The Subtle Racism of a Buffered Self

I tried watching Breaking Bad when it initially came on but I couldn’t get past the second episode when Walter White melts two corpses. It was just too gruesome. As the show went on and grew in popularity I paid attention to the reviews. The show was getting high marks for its production value, story telling, acting, etc. etc. And then I noticed commentators from the Christian sub-culture discussing its spiritual value. So, once the whole series was on Netflix Alyssa and I watched in its entirety. Everybody was right, the show is damn near perfect. Just a few quick thoughts now.

BreakingBad

The chief moral lesson of the show is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” From the get-go Breaking Bad is an exploration of human hubris and our desire to save ourselves. When Walter White gets the diagnosis that he has terminal lung cancer his initial thought isn’t to ask for help in paying medical bills and supporting his family after he’s gone but to figure it out for himself, leading him to becoming a meth cook. But, the show isn’t necessarily about White providing for his family, the show is about his character’s descent into darkness. Vince Gilligan, the show runner, said that his goal was to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” But, the problem is that Walter White was never good, just well-behaved. Actually, not even that well-behaved. In the pilot White is an awful human being. He goes from bad to worse. The show just peals off the superficial layers of White’s character and reveals what’s at his core and was always there. It’s bleak, horrifying, stressful, condemning, dark. And it’s fascinating.

We loved watching the show but at the end of it Alyssa and I agreed that it was too dark to watch through a second time. Our thinking was that what goes in must come out so we want to be careful with how much darkness we fill our time with. Which I think is wise. Of course, we knew how dark it was before watching the first time and in the midst of it. We were okay with it then.

In my lifetime there’s been some fascinating television that explores the dark corners of human psyche; The Sopranos and Mad Men come to mind but every station is trying their hand at dark explorations of human psyche. Which is great and why so many film auteurs are leaving behind the multiplex for television. The thing is that the predominate protagonists of these shows are white guys.

In the past few months I’ve been made aware of the hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. His performance on Saturday Night Live last fall ahead of the release of a new album in March, “To Pimp a Butterfly” blew my mind. So, I checked the album out but a few tracks in I had this thought, “This is incredible but I’m not the target audience” and turned it off.

A few weeks ago the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, O. Alan Noble, had a brilliant essay in First Things about Kendrick Lamar, his faith, and his art called “I’ll Write Til I’m Right with God.” The article was thorough, deep. I tried out Lamar’s earlier album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and I said to myself, “This is incredible but I’m not the target audience.” I listened through the second track of the album, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and couldn’t finish as it became more profane.

Though I was particularly enthralled with the beat and lyrics in the chorus:

“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin agin/ Lord, forgive me/ Lord, forgive me things I don’t understand/ Sometimes I need to be alone”

I’ve prayed that prayer before. I’ve prayed that prayer today. Noble opens his essay:

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough album, good kid m.A.A.d. city, is a conversion narrative, tracing the moral journey of a young Kendrick through vice, violence, and grace. I don’t mean that the album is just redemptive or that one can interpret it as a conversion narrative if one tries hard enough. It is simply and unapologetically a conversion narrative.

With all this in mind I attempted to listen to the album again and got midway through the third track and thought to myself, “This is incredible, but I’m not the target audience. I hear what Lamar is trying to do but it’s simply too profane [i.e. dark] and I have to be careful with what goes in…” Sound familiar?

I’m not the target audience. Lamar doesn’t write for suburban white hipsters, but the thing is that I enjoy hip-hop as much as the next suburban white hipster. Especially some excellent Christian hip-hop artists that I listen to regularly enough to get email updates about their ministry and I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I casually, and only casually, enjoy Lupe Fiasco, The Roots, Kanye West, etc… But, of course, I listen to the Christian artists more because I have an entry point to their music that can get me past the cultural touchstones.

In fact, I like how easy it is to enjoy the beats and musicality of the Christian Artists because I’m not distracted by the lyrics. While listening to them I don’t have to clean things up. I don’t have to worry if I’m listening to them while sitting in the church offices. This isn’t to say that these albums lack depth, not at all, but they do lack foul language, overt descriptions of sex, and other such “darkness”.

I prefer my hip-hop when I’m not distracted by the lyrics which is hilarious because hip-hop is a lyric-centric art form. Hip-hop is the only genre that I’m okay with being Christianized, tidied up and packaged in family friendly plastic wrap. Imagine that, a white guy wanting to appropriate black culture and turn it into easy-listening.

Leading me to this:

I might be a racist.

Maybe that language is too strong. I’m not a full-blown monster, nor am I intentionally racist. But, I was okay watching Don Draper bed every woman he came across, drink his liver to oblivion, abandon his children. I was okay watching Walter White cook meth, murder many, attack his wife and kidnap his child. But when it came to Kendrick Lamar working his way through his conversion experience in Compton I wasn’t okay with filling my head with that kind of content.

Robin DiAngelo in “White Fragility” writes:

If white children become adults who explicitly oppose racism, as do many, they often organize their identity around a denial of the racially based privileges they hold that reinforce racist disadvantage for others. What is particularly problematic about this contradiction is that white moral objection to racism increases white resistance to acknowledging complicity with it. In a white supremacist context, white identity in large part rests upon a foundation of (superficial) racial toleration and acceptance. Whites who position themselves as liberal often opt to protect what they perceive as their moral reputations, rather than recognize or change their participation in systems of inequity and domination. In so responding, whites invoke the power to choose when, how, and how much to address or challenge racism.

