Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Super chill book review part 1: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

I was fortunate to cross paths with Andre Henry while studying at Fuller, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician, writer, and human. So my expectations for his first book, All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives (Convergent 2022), were pretty high.

All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep did not disappoint. I knew Andre was brilliant, but it’s a whole other thing to see that brilliance laid out so eloquently, bravely, and compellingly on the pages of a whole book. I’m thankful for the labor of love this book must have been.

There are a few quotes and thoughts I’d like to share. It got kind of long, though, so we’re going to take it in two parts. Here’s the first! 

1) “Contrary to what people love to say about racial violence—that it springs from ignorance or blind hatred—the Maafa wasn’t, and isn’t, senseless. The crime was undertaken for a reason: profit. Over and over again, in their writings about the slave trade, white men spoke of how they must use the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans to build their banks and textile industries, their ships and plantation homes, and to produce whatever else they ‘needed’ to buy or sell: their coffee, tea, sugar, rum, cotton, indigo. It was just business” (p. 20).

As Andre writes, racism doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t just exist because white people are randomly ignorant or hateful in random ways and for no particular reason.

Rather, it’s closely connected with a brutal, unchecked sort of capitalism, where profit is all that matters, and the people making ruthless decisions to pursue the greatest possible profit at any cost (to human life, the earth, etc.) keep themselves at many arms’ length from the consequences of these decisions.

I think about how greed and love of money are sins that Jesus has so much to say about but churches often don’t. In many churches the wealthiest people are the most respected, assumed to be the best leaders and the best influences on young people. But that wealth has often come at a cost. And the cost is often inflicted most brutally on people of color and materially poor people whose lives are considered expendable, an unfortunately necessary sacrifice. 

More and more churches and other organizations are opening up to conversations about race and racism, at least in some form. But we can’t have these conversations fully and honestly without also talking about capitalism, greed, money, and the (human) sacrifices powerful people are willing to make to increase their profits and amass grain in their storehouses.

2) As an enneagram type 1 and a (self-designated) Angry Woman, I appreciated Andre’s chapter on anger. These next few quotes are from that chapter.

“I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2015 trying to appear respectable to the white friends I couldn’t keep. I wanted to avoid the appearance of being angry, thinking it would be more persuasive. Because once white people sense you’re angry, you lose them. Just as I had with Sherry, I always responded to their racist comments with ‘I can see why you’d think that, but . . .,’ always giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought I had to approach my white friends like that in those days—to educate them without offending them” (pp. 45-6).

I hear this. Maybe one of my goals as a white person trying to be antiracist should be to become unoffendable.

I know that may not be totally realistic, and it’s probably an odd way to put things. But what I really want is to become the kind of white friend (or white human in general) who can hear the truth of someone else’s experience, whatever it might be, and honor that truth. 

This truth can be different from my experience, and someone’s reflections on it might lead that person to different conclusions about the world than the ones I’ve come to. Even if that’s the case, though, hearing from that person is still a gift, not to be taken lightly—not to be undermined or violated by my defensiveness, but to be received with gratitude.

I don’t have to see everything the same way. I can still listen, try to be open, choose not to be offended but to learn.

3) A couple more quotes from Andre on anger:

“I’d been angry for as long as I could remember, from the day I came to recognize what it meant to be Black in this country, but I’d been trained to feel like rage was off-limits…

Angry is a loaded term for us because we know how rare it is for white people to respect it. When white people say you’re angry, they’re not saying, ‘I recognize how you feel, and that’s valid.’ More often, they’re appraising your character, naming an innate quality, a defect. You’re angry in the way that bacon is salty or mangoes are sweet, ‘one of those perpetually angry Blacks.’ It’s a statement of disapproval, meant to make us loosen our lips, fix our faces, and take the bass out of our voices. We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. Do anything else, and you risk a range of punishments: from a white friend shutting down the conversation to an officer pinning you to the ground” (pp. 48-9).

We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. I feel that. It’s so clearly not right. I think this is a metaphor that will stick with me. 

“Rank-and-file white people also try to stamp out Black rage wherever it emerges. They tell us Black anger is destructive and can’t be trusted. The truth is just the opposite.

“Black rage is trustworthy because it carries an analysis of present injustices. On a physiological level, anger is the body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been violated. It’s the natural emotional response humans have to being wronged, especially if that wrong is recurring and denied by the harmdoers. Therefore, Black rage is a healthy sign that we as a people recognize the crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed against us. Our anger is based in our personal experiences of anti-Black hostility in the white world and backed by our knowledge of our history.

“Black rage can be constructive because anger can be the starting point of hope. If anger is something like an alarm system, telling us things ought not to be a certain way, then it’s likely that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. That vision of how things ought to be is the most important building block for a revolution; after all, it’s hard to build a world we haven’t envisioned” (p. 53).

Anger can be the starting point of hope, because it signals that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. In this light, we can see that attempts to quell or placate anger are often really attacks on hope—they’re conservative maneuvers that uphold the status quo. 

Let’s learn to be comfortable with anger—our own, and others,’ and especially that of people on the underside of the power structures of our world. Let’s pay attention to what this anger is telling us about what ought to be.

More to come later this week!

Super chill book review: Red Lip Theology (Candice Marie Benbow)

Candice Marie Benbow’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough (Convergent 2022) strikes me as a combination of memoir, Black feminist manifesto, ode to Benbow’s mother, and work of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. Or something like that. I’m here for it. It’s a sort of coming-of-theology story, if you will. 

Benbow works with womanist (academic) theology, both what she loves about it and where she thinks it could go further. She’s looking to develop spiritual belief and practice that works for a new generation of Black women. And she has a ton of important stuff to say.

She isn’t looking to write something “prescriptive for all women,” because, as she puts it, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to life and the people who say, ‘yes, there is—it’s Jesus’ are being lazy and willfully obtuse” (p. xxx). Amen to that. At the same time, I’m grateful for the chance to be one of the “other women”—that is, non-Black women—who are “eavesdropping and looking for freedom, too” (p. xxx).

