Conflict Builds Character: A Family Conversation About Race

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My own family situation was unique. As many good Mennonites do, my aunts and uncles, like my grandmother, adopted and there was no child left behind. Of course what this meant is there was some additional shades of color at family reunions and it had always seemed like this wonderful idyllic thing. And it certainly did help in the regard that it gave some children the privilege of a stable home and also likely helped us other cousins to humanize those of different color from our own.

But with this also came a negative side. Believe it or not, good little Mennonite children can also be vicious racists, being of a different skin color did indeed make that a focal point of conflict and I wonder how many seeds were planted then that fed insecurities that we all deal with and yet would be felt especially acutely by those adopted? My own feelings of not belonging did not have that one focal point, that specific thing that could be identified as a source, and yet I was still the “black sheep” regardless.

Still, I had the opportunity to talk to another self-identified “black sheep” of his family, my cousin Isaac, who like me, had a foot in two different cultures. He would spend most of the year with his white family in rural Pennsylvania, his parents my first cousins, and would also spend time with his black family in the inner-city of Philadelphia during the summer. Of course this gives him a very unique perspective on racial issues and definitely a voice worth listening to. So, when we started to argue about recent events, both of us talking past each other, he called and this is the result.

My Voice Doesn’t Matter

Taking a step back, Isaac and I are a different generation. I’ve been struggling, over the past few years, with feelings of betrayal for having embraced the ideal of racial equality and all that nonsense (which isn’t actually nonsense) about judging each other by the content of character rather than the color of their skin. Racism always seemed silly to me. What did it really matter what skin a person wore so long as they treated me decently, right? And that’s just how I would assume that most rational and sane people think. Unfortunately things are more complicated than that and that is what is creating conflict across this great nation.

My grievance started years ago, with something that I witnessed over and over again and maybe is best captured in a story from my school years when a mother, black, got on to the bus and screamed in the face of our bus driver, calling him “racist” and “redneck,” nasty things. Why? Well, he had had the audacity to apply the same standard, established for the safety of her children as much as all of us, but apparently the only thing she could see was that this white man (now beet red) was somehow mistreating her perfect darling angels for trying to impose a little order. The rest of us sat in stunned silence, the poor farmer working for a pittance was not a sophisticated man nor equipped for this kind of conflict nor were the rest of us.

That was one of many similar incidents where us polite people had to simply keep our mouths shut as some other folks got a free pass for their misbehavior. Polite culture means we avoided causing a scene, that we look the other way when the impolite people fight and basically do whatever it takes to avoid conflict. Conflict over the slightest perceived insult was the realm of bullies and other insecure people. We did not wish to be browbeat and berated ourselves. Our own grievances with this mistreatment would be mocked and belittled anyways, so we kept our heads low and did whatever it took to accommodate those less polite.

A few years, during the Obama presidency, many took issue with the massive expansion of government called by the misnomer Affordable Care Act. Of course, as a consistent fiscal conservative and one keenly aware of the costs, along with unintended consequences, of expanded government power, I was opposed. Many Americans did peacefully protest and yet, almost immediately, they were branded as racist by the media. I was appalled. But at least a black friend, a progressive, with a good education, would treat my own concerns as valid, right? It ended up being one of the most disappointing conversation of my life. A man, who already intimidated me for his advantages, dismissed my points with personal insults.

It was in that conversation and several others, after Obama’s call for dialogue about race, that I found out my own voice and experience didn’t matter in this ‘conversation’ about race. If I did not accept everything on their terms then I wasn’t understanding or lacked in empathy, which is absurd and definitely not terms that I would ever agree with in any other discussion. Nevertheless, it was what was, my skin color automatically disqualified my opinion, my attempts at consistently applied principles didn’t apply to their grievance, and I’ve always left feeling unheard. That’s the experience for many who don’t go 100% along with the protest narrative. Our voice didn’t matter.

A Time When Silence Is No Longer An Option

Over the past few years I’ve become a professional (yet hopefully harmless) agitator. After years of being a polite person or at least trying, wanting to go along with the Mennonite program, and finally it had just become too much. I had been told I was respected, affirmed in many ways, followed the rules, mostly, or to the best of my abilities and felt the other side of this social contract wasn’t holding up their own end of the commitment. My grievance had become too much to bear any longer and thus began my blogging here. It eventually boiled over and led me to leave my Mennonite tribal identity behind or at least to the extent that is possible.

But this emancipation was not complete. There was one topic, given past experience and potential loss of friends, that I avoided as much as possible. The politics of race, meaning the discussion of things related to measuring out justice and governance, is a third rail for those who wish to think outside of the established and acceptable narrative. As oppressed as some claim to be, the oppressed sure do dominate conversation, they have governors breaking their own shutdown orders to march, celebrities speaking out in solidarity and big corporations affirming their message without any word about the accompanying violence. If only I could be so oppressed.

It was with cities burning, small owners being beaten for defending their livelihoods, with my polite friends seeing “animals” and a growing number people dying in the violence, that I decided to take off my own filter and say enough is enough!

