Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tale of Two Novels: On belonging and being a White Friend Who Gets It

When your clothesline gets stolen, you improvise. 
I did something unusual for my birthday this month.  I ordered myself two novels. I’m normally a non-fiction gal, but I thought I should branch-out.  Besides, my husband had been teasing me about my choices in beach/pool-side books (and, yes, a book on prison ministry or A Year of Biblical Womanhood is light reading compared to The Women’s Bible Commentary, which is my current heavier reading).  I just finished both novels and realized that juxtaposing my reactions to them was quite self-revealing, so here I am blogging about it.

I started with Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff. It came highly recommended by some nerdy clergy colleagues—all of whom (I suspect not coincidentally) fall into the demographic of white liberal American males. I really wanted to love the book too—to join the club of those who discreetly exchanged its inside jokes, but I found all the crass sexual comments/objectification of women off-putting. I simply didn’t share the author’s sense of humor, and the anachronistic story left me feeling like I hadn't learned anything either. I’d put the book in the category of flicks like Talladega Nights except without as much clever theological commentary  (Am I reacting too harshly? Maybe, but I’m feeling emotionally charged having just read some commentaries on the VMA scandal and Blurred Lines)

Sigh. Not enjoying Biff was particularly disappointing because ever since I was old enough to understand the difference between the American definitions of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (particularly with the word ‘Christian’ tacked onto them) I’ve found myself feeling not invited to the clubhouses. Conservatives believe I’m a closet heretic and the liberal clubs generally don’t like that I don’t wear every cause I support on my sleeve and I critique their paradigms. Then there are the rebels who think I’m too straight laced to party with them and the folks who are leery of church-going-folk altogether. And, of course, I’m too white to gain full entry into any social club that is explicitly for non-whites. Perhaps that’s part of why I reached out early on to social misfits and international students. It's been told to me that despite feeling that I didn't belong anywhere, I have in fact been de facto president of a rather large association over the years.  

This brings me to the second novel: Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. A glowing review of it caught my eye in Ethiopian Airline’s in-flight magazine, and I later listened to an NPR interview with the author. It was described as a story about a Nigerian woman who moves to the USA for college and years later decides to return home. It addresses issues of race, class, identity and belonging.  I was intrigued and quickly devoured all 477 pages. Her astute observations resonated with me, and I wondered how closely the author resembled her heroine in personality and worldview. I fantasized about meeting Adichie socially someday—perhaps at a State Department function. Would we hit it off? I'd like to think she'd view me as a kindred spirit, but I fear I'd seem like another Kimberly, a character in her novel—an elite white woman who overtries at being sensitive, describing every black woman she sees as 'beautiful' and misting over with pity whenever she meets someone from Africa. Even "poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” (151)

I’ve seen too much to view the world as Kimberly does, and I’ve been away from America so long that I now look back at it from a distance, frequently shaking my head in bewilderment or facepalming at the demographic of my birth. And yet, I’m self-aware enough to know that there are others who roll their eyes at me—finding my attempts to navigate issues of identity and belonging cringe-worthy, and I thank the few along the way (shout out to Stephanie Matthews) who have called me out bluntly when I needed to be set straight. 

In Americanah, the heroine Ifemulu becomes a professional blogger on issues of race in America and explains unwritten rules about being an American black person to non-American blacks. One such post is about the “White Friend Who Gets It.” 
Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain s#*% to. By all means, put this friend to work…. They can say stuff that you can’t… Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” …Here’s to all the white friends who get it. (361) 
Am I such a white friend (WFWGI)? In the American context, I'm not sure, but I'm trying and still learning. Many Congolese friends have told me that I often play that role for them, though--especially when it comes to speaking up for them among United Methodists in the USA. Over the years I've called out folks for treating African United Methodist friends like they are intellectually or morally inferior or for flat out objectifying or ignoring their struggles. I've even given geography lessons to general agency staff--like why purchasing someone from Kamina a plane ticket 'home' to Kinshasa is akin to buying a person from Florida a ticket 'home' to Alaska. (and, yes, the friend was stranded in Kinshasa, getting desperate and asked me to intervene since she had traveled as one of the invited token Africans at their event)

I've discovered that the other responsibility of a WFWGI is to generally keep quiet on issues that would reinforce negative stereotypes. No matter how good of a friend you think you are, you don't have the right to air other people's dirty laundry to people who won't understand the context.

It took me a bit of time to understand the 'laundry' rules. When I first started spending time in Congo, I hated the 'curtain' tours (as in don't-look-behind-the) the local church would take me and other visitors on. "How gullible do they think I am?!" I wanted to rip open the curtain and see the whole picture. I didn't yet understand the rules of the game or that it is played universally. What company, congregation or do-gooder organization is going to show an outsider (especially a potential investor) anything other than an idealized version of itself?

I had to prove myself as someone safe to tell--someone who could get it--before real candor began--before my Congolese colleagues would start coming to me when they needed somewhere to vent or advice/sympathy on dealing with Americans who didn't understand.

Now I gladly play along with the curtain tours. I occasionally get to help lead the tours myself all while knowing that there are still some curtains that are closed to me and might always be so. And that's ok because, as I learned working at the US embassy, some issues are highly sensitive and I'll only be told if the ones dealing with the issue think I can be trusted and I need to know about it.

That said, I still have mixed emotions as I play the game. I function as the useful white front for Congolese friends' projects, and I usually bite my tongue when Americans (primarily white) boast about their partnerships or rant about lack of accountability/transparency with partner conferences in Africa.  What I want to say to all of these Americans is that you are blind to the game you are playing. That, no, of course you aren't being told the full truth because your 'partners' don't trust that you can handle the truth.

There, I finally said it aloud. Furthermore, the American church needs to remove the plank from its own eye and realize that it is the one that isn't trustworthy. We have consistently behaved as selfish fair-weather friends, only caring when our ego is being stroked, when our 'partners' shower us with compliments and treat us deferentially. We abandon our colleagues when they dare to disclose that their poverty hasn't made them saints or when the next shiny charity catches our mission committee's attention. In their greatest hour of need, we not only weren't there for our Congolese colleagues, we didn't even didn't even notice that their world was engulfed in horror.

American (dominantly white) churches continue to systematically engage in condescending treatment of our African colleagues, and most of our attempts to correct this come across as ignorant as Adichie's Kimberly (which then feeds the problem by reinforcing the pressure to close all the curtains). I'm not saying there hasn't been progress--there has--but it is hard to remedy the problem of our racism when we try to deny its existence.

It is highly unlikely that our Congolese colleagues are going to say any of this to you. Even if you serve on the same committee or work in the same building they will continue to play the game. They dare not disclose what they really think for they do not trust that you would remain 'partners' if they did. But, as the white friend I can say such things to you without fear of grave consequences, and thus the more I think about what Adichie writes, the more I think I have a moral obligation to do so.

It seems the least I can do on this the 50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

3 comments:

ljsmile said...

Great post. I can definitely relate.

Paul Johnson said...

this is really awesome post, definitely true

Caroline Powell said...

wow- you have a new fan! will be reposting and sending you some new followers