A few quotes and thoughts I especially liked:

1) “Even as I desired to navigate it, womanist theology didn’t feel like it was created for women like me: sisters who didn’t tuck in their ratchetness in favor of righteousness to occupy certain spaces or get in certain rooms. I needed something to speak to the totality of who I am” (p. xxv).

I like the part about not tucking in ratchetness in favor of righteousness. Not that I’m particularly ratchet. But for those who are, who the hell am I to tell them—who the hell is anyone to tell them—that they can’t bring the fullness of who they are to church, or theology, or anywhere else they like? 

I need the perspectives and gifts and brilliance of my ratchet-est of sisters. The church needs all these things, as does the world.

2) I appreciated Benbow going hard against Calvinist theology—or at least the sketchier, ickier parts of it. She effectively communicates, in many different ways throughout the book, that humans are inherently worthy, valuable, and good. That the biblical story doesn’t start with sin; it starts with good creation. That we are not slimy worthless worms (my words, not hers—I’ve heard others call this “worm theology”) before we invite Jesus into our lives, or whatever you want to call Christian conversion. 

For anyone for whom this sort of dominant evangelical theology isn’t really working—I’d recommend this book. Benbow does a great job of articulating what exactly isn’t working and suggesting what we might believe instead. She invites us into a more humanity-affirming, goodness-affirming, worth-affirming kind of spirituality.

“Where did Christians get the idea we are these wretched creatures who need so desperately to be thrown the bone of salvation for our lives to have any value or meaning?” Benbow asks. “The way I read it, the work of creation was an act of love. This omniscient, omnipresent, sustaining force took the time to make one of the most significant things it ever would. The Holy Maker called every single aspect of the design ‘good.’. . . yes, the biblical narrative is replete with examples of humanity fumbling the ball and God extending grace and mercy. We can look to our own lives and see where God has done the same thing. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning: good” (pp. 18-9).

God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning. I like that. Whatever else we are, we are also good. We are loved. 

I appreciate this message in general, and I also feel like it’s especially powerful and healing and necessary for those who constantly get the message in our society that they are not good, that they are not worth anything, that they are less than. People on the underside of oppressive power structures especially need to know that they are good, they are loved, their lives are sacred. From the beginning, and all the time.

3) I appreciate Benbow’s perspectives on God and gender, and more specifically, God’s gender. 

I got to teach a three-week class at my church back in January on “feminine God-talk”—that is, biblical, historical, and contemporary feminine imagery and metaphors for God, including the use of feminine pronouns. I think if I do the class again, I’ll include some of Benbow’s reflections.

For example, this:

“In my mind, God was a man, and men stuck together. God would look out for my dad and cosign his foolishness because that’s what men do. After all, God was only referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in church and in the scriptures. Add to that the trifling things I’d heard men—pastors included—had done and gotten away with. God was on the side of his homeboys.

To this day, I’ve seen men lie for each other, gaslight the hell out of women to make us second-guess ourselves and our own common sense—all to protect their boy. I saw it when the men would assist each other in the creation and perpetuation of false alibis. And it was up close and personal for me when I got my heart broken and men I deeply respected said, ‘Well . . . maybe you misconstrued some things’” (p. 30).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about God’s perceived masculinity in these terms—that speaking of God as if God is male makes God seem like one of the boys. But that totally makes sense to me. 

It’s not just an issue of, say, whether women and nonbinary folks can see ourselves as being made in God’s image fully—fully human. It’s also a question of: Whom does God side with? Whom does God stick up for? Whom does God betray? Does God participate in male church leaders’ gaslighting? Does God lie to cover up for men?

It’s important for people and communities to know that God is not one of the boys. God does not lie to women or gaslight them. God does not protect abusive men from the consequences of their actions. God does not hide or cover for them. 

I appreciate how Benbow connects the dots here. The ways we gender God are deeply tied to the ways gendered power dynamics play out in religious spaces.

4) More on (particularly masculine) gendered language for God:

“God stood before language or identity and is not defined by them. God is compassionate and empathetic enough to make room for us to come to know God as we need to come to know God. While I think it gave us an initial point of reference, the push to understand God through gendered language does not come from the Divine. It comes from our need to control, to lay claim, to create proximity to those whose authority we believe shouldn’t be questioned. But domination is not God’s will for us” (p. 39).

This strikes me as a helpful addition to the stuff I was thinking and writing about God and “they/them” pronouns a couple months ago. God can make Godself known through various pronouns—for those in the Christian tradition, often masculine ones—but that doesn’t mean that those pronouns limit God or encapsulate the entirety of who God is. 

We don’t need to try to control the language people use to speak about God. We can embrace the beauty of different ways of speaking about God, whether or not we understand all of them. 

5) Back to Calvinism and such:

“I don’t need a God who knows what I will do before I do it. I am not a robot. I was created with emotions and feelings that can shift in the moment. Plus, I don’t think we realize how much our thoughts of predestination and God’s omniscience take us off the hook. They make God responsible for our decisions so we don’t have to accept any responsibility . . . And because God trusts me with free will, it comes with great responsibility. I owe it to God and myself to live a life of authenticity. That requires I make decisions true to the core of who I am and that honor me” (pp. 57-8).

I don’t have much to add to that except an amen. Just wanted to share.

6) One small part of the awesomeness of Benbow’s mother, who plays a major role in this book:

“I had a mother who believed in my gifts and talents, believed they were called to shake things up, and believed I could be kind while doing it. She didn’t believe in calling someone out. Mama favored the notion of ‘bringing someone to’ something. By being direct, clear, kind, and compassionate, she believed you could provoke someone’s awareness and change their hearts” (pp. 103-4).

Something to aspire to, I think. Direct, clear, kind, and compassionate. Provoking awareness. Not necessarily being nice or playing into whatever notions of respectability people might have, but being kind and clear. 