Everyone up to President Trump himself had acknowledged the injustice of George Floyd’s death. We had an opportunity for solidarity against police brutality, the officer was charged, and yet, after what seemed like a full validation of the concern, the protests only picked up steam. I might be a polite person, who avoids conflict when possible, but I don’t want to be beaten to death on account of my skin color more than anyone else and certainly was not going to wait untill the violence had reach my own doorstep to speak out. No, nobody asked me to mediate or broker a conversation. I knew that those on the ‘other side’ would likely tune me out, maybe even unfriend or unfollow me, and started my own form of protest.

The racially divisive narrative was a lie. Police brutality is a problem. The death of George Floyd is, by all appearances, an injustice. I have no problem with those who, on their own time and dime, without violating the rights of others, wish to protest. I know well the reality of racism, both historically and in the current year. And yet to frame everything of what happened in Minnesota in terms of race simply ignores reality and this sort of assumption about what happened will lead to anything but justice. If we were allowed to have an intelligent discussion on matters of race, if I had a partner in that discussion willing to see another perspective, I could explain.

The Call

Anyhow, it was in the midst of speaking out that someone with connection to me since childhood decided to speak back. That being my cousin Isaac. And it went predictably, online, as one would expect, I was “missing the point” and this first round came to a stalemate, with us moral posturing and might have ended there had Isaac not reached out with a phone call. It didn’t feel, at the end of an hour or so, that we agreed on too much. We had our times of animation, talking over each other, and emotion. But the reality is that we accomplished far more in our willingness to engage and so I did want to summarize a little of what I saw as significant, what I heard, where we agreed and where as diverged.

1) Not About George Floyd

The one thing that Issac and I seemed to agree on is that that this was not about only the death of George Floyd. In his view, this is about racial unjustice and draws upon his own experience of finding out what it means to be black as a teenager. He spoke of the fear that black (presumably men in particular) have in their encounters with police, the profiling he suspects when entering into white communities and some of the racist language he has encountered.

The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, that being his violent criminal record, his being on drugs and passing forged currency were inconsequential in his opinion. And I agree that this doesn’t make any difference as far as the guilt or innocent of Derek Chauven and the other officers. But where I diverge from Isaac is where he claims this death makes him equally vulnerable, as a black man, whereas I believe that criminal behavior and repeat negative encounters with law enforcement are going to dramatically increase the chances of dying at the hands of police.

So we agreed that it is not about George Floyd. But I see the only reason that we are talking about this case, as a nation, is because of Floyd is black and not because of the injustice.

2) Black Lives Is Not About Black Lives, But All Lives?

Isaac took issue with me saying that this was all about black tribal identity and racial solidarity, but was actually about police brutality and justice for all people. But, while saying this, he also defended the “Black Lives Matter” description and claimed it was a movement to respect all lives.

However, if this were truly the case, I postulated, why do we only have protests, riots and looting when it is a black man involved?

Why didn’t millions of Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets and demand instantaneous prosecution of the black officer, Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed 40-year-old white woman in July of 2017?

Why did I never hear about the final desperate calls of a young man named Tony Timpa? “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!”

Timpa cried out thirty times, as officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck down, and joked over his body as he slipped away in 2017? Why no outrage over the officers only being charged with misdemeanors and then having those charges dropped?

Could it be because Timpa was white?

And, finally, why did it not matter when Daniel Shaver, a 26 year old man on a business trip, in 2016, was shot five times, while crawling in compliance with police demands and having committed no crime?

His killer was acquitted, even briefly reinstated as a police officer just so he could receive a pension and nothing burned. Nobody said much of anything.

Why?

I know what my own answers to that series of questions is. My answer is that these deaths did not fit a racially divisive narrative. If this were truly about making all lives matter and police brutality, then these three cases would be an excellent opportunity to bring many people into the fold. No, that doesn’t mean that Isaac is insincere, not at all, but I do think the “Black Lives Matter” moniker is alienating and, frankly, insulting to those of us who have spent our lives treating everyone of all colors and creeds as if their lives mattered.

So, my point is if this truly is about police reforms, not racial tribalism or divisive political posturing, why not find descriptive language that matches that intention? Why not “All Male Lives Matter,” since most who are killed by police happen to be men, mostly white men, not women? Or maybe “Police Brutality Must Stop,” a title that would describe the actual mission if it is about change and reform of police violence? The point is that words also matter and I would much sooner jump on board a movement that didn’t falsely present the issue.

Isaac would likely disagree with everything I just said, that’s his right.

3) Isaac Wants Change, I Do Too

The real crux of the matter comes down to a difference of perspective. Isaac (who has friends who are in law enforcement) sees a “broken criminal justice system” and wants a change. I agree that there needs to be improvement, but also that there’s an elephant in the room not often talked about and that being that we aren’t actually being honest in our discussion about race or getting to those things that lead to more violent encounters with police. And that’s not blame-shifting, we can both hold police officers accountable and also get to some of those root issues shaping black outcomes as well, but there first needs to be some acknowledgement of that difference.

