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Theological Notebook: Bryan Massingale on "How We Move Beyond Race"

Bryan Massingale is the professor whose assistant I was during the 2004-2005 school year. An ethicist trained in Rome, this was probably the biggest professional stretch I had to make in my time at Marquette, as I'm no ethicist by training and have comparatively little interest in ethics on a professional level, despite its being what most people would think of as the most "concrete" part of Theology. (I would say that's only an appearance, myself.) While it was also a challenge to match biological rhythms – Bryan being a morning person and me not – the biggest stretch I made topically was when I got a real opportunity in being able to observe him teach an undergraduate course in his speciality, the course he mentions in the following article which just appeared in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. I reproduce it here for any general interest. Being able to then retire to his office and talk faith and race for an hour each day at a more graduate level was a fabulous bonus in my graduate education.

How we move beyond race
By BRYAN N. MASSINGALE
Posted: March 23, 2008

At Marquette University, where I am a theology professor, I teach the course "Christian Faith and Racial Justice." Over the course of the semester, I pause and ask students, "What are you feeling?" I have realized that discussions of race cause deep emotions to well up which, if not acknowledged, impede an intellectual engagement of the material we are learning. I note each emotion as it called out: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, guilt, helplessness, powerlessness, outrage, despair, resignation.

I then give them the following reassurance and challenge: "What you are feeling is perfectly normal. We are dealing with difficult stuff. These emotions are to be expected. But we don't have to be controlled by them. Acknowledge what you are feeling. But remember, you don't have to act out of what you are feeling." That reassurance and clearing the air is often what is needed for us to engage again in the tasks at hand.

My point is simple but often overlooked: Discussions of race and racism engage us viscerally, at a gut level, stirring up fears and anxieties of which we are often unaware. And unless these are acknowledged in some way, no reasonable discussion of race and racial injustice is possible.

Racism cannot be resolved by rational evidence or intellectual debates alone. We also have to contend with what the Rev. Martin Luther King called the "nonrational barriers" that hinder racial unity.

This insight gives a perspective for understanding the widespread angst and continuing concern caused by some incendiary remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the church attended by Sen. Barack Obama. Rationally, one would think that Obama's repeated denunciations of this pastor's rhetoric would have been enough to quash the issue, and we would have moved on.

The fact that many seem unable to move on is a signal that something more is fueling this ongoing discussion. And until we name it, we won't be able to move beyond it.

I suspect that an underlying issue is this: Obama's association with Wright raises in many whites an unarticulated fear that Obama may be an "angry black man." They dread he may be a closet Al Sharpton, a secret Louis Farrakhan, a stealth advocate of racial hostility, an undercover agent for racial "payback."

This sounds foolish, even preposterous, when put so directly. But race-based anxieties are not rational, and this would not be the first time that racial foolishness has affected the public discourse of Obama's candidacy.

How else would one characterize discussions such as "Is Obama black enough?" or "Is he too black?" or "Why are all the blacks voting for him?"

Because many whites know few (if any) black men in any depth, the Wright controversy makes them view Obama through the lens of "black men" that has been constructed for them. They see him through the filter of what they have heard - and perhaps fear - about black men. Obama becomes not a black individual but an entity based upon a composite of the few political black men whom whites "know" through the media - such as Sharpton, Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson. This is not rational, but it is real.

What is happening to Obama is a common experience for many black men. He has become a walking "ink blot," a living Rorschach test, upon which is projected white fears, fantasies and anxieties.

As a black man who is also a Catholic priest, I am familiar with this dynamic. Over the years, many well-intentioned white parishioners have told me that I remind them of Denzel Washington (though I wish I were that handsome), Clarence Thomas (though I am a polar opposite of his political views) and Jackson (though I could never match his rhetorical riffs). I am seen through the prism of the only black men that they "know."

I also have been told by well-meaning whites that I am "too soft on race" (i.e., not black enough) while others have written that I am nothing more than a "politically correct race hustler" (i.e., too black). I have had a white co-worker, a good friend, run from me in fear as I approached her at dusk, wearing a baseball cap and without my identifying collar. I have come to realize that for many, without their conscious awareness, I am a living "ink blot" upon which they read their own unexamined concerns, fears and anxieties.

This is one of the deepest tragedies of racism or any social prejudice: It robs one of the freedom to be an individual, to be "me" rather than a "category."

Whatever shortcomings Obama may have or whatever our political disagreements with him, at least let us understand that he is not a stealth agent for black supremacy. He couldn't be for a simple reason: He has been intimately shaped, influenced and loved by his mother, grandfather and grandmother, all of whom are white. Interracial love is a cure, not a recipe, for racial domination.

In the New Testament, it is written, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear." In my classroom, I have witnessed the transformative power of love. My experience teaching about racial justice shows that when people are able to confront their fears and anxieties, with understanding and without condemnation, they can move beyond them. We can't help how we feel, but we can decide not to be controlled by our feelings.

Love is what gives Obama the hope that America can move beyond our fears to end what he calls our racial "stalemate." It is up to us to demonstrate if we are worthy of such trust.

The Rev. Bryan N. Massingale is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University.
Tags: america, cultural, ethical, political, teachers, theological notebook
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