Over the past few weeks, we have seen protests throughout the nation and across the world speaking out out against police brutality and systemic racism and calling upon those in power and those not in power to listen and know that Black lives matter. One of these protests occurred in our county, a mostly Wonder Bread white county. At the protest, about 200 or so people gathered to stand against systems that murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clarke, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on in this nation’s history.
At the protest, Bishop Ernest Burns spoke. Two things he mentioned stood out, specifically because they are things that I have been discussing with my children and because they are things we have been studying in my Sunday School class. In our Sunday School class, over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the book of Acts, and we have specifically been focusing on Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
When we looked at Saul’s conversion a couple of weeks ago and we talked about Ananias, the man who God told to help Saul when he was blinded, I thought about George Floyd. Floyd ministered to those in his hometown of Houston, and he was in Minneapolis with a Christian work program, planning to go back to Houston to work when he was done. As we read about Ananias, I thought about Floyd. I am not saying that Floyd was apprehensive or scared about ministering to the community as Ananias was with Saul. I am saying that he listened and served, doing ministry in the face of countless systemic systems that oppressed him and those he ministered to.
When Bishop Burns spoke, he talked about Saul’s discrimination, oppression, and killing of Christians before his conversion and his own persecution for his beliefs. I could not hear everything the Bishop said here, but when I thought about this, I also thought about Deeyah Khan speaking about one of the men, Ken Parker, that she interviewed and filmed for White Right: Meeting the Enemy. Since meeting Khan, Parker denounced his white supremacist beliefs and has been working to change his life and open his eyes and ears to the constant oppression occurring around him.
If you’ve seen ‘White Right: Meeting the Enemy’ you’ll remember we filmed with Ken Parker, at the time a neo-Nazi with a swastika tattooed on his chest. Speaking at the @UN, @Deeyah_Khan explains how kindness and compassion helped Ken to ultimately renounce his extremist views. pic.twitter.com/ILk7n9Lq7y— Fuuse (@Fuuse) June 7, 2020
Communication, listening, and respect all play in to Parker’s movement away from his white supremacist beliefs. However, if people do not want to listen, or if the light does not blind them on their path, knocking them off their horse, then what must we do? We must continue to fight, speak up, and confront the vile language, actions, and systems of white supremacy, changing policies and working towards a more equitable society.
The other point that Bishop Burns made is that racism is not an American problem, it is a world problem. He stated, “It’s not a Habersham problem, it’s a world problem.” Bishop Burns’ statement made me recall my daughter and her best friend from Norway, Noelle. Her friend is Norwegian. Her family is from Burundi. Thanks to the wonders of technology, they talk basically every day about everything from Marvel and Hunger Games to what’s going on in America and in Norway, including climate change and racism.
When the protests started, they started talking more and more about Noelle’s experiences in Norway as the Black daughter of immigrants. Noelle told her about times when older white Norwegians would tell her to go back to her home country, would assume that she doesn’t speak Norwegian because she is Black, and assuming that she knows someone because she is Black and the other person is Black. We hear these same stories in America, and the point is, this is not just an American issue.
Along with these moments, students got up to speak, recounting experiences that occurred to them, in school. One Hispanic student talked about being at lunch one day in the cafeteria. A few tables over, a group of white boys kept chanting, “Trump! Build the wall!” and other such slogans. He referred to the white boys as “American” and his friend and himself as “Hispanic.” Another Hispanic student went over to them, calmly, and asked them to stop and tone it down. They refused, telling him to go back where he came from. The boys got into an altercation. The Hispanic student got in school suspension. The white students, who all played on the football team, got nothing more than a warning.
After he spoke, one of the organizer’s of the protest pointed out to the student that he was more American than the boys berating him and telling him to go back to Mexico. The linguistic constructions the student used are important to consider here. The student places himself as an outsider, as not part of America. Yet, he represents America more than the boys accosting him. His rhetorical move highlights the ways that language works to construct identity and to psychologically affect individuals.
My daughter went to the same school, in a different grade. In her class, they read To Kill a Mockingbird this year. At the start of the lesson, the teacher told them that would be reading sections from the book in class. She also told them that they could, if they felt comfortable, read “N” if it was in a passage. The class, as my daughter told me, was mostly white students, no Black students, and a couple of Hispanic students. She said that she felt she, along with other students, felt uncomfortable even reading the word.
I told her, before I would email the teacher, that her and her friends should approach the teacher. They did. They noted that some students, when they left the room, would say “N” repeatedly. They noted that students would make racist jokes, using “N” in the cafeteria and elsewhere. However, the policy still didn’t change. I emailed, and still nothing. Again, it’s not just racial violence that is oppressive. It is language. The Hispanic student faced language and forceful antagonism. The students who heard “N” faced the same. I’ve written about the psychological effects of language before, specifically “N.”
I write all of this to simply say that we need to follow up protesting with action. With policy change. With addressing more than police brutality. We need to address the ways that white supremacy has seeped into our very beings. We need to address the ways that we see it in society. We need to speak up, not just show up.