I’m not comfortable assuming the racist label, for several reasons particularly because doing so may dilute the offense of intentional and deliberate racism, but I have benefitted and am complicit in a system of white privilege. The chief benefit being my ability to not have to think about, or in terms of, race. I’m awarded the privilege to not have to think about being white. I can identify as a husband, as a father, as a pastor, as an artist without ever having to identify as white. The only time I think about my race is when external experiences force me to. In those moments I have the choice not to think about race and race related issues. I can always walk away from or ignore the situation, I can pontificate and moralize about that problem out there without ever having to personally engage in it, thus maintaining racial equilibrium and moderate white comfort.

DiAngelo writes,

Race is for people of color to think about – it is what happens to “them” – they can bring it up if it is an issue for them (although if they do, we can dismiss it as a personal problem, the “race card”, or the reason for their problems). This allows whites to devote much more psychological energy to other issues, and prevents us from developing the stamina to sustain attention on an issue as charged and uncomfortable as race.

This brings me back to Kendrick Lamar and Breaking Bad. I was able to withstand the evil perpetuated in Breaking Bad because Walter White was familiar. It was by no means difficult for me to relate to a white guy who thinks he’s owed more than what he has and deserves it due to his intelligence and ability. But, Lamar’s lyrics were other. Remember “I’m not the target audience.” In my immediate world, race is something out there, separate from me and the intrusion of race into my world makes me uncomfortable. So I choose not to listen to Kendrick Lamar.

The example of what television shows I choose to watch and what albums I choose to listen to is ultimately petty, but it is endemic of a greater issue. It is not unique to my experience as a white man to buffer myself from “race”, to consider it as existing beyond me as something other. In the last year though race relations have been forced to the forefront of the national conversation.

But we want to turn it off like I did with “good kid, m.A.A.d city”. Or, worse, reframe the conversation. When white Dylann Roof tries to incite a race war by murdering nine black people in a church during their Bible study we call him “mentally ill.” And perhaps he does have a mental illness, but anybody who openly tries to start a race war is a racist. Full stop. The headline to Anthea Butler’s op-ed on June 18 in the Washington Post, right after the Charleston shooting, posits the dichotomy well: “Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” It is well worth the read.

(Photo credit: “Black Lives Matter protest” by The All-Nite Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/otto-yamamoto/15305646874/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

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The national conversation has galvanized around the sentiment and protest: “Black Lives Matter.” But again, the intrusion of other makes us uneasy. Not a day goes by where I don’t see some version on my Facebook feed of “Why do only ‘Black Lives Matter?’ Why don’t ‘All Lives Matter?’” But this reveals a lack of understanding of the protest. The hashtag “Black Lives Matter” could be best understood by a white audience as: “Black Lives Matter, Too.”

The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, and is of a piece with this history. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement. The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter‘” The Editorial Board of the New York Times

By responding to the “Black Lives Matter” movement with “All Lives Matter,” maybe inadvertently though likely not, betrays history and then suggests that black lives matter less because, as is proven time and time again, black lives are treated as disposable when white lives are not. And anyone who suggests otherwise is a “thug.” The response “All Lives Matter” is born of a discomfort with discussing race issues. “All Lives Matter” is a poor attempt to minimize the reality of systemic racial violence and brush it underneath the carpet.

Saying that “All Lives Matter” is a privilege afforded to white people because of an inherited cultural authority. Anecdotally, caucasians – excluding certain examples like the discrimination towards the Irish in the late 19th-early 20th century (and others, but never as severe as suffered by other races) – have by-and-large always held the position of authority in America. This cultural position of power is a hanger-on from the days of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, anti-Civil Rights sentiment, and such. So that when the issue of race has again been brought to the forefront of the national dialogue there’s a temptation to defend that authority and maintain social equilibrium.

This social structure is a caste system of prejudice. To remain complicit, to ignore or explain away difference, to deny differences is to prop up a culture of white comfort. Of which whites are the benefactors. Again I will cherrypick and quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. 

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” I confess that I have maintained a shallow understanding to sustain my own comfort. As our country addresses, poorly, race issues once again I think it would do well for us, moderate whites, to no longer remain moderate.

Dr. King, in his letter, goes on to ask,

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label… So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

The first place to begin becoming extremists for love and justice is with, I believe, empathy. But empathy is hard. Empathy is what makes marriage, parenting, friendship so difficult. Empathy requires “climbing into the skin of another and walking around in it” (paraphrase of Harper Lee’s not-racist Atticus Finch). To consider the viewpoint of another requires intense effort and discomfort. It requires removing cultural buffers and engagement in conversation with people who are different. It requires consideration of experiences that don’t fit into carefully constructed social narratives. It requires lowering our guard and laying down binary self-defense mechanisms.

It requires admitting the potential that we might be wrong and maybe we have benefited from a subtle racism.


Many of the ideas of this blog are in response to these articles:

I’ll Write Til I’m Right With God” – O. Alan Noble (First Things)
I, Racist” – John Metta (Those People)
White Fragility”- Robin DiAngelo (The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy Vol 3, No 3)
The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’” – the Editorial Board of the New York Times
Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” – Anthea Butler (Washington Post)
Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The Subtle Racism of a Buffered Self