I’m tired of people sharing pictures of folks in Ferguson who are stopping looting.

While I understand the impulse, attempting to show that there are a multiplicity of responses to the verdict and that not everyone feels the same about property destruction, it also seems to repeat the criminalizing of folks who do loot and suggest a certain respectable propriety as what the “good” protestors are doing.

This continues a similar delegitimizing of property destruction and looting that the mainstream media panders in. But property destruction and looting are not senseless. They’re not dumb. They’re a response. An uncomfortable response for a society who thinks private property is an extension of our bodies.

But given that those who are descendents of people who were property, those dispossessed who through policing are made out to be property for the state, it would seem in the looting and property destruction is a critique of private property as the invention that produces public property, which is black flesh. And this production of public property as blackness is the production of its profitability as its expendability. Darren Wilson received 500k in support of his defense of this division of property, paid leave, a marriage celebration, and a public interview to top it off.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many public services, schools, healthcare, WIC, etc., have been made synonymous with black people and thus able to be hollowed out, evacuated, defunded, disregarded? This is precisely how poor black flesh is treated by the state.

Until we can come to terms with the fact that our faith in capitalist divisions of property, labor, and flesh, is faith in what keeps black lives expendable we will continue reading these disruptions to property as senseless. But perhaps these property destroyers are something akin to Jesus entering the temple and overturning the moneychangers tables, proclaiming “my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you’ve turned it into a den of thieves.” We all know that Ferguson’s/STL/The Nation’s political officials are nothing if not a den of thieves.

Why, then, do we keep talking down to and trying to distance ourselves from folks who know where the thieving is going on and point it out? And turn tables? And try to herd the robbers out of the sacred spaces of their homes?

If nonviolence as a strategy is only able to recognize property destruction as an act of violence it has already given it’s language over to a logic it claims to oppose, and doing so has repeated the cut that takes its legs, the dispossessed and despised, out from under it.

*Spoilers Below

Justin Simien’s film Dear White People, is a smart, funny, satire (with a handful of surprising twists along the way) that complicates black twenty-somethings’ negotiation of blackness at a predominately white institution of higher education. Aesthetically the film tries to hit all the right notes, loosely paying homage to classic 90’s films like Spike Lee’s School Daze, and John Singleton’s Higher Learning, without feeling bound to the political intensities that were seeping out of the Reagan years and into Bush the First’s. Where Lee and Singleton’s voices may seem too black for our 21st century post-black, post-racial, increasingly queer-friendly sensibilities, Dear White People attempts a pointed, but fresh and contemporary, contribution to the difficulties of negotiating one’s relation to blackness as a twenty-something in a predominately white institution. Where Lee and Singleton’s voices may feel most politically distancing, Simien’s feels cool and witty. It’s no wonder the film has gained so much traction. From the moment it’s trailer hit the internet this summer, scores of people, from various races, have been tweeting, retweeting, and sharing it up and down their timelines. Clearly there is an audience for this film.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Dear White People presents the complication of black middle-class identity––its diversity and multiplicity––at the expense of black radical politics, which it ultimately disavows by the film’s end.

While the film purports to be about the diversity of black identity, there are also two white men who serve as the two poles the complication of black identity occurs between. On the one end is Kurt Flecher, the entitled white son of the fictional Winchester University’s president. He’s undoubtedly a douchebag. He’s a bro, the head-editor of Winchester’s highly-esteemed humor magazine, the sarcastic white guy in your History 101 class who thinks affirmative action is reverse racism and white men are the most oppressed social group. He exudes the smugness of smart white guys who know they have a following and know the rules aren’t for them. He’s the perfect villain for Dear White People. The other white man, Gabe, is the bland, argumentative TA for the movie’s biracial black radical, Sam White (who is also the host of the incendiary radio show the film is titled after and involved in organizing black students against various manifestations of racism on the university’s campus). She and Gabe are also secretly sleeping together. Interestingly enough, though throughout the film he maintains pointed writing, satirizing the black characters and Kurt, Simien’s film doesn’t turn its satirical lens on Gabe. Throughout the movie his dripping white liberalism is woefully uncritiqued and unrecognized as a position even when he delves into man/whitesplaining Sam’s identity to her, narrating who he thinks the real Sam is and how she’s being co-opted by a black radical man, Reggie, who is repressing her authentic, artistic self (which is laughably conflated with anarchism).

That Gabe is the end of one of the central narrative movements––that is, the resolution of Sam’s racial anxieties about whether she can have black radical politics and date a white guy––and that we arrive at this romantic pairing without him having undergone transformation, without him having any relation to blackness or care for black people outside of his relationship to Sam, suggests the political orientation of this film. By the movie’s end, Dear White People dissolves into a black liberalism that renders it safe for everybody but not particularly helpful either.

