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Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter Movement: Practical Questions and Musings

By Imagining America | January 19, 2015

By Enger Muteteke, PAGE 2014-2015 Fellow

I am a 36 year old African American woman who serves as Associate Pastor at a predominantly Caucasian congregation just outside of Baltimore City. While our church has had other Associate Pastors of color whom have served in ministry, I am the first African American female minister on staff. I have worked for almost fifteen years in local church and community ministry. Currently, I am pursuing my third Master’s degree in Social Responsibility and Sustainable Communities at Western Kentucky University. Below are questions that either I have had or persons have asked of me. My call and hope is to engage more fully in social justice ministry in community ministry and nonprofit organizations, teaching all how to do the work of reconciliation and sustaining such work across diverse communities. Practically, I have found that the key to sustainability in healing and reconciliation is continually creating sacred spaces of intentional listening, dialogue, and understanding.

As people of color, don’t we all have to feel the exact same way about the events of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the #blacklivesmatter movement?

No. I believe any time we feel compelled to think and act exactly like other people of color, we, essentially, nullify our own emotions and musings as diverse human beings. It is true that systemic and institutional racism still exist. It is true that law enforcement has, through legal means, been heavily militarized. It is true that white supremacy and privilege is, sadly, still the rule of the day. However, I have found myself wondering how communities of color and people of color are demonstrating that black and brown lives matter in the very places and spaces the Divine has placed them? How are we making a difference with and for one another? As Susan Taylor, editor-in-chief emerita of Essence magazine wrote in the “Black Lives Matter” issue: “Are we doing what’s needed to demonstrate that Black life matters? Are we caring well for the gift of our own children? Are we holding accountable our own national, community, fraternal, sororal and faith leaders, requiring that they set aside egos and work in operational unity to develop and deliver a Marshall Plan for our recovery from centuries of brutality and legislated disregard?” There is no “one way” to feel or think about Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter movement because the larger issues of race, class, and gender are so nuanced, and we are all made differently and have had different experiences. For this reason, denigrating other scholars, artists, activist, practitioners, and community organizers for raising awareness and educating others about the facts of Ferguson and the larger issues Ferguson represents – in multi-faceted ways and styles – simply truncates discussions of race and prejudice and tells ALL persons that there is only ONE way to think, feel, and participate in the #blacklivesmatter movement. This is simply not true.

How do you feel about Ferguson?

I feel saddened by the events that took place. But, more than sadness, I feel numb. This numbness, by no means, suggests that I am inactive or apathetic. On the contrary, this numbness is underscored by a general malaise and collective “sigh” at this country’s addiction to power and privilege. I hesitate to say white power and white privilege because that lets many rich and powerful people of color and leaders of color go free who are guilty of continually contributing to the system of white supremacy. One example is a man named Laurence Otis Graham. Mr. Graham is an affluent African American man who resides with his wife and three children in Chappaqua, New York. Admittedly, Mr. Graham and his wife aspired to graduate from top tier Ivy League schools, chose professions, and dressed their children certain ways in an effort to appear less ethnic. Graham writes, “I was certain that my Princeton and Harvard Law degrees and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly white neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of white upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks.” When his son was called a “nigger” by two young adult white males on his walk on home from school, Graham realized that racism and prejudice are still alive and well and, no matter your economic lot, people of color are still susceptible to such blatant attacks – as well as attacks of microaggression – daily. The only hope I carry is that the love and grace of the Divine quickens to change the hearts and minds of perpetrators of systems of oppression and violence.

I am tired of talking about race relations. Can’t we just stop talking about it and move on?

No. When we sidestep dialogues of race, class, and gender, engaging in these vital discussions only when tragedy and injustice occur, we become complicit in perpetuating behaviors of microaggression on a daily basis. In this way, we reject one another as human beings and all the complexity in which the Divine made us. A Caucasian college friend once said to me, “I don’t see you as black.” At the time, I did not have an appropriately nuanced and sarcastic response. However, reflecting on that experience, my response now would be, “Then, you do not see me.” In my work as a minister, the process of healing and reconciliation for all begins with creating spaces (free spaces, art spaces, media spaces, faith spaces, etc.) in which all feel safe to respond to Ferguson, and the larger issues Ferguson represents, with questions, pictures and stories of protests, prayers of lament, silence, sighs, and, yes, even ambivalence and numbness. All of these responses are action and have to be held in tension, perhaps, impelling all to heal, learn and grow from one another.