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The Elephant in the Room

Your new Associate Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Celestine Fields

Five Black Police Officers Killed a Black Man

“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.” — bell hooks

Another unarmed Black man was killed by the police. What I am trying to understand is the why, the what, and the how this could have been done by five Black men. A colleague shared a link to Diana Butler Bass’ podcast, ‘The Cottage.’ Her guest was Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, the pastor at Trinity UCC in Chicago. Moss said something that made a lot of sense to me in my experiences as a Black woman in America.

Diana Butler Bass said to Rev. Moss what many of us are thinking: that there is some pain to this story that she can’t put her finger on. Five Black police officers killed this Black man, and the system was swift to hand out justice. She asks, “What is the way of love and justice?” Moss tells her this is what it means to be Black and blue in this country. He talked about the confederate poison of America and its presence in police work. Whether the officer is Black or White, certain people are seen as a threat.

Moss explained of those police officers, “…putting on the uniform and you have to function in a system that diminishes you and diminishes your community and you are also given the rhetoric and ideas that everyone is a threat, specifically certain people are a threat and then as a young man just driving around, and you are supposedly a citizen of this country, innocent until proven guilty. But those officers looked at Tyre through the age-old lens of, ‘there is something dubious about Black people’…even though they have the uniform, they are Black police officers. They know they are still suspect. White supremacy does this.” Moss argued, “They are trying to prove themselves.”

This is the experience of Black people in America. I live this as a Black woman when I encounter White people at the grocery store, recently the pet store, a winery, at work, at a play, or a job interview. Everywhere I go, I can be seen as a threat based on an irrational stereotype. I am trying some behavior to convince White folks that I am not the stereotypes that have been propagated about me. I am not angry. I am not sensitive. I am not aggressive. I am not poor and abusing the welfare system. I am not lazy, and I am not promiscuous.

I just adopted a dog. I had what I call, “An Authorized White” with me. They prove that I am okay to adopt an animal. Do you know about the stereotype of Black pet owners, that we abuse, mistreat, and neglect our pets? This is for another article. I was at the pet store picking up more supplies for my baby and there was a White man in front of me. He looked at me, smiled, and asked how I was. I said in my most perfect speech, “I am well. Thank you. How are you?” I lifted my voice up and smiled as big as I could to prove, “I am a good pet mama.” Sometimes I don’t even notice that I am trying to prove myself. I am seen as a threat to White skin, to White women, to White America, and the White supremacist system that has been set up to exclude me.

In seminary we read the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a seminal book on stereotype threat. The title alludes to a story of Dr. Steele’s African American friend, a graduate student who shared about how his physical presence terrified White people. He said, “To counter the negative effects of white fear, he took to whistling Vivaldi. It was a signal to the unvictimized victims of his blackness that he was safe. Dangerous Black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes. The incongruence between his musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions about him. It seems an annoying daily accommodation, perhaps, an attempt to make whites feel at ease to grease the wheels of social interactions—unless we fully recognize the potential consequences of white dis-ease for Black lives.”

This theory of trying to prove oneself to the dominant culture and the police culture of brutalizing Black bodies, does not excuse what those police officers did to Tyre. It won’t take away his family’s pain nor the pain of those officer’s mamas. But we can use it to understand and learn more about race in America. Because we need a transformation from the deep pain of racism that’s present in the soil of this country.

The racial justice training of the conference was created by Rev. Da Vita D. McAllister. She teaches that there are three phases to racial justice work. The first phase “Tolerance and Acceptance” is a very violent stage. People on the margins, POC, are “constantly on the edge of being tolerated or accepted at the whim of the constructed me,” which is the one who holds all the power and the resources in our country. Rev. Da teaches about this phase, “You should thank me for allowing you to be in my life; and these are the terms of which you can be in my life.”

God did not create humanity to be tolerated and accepted. God didn’t create a humanity so diverse that we all must assimilate to some American standard to be present. And God surely didn’t create humanity to be violent towards one another, to denigrate, oppress, nor exploit those differences so one could acquire and maintain all the resources for themselves. These are sins of White supremacy. The effects of White supremacy, colonization, and disease with White dis-ease with Blackness are at the foundation of the Black police officers who killed Tyre Nichols.

Humanity, you are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. Black people, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, put your light on a lampstand, and give light to all in the house. In the same way, White people, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven. Amen.


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