The primary liberal move of the film is figured in Sam and Lionel, the black biracial woman with daddy issues and the black gay nerd. Neither of them ‘fits’ into what is normalized as blackness. They each represent a swing to unhealthy ends of a pendulum. Sam’s black radicalism won’t let her be honest about her feelings for Gabe, her love of Taylor Swift, or that her favorite filmmaker is white. Her black radicalism is suffocating her individuality. Meanwhile, Lionel’s fear of black homophobia, and black anti-nerd prejudice makes him distant from the other black people on campus until his experiences of racism in all his housing assignments leave him with only the black dormitory left to call home. In between Sam and Lionel’s negotiations of black anxiety, the other black people who are unquestionably black but politically self-serving  or politically radical are the foils to the liberal formation of Sam and Lionel. By the film’s end, the two characters through struggling to reconcile their desires and the multiplicity of their identities with their blackness have achieved a state of balance. Lionel ends up as the catalyst for the disruption of the racist hip-hop themed party Kurt’s humor magazine, “Pastiche,” throws. Apparently, what he needed was to blacken up a bit and recognize that black people are down with black gay nerds too. For Samantha, who starts the film as a black radical, she ends up overcoming that radicalism and its attempts to confront the political powers of the university in favor of an artistic anarcho-libertarianism. The romantic reconciliation of her biraciality occurs when she accepts her feelings for the white liberal, Gabe (which is also the working out of her daddy issues and acceptance of her white father), and they go off to be free in their love together while the black students who still identify as radical give the couple the side-eye. How intolerant of them!

Meanwhile, the two black students who are solidly, to their chagrin, situated as black, still haven’t reached a state of enlightenment. One is still following his emotionally unavailable father’s wishes into campus politics instead of being his authentic self, the other is unapologetic about not wanting to be black but her skin color, in part, makes her undesirable and her overcoming of blackness an impossibility. The radical black women in the film are not really heard from.

That the two characters with the most resolution are the ones who achieve a state of balance in their identities is a typical move of liberalism. There are two sides one can fall into, fear of being black and black radicalism and the path enlightened black people need to take is somewhere between the two. At first it seems like the film is serious about confronting the politics and power disparities that exist on college campuses between black students and the university, but it very quickly becomes clear that the black radicalism on screen is simply a foil for enlightenment. It also becomes clear that the working model of racism is one of accumulating micro-aggressions which lead to a party, primarily serving to reinforce the idea that if white people simply changed their behavior and stopped touching black people’s hair or stopped confusing black people for each other, we’d be free of white supremacy. The glimpses of institutional attempts to dismantle black life on campus are brought in for the dramatic effect they can conjure and quickly left by the way side, magically resolving by the films end.

Thus, in Dear White People blackness is primarily a rallying cry against the accumulation of micro-aggressions into a racist hip-hop party. Blackness is not the thing we need to wake us up, to bring us to the commons, as it is at the end of Lee’s School Daze, instead, it’s the thing we want to be able to forget about so that we can be free, like the white liberals. Free to be individuals, artists, politicians, and nerds. More than anything, Dear White People shows the failure of black liberalism to end up anywhere other than where we started, but this time without blackness as anything other than funny cultural references and inside jokes or something to be defended against those white people who don’t get it or superseded by those white people whose political neutrality is above critique.

In Dear White People blackness is evacuated of radical politics because it is evacuated of the radical sociality that would sustain such a politic. At the end, as is always the case in black liberal discourse, black radicalism, which is to say a loyalty to preserving the commons that blackness announces, is the thing to be laughed off, dismissed, and overcome, in the name of individual liberty and balance. One thing that remains clear at the end of Simien’s film is that acclaim and aesthetics don’t make for a race movie that evades our neoliberal moment. Instead we see blackness here packaged in an acceptable and neutral way, it’s edge ground down to a dull whine about white privilege and micro-aggressions that continually defers what brought about the power imbalances in the first place. The film is a series of sketches of black life that fails to think of black life as anything other than annoyance and faux-radicalism, the desire to overcome the constraints of blackness and achieve actuality in individuality while maintaining blackness as a cool cultural reference.

Perhaps for some this is the vision of a turn in black filmmaking, but mimicking the cool irony of hipster know-it-alls is something I could do without. Whereas a film like Barry Jenkins Medicine for Melancholy gets the difficulties of navigating one’s black identity in predominantly white spaces, it simultaneously refuses the easy resolutions of DWP while also refusing to portray it’s black characters as wallowing in inauthenticity or a desire to overcome blackness (while at the same time suggesting there’s larger economic precarity and white supremacist displacement at work in producing some of the anxieties Micah and Jo feel). This is not to say that we can only have one style of black film today, and I find Simien’s debut film holds much possibility. I am, however, suggesting that it’s possible to do what Simien attempts in his film, complicating and nuancing our ideas of black identity, without the disavowals Dear White People performs.

