Participating While Privileged

I’ve been asked to participate in a session at a conference for academics and activists that is supposed to help set the tone for how academics ought to behave when interacting with community people. It turns out that I am considered to be good at this. This is the kind of accolade that is very dangerous. The minute you think you know what you are doing and are confident of your ability to mix well across lines of culture and privilege, you will mess it up. It is like bragging about how humble you are.

Since I seem to have been anointed, at least temporarily, as having some expertise in this area, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts, partly in preparation for the session. We agreed I’d begin by giving my own background, but that feels like too long a detour, so I moved it to the bottom of this blog post. Bullet points because it is too much trouble to turn it into an essay. Continue reading “Participating While Privileged”

Religious Observance Policy Limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “Religious Observance Policy Limitations”

open letter to students of color

NOTE: I did not write this letter. I am posting it here as a model for what support looks like and because some people will find it helpful to have it in a place they can link to. For those of you not at Wisconsin, the context is that campus police entered an Afro-American Studies class and removed a student charged with putting up anti-racist spray-painted graffiti around campus, then took him downtown and filed criminal charges against him, thereby publicizing his name. This was in the context of a wave of hate and bias incidents on the campus; students in these cases faced campus misconduct charges, not criminal charges. Tony Robinson was a young biracial man shot last year by a police officer in a Madison neighborhood near campus.

18 April 2016

An Open Letter to the Students of Color of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

            From The Faculty and Staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies

The faculty and staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies is thinking about you and keeping you in our hearts at this time of extreme stress and tension.  Your anger is justified, your fear understandable.  The disruption of Professor Almiron’s class, and the arrest of your fellow student, King Shabazz, while important in itself, is only the most recent in a series of events that has been steadily escalating in recent months and weeks.  What so many of you are experiencing isn’t a sign of individual weakness.  It’s a version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a mental health crisis as serious as those following campus shootings or natural disasters. We admire the way many of you are holding up but we understand what a strain this represents.

In recognition of that fact, we call on faculty across the campus to respond to the crisis in a spirit of care and generosity as we near the end of the semester.  Further, we ask the administration to affirm that call, as well as to offer public assurances that these events will not interfere with King’s plans to graduate at the end of the semester.  Further, we ask that emergency mental health support be made available to all students affected by recent events.

The most important part of our message to you is simple: do your best to keep your eyes on the prize, and know that we’re there to support you as you walk a difficult path.  We know you’re feeling torn between the demands of your studies and your desire to take an active role in responding to what’s happening.  Let some of the burden be shifted to our shoulders. Continue reading “open letter to students of color”

Clashing norms of deference

I posted this on FB. “How to be deferential but not excessively deferential: If you have a scheduled appointment with your professor and you can tell she is talking to someone else, knock or stick your head in so you are sure she knows you are there, then back up apologetically and say “I’ll be happy to wait.” Quietly waiting without letting her know you are there is a problem because she may prefer to get rid of the person in her office and stick to her schedule rather than run late with you, and she should be the one who gets to decide this.”

In my office configuration I cannot see the hall from my desk and I have OFTEN been chatting aimlessly with someone, telling them “I’m expecting a student soon” and then even “I wonder where my 3pm appointment is, did he forget?” while, unbeknownst to me, the student is sitting or standing quietly and patiently outside the door, never announcing their presence. This drives me crazy, as it seems going way overboard in the deference direction when you have an actual scheduled appointment with someone not to announce that you have arrived for it. Thus, when given the opportunity, I instruct students (as above) about how one can simultaneously exhibit politeness and deference while also honoring schedules. However,  former students (who are now professors themselves) confirm that their own sense of deference would lead them NEVER to interrupt a conversation a professor was involved with.

Is there any hope for this culture clash? I obviously need to return to the sign on my door that says “please tell me if you are waiting for me.” But even when I used to have that sign on the door, I’d have students who either would not notice the sign or not think it applied to them.

Cities you did not build, wells you did not dig

Sunday’s sermon text was

Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6: 10-12 New English Bible)

These lines echo today. They are typically interpreted by feel-good Christians spiritually, as reminding us that we are provided with good things not of our own making. And maybe as reminding us that we are dependent on others, not just ourselves. But these passages are explicitly and unambiguously about conquest and the displacement of the previous occupants of a territory. This can be readily seen in the parallel passage in Joshua:

You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The leaders of Jericho, as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites, fought with you, but I handed them over to you. I sent terror ahead of you to drive out before you the two Amorite kings. I gave you the victory; it was not by your swords or bows. I gave you a land in which you had not worked hard; you took up residence in cities you did not build and you are eating the produce of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. (Joshua 24:11-13 New English Bible)

The Biblical writers know this history and make no apology for it. They believe that a one-sided war god backed them against their enemies and gave them the land over the dead bodies of their enemies. They remember their own victimization and their time of slavery and rejoice that it has ended, but they simply have no compunction about killing other groups and taking their land, and they are sure that is what their god wants them to do. (See more references below if you have any doubt that this is a persistent theme.)