7) One last quote:

“There is power in saying no. Women don’t say it enough and Black women say it even less. Saying yes to everything becomes our ‘reasonable service.’ American culture teaches men to say no almost without thinking, without a care about who it may harm or hurt. Women consider entirely too many people’s feelings to the point of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. ‘No’ is a holy word. Our agency is sacred. God honors our agency through free will. We must honor it ourselves. When we say no, we are affirming that our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence and offers no explanation. Because we care about the people we say no to, we choose to explain ourselves. But it’s okay to say no and leave it there” (p. 168).

As someone who finds it awkward and a little stressful sometimes to say no—in more than one recent instance I’ve found myself muttering “errmm…mayybe…” when I wanted to say no but didn’t want to offend—I need all of this. ‘No’ is a holy word. Amen. Our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere

If someone is offended by us exercising our agency to say no, the problem is generally with the person who is offended—with their own unreasonable expectations or entitlement, not with the person who says no. I want people to feel very free to say no when I ask them for something; why wouldn’t I offer them the same authenticity I want to receive?

I also like the idea that we can choose to explain our “no” because we care about people, but we don’t have to. It’s okay to say no and leave it there. Saying yes, no, or maybe is the free choice of the person who is asked something — and so is whether or not to give an explanation.

None of this is one bit at odds with Christian faith. As Benbow writes, it’s God honoring our agency.

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and quotes! Lots of good stuff in this book. Holler if you read it!

Lent-y reflections

Christians for Social Action posted another article of mine – I Fasted from White Authors for Lent – which is totally awesome, because Christians for Social Action is totally awesome. Check it out – it’s a brief reflection on my experience of Lent 2021.

It was fun to see this article published right after interviews with Candice Marie Benbow and Cole Arthur Riley, both of whose books (Red Lip Theology and This Here Flesh, respectively) I’m super stoked to read. (I feel a “super chill book review” or two coming…)

If you want more totally biased recommendations of awesome authors of color to read (during Lent, or anytime), feel free to return to 2021: a year in books: would totally recommend Ijeoma Oluo, Brittney Cooper, Tarana Burke, Cathy Park Hong, Imani Perry…just as a place to start.

Holler if you’ve done anything similar for Lent (or otherwise), if you’ve liked any of these authors or have other recommendations, or if you have any other thoughts!

2021: a year in books

This is the first year I’ve actually written down (or at least attempted to write down) every book I’ve finished reading over the course of the year. It’s been a good exercise. 

Looking back at the list now, I feel a lot of gratitude. These authors poured their hearts and souls into each of these books, and the results are beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, challenging. 

And there are just a lot of them. Every book on my list is one that I found worthwhile enough to read the whole thing. (And I’ve been getting more comfortable setting down and leaving unfinished books that I’m not enjoying or learning much from, or that just aren’t a good fit for what I’m interested in right now.) 

I’d like to share some of my personal favorites from the year. With a huge caveat that taste in books is very personal, fickle, sometimes arbitrary. I make no claim whatsoever to name THE TEN BEST BOOKS of 2021, or any nonsense like that. (Can anybody, really?) I only know what I like and what I’ve connected with. 

So, appreciation expressed and caveats acknowledged, these are my favorite books that I’ve read this year! In no particular order, complete with a totally-biased sentence or two (or five) describing each one. Enjoy!

Nonfiction (top 3)

-Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Check out my super chill book review for all the thoughts.

-Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (Brittney Cooper)

I was super impressed with Cooper’s analysis of gender and race and America and everything—and also with her ability to write academically brilliant sentences and paragraphs that also drop colloquialisms and swear words at exactly the right moments. Who does that? Brittney Cooper, apparently, and she’s brilliant at it. Like Mediocre, I feel like Eloquent Rage does a great job of intersectional analysis. Everything’s connected, and you can’t talk very well about race without also talking about gender, and vice versa, and I appreciate writers who deal with this really well.

-Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Audre Lorde)

A classic must-read (in my opinion) that I hadn’t read until this year. I wish Lorde’s words from before I was born didn’t feel so prescient and relevant today, but here we are; and they’re very much worth reading, for anyone interested in making any kind of feminist and/or antiracist progress.

Nonfiction (honorable mention)

-Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the MeToo Movement (Tarana Burke)

Thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir by the real-life superhero who was doing the work of the MeToo movement a decade before it became a viral hashtag.

-Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning (Cathy Park Hong)

Fascinating mix of memoir / cultural commentary / historical storytelling. Explores a lot of things that often get lost in race-related conversations that become a little too black & white.

-Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Imani Perry)

Beautiful writing; loved the idea of framing reflections on race and America and such as an extended love letter to the author’s two sons.

-Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit)

Contains the essay that inspired someone on the internet to come up with the term “mansplaining” several years ago…and lots of other great essays, too. 

-So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)

Excellent introduction to all things race-related in America.

-Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (Katherine May)

Maybe this is an odd thing to say about a book that’s about wintering (i.e. the times in life when things move slowly, and when sad and otherwise difficult feelings come to the surface), but I found this book delightful.

-Why We Swim (Bonnie Tsui)

The fact that I’m a swimmer might have something to do with this, but I found this book delightful as well. I enjoyed having my view of swimming expanded far beyond the pool and the four Olympic strokes, to include things like shellfish diving, cold water swimming (ice mile, anyone? Just kidding, I’m good), and samurai swimming.

And, of course, honorable mentions to all the books I’ve done “super chill book reviews” for:

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (ed. Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga)

Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience (Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Rebecca Solnit)

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X Kendi)

Well, I tried to keep this list short, but there are too many good books out there. It’s not my fault, really. Fortunately for you, I haven’t read as much fiction as nonfiction, so this part is shorter…

Fiction (top 3)

-The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)

A multigenerational family story tracing the lives of two twins from a small town of mixed-race Black folks in the South, one of whom leaves everything behind to start a new life passing as white.

-Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

Life among teenagers and their families in a super-planned-suburban-utopia-type community is…complicated. I liked the set-up of starting with a dramatic climax and then walking back to unveil the year-or-so-long story leading up to that climax. And I liked the author’s explorations of class tensions. 

-Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

A story of young womanhood and love and immigration and home and such, split between Nigeria and the U.S.

Fiction (honorable mention)

-Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)

People describe this one with words like charming and “up-lit” (literature with uplifting, positive themes?), but I felt like a lot of this book is pretty intense, and parts are quite sad. But I still liked it and thought it was well done.

-Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

Loved the beautiful scene-setting in the salt marshes of North Carolina, along with the page-turning mystery / murder trial aspect of it. But I wasn’t remotely emotionally prepared for HOW FRICKIN SAD so much of it was. So, if you haven’t read it yet…be prepared. 

That’s all I’ve got. Read any of these books? Loved them? Hated them? Feel indifferently toward them? Have complicated feelings about them? I’d love to hear! 

Book recommendations are very welcome as well—what have some of your favorites been this year?

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” -Mary (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In these verses, Mary breaks out into a song often known as the Magnificat. To me, Mary’s song is kind of what Christmas is all about. So, with Christmas pretty much here, I thought I’d offer some reflections on this songadapted from a sermon I wrote for a preaching class back in the day (well, three and a half years ago) in seminary.

When Mary breaks out in spontaneous song, in rich prophetic poetry, she starts with her own situation. I imagine how she might have been feeling: 

God―the God of the universe and of my ancestors―God has visited me! Out of the blue. I thought I knew God, loved God, wanted to serve God, but I never would have imagined this. God has chosen me for an incredible and miraculous task. Me! Not someone older and wiser, or from a rich family, or from Jerusalem, the center of everything, or at least a nice little suburb of it. God chose me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” and “my spirit rejoices.” I feel my whole being bursting forth in irrepressible praise of this God. This God is Lord―powerful, authoritative. This God is Savior―the one who sees those who suffer, and delivers them and sets them free. And this God―Lord and Savior―has looked with favor on me! 

God is doing something. The angel talked about a kingdom with no end. The throne of David. This is big! And I get to be a part of it. Surely all generations will call me blessed. 

This is a great thing. This is a holy God.

Mary reflects on her own situation and praises God from the bottom of her heart for God’s work in her life. That’s all in verses 46-49. 

Then, around verse 50, something changes. The scope gets broader. Mary starts talking about what all this means about God in general. From generation to generation. About God’s character. About what God does in the world. 

Mary says that God is merciful. God is strong. God is powerful. God helps. God remembers. God keeps promises. God lifts up, and God brings down.

Mary starts talking about other people, too. In particular, two kinds of people. On the one hand, we have those who are lowly, those who fear God, those who are hungry. On the other hand, we have those who are proud in their hearts, those who are powerful, those who are rulers, those who are rich. This is how the world is. 

But for Mary, this is not how things remain. God reverses the expected order of things. God does not leave the lowly down low, but lifts them up. God does not leave the hungry starving, but fills them with good things. God does not leave those who fear God without help or without mercy. 

And God does not leave the proud to think they’re all that; God scatters them. God does not leave the rulers in their thrones; God brings them down. God does not leave the rich thinking they have everything because they have money; God sends them away empty. 

Mary is full of hope and bursting with joy and good news. She bursts into song! 

But is this good news to us? Maybe? Maybe a mixed bag. 

It depends: Who are we in this passage? Are we the lowly who are lifted up by God, or are we the powerful who are scattered by God? How do we know? How do we feel about this total reversal of power and money and status? 

Let’s talk about the rich, proud, and powerful first. Are there ways in which we fall into this category? One way of thinking about this may be to think about what we feel entitled to. What are our expectations for life? For how people and systems and the world will treat us? What kinds of things are we surprised, or bitter, or disappointed not to get?

Our expectations and entitlements can take many shapes. Perhaps we’ve felt entitled to be offered a job we applied for. Maybe we expect to get an A on a paper when we spend a lot of time on it. We might feel entitled to get a raise if we’ve been working hard, or for our kid to be accepted to a certain college if they’ve been working hard. We might expect that if we invest wisely, the stock market will generally go up and make us some money. Perhaps we have enjoyed good physical health and assume we always will, or we have not had any mental health issues and assume we never will. 

Maybe life is going well. Perhaps we are among the people favored by the way the world works, and we expect that that will continue.

When we’re in this place, and things are going well, the kind of reversal of expectations that we see in our passage does not sound like good news. It can be offensive. It can be threatening. It up-ends the social order that has benefited us. What are we to think of a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Maybe a first step is to try to enter into the experience of people who may be or may feel lowly, hungry, or poor.

In our culture sometimes we separate out things like physical hunger and thirst and poverty from spiritual hunger and spiritual needs. In Mary’s time and culture, in Mary’s worldview, all of these things tended to go together. Mary lived in poverty among a minority people, a minority ethnic and religious group, oppressed by a very powerful and often ruthless empire. For Mary, the lowly are those who fear God, and those who fear God are the hungry, and those who are hungry are Israel, the servant of God, and Israel is the community that needs God’s help and mercy. 

These are the people at the bottom of the social order. The people who know they need God to do something.

What does it mean in our time and place for people to be lowly? Are there ways in which we identify with the lowly, the humble, the hungry?

Some of us might be underpaid, or undervalued. We may feel that we’ve failed in some way, or that life has not treated us well. Some of us belong to groups that are considered lowly or are not treated well in our society―perhaps groups based on gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, mental health status, socioeconomic class. 

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

God affirmed and lifted up the dignity of a peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in Nazareth. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of underpaid employees. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of people working in all sorts of professions that might be undervalued, maybe even considered lacking in dignity: of people who take out trash, and drive buses, and clean buildings, and flip burgers, and wait tables. 

God affirms and lifts up the worth and value of people who do not have a job, who are unemployed or underemployed. God affirms and lifts up people who don’t have adequate housing, or who don’t have housing at all. 

God affirms and lifts up people who live in fear of deportation. God affirms and lifts up communities of color who are on the receiving end of racism and violence―from individuals, and from government systems that are not set up in their favor. 

God lifts up the lowly.