Edit: Due to the controversy caused by Fr. Robert Arida’s original post, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America chose to remove the post and replace it with his own reflection.  The overwhelmingly hostile responses remain.  You may read a pdf version here: http://holytrinityorthodox.org/articles_and_talks/Never%20Changing%20Gospel.pdf.

Fr. Johannes Jacobse recently asked his fellow priest, “Fr. Robert Arida: Why Don’t You Become Episcopalian?.  He objects to Arida and theologians of his ilk on a number of points:

Unlike the Episcopalians, Orthodox liberals prefer appearances of gravitas over politeness. When the Orthodox have a point to make, they draw out the big guns like theologian Fr. Georges Florovsky, offer allusions to recent thinkers like Fr. Alexander Schmemann, provide the obligatory criticism or two of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, cite a relevant quote from the Fathers — all the elements necessary to enforce civility through presumptions of authority and erudition.

Jacobse is correct.  Well, except for the final clause.   Continue Reading »

The Synod of Bishops on the Family has begun.

Pope Francis convened this synod nearly a year ago in order to address “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” including but not limited to phenomena like “the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage…same-sex unions…marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman…an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood” and so on. Like Pope Francis, those Catholics who have spent the past year anticipating this synod have similarly focused most intently on issues of sex and sexuality. Many Catholics hope that the bishops will re-consider the sacramental status of divorced and remarried Catholics or perhaps even soften the church’s stance on the use of contraception within marriage.

I do not deny the deep relation between sexuality and family. Nor do I contest the importance of any of the issues enumerated by Pope Francis. Drawing upon the church’s own wisdom, I simply want to argue that the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of Evangelization” extend beyond matters of sex and sexuality. Structural injustice wreaks havoc upon the family just as much as disordered expressions of sexuality do.

Catholic Social Teaching stresses the relation between the social and sexual orders. In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” Pope John Paul II reminds us,

“In the conviction that the good of the family is an indispensable and essential value of the civil community, the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids—economic, social, educational, political, and cultural assistance—that they need in order to face their responsibilities in a human way.” (no. 45).

But poor families do not simply lack assistance; they are burdened by injustice. In its embrace of the preferential option for the poor, the church recognizes this. God is for preferentially for those whom the world is especially against. God puts first those whom the world places last. God loves us not just in history but in response to it.

Continue Reading »

Modern-Day Jansenism?

Back before I joined the Women in Theology blog, a theologian-blogger friend asked me if I wanted to write something about modern-day Jansenism in the Catholic Church. I told him that I wasn’t yet comfortable making such claims. Part of my discomfort in this comes from the difficulty in defining Jansenism: if it is so difficult to define Jansenism even in its own period, how are we to identify it now?

However, another friend brought to my attention a recent series of essays and blog posts about modern-day Jansenism, which are filled with just enough inaccuracy about what Jansenism was that I feel my hand is being forced to make some sort of comment in this context. The series was prompted by Damian Thompson’s piece in the Spectator on the goals of Pope Francis, which does not mention Jansenism at all. It was followed by two writings that together debate the existence of Jansenism in the modern Church, the first by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter and the second by Joseph Shaw in the Latin Mass Society Chairman’s Blog. Continue Reading »

I don’t much like the term “white privilege.” Mainly the term strikes me as an interpersonal framework that gets substituted on when talking about structural oppression. It also carries an assumption of being necessarily a positive or beneficial thing to the one who has in, an assumption that I think hinders people from actually understanding what folks in anti-racism are trying to talk about when they talk about how white supremacy works on white individuals. I’ve written at length about this before (on a now defunct personal blog), but I wanted to sketch out some more thoughts on the subject.

Clearly one needs to be able to talk about how white supremacy affects individuals. At the same time, I think we can do this without sacrificing the ability of the language we use to also be scaled up into talking about how white supremacy functions on a structural level. I sometimes rely on inheritance to do this work for a number of reasons:

