does mean is that I am becoming more and more aware of the unwarranted privilege that I receive in abundance, and trying to find ways to make sure I don't get special treatment - that everyone has the ability to have the opportunities that I get every day.

I grew up in Des Moines, IA (and yes, Des Moines proper, not West Des Moines, Johnston, Ankeny, or any of that nonsense). Because of where my home is, I went to King Elementary for the first 3 years of elementary school, and then finish the last 3 at Perkins. King Elementary, named after Martin Luther King Jr, was expected to talk about civil rights and racial justice more than your average elementary school. Even to this day, I'm amazed at the lack of knowledge on the Civil Rights Movement and other events leading up to it present in my fellow Iowans. It just always made sense to me growing up why it was so important, that I couldn't understand why anyone else wouldn't put it as a critical piece of our education.

Continuing my education, I went to Callanan Middle School and Roosevelt High School. It's safe to say that being a white person at those schools, you were in the minority. That was never a problem. Honestly, I never thought about it until after I graduated and starting talking to more people who grew up outside of Des Moines. The vast amount of languages spoken in those schools is astounding. In both schools you really do get people from all walks of life. We had the wealthy kids from South of Grand, to the kids who lived closer to the school that didn't always have it as good.

In high school, since I was very involved at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church, I got the opportunity to take many mission trips to Jackson, Mississippi. These trips were probably the biggest catalyst to my passion in racial justice. Growing up, I was surrounded by diversity, and it was great! Racism was over, all the problems were solved, and life was good. When you go to a poor black city in the south, your opinion changes on that. The biggest lesson I learned that has stuck with me to this day was when two ladies were trying to open a coffee shop next to the church we worked with in Jackson. The black lady would constantly call banks, trying to get a loan for the shop, but was always denied. The white lady then called one of the same banks, with the same application, and was actually approved! Funny how that works.

Now recently, I've felt really empowered by a lot of things going on around me. The ELCA is starting to feel the counter current of #decolonizeLutheranism, my current church is involved with the community coalition, who has many goals including improving race relations in Champaign-Urbana, and you know, there's this little thing going around the country called #BlackLivesMatter and all the controversy surrounding the killings of unarmed black men and women, but that's a story for another day.

So, long story short, when I saw this book The Trouble I've Seen, I knew I had to read it. The ELCA is one of the whitest churches in America, at about 96% white according to Pew Research Center. Yikes. Even Missouri Synod is doing better than us (by 1% but still). This didn't make any sense to me. The ELCA is one of the most inclusive denominations out there, at least on paper. What's going wrong?

Well here are a few takeaways I got from this book:

#1 Race isn't really a thing. I mean, think about it. I had this problem growing up. In Des Moines, we had a large population of Bosnians come before/during/after the war. There was a common theme of "I'm not white, I'm Bosnian." This confused a lot of us. They were literally straight from Europe, where white people come from. If they weren't white, who is? (this was also middle school logic, so I apologize to anyone who doesn't like how 12 year old me thought. She was kind of naive). Now, it makes sense. Their skin was similar to mine, but they didn't feel like they quite fit in. Drew G. I. Hart makes a great point about this. Who gets to be white always changes, depending on how well it "helps the cause." Irish, Italians, Jews, and other "white" people sometimes don't make the cut. Even trying to define black or African-American can be confusing too. Not every black person in America has African decent, and not every person with African decent looks black. People from Morocco look white, but would technically be African-American if they moved here. Race doesn't make any sense, unless your white and get the benefits of it.

Now, I will put a disclaimer that I don't think having race is always a horrible thing that we have in society. We can use it to see things like black men are more likely to be imprisoned than white men. Is it a perfect system? No, but it at least gives us a way to see where the problems are a lead us to solutions. But, if you don't work for Gallop, maybe you just shouldn't focus on it.

#2 We all do a lot of racist things unknowingly. We can only help what is ingrained in us so much. I still catch myself getting nervous if I'm out in my own neighborhood and see a black guy approaching me. Now I know more than likely he's just out being in the area just like I am, but I'm still at the point where I have to remind myself of that, fighting what society has taught me.

Now on the flip side, I've also seen my privilege through unknowingly racist actions. For instance, when I went to Target, I went to try on clothes, but I had a basket with maybe one or two things in it. I asked if I should set it down before going in to try on the clothes, but the attendant told me, "no, I trust you." What? You don't know me, I thought. I would never steal anything, but she doesn't know that. But, that's one of the perks of being a young white woman in America. I seem trusting in our society.

Now, when we do things like this, does that make us a racist? Not necessarily. I would argue we all have a little racism in us because of how our society is currently constructed. Now, the issue is whether you embrace that racism and build on it, are apathetic to it, or try to fight it and change society.

