American Color and White-Washed Memories
Society is a complex conglomeration of shared traditions, memory, pain, and history. You often find tension in a society when an outside force challenges any one of those things, and the inevitable questions then follow. Is society an ever-changing blob that can configure to the time and people that make it up? Or is it unmercifully calcified bedrock stuck in a rigid and codified existence?
For example, history on the surface seems simple (a recounting of events in the past), but in reality turns out to be extremely complex when articulated in a society. The complexity of history is real, and its reality paints a picture of interconnected webs of motives, pain, and often of two-sided stories that never get told. Shouldn’t history be simple? Well in a word, yes and no.
“History,” as the old adage goes, “is written by the victors,” and this is unquestionably true. The dominant history of the western world has been written through the eyes and spears of the empires, the colonizers, and the industrialists.
Take for example the “simple” recounting of the American conquest. It’s in fourth grade text books in America and should be easy enough to explain, right? Not exactly. For example, the majority voice might say, “European settlers defeated native savages and advanced modern civilization” while the minority (or oppressed) perspective says, “White invaders killed our people and took our land”. Which story were you told growing up? Is one perspective more valid than the other?
This explains, how, until only recently, we had a widely accepted holiday celebrating a man that “discovered” a continent and was the first to “settle” this land, although there were already people living on it. He achieved this by violently taking this land from indigenous people and laying the groundwork for possibly the world’s first systematic genocide. This is why, dissident historian Howard Zinn once said when speaking about recounting history, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. Here he explains the fact that history has already been told from a perspective, so you can either tell a different one or go along with the majority viewpoint, but the idea of objectivity in history should be understood as complete illusion.
Why is this important? Because history directly informs our collective memory as a society. It tells us what to remember and what to forget, and in turn builds our collective identity. In the above case, we as a society are to set aside the fact our nation was built on the blood soaked soil of natives (collective amnesia) and remember the wonderful fact that in “1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” discovering a land full of potential, which eventually became our homeland (collective remembering).
We’re to forget or minimize the fact that our country’s rapid economic growth was first provided by the free, forced labor of African slaves, (then later via 18-hr work days and child labor during the Industrial Revolution), but celebrate the economic prosperity and subsequent power that our nation eventually achieved. This is what majority consciousness does: it minimizes its sins and maximizes its accomplishments.
Race Baiters or No?
Fast forward to America 2016. Just as it happened 50 years ago, grassroots movements are sprouting up across the country, protesting police violence against minorities, systematic racism, and the social conditions in which they are allowed to grow. Movements like Black Lives Matter have sparked a national debate about race in the country and challenge our dubious status as a “post-racial” society. So how do large portions of the press and population respond to this? They often say of the BLM movement:
“They’re all race-baiters” or
“They promote violence” or
“They live in the past and are setting us back 50 years” or
“They’re using tragic incidents to promote a political agenda.”
So are they right? Should we not live in the past or use past tragedies to help inform current action? Is facing tragedy a helpful national exercise or does it cause more pain and division? Brothers and sisters, there is some blatant hypocrisy in this view.
First, it’s important to recognize there is a majority perspective and that as a system, when challenged, will do its best to maintain stability. The prevailing majority perspective in our country now is that we’ve moved past racism. All overt forms of racism are gone and if people want to bring up the past, it’s only to promote controversy and division. To a majority perspective, this makes sense: “We fixed the problem, now you all get over it and move on.”
The exercise is as old as society itself: maximize past accomplishments, minimize past sins. This view allows the majority culture to minimize the pain it caused to the black community (and in many ways is still causing), while praising its “progress” and advancement. The privilege involved in this point of view should be obvious. By saying you don’t have to take into account another person’s perspective and telling them to “move on”, you’re essentially saying your worldview is the only valid one and any challenge won’t be tolerated.
It’s important to note that majority perspective isn’t just white perspective. Minority citizens can buy into it as well, assuming that their opinion should be subservient to the “majority consensus” which strangely enough, is held by many people that don’t look like them. Privilege says: I can walk away from the minority viewpoint and dismiss it as frivolous; while those living the minority experience can’t be afforded such luxury.
What about remembering past tragedies? Is it healthy as a nation to remember, or to point back to tragedies as catalyst for change? Well let’s look at our history. Have we ever used a national tragedy to advance a specific cause?
15 years ago, we all remember where we were. On that tragic day that will forever be ingrained in our minds, 9/11, vicious and cowardly injustices were enacted on our country. We, therefore, acted and moved swiftly in response, declaring war within a month on a terrorist organization that had no borders and we have been entrenched in the war ever since.
Now to this day, you’ll see bumper stickers that simply say “Never Forget”. Never forget the pain of that day. Never forget why we went to war. Never forget what an uncontrolled and unchallenged evil can do in the world. Never. Forget.
Why doesn’t anyone say, “Hey man, you’re living in the past. That was 15 years ago! Another generation is coming in; it’s time to stop trying to bring us back to 2001!” We don’t go there. Because there is such a thing as a collective trauma. Something that affects people so deeply, they always remember its significance as a touchstone of national pain. Pain like this not only informs the society of what we should fear, but of how we should act. We were told this was a tragedy we COULD and SHOULD remember.