Mary says, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary―a young woman from the rural underclass of society, in a time when women’s testimonies were not considered valid in court―raises her voice and testifies to this God who lifts up the lowly. 

Mary knows that God fills up the hungry with good things. The world honors and lifts up those who have money and power and self-assurance, but God honors and lifts up those who are hungry, and lowly, small, and humble. Mary knows that this is who God is, because this is who God has been to her―and because there is something about the baby she carries that brings hope. 

Jesus brings hope. The child of God chose to be carried and birthed and raised by Mary. He chose to be born into poverty in the middle of nowhere, born lowly. He identified with hungry and hurting people wherever he went.

God chose to become flesh and dwell with us, in the incarnation, in Jesus. God’s incarnation shows us the kind of kingdom that has come and is coming. It is a different kind of order from the social orders we have now. Jesus shows us that God lifts up the lowly. That there is justice. That there is unexpected reversal. That there is mercy. That there is hope.

In the ways in which you identify with the lowly, how might you lift up your voice like Mary and give glory to this God? To see and join in the ways God is lifting you up and lifting up those around you? To speak about your reality and about justice and about God’s mercy? 

In the ways in which you identify with the powerful, are you ready to listen to the lowly ones God raises up? To be in relationship with people for whom life has been an uphill battle rather than smooth sailing? To live in a way that bears witness to the truth that there is more to life than wealth and power and fame? To see and join in with God’s work of lifting up the lowly?

God lifts up the lowly. God is merciful. There is hope for us all.

Wishing you a joyful, omicron-free Christmas. And stay tuned―I plan to be back next week with some of my favorite books from 2021.

Super chill book review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Well, it seems that I took a *totally intentional* hiatus from blogging for most of August. But I’m back, woohoo, with super chill book reviews and more. (Hopefully, more = poems, scripture reflections, prayers, sermons. We’ll see.) 

For now, I’m excited to share some quotes and general brilliance from Ijeoma Oluo’s 2020 book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.

This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll probably make a list of top recommendations at the end of 2021; I’m not sure what all will be on it, but I know this one will.  

I’m also a fan of Oluo’s 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. For me, Mediocre takes the awesomeness a big step further. I’m here for it. 

Here are a few quotes and other tidbits from Mediocre that stood out to me.

1. The central idea of Mediocre, at least the way I see it, is that there are certain ways of being, certain qualities we admire and perhaps aspire to—or, if not admire, then at least recognize as things that tend to get people “ahead” in our society, land people in leadership positions, etc.—that are actually anything but desirable. These characteristics are far from healthy and good for individuals. And they’re far from conducive to the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

This really resonated with me. I feel like I’ve seen it and felt it, in everything from politics on a national level to people who have been influential in my circles more personally. 

Oluo does a great job of pinpointing what some of these qualities are, and why they’re counterproductive. I appreciate how she ties these qualities to both patriarchy and white supremacy—or, as Oluo puts it, to “white male supremacy.” I think this is a useful term, because it helps us see that everything is interconnected. Misogyny and racism are so deeply intertwined. And we need to recognize this, if we want to have any hope of untangling and detoxing from…everything.

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

While we would like to believe otherwise, it is usually not the cream that rises to the top: our society rewards behaviors that are actually disadvantageous to everyone. Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics—not to mention the personal toll this style of leadership takes on the individuals around these leaders. These traits are broadly considered to be masculine, whereas characteristics often associated with weakness or lack of leadership (patience, accommodation, cooperation) are coded as feminine. This is a global phenomenon of counterproductive values that social scientists have long marveled over.

The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with.

And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes (p. 10).

No lies detected there.

As I looked back through our history, I started to see patterns. I started to see how time and again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress. I started to see how reliably the bullying and entitlement we valued in our leaders led to failure. These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated (p. 12).

I feel that. Most people don’t want their kids, or the people they love in general, to be “incompetent assholes” who operate in ways marked by “bullying and entitlement.” But I totally agree that these traits are rewarded—you know, if you’re into things like promotions, fancy job titles, high salaries, success in your field, and the like.

The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as ‘leadership material’—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as ‘strength and leadership’ can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. These same qualities also mask shortfalls in skills, knowledge, or experience and may keep leaders from acknowledging mistakes and changing course when needed. They prevent healthy business partnerships and collaborative work environments. These traits can and do spell disaster for many businesses (p. 182).

Oluo backs these kinds of statements up with all sorts of insights from history and present-day experiences throughout the book. I appreciate that. It’s definitely worth a read.

They’re also statements that, to me at least, just feel true. I realize that this feeling is subjective, and we aren’t always right about these things. (Brett Kavanaugh’s nonsense about judging the “truthiness” of his claims vs Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims during his confirmation hearings back in 2018 comes to mind, and it still makes my blood boil.) But still. I think many of us have felt what Oluo is saying and have experienced it viscerally. If nothing else, we’re still reeling from the extreme example we saw in our four years of Trump.

Oluo puts words so well to what I think many of us—especially those on the underside of power structures—know in our gut.

2. Oluo brings out the idea that a lot of the things that seem so wrong (and are so wrong) with the U.S. are actually, as others have put it, features, not bugs. A lot of the things that seem shocking, like they should be unusual, are actually just evidence of a shitty system working as designed.

Oluo writes: 

What we are seeing in our political climate is not novel or unexplainable. It works according to design. Yes, of course the average white man is going to feel dissatisfied with his lot in life—he was supposed to. Yes, of course our powerful and respected men would be shown to be abusers and frauds—that is how they became powerful and respected. And yes, the average white male voter (and a majority of white women voters whose best chance at power is their proximity to white men) would see a lewd, spoiled, incompetent, untalented bully as someone who best represents their vision of America—he does (pp. 11-12).

This might sound harsh. But it also sounds about right to me.

I’m hoping we can move, together, beyond the “this is not the America I know!” reaction to various bad things the U.S. and its politicians do. I’m hoping we can move toward a realization that, downer though it may be, this is exactly the America that lots and lots of people on the margins have always known. 

