White, Black, and Duke Blue

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If you have ever tried to drive onto the Duke campus on game day for anything other than the game, you probably have some strong feelings about Duke Parking and Transportation Services. I remember trying to get onto campus early last spring. It was my one chance to get to the Divinity library to research for a class assignment. I was stopped and interrogated by the person directing traffic. He finally let me go, but only after giving me a condescending lecture: “Next time, check and see if there is a basketball game before trying to come onto campus…” I was incensed. I drove away muttering, “Last I checked this was a university, not a sports franchise with an incidental library!”

Here’s what I didn’t do: anything that would deny the basic humanity of the person directing traffic. I was not happy with the overall prioritization of sports events at Duke, nor with the way available parking and access to campus has been decreasing over the years. In other words, I had some serious disagreements around campus access policy issues. And I will not deny that I was so angry I couldn’t concentrate until I had sent a couple of friends angry text messages about how perhaps the Divinity school library should just close on game days if they didn’t want the (almost entirely non-residential) Divinity students coming onto campus. But I did not take it out on the (probably contract) employee – in spite of him treating me like a person of dubious intelligence and forethought.

There has been plenty of news from NC of late, so you may have missed this one: some students at Duke are calling for the dismissal of Tallman Trask III, executive vice president of Duke University, because of his abuse of Shelvia Underwood, a woman directing traffic on a football game day. I would say “alleged abuse,” since there’s a lawsuit pending, but he admits that his “conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other.” I should say so. He hit her with his car and then claimed it never happened.

Ms. Underwood (and a witness) say that Trask called her a “dumb n*****.” Trask says that he did not, and that no other witnesses can corroborate Ms. Underwood’s claims about what exact words he shouted rudely at her.

But whether or not he used the n-word, Trask already treated Ms. Underwood as a lesser human being when he began shouting at her at all, when she stopped him from trying to drive down a closed road.

He treated her as less than a human being when he hit her with his Porsche, which he claims to have done by accident. Really? Trask bumping Underwood with his car sounds to me very much like an entitled person used to getting away with things who was acting out because he has learned that he can. It sounds very much like a well paid white man not wanting to accept – even momentarily – the authority of a poorly paid black woman.

There was a further indignity for Ms. Underwood. She was treated as unworthy of consideration by all of the involved individuals at the University (including Trask) when she was pressured into dropping her complaint for the price of an apology note whose generic insincerity rivals that of a 6 year old caught doing something they’re still not sorry for.

The only thing in dispute here is whether or not he used a racial slur. He was rude and impatient, both before and after he hit a working person with his car and tried to get out of it. Don’t get me wrong – it matters a great deal whether he used a racial epithet to diminish the humanity of another person. That would be awful. There are certain words that ought never to be used. But just based on the facts that everyone (even Tallman Trask) agrees on, the students’ demands for Trask to be fired would have some basis.

I don’t have rich or “important” connections, and I don’t bring a lot of money into the university. I have no doubt that if I hit someone with my car on campus while yelling at them, and then kept on yelling at them afterwards, I would have been in serious trouble.

I would like to think that I don’t go around acting like my need to get somewhere is more important than another person’s integrity because I believe that we are all beloved children of God. I hope that I am aware more often than not that I am not more important in God’s eyes than whoever is most annoying me in the moment. I hope that I am stopping when a person is standing in front of my car not because I would get in trouble if I didn’t. But. It does strike me that when a person is treated as if he is inherently more important than other people, then he will start believing it. He will start acting like it. Trask was acting as if he was more important than Ms. Underwood. When he hit her, was Trask seeing Underwood as a nuisance? Or (as he claims) was he failing to see her at all? Either way, he was seeing her no differently than does our dominant culture.  Duke University, the City of Durham, the State of North Carolina, and the United States at large sees the working poor (in comparison to the Porsche drivers), black people (in comparison to white people), and women (in comparison to men) – as a nuisance – when they see them at all.

Trask’s race, gender, and wealth all count for something at Duke. It also counts for something that he has been a part of the financial success of the University and of downtown Durham. It shouldn’t. The only thing that should count for anything here is that one human being treated another human being like she was far less of a human being than he was. Duke President Richard Brodhead and the other folks in charge at Duke University need to decide if Duke is going to continue to be the sort of place where some people are seen and treated as less human than others.

Of course, we need to be careful to see Dr. Trask as a beloved child of God, too. Arguably the Duke administration – and any person who has shielded this man from responsibility for his actions over the years – has denied him the opportunity to grow. Perhaps, if he is sent to his room and made to think about what he has done, there is some hope that he will grow up to be pleasant and responsible, and able to graciously accept those times when he is not the one in control.

You can follow the protest on Twitter by searching #DismantleDukePlantation

What I’m reading now

I’ve been ill for the past few weeks, so I have been spending a lot of time reading. Here are a few of the titles that have been keeping me company:

Prayer, by Karl Barth – I picked this one up in order to better answer a Sunday school teacher’s question about the Lord’s Prayer. In addition to a translation of some of Barth’s lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, there are also several essays interpreting the way prayer functions in Barth’s theology, and some of Barth’s own pastoral prayers. This is Barth at his most accessible, speaking about our most familiar prayer. I am so glad to be re-reading this one!

