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Yesterday I spent some time in Gryffin’s First Grade classroom helping with a project. Walking into the school, though, I felt the urge to keep my head down and my eyes on the ground. I couldn’t make eye contact with the other parents. I had just seen the video below, which was already viral, and I know the statistics that go along with it. Black girls are subject to discipline that is harsher and more frequent than that of their white counterparts, not to mention that they are are six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white girls.
I imagine that the trauma of seeing that video as the parent of a Black child is profound and when I stood in the classroom yesterday morning and gazed at the girls that Gryffin plays “sticky fingers” and “dodge the shadows” with at recess, I had to look away.
I heard a lecture a couple weeks ago by Dr. Willie James Jennings and he talked about a place that many of us occupy known as “the fictive middle.” I have not been able to find any further information on it via Google but if I understood him correctly, the fictive middle is neither too far left nor too far right. We think, as Christians in particular, that this is where we ought to be. We aren’t racists but we keep a level head and fight for ALL lives in a misguided attempt to be impartial. We think we can stand in the middle. In reality, though, the fictive middle is just that. It’s fiction. Believing that we occupy this so-called neutral middle ground and allowing ourselves to be shaped by the story that we somehow stand in the middle simply maintains the status quo and conceals reality.
I was in the fictive middle in college. And, as Jennings pointed out, it actually takes significant energy to stay in the fictive middle once we have started paying attention. Glennon Doyle Melton has long been one of my favorite bloggers. I like her vulnerability, her wit and her willingness to pay attention to hard things. She’s been on a journey out of the fictive middle (my interpretation!) and she posted this blog about it this morning.
Melton’s audience is vast and wide and quite White. I like how she is able to gently take her reader’s hand and say, Come, look at this with me. And I think her metaphor about the canary in a coal mine is particularly helpful for a White audience.
We are raised by our families, but we are also raised by our culture.
I am a feminist. At my heart, I am a fierce, bold advocate for women. But I was raised in a sexist culture. I was raised in a world that tried to convince me through media, through certain religious organizations, through inadequate history books and through the beauty industry – that female bodies are worth less than male bodies- and that certain types of female bodies (thin, tall young) are worth more than other types of female bodies.
The daily deluge of images of women’s bodies for sale and the onslaught of emaciated women’s bodies held up as the pinnacle of female achievement and the pervasive message that women exist to please men was the air I breathed decade after decade. I was a radiation canary living in a mine and the toxins were misogyny. I got sick from it. Not because I’m a bad, sexist person but because I was just breathing sexist air.
Listen. We can be good, kind, justice loving, anti-racist people in our hearts and minds – but if we’re living here – we’re still canaries raised in a racist mine. We’ve still been breathing the air- and we’ve been conditioned. So our knee jerk reaction to a black man approaching us might be fear. Our subconscious might kick in before our mind and heart can catch up. And we might pull that trigger faster than we would if the body approaching us was white. And that black girl not responding to our request to stand up – well we might take her down faster than we’d ever take down a white body. Because our subconscious has been trained to believe she’s belligerent, disrespectful, dangerous and dispensable.
You can be anti-racist and still have prejudice running through your veins. You can be one thing and your subconscious can be another thing.
You can read her full post here.
Last week — Christian Wiman
And the week before that — Annie Dillard