As things currently stand, polite people are forbidden to talk about things like black on black crime, we are not supposed to notice when public officials, journalists and activists downplay the ongoing murder and mayhem in the name of justice. We are not supposed to believe our own eyes when we see people, many of them black, with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Sure this may be a small minority, but let’s not pretend that this is only a few “white supremacist” infiltrators. It is time to stop this racism of lower expectations and have zero tolerance for using one injustice to excuse another. Again, that would restore some credibility and help accomplish the stated goals of the protests.

And we need to talk about this double standard. The polite people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens and silenced based on their skin color. They are tired of being villainized or ridiculed for their peaceful protests of other forms of government oppression, equated to terrorists, when actual terrorism is being ignored and criminals lionized. We need to talk about this because even polite people won’t respect those who do respect them. If the goal is to eventually achieve equality (which is my own hope) then the pandering and patronizing must end. To achieve the change we need to be the change and to be the change we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.

Ironically, I believe some of the reason why many white people tune out is because they don’t feel heard themselves. Many, like me, feel unappreciated in a system that expects them to be polite people and then celebrates when their minority counterparts act out. It’s almost as if the minstrel shows have etched in this expectation that the black folk are supposed to sing, dance and keep us entertained, riot occasionally, that black people are unable to control themselves or their emotions and thus can be exempted if they are more aggressive, etc. But this is utter nonsense, there are many sober and serious black people, many emotional and expressive white people.

I do agree with Isaac, we should not hold police to a different standard than anyone else, they must be held accountable for their actions like anybody else, and I support the push for reforms. Where we seem to diverge the most is our perception of what’s important to consider. He would prefer a more narrow focus, on the problem of police brutality, where I am more interested in doing more to address the cultural issues that lead to negative outcomes and would improve the image of black men in particular.

4) I Want Appreciation, And As An Individual

It is not fair that Isaac, as intelligent and well-rounded as an individual that he is, gets lumped in with the crimes of any other black man or is even the defined in any way by his skin color. Likewise, I don’t want to be judged or held personally accountable for sins I’ve never committed as some are trying to do. It is absolutely absurd to me that some white people are out literally kissing the boots of black men. Please stop this insanity! Let’s just all learn to appreciate each others as equally individuals, okay? Fight prejudice in all forms.

I would also rather we start from a position of appreciation for the criminal justice system that we do have. It is far from perfect and yet I know first hand what happens where it doesn’t exist. The killers of uncle Roland, in the Philippines, despite many leads, have not been brought to justice and that’s simply because there’s not the law enforcement resources to bring to bear. It is extremely easy to criticize any system and yet we should also study what is working and why as well. The key to fixing or improving any system is having an intimate knowledge of how it works or why it was designed in a particular way.

I think that’s where Isaac and I differ the most, and also why we must talk, he wants change while I’m geared for caution and constraint. He protests for justice, now, immediately and on his own terms, while I ruminate about foundational principles and think about past incidents of mob rule. Neither of us are right or wrong in our approach. I understand his orientation towards action. He probably gets more done while I brood and ponder philosophies. We make perfect sparing partners. He knows enough about me to keep me honest and I know enough about him to do the same.

I appreciate that Isaac, while passionate, did not attempt to pigeonhole and treated me with respect, like an equal. As Scripture says, “iron sharpens iron” and I felt quite evenly matched. It was definitely a conflict, yet I never felt threatened, as I have in other similar attempts at honest dialogue and efforts to bring the racial divide. We ended up expressing our love for each other, something that I don’t think we’ve even done before given there is a whole multitude of cousins on my dad’s side, and the whole experience was cathartic for someone like me who cares deeply and often feels helpless to change anything given the complexity of everything.

It also inspired me to write this and help get our combined perspectives (albeit obviously biased towards my own perspective) out there for your consideration. But the more important take away is that we not ignore uncomfortable topics, that we not shout each other down rather than hear, that we engage in there types of true conversations, with two sides given, and find our common ground. I feel strongly that God brought Isaac and I together for a reason and the reason is to be that bridge between people. But Isaac deserves most of the credit, he didn’t fire shots and run, he was willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Conflict Builds Character: A Family Conversation About Race

  1. Joel, while you and I don’t agree on everything on this subject, and I think you’re overlooking some things, I do believe that you touched on something that does address why we still have the white/black divide. At the same time that many black people feel that they have been overlooked, there are also many white people who feel that they have, similarly, been overlooked. If anyone is looking for evidence, they need look no farther than the election of Donald Trump. The left has attempted to explain it in many ways (racism, fundamentalism, Russia, fake news), while ignoring the actual voices of the voters.

    I long to see racial justice. But if it happens by suppressing people who happen to be white, as opposed to working together to bring hope for all, the white people will only react against the “justice” and the racial divide will deepen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think dwelling on black and white, no matter how well-intentioned, will ever get us to where we need to be. Sure, injustices need to be acknowledged (something I’ve done early and often) and yet overcoming them means transcending the tribalism of those vying for political power. Be wise. Be aware of your alignments. Not everything is as it appears. Jim Jones laced his poison in Kool-Aid and, make no mistake, grievance culture is poison masked in compassion.

      Like

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