The launching point of the sermon was a tour the pastor and other church members took to be educated about immigration issues in Arizona. This stressed the overlain history of the area: indigenous inhabitants partially conquered and partially assimilated by Spanish; the Mexican people who are the amalgamation of indigenous and Spanish who moved around in Mexico; the Anglo-Americans who conquered Northern Mexico and finished conquering the indigenous and now have the audacity to complain about “foreigners” in the area. Our pastor also spoke of touring old Jaffa in Israel-Palestine today with Palestinians who can point to the exact houses that were occupied by their parents and are now occupied by Jews who forcibly removed them. There are plenty of other examples. White South Africans still occupy areas from which they forcibly removed Black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s. European settlers on the Atlantic coast of North American were able to gain a foothold because they occupied villages that had been built and farmlands that had been cleared by indigenous Americans who had recently died of a plague. All European Americans live on land that was taken from indigenous Americans in a multi-hundred year war of conquest.

Some White American Christians believe in the war god who favored [White] America in its genocide and conquest just as the war god of the Old Testament favored Israel. In fact, the sense of American exceptionalism and American divine right to rule cannot be understood outside this religious context, this understanding of America as the new Israel and Americans as the new chosen people.

Biblically literate atheists point to these passages and these interpretations as a reason to reject Christianity and the Biblical tradition wholesale, and it is hard to blame them.

What is a progressive White American Christian to make of this? How can we reject the one-sided war god and make sense of our position if we believe in a god that is God for everyone? We must sit with the understanding that we are living in houses we have not built and drawing water from wells we did not dig. We are living atop the graves of others, and we are only here because our ancestors brutally displaced other people from their homes. This is plain historical fact. Either we believe only in the one-sided war god, or we believe that somehow there must be some just accounting for the sins of our ancestors. To continue to benefit from the consequences of past injustice is to perpetuate the injustice. And yet, we are not volunteering (I am not volunteering) to relocate myself to my ancestral homeland in Europe, and moreover (and perhaps ironically), Europe considers me to be a foreigner. It seems to me the only way forward is to sit humbly with the burden of history, to try to make justice or at least to get out of the way when others try to make justice.

 

* Passages which are explicit about killing and displacing others: Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, 7:2, 13:15, 20:13-14; Numbers 21:3, 31:17-18; Joshua 6:21-27, 8:22-25, 10:10-40, 11:8-15, 21-23; Judges 1:4, 1:17, 3:29, 7:19-25, 8:15-21, 9:45, 20:43-48, 21:10-12; 1 Samuel 4:10, 7:7-11, 11:11, 14:31, 14:48, 15:3, 7-8, 27:8-11; 2 Samuel 8:5, 8:13, 18:6-7; 1 Kings 20:29-30; 2 Kings 14:5-7.

peace and justice

The second candle of advent is the candle of peace. My radical daughter sitting next to me bristled and, to tell the truth, I did, too. To pray for peace without simultaneously thinking about justice is implicitly to pray for oppression to continue. Facts are facts, and conflict and turmoil are pretty much the only way to battle hierarchy, oppression, and injustice. Anger is politically important.

The Biblical texts are considerably more full of conflict than the sanitized middle class Midwestern Christmas narrative.

Matthew 10 (commissioning the disciples) (34-39): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (With a similar sentiment found in Luke 12:51-53).

And Mary’s song in the Magnificat (Luke 1: 51-53): He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

As individuals, we need to be as centered as we can be. Peace at the center, knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And we need to remember the humanity of others, even when they are inhumane. But there is no religious warrant for asking for, much less demanding, that people choose peace over justice. It is the other way around. Justice is the commandment.

Hope in the Darkness, Fatalism is not an Option

This is the first week of advent, the week we light the candle of hope. Hope is not cheerfulness and optimism. Hope is not the property of the wealthy and self-satisfied. Hope stares into the dark, looks despair in the face, and dares to believe in another future. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us looks bleak. Despair demobilizes, despair paralyzes. Despair makes us fatalistic and inactive. Despair tells us that we may as well go about the individualistic business of scrambling to get what we can for ourselves and ignore the signs of need and injustice around us. Hoping is believing and working for what is right and just when there is no easy path.

My hope in the darkness of injustice was renewed this week by these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children’s lifetime or even in their grandchildren’s lifetime. So fatalism isn’t really an option.” Interview on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” 12/4/14, posted on the Huffington Post by Ed Mazzra Link