We need to be able to see the way things were designed, and not be in denial about it, if we’re actually going to change anything.

3. Another memorable quote: 

Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo. It may not stop until it has destroyed everything (p. 45).

First, omg, the story Oluo tells about the buffalo. It turns out that white men going West to kill buffalo back in the day wasn’t just a dumb, violent-toward-animals, shortsighted, hypermasculinist thing. It was also—primarily—the government’s attempt to destroy indigenous peoples whose lives were interwoven with the buffalo herds. That got me in all the feels. Lord, have mercy.

Second, I may not be a white dude, but I think part of me has internalized the competitive, go-it-alone mindset, where “cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy.” Yikes. 

I want to learn to be my best self in a way that helps others be their best selves too. I want to recognize and live out of the reality that we really are stronger together. The point is not to be better than others, but to figure out how to live in whole, healthy communities together. 

I’m not always there. No matter how many times I might say these things, and how deeply I believe them, there’s still something in me that wants to compete. (In an individualistic, unhealthy way, that is—not just, say, in a swim meet, or a 5k. Speaking of which, Burien Brat Trot, anyone?)

4. Sorry for the long quote. But not really sorry, because it’s a good one:

The idea that women were not made for work is only true to the extent that men have ensured that work was not made for women. Men have designed offices that don’t suit women’s needs, have established work hours that compete with child-rearing, have developed education and training programs that regularly discourage women’s aspirations in male-dominated fields, have formed mentoring and networking relationships on golf courses and in clubs, places where women are not welcome or comfortable—or sometimes even allowed.

Men have used these deliberately structured environments to prove why women are naturally ‘not a fit’ for the workplace. Nursing mothers who cannot work in spaces that don’t accommodate breast pumps are ‘obviously not that interested in the job.’ Women who need flexible hours to care for children, in a society that still expects women to do the majority of child-rearing regardless of employment status, ‘lack the work ethic necessary to put in the hours needed for the job.’ Women who have always loved math but were told from primary school on that they would be better at English and art than science and engineering ‘must not be interested in STEM.’ And men who make all their business connections at the country club or through their old fraternity buddies ‘just haven’t come across any women who are as qualified for a job at their company as men.’

As promotion after promotion goes to men, as men are encouraged to start businesses and women aren’t, as men flow into fields that are more open to them, the definition of an ideal worker and leader becomes even more stereotypically male—even if those ‘ideal’ traits and skills are not the most beneficial (pp. 153-4).

Yeah, that feels right. Not sure I have much to add. Maybe just that I really appreciate the intersectionality of Oluo’s analyses in general. I feel like she really gets at the realities of race and gender each in their own right, very effectively—sometimes focusing on gender, like in the quote above, and sometimes on race. And she’s also very effective in getting at the connections between them. 

5. I think Oluo has a lot of grace and empathy for white dudes, and I appreciate that. They’re not all bad—but they are stuck, as all of us are, in a toxic white male supremacist system.

To me, Oluo strikes a great balance of sympathizing with the situation white men are in—and the ways our society is toxic to them, too—while also not letting them off the hook for the things they are responsible for.

Another long but good quote (again, sorry / not sorry):

White male identity is a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition…

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us…We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.

I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate. I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them…I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.

The constraints of white male identity in America have locked white men into cycles of fear and violence—where the only success they are allowed comes at the expense of others, and the only feelings they are allowed to express are triumph or rage. When white men try to break free from these cycles, they are ostracized by society at large or find themselves victims of other white men who are willing to fulfill their expected roles of dominance…

We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men. We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don’t reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men (pp. 273-5).

Curious to hear white dudes’ (or anyone’s) thoughts on this. I like the sentiment of wanting better for all of us, including white men. White guys aren’t the devil. They just tend to be socialized to play a particular role in an evil construct; and, to the extent that they refuse to play that role, they’re often penalized for it. That makes sense to me. 

Grateful for Oluo’s leadership in naming all these things and imagining a different way. 

Holler if you read the book (or not) and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

When I was at Stanford, there was a beloved dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising named Julie Lythcott-Haims, affectionately known as “Dean Julie.” I didn’t really interact with her personally—I mostly just remember her leading us all in a chant of “oh-ten!” to show our enthusiasm for being part of the great class of 2010—but we’re Facebook friends, and I always appreciate her posts on all sorts of things.

It must have been through Facebook that I knew that, maybe a couple of years after I graduated, Dean Julie left her position at Stanford, went and got an MFA, and made a go for it as a writer. 

Her first book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, published in 2016, seems to have been quite successful. The book struck me as a good idea, but I guess it didn’t really fit with my personal interests enough to read it, you know, since I’m not a parent and all. Maybe I’ll read it someday, if it becomes more relevant to my interests :p. 

I just recently got around to reading (former) Dean Julie’s second book, Real American: A Memoir, published in 2017. It’s fantastic. 

I think that when you know an author personally (or sort of know them, or have some connection with them), it can be hard to tell—am I just into this book because I feel connected with the author and so I’m interested in their life and thoughts? Or would I want to read this even if I had no context for who this person is? 

With Real American, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. But I’m also curious to hear your thoughts, if you read it and didn’t know the author as “Dean Julie” from Stanford back in the day.

Real American is Julie’s memoir of growing up biracial in America, with a Black father and a white mother, raised largely in mostly-white suburbs. 

As usual, a few random thoughts:

1. I think this book brought home for me just how recently race relations in the U.S. have changed dramatically. (Which is not at all to say that in some ways they haven’t really changed at all, or that they don’t need to change, like, a ton more.) 

Julie is about twenty years older than me. When her Black father and white mother married, as Julie writes, “miscegenation” (also known as interracial marriage) was still illegal in 17 states. So I guess it makes sense—but was also mind-blowing to me, because I hadn’t thought about it—that, as she writes, the terms “biracial” and “multiracial” were just starting to become a thing when she was in college. 

I’m glad we now have this language to describe (lots and lots of) people’s experiences. And I’m also chewing on the fact that these words didn’t exist until maybe the late 1980s.