  1. You can inherit a multiplicity of things. One could inherit a broke-down jalopy or a Porsche. One might inherit the home of a hoarder and all the shit within or a 5 story mansion with an amazing art collection. Just because one is inheriting something doesn’t mean one’s relationship to the inherited thing is necessarily a positive one. One might be resentful, extremely grateful, burdened, or completely consumed by something one inherits. This multiplicity in the ways one relates to the things one inherits is useful for challenging the notion that when we talk about how white supremacy affects white individuals it is necessarily in a way that is beneficial to white people as “privilege” often seems to connote for most people. I frequently say that “white supremacy makes white people stupid,” and I mean this because it does. One need only look at the recent (and roundly lambasted) review in the Economist of Edward Baptist’s new book on slavery, the recurring books every decade that “prove” whites have higher IQ’s than black people (Also, the most recent version of this is quite fittingly named A Troublesome Inheritance, though perhaps the author and I would disagree why this is so troubling), and does anybody remember the “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” post that came out on Forbes’ website in 2011 where a white man revealed his complete ignorance about what life as a poor black child might actually be like while also revealing how white supremacist fantasies about black childhood are enduring? White people—and fairly educated white people at that—continue reproducing ideas that are simply stupid to maintain given the information we have from the intellectual work and testimonies of black people. White people stupidly continue projects to “prove” that the effects of white supremacy on black people are black people’s fault and that white people are, in fact, our saviors. Only people educated to trust in themselves as experts on black people’s lives while distrusting black people as intelligent enough to produce histories worth learning could continue on this course of stupidity even as their arguments are repeatedly revealed to be stupid.
  2. Inheritance suggests an accumulation or reception of some sort. It is an accumulation or reception of something one did not acquire but is gifted regardless which, in turn, adds to the collection of things one possesses. While inheritance has a certain economic lilt to it, I don’t think it’s too difficult to recognize how inheritance is utilized as a concept in fields like biology, for instance, and extend that into a social understanding of inheritance. Some people inherit social traits like bullying from an older sibling, for instance. And what is networking but the inheritance of certain possibly beneficial relationships due to one’s relation with another? Inheritance, to me, seems more primed for thinking about networks and relations that enable certain kinds of accumulation or gifts to be exchanged.
  3. This individual accumulation can be scaled up to think about how inheritance has functioned structurally within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. For most middle class white people, one’s inheritance is probably not enough to catapult one into the 1%, though it may be enough for a down payment on a modest home, or to send you to college debt free. Even for those whose inheritance is not exorbitant, it is useful to think about how inheritance has functioned as one of the main ways of maintaining wealth and power in a white supremacist society. There is the ability to continue accumulation of wealth from a previous generation where even for middle class black folks, the accumulation of financial capital seems to be something each generation has to do on its own. Poor white people are, of course, not privy to the perpetual accumulation of wealth that middle class and wealthy white people are, yet we must ask, what is it about the promise of whiteness, the obligation that whiteness as capital produces, that continues to undercut attempts at coalition between those who are economically oppressed? That is, might we also think about whiteness as a social accumulation that pays off in a psychic way? I think this is something James Baldwin tries to get at. What are the psychic and spiritual conditions of a white supremacist society such that it is necessary to create the “nigger”? Inheritance, in my view, gets at the idea of their being some kind of a pay off without necessarily prescribing that pay off as something we should aspire to receive. It seems fairly neutral morally in a way that allows some flexibility for thinking creatively about what we might want to do with these inheritances and how we might want to refuse them, or pawn them off, or sell them, or give them away, etc.

I’m sure there are more reasons I could name for why I think this is a useful way of talking about how white individuals are affected by white supremacy but I’ll stop here. Also, I am not trying to stop people from using the word “privilege” as much as I am trying to stop people from using the word “privilege” all the time. There are contexts where it seems like the most apt description. My point here, though, is that we need to have several tools in our intellectual toolboxes. If we can only talk about something in one way, it really inhibits our ability to respond to situations that aren’t as clear about how white supremacy is working on individual white people.

So what do you all think? Is inheritance as useful a way of talking about white supremacy’s effects on white people as privilege? What are some problems you all see in talking about white supremacy’s effect on white individuals in this way?

I will begin by saying that it is fair for Sarah and Lindsey at A Queer Calling to point out the many places in which they address issues relevant to non-celibate members of the LGBTQ community. I made no reference to these, for which I apologize. I was and am aware of their support in the arenas they list.

The discussion so far:

I am also aware and deeply appreciative of Sarah and Lindsey’s hospitality through our personal communications, and am glad that A Queer Calling does all it can to be hospitable in an inhospitable environment. I am 100% sure I would be welcome at their table with them, in their home. I would be delighted to swap stories and enter with them into their daily prayer life. Until that prayer life broadened to include their parish. At that point, the hospitality of their home broadens to include the hospitality of their larger household, their ekklesia. Whether we like it or not, their priest may be required by the rule of his church to include or exclude me based on whether or not I am sexually active. Since I do not know their church or their priest, the invitation to pray with them corporately will inevitable be fraught with anxiety and grief: will I or will I not be allowed to eat with my friends at their ecclesial table?

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