Wearing God, by Lauren Winner – This is shaping up to be my favorite book by Lauren Winner yet. Or at least since Mudhouse Sabbath. Although Still was also so good. If you have not been reading Lauren Winner, you have been missing out! This is a great place to start. In this book, Winner examines Biblical metaphors for God, including the metaphor from which the book receives its name: God as clothing. I am reading this one slowly – a few pages every time I am needing a spiritual infusion.

The Half has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist – In the introduction to his book, Baptist writes, “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people are necessarily happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.” Baptist spends the rest of the book sharing the historical data that leads him to this conclusion. Groundbreaking.

Southern Cross, by Christine Leigh Heyrman – If you have ever wondered how the South went from fortune seekers and carousers to the Bible belt, then you will find this book as fascinating as I do. I have an “a-ha!” moment on almost every page.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison – Alongside my slow moving parallel non-fiction reading, I usually have a novel that I am speeding through. Most recently, I finished this Toni Morrison novel set in the pre-Revolutionary war Atlantic Coast colonies. It was (as has been my experience with other Morrison novels) both gorgeous and devastating – and convicting. So many of our lives are a series of lost opportunities to see other people as they really are.

What have you been reading?

Slavery, sin, and death

Dr. J. Kameron Carter often referred to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in his Theology lectures, but it took me almost 4 years to make the time to start reading the book. Jacobs led a relatively privileged life, for a slave in North Carolina. She could read, she lived with her parents in the early part of her life, she was in one town for the length of her imprisonment, she didn’t work in the fields. But none of that “makes up for” being owned by another person. Sexual and emotional degradation and manipulation, and coercion and abuse of every kind was integral to the system of slavery. Holding an entire people in bondage for generations was only possible within a society based on fear, on the threat of violence and loss of liberty — and the Civil War did not dismantle this social order. This is who we are as a nation, and we cannot understand ourselves until we acknowledge what slavery was and how it continues to impact us. I pray for the day when this book becomes required reading in every high school throughout the country.

I grew up as a White person in the South, so I heard a lot about how it wasn’t as bad for folks under slavery as it was afterwards for sharecroppers. Which even if it had been true (which it pretty clearly could not be), was no recommendation for slavery. Seriously, if the only thing you can say in defense of something is that it wasn’t the absolute worst thing that ever happened to a group of people…? Which again, was a stretch. Sharecropping was an extension of the slavery mentality, and like slavery it was White people who structured this bad way of life, and who chose to use their power to continue the oppression of their Black neighbors.

But my imagination had failed to fill out the contours of the torture that was life as a slave. That required data. In order to really understand how bad slavery was, I had to stop and listen to a woman who had been a slave. Go figure.

Perhaps your “education” about the realities of slavery was similarly slipshod. If so, Jacobs’ book is a good starting place as you turn over a new leaf in your understanding of race and racism in this country.

In order to love someone, we need to begin by listening to them. We cannot love someone we do not know, and we cannot know someone we do not listen to.

After Michael Brown was shot, someone in my feed – I wish I remembered who, so I could attribute this sentiment properly, and so that I could thank her – said that the most important thing that white people could do to help was to count how many people they were following altogether, calculate 10% of that number, and add that number of Black women and men to our Twitter feeds. For me, this has been the most transformative thing in thinking about race in the U.S. since picking up Jacob’s book. I’m not imagining what Black people might think about this or that event, and I’m not pedantically extrapolating what they must think. I’m not relying on one “Black friend” to represent the “Black point of view.” Instead, I’m listening to dozens of Black individuals: people of many different ages and genders and religions and ages, activists and journalists and professors and politicians and novelists and musicians and pastors, each bringing their own experiences and insights to the table.

But there is a common thread there – the thread of living as an oppressed group, living as suspect on the grounds of ancestry and physical appearance, in a country that claims “liberty and justice for all,” but has never even attempted to live up to that promise.

About 100 days ago, thinking about my Whiteness became an everyday thing, thanks to my Twitter feed. I’m 41 years old. If I were Black in this country, thinking about my Blackness would have been an every day thing starting around when I entered elementary school, if not before. But I’m White, so I didn’t have to think about it. Here in the U.S., we White people have too long been like the folk that God describes in Isaiah 6:9 – we “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.”

Repentance – turning away from our fear and self-interest and towards our Black sisters and brothers – is long overdue. We cannot say we are sorry for something that we do not understand, much less for something that we still have not stopped doing.

God, like a potter you formed our ears: prod us to listen, not for affirmation of what we want to hear, but to comprehend something new; You formed our eyes: correct our vision that we may look, not to see what we have always seen, but to understand someone else’s experience. Lord, we cannot hope to find justice without truly seeking it – kindle the desire for justice in those of us White women and men who fear that we have the most to lose. Loosen our grip on all that we have wrongfully taken, in order that we may be seized by the love that would bind us all into one family. We pray this in the name of your Son, who by the Holy Spirit made his home and ministry with a subjugated people, in defiance of the earthly power that put him to death. Amen.