2. I feel like one of the key themes of this book is the idea of belonging. Or the lack thereof. Or how one might find a sense of belonging, and how long that sometimes takes. 

It reminded me of Brené Brown’s work, where she says that true belonging is different from fitting in. Real belonging is kind of the opposite of giving in to pressure to conform. We might associate these two things, but really, belonging requires being loved and accepted for who we actually are, not for an image of ourselves that we’re trying to present because we feel like we have to. (I think this was in Braving the Wilderness. And/or Daring Greatly.)

I appreciated Julie’s vulnerability about her own journey toward finding a sense of belonging. It strikes me as both universal enough to be relatable—don’t we all struggle with things like belonging and vulnerability? That’s why Brené Brown makes the big bucks—and yet also very specific to Julie’s biracial experience. I felt like I could relate, in some ways, while also recognizing that being racialized as nonwhite in the U.S. adds a whole additional layer of complexity to everything, as does being biracial or multiracial.

3. I liked Julie’s reflections on her experience of a college class called The American Dream, taught by John Manley:

“Manley’s class was a mirror that showed me things about myself I hadn’t seen before. I’d known race and racism and America’s preference for whites and whiteness erected a wall between me and whites demarcating white as normal and me as other. But the wall between me and Blacks was there too, though harder to put my hands on or see. Manley’s class forced me to see that the higher socioeconomic class that comes with professional success—the access to the good schools, the access to homes in white towns that can come with such status—

if one so chooses—

is a form of passing out of otherness out of darkness into lightness into whiteness.

I did not choose it. No one asked. But there’s no question these choices lifted me. And if asked, I’d have said yes lift me with these opportunities. Just maybe not this far.

As loathsome as it was to learn that the engine of the American Dream itself—capitalism—was the invisible hand guiding me away from a people, a community, a tradition, at least now I understood the source of much of my dislocation and unbelonging. That being upper middle class had given me more in common with upper-middle-class whites than with middle-class or working-class or poor Blacks. I graduated from college knowing I was not some freak of nature but an easily predicted data point in our macroeconomic system” (p. 116).

All of this is so complicated—the interplay between money, and race, and where people live, and who we live near, and professional success, and education, and color, and capitalism. I appreciate Julie’s thoughtful and honest reflections on these intersections and how she experienced them as a young person. 

4. Speaking of feeling disconnected with Blackness and Black community, Julie writes about how she went to one event at Ujamaa—Stanford’s African / African American focus dorm—and then pretty much stayed away for the rest of her time as a student at Stanford. 

I lived in Ujamaa, sophomore year. I remember being very aware that Ujamaa was not just a dorm made up of about half Black students and half non-Black students, but also, as Julie writes, a hub of Black community on campus. 

People used to joke about living in “C” wing. The dorm only had an “A” wing and a “B” wing, so “C” wing people were those who were there all the time even though they lived elsewhere.

When I lived in Ujamaa, it kind of felt like I got to know, or at least recognize, most of the Black students on campus. (That’s probably not actually true, it’s just how it felt.) I hadn’t really thought about Black students (including multiracial students) like Julie who didn’t feel like Ujamaa was a comfortable home for them, and who intentionally stayed far away.

I felt sad (in a totally sympathetic way) to hear that that was her experience, and also a little oblivious for not thinking about it, and also just intrigued to hear a different perspective on Ujamaa. 

5. It was interesting to hear about some of the changes Julie advocated for while she was dean—for example, trying to make sure the books assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen were as accessible as possible to as many students as possible, recognizing that some students had access to much more rigorous high school academic programs than others. I feel like Julie’s presence in the meetings of Stanford-y higher-ups likely had a huge positive impact on my Stanford experience, and the experiences of many others too, in so many ways, and I only know a tiny bit of it.

I was interested in Julie’s story from the perspective of what it looks like to push for change, and how people respond to that, and how to navigate the pushback and retaliation that you tend to get for it.


All in all, lots of great writing here, lots of interesting stories and reflections, and lots to think about that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. Holler if you read Real American, and tell me what you think!

Super chill book review: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

I kind of want to say that this one’s for the nerds out there. But I’m also kind of against the anti-intellectualism that words like “nerd” might carry. 

So…this one’s for anyone interested in thinking about seminaries and other institutions of higher education. Or, really, anyone interested in thinking about any sorts of institutions with roots in colonialist ways of thinking about things. Which is, like, lots and lots of institutions.

The book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, written by theologian Willie James Jennings, published in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect when I checked it out from the library—I just think Willie Jennings is brilliant, so I figured I’d (make an exception to the mostly-women-authors rule and) check out his new-ish book. 

After Whiteness isn’t quite as dense as the other book by Jennings that I’ve read, or attempted to read—that would be The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race—but it’s still not at all easy reading. And, while a lot of it could be applied to all sorts of schools and other organizations, it is also very seminary-focused. So it might be most of interest to people who’ve attended seminary or otherwise have some sort of connection to the seminary world. (If you read it and don’t have that connection, I’d be extra curious to hear what you think!)

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1). I recently became an elder at my church (woohoo!). This was one of the questions the four of us new elders were asked to answer at our ordination service last Sunday:

“As an elder, will you work to tell the whole story of the Church – its redemptive acts AND also the Church’s complicity in violent oppression, injustice, genocide, slavery and other acts of terror committed against God’s beloved children? And will you lead the Church in repentance of these things?”

I love that this question was included. I feel like it should be top priority in these interesting times we find ourselves in—in general, and in Christian communities in particular. I’m all about telling the whole story of the church. And I feel like Jennings is a leading voice as we all figure out together how to do that.

This is one of the things at the heart of Jennings’ book, I think: telling the whole story of how Christian churches and seminaries have been formed in a colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal mindset, and how this is killing us. The only way to life is complete repentance, complete overhaul of so many toxic ways of thinking and being. 