This is the contradictory power of collective memory.
We should remember 9/11, we should remember Pearl Harbor, we should remember the Holocaust, but we shouldn’t remember slavery, or the Belgian massacre of the Congo (look it up), or Jim Crow, or mass lynchings, or Rodney King, or even Tamir Rice. This latter list of memories should be expunged from our consciousness, because we moved on and it’s not a helpful memory in terms of a “proper” view of our society. These memories are simply too painful, too divisive, and too controversial to continue to bring up. But then the question must be asked: too painful for whom?
Now, without sparking any controversy, if you haven’t figured it out, the majority of America, has been and still is white, Caucasian, or of Western European decent (whichever term floats your sociological boat). Meaning our collective memory has overwhelmingly been sterilized to fit a certain narrative. We’re always the good guys and we’re told to remember the good our country has done in the world (2x World War Champ, yee haw!), and to marginalize or even forget the terrible things we have perpetrated or allowed. Tragedy, therefore, is only to be remembered if it is done TO us, or to another, but never to be remember when WE have enacted tragedy. But who is “we”? “We” are those represented by the majority perspective; more plainly said, the collective “we” is white.
So when things like public lynchings are brought back to the national consciousness, the collective can’t cope because it causes the social memory to be challenged, and to deal with sins of the past. It threatens to add Technicolor perspective to our white washed history, a different viewpoint than what’s accepted as the overwhelmingly….paler norm. This is why it’s important to be aware of these things, because if not, like the fish in water that doesn’t even know it’s wet, we don’t even know we have a collective memory that was established from a majority perspective. If we are aware of these things it will cause us to temper our judgments and to be more sympathetic towards others that don’t look, sound, or think like us.
Look at the horrific events in Belgium recently, for instance. We weep and mourn with our fellow global citizens, as we rightly should, but we also succeed in missing that in the past months, similar deadly terrorist attacks were unleashed in places like Libya, Turkey, and the Ivory Coast. Why don’t those make headlines? Are we not supposed to mourn for our darker fellow human beings? Is a suicide bomb more painful if it blows up in the West? This is another example of majority perspective setting the agenda, and telling us what to mourn over. Don’t fall into the trap.
Looking to Jesus
How can we break the cycle? One person, who consistently broke every cycle that tried to hold him down, was Jesus of Nazareth. He challenged his followers to see the world from a multitude of social perspectives. He often ate with those on the margins of society, challenging the religious authorities’ preconceived notions of holiness, and spitting on social constructs that kept people divided, which was unnecessarily putting additional barriers between God and an already hopelessly sinful people. Even the very disciples Jesus chose broke social norms and expectations. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he didn’t care that she was a Samaritan, or that she was a divorced woman, (both things Jewish society would have frowned upon). What he cared about was understanding the world from her perspective and cutting to the heart of her selfishness and need for a rescuer.
We should also look to guard our mind. When Paul told believers to “renew our minds” in Romans 12:2, it’s certainly has a doctrinal sense, but I believe we also have to recalibrate our view of the world in light of the truth of the gospel: Renewing a selfish and individualistic view of our world and teaching ourselves to love all people as much as God loves us (with no partiality or bias). We all have blind spots and need to humbly seek diversity of thought. so that we can strive to be as whole and as pure and as God-honoring in our perspectives as possible.
So I challenge you, therefore, in light of the example of our Lord, to splash color in a white-washed world. Don’t dismiss someone because they think differently than you or have different experiences. We need diverse people speaking truth and perspective into our life. It’s only then can we begin to break down the walls of majority perspective that keep us trapped in a closed minded, windowless world. Break down the walls.
This doesn’t just apply to one group. It applies to us all. Minority brothers and sisters can get trapped in the majority mentality and think that their opinion or pain is patently wrong or unnecessary, simply because it goes “against the grain of ‘acceptable’ society”. Bring it to the table and talk it out. That’s what the church is for: sharing life, pain and love for one another, all to the Glory of God. Our Savior lived on the margins and challenged artificial cultural norms all the time, why should we be any different?
It’s easier than ever, in a hyper-connected world, to build little enclaves with people that look like us, talk like us, and think like us. This is human nature, but I believe it to be a wholly sinful, selfish nature that should be dashed against the rocks of unity and love. We shouldn’t be looking for people to stroke our ego and tell us how right we are all the time. Go out and get uncomfortable. Your faith will grow, and so will your love for the Church.
Remember our identity and truth isn’t found in a certain society or majority narrative; the gospel frees us from that by reminding us we’re now members of another kingdom. If we truly desire for our church to be an integrated and diverse body, one of brothers and sisters from all races and backgrounds celebrating the emancipation of grace, then we need to look into our own hearts, challenge our ingrained bias’ and watch the Lord change us from a people that see the world through white-washed eyes, to a people that sees the world in HD color.