Afraid his earnest plea will be taken in a negative way, activist Larry Swetman faces his fear and asks for an open dialogue on race.
I recently read an article written by a dear friend, Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris, on race relations that moved me deeply. I had such a poignant mixture of emotions to what he wrote that initially I honestly didn’t how to respond. However, I’d like to. I’d really like to engage in this conversation in the public forum and I think that was the point of his article so I have decided to write, but before I begin I want to take his advice and check my privilege at the door. I recognize that my having a voice in this forum on this issue on this Internet with these words takes place in a context and there are many experiences within that context that I cannot speak to, understand, judge, or for which I have the ability to empathize. However, I write this with a hope—perhaps naïve—that I can add something constructive to the conversation. With that said I sincerely hope what I have written here will be taken in the spirit that I have intended it—love.
I am a white male who grew up in neighborhoods that were occupied predominately by people of color. As such I have had a unique experience that I find difficult to talk about these days with white folks and people of color given the systematic structures of oppression that exist that keep me and people who look like me on top by default. However, in Atlanta (where my growing up happened) I found myself in many conversations with people of color about their experiences with oppression. They were never held in forums, town halls, or meetings on community relations. We were just kids talking about life.
In elementary school I remember we talked alot about Dr. King’s dream of “sitting down together at the table of brotherhood” and what that meant. We were told the stories of what happened to black folks throughout American history (albeit the condensed, watered down, barely recognizable versions of history that are easier on the privileged stomach), but also that we were to treat each other equally without bias. Therefore, as I grew up I tried to engage folks on these issues. It was never a problem for me to talk about race with people of color or other white folks. I knew shit was fucked up. I saw it. My friends went through it every day and told me about it. It was an open secret that the world treated some people different. My job—it seemed to me—was not to act like the world, but to do my best to sit at that table of brotherhood and talk with the folks sitting there with me about what to do about it.
Later, I moved to Lookout Mountain, GA/Chattanoooga, TN where I attended a Christian college (that in and of itself being a privilege seeing as how LOTS of people from where I am from where not given the same opportunity [I went to school on scholarships]). I will spare you a lot of details but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of my time there in Churches devoted to racial harmony because they were convinced that—as it is written—“there is neither Jew nor Gentile because [Jesus] broke down the dividing wall of hostility in his flesh.” (Ephesians 2:13-18) Now, I know that there is a lot of historical context to explore in that passage and I will gladly do that with anyone who would like, but for our purposes here we took it as a command to be a new people; a new race; a holy race… if not in the world, at least in the Church. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we tried. We tried really hard by attempting to be upfront and honest and about our fears, inclinations, assumptions, hopes, and dreams. Now, when I moved to Philly and got involved in the activist scene everything changed …
One poignant example was one of the electrified general assemblies that I facilitated early on at Occupy Philly. A few people of color came to the front of the assembly and demanded the microphone to address a couple of pressing issues they had with our camp. I gave it to them. They accused the Occupy movement of purposefully practicing racism and berated our lack of attention to the causes of the traditionally marginalized. As you might imagine this caused an uproar. When I was given the mic back I attempted to calm the crowd by saying “We aren’t racist here!” Two women—one of which who I have worked very closely with since—yelled back “yes, we are!” I didn’t know how to respond. I was flabbergasted. “Why?” I thought to myself. I was operating under the assumption that we were going to act and be the change we wanted to see in the world. I couldn’t imagine anyone there saying that they wanted to be racist so I couldn’t understand their reasoning.
Since, I have come to understand their point. They were telling me and the crowd that racism is inherent and systematic. It is—as a close friend of mine likes to put it—a poison that we can’t help but breathe. Like the folks who brought their concerns to the general assembly, they were trying to instill in me and us the fact that there are systematic structures that inhibit certain people groups from achieving X, Y, and Z in America that mold our actions and who we are. What I still don’t understand is why we are content to let this poison kill us.
The Apostle Paul likened the Holy Spirit to a down payment of things to come in the new world (Ephesians 1:13-14). In other words the very Spirit of God would come upon believers to empower them to be able to live a resurrected life that was a reflection of the world to come which would be characterized by love, righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17). In other words: (through the Spirit) be the change you want to see in the world. My naive belief was that we, at Occupy Philly’s Dilworth Plaza encampment, were trying to model the world we wanted to see. I facilitated as many, if not more, general assemblies than anyone there and I, nor my fellow facilitators, ever—to my knowledge—purposefully prioritized a white male voice over traditionally marginalized and/or oppressed peoples. On the contrary, we tried our best to act (and structure general assemblies) in such a way to empower those voices. Did it work perfectly? No. Hell, no. But was it a step in the right direction?
Here is my issue: I think that purposeful practice of the world we want to see and open dialogue about that world is progress. I think that babies taking their first steps to walk are something to be celebrated not lamented because they cannot run marathons right away. However, so many of my activist friends are so compelled to call out racism that it is all they can see. They are so overwhelmingly convinced of the presence of the poison that they can’t smell the fresh air, even when they are temporarily immersed in it. There have been times in activist circles when I have been lambasted for parading my privilege like I don’t know I have it when I have been thinking about these issues my whole life and living and loving among many loved ones suffering from it, but I am reprimanded in the moment. By merely expressing an unpopular question (such as “Can we talk about this? Can you help me understand?”) I have been told that I am exercising my privilege and not taking into accounts the feelings and experiences of the oppressed. More times than I can count I have been told by activist people of color: “It’s not my job to help you understand your privilege—talk to other white people about it.” Then how am I (and we, for the matter) to understand? Can the blind lead the blind?
I was taught in Church and in school to love people. It is a spiritual issue for me. But how am I supposed to interact with the issue of systematic racist institutions and attempt to dismantle them over time when every time I attempt it I am put in a box? (The irony of the question does not go over my head) How am I to be an ally when I ask a question and the only answer is “that’s not my job to figure that out for you—talk to other white people”? What if none of us know? How are the privileged supposed to dismantle racism in a way that reflects the community of the oppressed if the oppressed don’t give us guidance? Even if I developed the perfect response to the racist regime it would still be the workings of a white male who has been given a voice on the issue without asking for it.
All of this is why I loved Chris’ article. I think that anyone who would call him out with negative titles should look at themselves in a mirror before they pass judgment. I am not a perfect man, far from it. Neither is Chris. But I call that man “brother” because I have the naive belief that we, as people, can make a choice to not be held captive by our pasts but can run to the future together as one because we have purposefully broken down the dividing wall of hostility with our love. If the institutions that America has built are racist then I choose revolution, but I can’t do it alone. And I will never know who my comrades are if I cannot talk to them about these issues. Fear is a powerful tool. I believe “the Man” knows that well which is why he keeps the well-intended divided. But only love will save us; only love can break down the dividing wall of race; only love will bring us together. Whether we choose to practice love is a daily decision– and not an easy one because history HAS been unfair; it has enslaved; it has oppressed. But can we do better? I hope so. If not on an institutional level (yet) then at least on a personal level. I’ll be waiting at the table of brotherhood for anyone who would join me. I believe this is what Chris is trying to say: let’s talk about it openly and honestly until we dismantle the ubiquitous foundations of racism together. Can we?
I submit this to you with the utmost humility. Honestly, I’m scared. I’m afraid this will be taken in a negative way; will be seen as just another expression of privilege; and will be an inhibition to progress. But I don’t have a choice. I am so tired. I am so tired of being alienated from my brothers and sisters because of a world that was built without my permission. I submit this to you in the hope that in the spirit of love we will overcome.
Photo: C. Norris