2). Jennings writes, “The modern world formed in the bricolage of native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe, and together they formed the cultural baroque, something new and unanticipated. Yet this reality of shared agency and shared creativity was occluded by a white aesthetic regime that refused to share the world of meaning and purpose with those outside the old world of Europe or the colonial West as well as their colonialized subjects.

“Theological education in the West gloried in this refusal, and took as its task forming people who would embody this white aesthetic regime as fundamental to performing a gospel logic and a Christian identity. Western education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of culture additionadd to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them, add to the great European artists other artists who are also great like they are, add to the eternal wisdom and universal insights of Europe the wisdom of other peoples that resemble them. Add these nonwhite others as embroidery to frame a picture, or spices to season a dish” (p. 64).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about the possibilities that were present when “native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe”the possibilities of cultures mixing, learning from one another as equals, collaborating together to build something good. All of these possibilities that were curtailed by Europeans’ colonialism. 

We still see the effects of this way of thinkingwhere European stuff is the cultural standard of awesomeness, and non-white artists, thinkers, etc. can sometimes be added to the canon if they sound enough like those already in itin all sorts of places. It reminds me of my seminary reading lists, so full of white dudes, with the occasional (white) woman and/or person (read: man) of color (rarely a woman of color, yikes) thrown in for good measure (like “spices to season a dish”). 

It also reminds me of the time a fellow student pointed out that part of the reason why there weren’t more theologians of color on our syllabi was because a lot of them weren’t saying the things our (mostly white male) professors wanted them to say. Double yikes. Sure, we’ll include your voice…as long as you don’t disagree with us or challenge us in any significant way.

3). I appreciated Jennings’ thoughts about thinking and feelingabout the “affective reality of Western institutional life” (p. 93).

He writes, “There remains a legion of scholars and administrators who continue to hold a dualism of thought and feeling. The educational space in their way of thinking is a space of thinking, not feeling. Too many scholars believe in rigorous thinking and banished feelings, and they teach students that a thinking subject wars with a feeling subject…

“But institutions feel just as institutions think. To discern institutional thinking is also to explore institutional feeling. More specifically, it is to invite those who inhabit an institution to sense its comfort, its joy, and its energy aimed in a direction, even if it is the wrong direction” (p. 93).

Yes, get rid of that thinking/feeling dualism. It isn’t serving us well. (Does that mean we get rid of the Myers-Briggs personality test too? That’s probably fine…) 

The thought of theological scholars and seminary administrators who think that they should think and not feel is kind of terrifying. But also explains a lot. And then what kind of pastors and church leaders are they forming?

Among other things, this kind of thinking/feeling dualism generally tends to suck for women, who get painted as the “feelers.” Which leads to being devalued in a society that overvalues thinking and undervalues feeling. And gives men a pass on all sorts of things like sensitivity and social concern and community-mindedness, things we all (not just half of us, and the half who tends not to be in power) desperately need.

4). I feel like more and more of the books I’m reading these days mix in some poems and such, and I’m super into it. The first time I saw that, I was like, whoa, you can do that? Apparently, you can. And now it feels like all the cool kids are doing it. It’s great.

I really liked some of Jennings’ poems and poem-like writing that he mixes in throughout this book. Maybe especially because his academic stuff can be so dense and, well, academic, I enjoyed feeling like I got a window into a different (but very much related) side of his (very large) brain. (I know brain size doesn’t actually correlate to intelligence, but that’s still how I picture it.)

I guess it’s also a way in which Jennings is living out his own words about breaking down the dualism between thinking and feeling. If more academic-style discourse tends to operate primarily in the realm of thinking, and if poems tend to operate primarily in the realm of emotion, blending them into one book helps bring the two back together, as they belong.

5). This is one of the poems that I especially liked: 

Could self-sufficiency
be redeemed?
But who would want
such a thing?
Certainly not one who asked
Mary for life, or one
who needed friends along
the way of discipleship, or
one who called on an Abba-God, or
one who fell onto God’s Spirit
like a limp body
in need of support just to
face the morning sun
or one who said, ‘This is my body and my blood,
eat me
because you need me in you.’
Certainly not one who on a cross
killed the illusion of
self-sufficiency” (p. 106).

Throughout the book Jennings critiques the idea of a “self-sufficient man”or of “white self-sufficient masculinity” (p. 8)which is often what seminary education (whether intentionally or not) aims to form. And which is a problem…for lots of reasons that Jennings goes into over the course of the book. One of the reasons being that it’s not at all Jesus-like.

6). Jennings writes about communalist societies (pre-colonization) and how they “were not utopias, nor were they immutable, but they were powerful ways of thinking the one in the many and the many in the one” (p. 144). 

In contrast, “the goal of the colonialist—whether trader, explorer, missionary, merchant, or soldier—was to reduce the many to the one as a point of negotiation, management, conversion, and profit. The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual who could enter into exchange over goods and services guided by a rationalist freed from communal obligation except at the level of volition. Such people would form connection through capital and perform a relationality woven first and foremost in utility and aiming at profit. Exchange networks need not be personal, need not be communal, need not be storied, need not suggest long-term obligation or relationship, need not even require names or identities. They only require items and money, that is, commodities” (p. 144).

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the root of all our problems. 

And then Jennings completes the gut-punch (but a really important and much-needed one) with this poem:

1698, in a port city on the west coast of Africa,
near what is now Ghana,
the following conversation took place:
African I: What’s your name?
African II: You don’t need to know my name.
The earth starts shaking.
African I: What are you selling?
African II: This ox.
African I: Where did it come from?
African II: You don’t need to know that.
The birds start crying not singing.
African I: How much do you want for it?
African II: I want guns and alcohol.
African I: I have that.
Many plants and trees collapse to the ground.
African II: Let’s do business.
Two hands touch in agreement.
The world feels ruin.” (pp. 144-5)

I’ll be ruminating on this one for a while. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these tidbits from Jennings’ thinking—especially if you don’t end up reading the book, which, as I mentioned, is kind of seminary-centered and probably not for everyone. 

As usual, holler with your thoughts about any of this!

Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!