I Am George Zimmerman

I am George Zimmerman.

That’s the statement that’s missing from talk about white privilege. I can talk all day about how had I been in Trayvon’s place, I wouldn’t have been murdered, but that fails to respect privilege as lethal. The flip side, though, is equally true and rarely discussed. If I was George Zimmerman, I, too, in all likelihood, would have walked away from slaying a child totally free.

I describe myself as an ally, but when something like this happens, I have to dig real dip because the temptation is to sympathize with Trayvon, post a bunch of critical race articles on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, have a couple of solid conversations with friends, and then move on.

But those actions do nothing to recognize or make up for my privilege. In fact, these actions are made easier by my privilege. That I am able to, without emotion, rationally consider every legal and racial side of this argument so easily is because I do not feel the urgency that a different color of skin might give me.

And my identification with Zimmerman goes much further. Because privilege acts without me having to do anything, it and racism are part of my natural state. Racism and prejudice have been totally socialized into me. In two weeks, I’m moving to Detroit. The first thing people say to me is usually “You should take self-defense classes” or “You should buy a gun.” What? So I can protect myself from Trayvon? But it’s hard not to begin to believe them.

The truth is this: every moment that I am not being actively anti-racist, I am loading a gun for someone more bigoted than I. People like me, for fear of our lives, created the Stand Your Gun laws, enabling Zimmerman to kill a young black man and never have to pay for it. It’s time we owned up to it.

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The Privilege of Thinking About Work: Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

I come from a relatively small, sheltered, largely Christian community thick in the suburbs of southwest Ohio. It was a great place to grow up. It was safe and mostly friendly. Because of my community’s size and its religiosity, I was more or less peer pressured into faith. A solid majority of my school’s best students (the peer group with whom I most identified) were all Christian and it seemed a natural progression.

I practiced my faith rather dutifully (or so I thought) in high school, and when I got to college I decided I would fix all of the things that had kept me from truly experiencing God in high school so I immediately sought out and plugged into a community of believers. Things quickly turned sour. My campus was filled with new experiences, new people, new beliefs. And that was amazing.

On the other hand was my Christian community. While there were many upperclassmen whom I respected and loved, there also wasn’t anyone who was graduating and doing the things I wanted to do with my life. The community seemed to be set up to encourage those students who were interested in ministry-related careers, and I felt very little support for figuring out how to engage with my passions that weren’t so obviously related to the Church.

So I stepped away.

I didn’t think this community, and, by extension, Christianity could give me the kind of support I needed for the work I wanted to do.

A year and a half later, I started to tentatively reexamine my faith, this time without peer pressure. And I found this community where almost no one was considering ministry after graduation. And it was the best thing. (Although, it should be mentioned that there is nothing categorically wrong with communities that encourage ministry. They just aren’t for me!)

I tell this story because I just got done reading Timothy Keller’s most recent book Every Good Endeavor. The thesis of the book is that any profession and any type of work will be affected by following Christ. I wish I had this book three years ago.

The book is on point. It lays out a logical argument in which work is central to God’s creation (Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the Fall, wouldn’t you know), in which all work is a form of worship to God, in which sin creates the many problems and pitfalls we experience in work, and in which God redeems our work even when it’s not perfect and even when we feel like we have fallen short.

Keller’s prose, as always, is suitably simplistic when in anecdote but approaches dullness when in abstraction. It’s okay, though, because his anecdotes are so good and so representative of his points that his abstractions often read as afterthoughts. The strongest moments in the book come when he can marry anecdote and abstraction.

For instance, he talks about the importance of the story of Esther–how she has the privilege of being “in the Palace” and that being in the Palace itself is no sin, but failing to use that position to help others is. This helped me conceptualize, in a Christian perspective, how I should be thinking about my own privilege, how I should confront it, and what I can do maximize its usefulness.

Keller talks a lot about the importance of serving others through work. Sometimes, however, I got the feeling that this talk was undermined by catering to a specific middle to upper class ethos. Sure, Keller mentions jobs like doorman or janitor but only to say that if you are employed in these jobs you should give them everything you have, just like in any other job. He largely misses realities of poverty in several important places.

He mentions Hurricane Katrina at one point, and says that the need to lay blame–on the builders of the sea wall or the federal government–is not a gospel need. But placing the blame on the sea wall is more important than trying to explain away an unexplainable thing. A lot of the tragedy of Katrina could have been avoided. It wasn’t avoided because large portions of the levee were incomplete, specifically those in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest sections of the city. That is a systemic problem. It’s not a “oh Bobby made a mistake, we’ll fix it next time” mistake. It is important to talk about blame in this instance because it is related to justice and to ensuring everyone in the city has the same sense of security. That seems gospel related to me.

