Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat in the state of Virginia, has many people calling for his resignation after a picture from a 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced showing what some people assert to be Northam wearing blackface or a KKK costume. (Northam insists he is neither one of the people in the photograph and he, as I write this, vows to fulfill his term in office.) This is a link to the recent firestorm along with other people in the public eye who have been censored due to their racial insensitivity.
Recently I posted an essay on this blog (FAR) titled, “All Are Welcome—Even Tom.” One of the broad questions I raise in the piece dealing with sexual assault surrounds our shared human dignity. “If we are all one (as many people assert), do we not hurt and diminish our own selves when we seek revenge or become embittered instead of practicing compassion towards both parties—the one who has inflicted an injury as well as the one who has been injured? [Here is the link].
Of course, “digging up dirt” against a political opponent or seeking revenge after a sexual assault has been inflicted is nothing new. What I’m observing these days, though, is an intolerance in much of the public arena for any deviant (or even questionable) behavior no matter what the alleged perpetrator has to say. “Off with their head!” Which seems so strange, on the one hand, given our current president’s crude, insensitive behavior and disparaging remarks towards women and immigrants. How is it that some people get a free pass?
I did send a copy of my essay, “All Are Welcome—Even Tom,” to Xolani Kacela, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces. This is his reply:
“Thanks for the inquiry. I read the blogpost and appreciate the questions raised. I also passed it along to Dr. Packard for his awareness and to our board president.
Our congregation follows “Safe Congregation” policies and best practices that are based on UUA guidelines. As appropriate, we strive for transparency and discuss such policies with persons with difficult pasts that seek membership and participation in our community. I personally emphasize treating all persons respectfully and with love. Of course, it is on the persons with the troubled pasts to seek account for their actions and make amends.”
I think there is something positive and forward-looking to the minister’s sentence, “…it is on the persons with the troubled pasts to seek account for their actions and make amends.” In today’s climate, we don’t seem to allow for reflection, restoration, and ultimate redemption.
Who of us is not guilty of past behavior that we are now ashamed of and sorry about? All of us swim in polluted waters, absorbing a good deal of filth from our particular environments. It’s difficult at times to see (or imagine) that our swimming area is not pristine. But sometimes we DO see and learn. And learning is a process that usually takes time.
I grew up immersed in Bible stories. The story of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida became meaningful to me at an early age. “Then He came to Bethsaida, and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, ‘I see men like trees, walking.’ Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly” (Mark 8: 22-25).
“I see men like trees, walking” is an apt metaphor demonstrating that seeing with 20/20 vision doesn’t happen all at once. A White person in America with its history of slavery and Jim Crow legislation swims in racist waters. Those particular waters seem “right.” In other words, White people in America are complicit with structured and institutionalized racism. There’s little reason to think about the entitlement and privilege of White lives within the racist social system that uplifts White people while denigrating Black people. Jamelle Bouie (New York Times, 2/5/19) wrote: “American society is still structured by color. Your health, your wealth — your ability to live and act freely — still turns to a large degree on whether you were born white.”
Some White people have come to understand their privilege, however, that always involves a process. When one does eventually “see,” must past transgressions continue to define who one has become?
The same principle works when we speak of men and sexism. Our social system—patriarchy—gives greater privilege and entitlement to men than it does to women. It’s “normal” for men to grow up sexist because the waters where we swim are infested with patriarchy where men feel entitled to help themselves to women’s bodies as well as their labor. Some men do gradually learn to “see” their sexism and transform, but it is something men have to learn.
Interesting to me is that people seem much more likely to “see” and understand the effects and ramifications of racism than sexism—at least, that’s been my experience.
Muddying the waters is the fact that both Black people and women swim in the polluted waters of patriarchy. It’s not uncommon to find Black people who have internalized self-hatred based on their race just like it’s not uncommon to find women who have internalized self-hatred based on their sex. Racism and sexism are widespread, but people can (and do) learn to clean up the waters where they swim.
Treating everybody with respect and love as the minister, Xolani Kacela, wrote in his letter to me is a lovely and noble undertaking. The question that raises with me is: What does love and respect look like when people have transgressed—gone outside accepted boundaries?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.