“What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin addicted? That’s why Donald Trump is essential. People think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling. I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia who feels like they’ve been eradicated — because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday, because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.” -Ruby Sales, Civil Rights Activist and Public Theologian
Every Sunday morning at around 6am, I hear a thud on my doorstep. I love hearing that predictable thud because I know the NY Times is waiting just outside, and the Sunday Times means I’m about to do nothing all day but sit around my house and read the paper with a cup of coffee and some music. This past Sunday was my dad’s birthday though, so the paper would have to wait. I grabbed it and brought it inside and was struck by a cover headline that read; “One son, Six Hours, Four Overdoses: A Family’s Anguish”. The photo showed an emaciated man, eyes closed with a slight lean, hugging a young woman. The caption beneath the photo read; “Patrick Griffin with his sister Betsy and a father, Dennis, after an intervention. He got high during it.”
The photo is striking.
Anyone who has witnessed opiate addiction will recognize Patrick’s lean. A place between consciousness and unconsciousness-alive, but not here. Patrick also looks like a cousin of mine who struggles with addiction and woke up recently to find his boyfriend lying next to him dead from a fentanyl overdose. Another cousin is currently relapsed and missing. Nobody’s heard from him in weeks.
My family is no stranger to addiction. I am a sober person myself. But seeing this photo and thinking about my family in North Carolina was jarring. It moved me to ask myself some difficult questions about my life and the nature of my work as an educator.
Why am I so disconnected from my people? Do I see myself as different from, or better than my family in the south? What is my role with other White people in my work?
Do I love them enough?
I have thought a lot about the quality of my love as a White educator over the years. I’ll never forget Giselle, a Dominican student of mine from the Bronx. Giselle was the most gifted actress I had ever seen. I pushed her to audition for prestigious dance companies and for feature films. I invited talent scouts from top theater schools to come and see her performances. When she turned down a scholarship from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts I felt betrayed. I could not understand her choice. In one moment of frustration she said; “MISS! I’M NOT YOU!”
I loved Giselle, there is no doubt. We remained close for many years, well into her adulthood. But the quality of my love for her was poor in those early years. It was selfish and centered in my own ego. It was stifling and layered with Whiteness; savior complex, assimilationism, paternalism.
I find that a lot of my work now with other White educators comes from a place where I am assessing the quality of our love. When we work with young people of color, where is our love coming from? What is it rooted in and what is its impact? Is our love grounded in ego superiority, or pity? Or is our love spiritual- grounded in the understanding that we are connected to one another in a sacred human bond?
I’ve been moved recently by an interview with Civil Rights Activist Ruby Sales called Where Does It Hurt? Ruby Sales is a public theologian who advocates for the role of spirituality in anti-racism and healing from White supremacy. Ms. Sales contemplates what she calls the materializing of the Civil Rights era, meaning the reduction of its impact to its material gains, while ignoring its spiritual significance.
According to Ms. Sales; “And what that meant was that generations of young African American children were pushed to achieve this mission, and we sent them into places that were unsafe, where they were humiliated and their egos were decimated in structures. As Toni Morrison said, ‘Out there, they don’t love our children.’”
This is such a powerful sentiment. Because the ‘they’ in Toni Morrison’s statement is us. And how do I know that we don’t love young people of color enough? Because we love our own people even less. Ms. Sales goes on to say:
And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.
And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology [for Whites] that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.
I often say that Whiteness loves to close the door of learning behind itself. This is especially true in anti-racism work. This competitiveness of who’s more “woke” is deeply rooted in White-centered capitalism and our implicit and inherited need to compete with the other. With that said, I need to make a new commitment to the quality of my love. And I need to make that commitment to my family, and to other White folks. Otherwise I cannot expect my love to do anything but harm the young people I work with.
Ms. Sales and other theologians often assert the idea of a recommitment to sacred community. When I read HumbleVito’s New Year’s post about hard truths I was made to think about what it is I really want to commit to this year. Thanks to Ruby Sales, and a real look at my own people who are suffering, I believe I finally have a vision.
I think the vision for us White folks could be grounded in the idea of going home. That might be literal, like it has been for me in the past few years as I try to rekindle and build anew my relationships with my family in the south, and my ancestry in Ireland. I think it can also be a more figurative calling- one rooted in the idea that as Whiteness gets smaller (which is so important) White people will need to find a home in identities outside of the power and domination that Whiteness represents. So when I’m leading White affinity groups, my line of questioning is usually scaffolded around these inquiries:
- What does Whiteness mean to you?
- If you were to notice your Whiteness on a given day, where would you see it?
- Who were your people before they were White? What did they value? How did they gather?
- Who are you without your Whiteness?
There is another theologian who I follow closely named Padraig O’Tuama. Padraig talks a lot about the idea of shelter. In Irish, the word for shelter, foscadh, also means shadow. There is an Irish saying, “It is in the shelter of one another that we live”, which, with that translation, could also mean “It is in the shadow of one another that we live”. This truth is profound. Are we, as White folks, each other’s shelter or shadows?
To move towards antiracism and away from White supremacy once and for all, I would charge us all, myself included, to move from shadow to shelter and improve the quality of our love.