Later on in the book, Keller gives a brief history of philosophy, arguing that Christianity was responsible for the philosophical shift in personhood in which all people are important and equal. While that may be true in some very abstract and esoteric sense, it is historically misleading. Most of the Christian philosophers we read as part of modernism were extremely bigoted individuals. And these Christian philosophers were often (and are still often) used to justify inequality like slavery, the Holocaust, and other horrible atrocities. To gloss over this history and claim all of the good parts of human rights development over the past several centuries is dishonest.

There’s also this problematic passage near the end of the book:

Christians, you see, have been set free to enjoy working. If we begin to work as if we were serving the Lord, we will be freed from both overwork and underwork. Neither the prospect of money and acclaim, nor the lack of it, will be our controlling consideration. Work will be primarily a way to please God by doing his work in the world, for his name’s sake. (215)

This is a great sentiment, but it seems to make light of poverty, suggesting that people living in poverty are committing the same sin that people who live in opulence do–that is, approaching work for money. Which is a shame because there is an obvious difference between a single parent working three jobs to provide shelter and food for three kids and a CEO who wants a new yacht.

I got a lot out of this book. I learned a lot and it gave me a much broader idea of what it means to work for the kingdom of God, but I worry it hits maximum relevancy for people from the suburbs of southwest Ohio or the sky-rises of New York City.

Being Silent

I’ve been following the backlash from the media coverage of the Steubenville rape case pretty closely. I’ve read all the important articles and blog posts. I’ve read all of my friends’ statuses and comments. I’ve seen my friends’ anger, their commitment to rationalism, and their frustration with patriarchal systems.

I’ve always struggled with what I should be saying about things where I don’t resemble the victim. What should I say about male-on-female rape or sexism or racism? I like to talk about these issues but am I limited to parroting what female, minority, and/or LGBTQ friends and/or scholars say about them?

My friend, Tyler Borchers, pointed me to “Dismantling whiteness: Silent yielding and the potentiality of political suicide” by a professor here at Ohio University named Dr. Jungkunz.

Jungkunz writes:

To reiterate, part of what privilege has involved in garrulous contemporary settings has been a monopoly over speaking. We have witnessed this surrounding sex, sexuality, race, class and gender. Masculine, white, ‘heterosexual’, wealthy men are privileged speakers. So, to engage insubordinate silence along any of these components of intersectionality is to engage several transformative contestations and participations. First, silence can demonstrate a protest against racism. Such protests can entail: silence instead of an encouraging laughter as a response to a co-worker’s racially offensive joke, or an organized silent protest involving duct tape over one’s mouth to call attention to oppressive quiescence. These silences can cut off the air (speaking) that gives life (via racist stereotyping) to white supremacy. Block de Behar notes, ‘that only silence can offer a means of avoiding the automatism of language’ (1995, p. 4). Second, silence can act as a democratic yielding. This yielding is insubordinate as it challenges norms that try to dictate who should and should not speak – so, to remain silent as a way to allow the ‘other’ to speak is inherently resistant to a whiteness-speech configuration of power. This is a silence for empowerment and transformation. Finally, silence as a refusal can seek to end one political existence – whiteness – only to open up the possibility of an alternative to a racialized polity for the future. This silence as refusal can involve the following: not claiming a race on the census questionnaire, remaining silent when someone asks for racial identification over the phone or upon a personal ad and not engaging an entire array of racially offensive names, topics, movies, songs, discussions and so on. At an even deeper level, this silence can be an active refusal of aspects, characteristics – white personality traits if you will – that slowly but importantly begin to kill off one’s whiteness. For instance, the urge to speak up and out can be refused; the exuding of confidence can be refused; and even the lack of racial self-consciousness can be refused.

I am really bad about this. I am really bad about being okay with silence. In fact, I’ve found myself knee-deep in discussions about Steubenville the past couple of days. And every time I get frustrated with one of those discussions, I try to move to a discussion with someone who I know will agree with me. This, I think, is both incredibly prideful and incredibly damaging.

Too often, I start to believe that the only way to affect political action is through speech. Through action. But that’s not true. Often, the way I can be most subversive in my privilege is to yield my voice to oppressed groups. My voice is not unimportant or worthless. It’s just that there is nothing of value my voice can add to the debate. I am not a survivor. I know survivors, but I know them as friends. And I think they are far more qualified to talk about their experiences than I am. My role should be to encourage other non-survivors to listen. To listen. To be silent.

I think of all the times I’ve laughed at a rape joke in the presence of other people. That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve agreed when someone calls a girl a “slut.” That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve been part of a community that encourages people to make decisions about sexual partners while under the influence of alcohol. That’s not alright. Silence would have been better.

Silence is probably better now.

Note: When I typed “silence” into Google to try to find a picture, I most often found pictures of women being silent. Yikes. Then when I typed in “silence man,” I got photos of scantily clad men sneaking up on sleeping women. um wut.