#3 Assimilation is a big problem Hart makes many points about what he's had to learn about white culture in order to be successful in America. Think about it - literature is filled with white authors, the history we learn in school always has a Eurocentric bias to it. When you learn about African culture, its always either an elective, or a special chapter in the whole book. Most of the time, you can get through life without knowing about the history of black music, but you almost always need to know white, European history of music. Since whiteness is currently at the top of the racial hierarchy, white culture is what is what is the "norm," what we perpetuate. Us white folks don't notice it, because its what we're used to, and its all valuable information to us. But just like how a reporter innocently stated that Sam Querrey was the first American to reach Wimbledon semi-finals since 2009, we forget Serena Williams. The reporter was focused only on the male half of tennis, just like we focus on white culture and forget about all the other great and important things that go on in the world.

This overflows into church. Lutherans have a history of being of Northern European decent and being proud of it. Things like "You know you're Lutheran if you have green jello salad at every potluck." Even with the Reformation 500 coming up, we've been EXTRA German this year. Now don't get me wrong, being a German I love a good Oktoberfest and seeing other traditions carry on, but just because Luther was German doesn't mean we are ALL German. We expect people who come to our churches to buy into this tradition, and don't always make room for new ones.

A good example of this is Shrove Tuesday. Since I am a Midwestern German Lutheran, it was a shock when I first came to Champaign and didn't know what Shrove Tuesday was. I'm told it's a tradition from England full of pancakes and even sometimes jump roping and lots of other things, held the night before Ash Wednesday. I'm a card holding member of the Lutheran club, and even I didn't know what this was. I can't imagine what that would look like for someone outside of the club. Now I love my church, and I think its great that they have these traditions everyone loves. However, if we do something as simple as re-naming it to a Mardi Gras celebration, it would make a lot more sense to newcomers. I could be wrong, but who doesn't know about Mardi Gras?

Long story short, we do a lot of things in society and in church especially where we don't realize we are excluding people and their culture. We focus on the fact that we like what we're doing and its great that we don't always take the time to look at it from an outsiders perspective.


Sorry, this one can get me fired up.

But really, the whole point is to LISTEN. You may not understand someone else's story, but that doesn't make it any less valid. Like my Dad, he thinks the Packers are the greatest team in America. He's wrong. The last Superbowl proves that my Patriots are the best in America. That still doesn't make his passion for his team any less valid.

But we can make this point with a more extreme case. I had a friend that I grew up with. We both went to the same schools growing up, lived in the same neighborhood, similar family structure. I am now working in the church, while he died from a heroin overdose. How did that happen? Now, just because I have never even been around heroin, doesn't mean he only made dumb choices and that's how he got there. Who knows how that track started. Maybe he thought it would make him look cool, maybe he had more demons he had to deal with that we will ever know, and that was his only way to escape them. Somehow, things happen and tragedy follows. It's too simple to say he had all the same resources I did, so must have just been a bad kid. No. If you ask anyone, he was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. He was a great friend to every single person he knew. His story isn't less valid because him and I made different choices in life. He isn't worse or better because of his vices verses mine. It would be wrong to think otherwise.

It's easy to think this way when it comes to race, especially in an urban Midwest setting. "But I went to high school with guys like that, there's no reason they should be getting arrested more unless there was good reason for it," or "Why should they get more scholarships? I figured out how to pay for college on my own." Everyone has a different story, and different struggles. Just because you have different struggles doesn't make theirs any less real.

#5 Jesus was here for the outcast and oppressed, and we should be too. Our society keeps a lot of people down. Jesus never said, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that's what I did." Instead, when 5000 people show up, he finds a way to feed EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

My favorite quote from this book was, "We are not seeking to merely be the church for the poor and oppressed... we hope to be the church of the poor and oppressed." I've never been to a church that didn't think helping the poor was a top priority, but I've been to many churches where there doesn't seem to be much variety in socio-economic status. Everyone is more than happy to lend a hand, but are you willing to open your doors, too?

I think same can be said for racial disparity. I would never classify any of the churches I've been to as "racist," but at the same time, the pews tend to look awfully white. That's why I think things like Decolonize Lutheranism is so important. First we need to recognize our own bias, that sometimes we lean on our Northern European heritage a little too much, which doesn't feel too welcoming to those who aren't of Northern European heritage. Does that mean we should stop singing A Mighty Fortress? By no means! But we need to be be conscious of those song selections, of our events and how we promote them, and how we truly connect with the community around us. Are we here just to help the community, or are we here to be a part of the community? Jesus is here for everyone, and the Lutheran church should be here for everyone, too.

So, overall, this is one of my new favorite books. I will warn people that this is not a light read. This should not be your first book when starting to understand race relations, especially in the church. He is not mean or condescending in this book, but he is very honest. Sometimes that honesty is hard for people to accept. He even shares how during one of his invitation-only meetings he had on race relations, a white woman found her way in anyways and was upset about the conversation going on around her. She thought she had a firm understanding on race relations, but was still very much a rookie. Don't be this woman. Go in with an open mind, and a willingness to learn and improve, and this book will definitely be worth your time.

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