― James Baldwin
I come from a large family, meaning I have a lot of cousins. And growing up, I always saw them at family functions, of which there were many. Most of these functions took place in Muskogee, where my mom, aunts, and uncles are from, and where all but my mom and one uncle still live. My mom moved out of Muskogee to one of the two “big” cities in Oklahoma. And the differences between my cousins and me are as stark as the difference between the two cities themselves. I loved them – still do – but I never felt like I was one of them, even though we were family.
I grew up in a nice (and now very nice) suburb in Oklahoma. My neighborhood was all white. We were the only minorities on the block. There was a Korean family down the street, but they didn’t stay long. My parents took me out of the public school (which was and still is considered one of the best schools in the state) when I was in 4th grade and put me in our church’s private school. I went to a private high school, a private undergrad, and a private law school. All of the students were predominantly white. The church in which I grew up was a large fundamentalist evangelical church that is now synonymous with suburban Oklahoma.
I grew up around everything that was typical of white suburbia, which was very unlike working-class Muskogee. Not only did this make me feel different around my cousins, but I also felt different around other black people. I don’t really listen to rap. I prefer Bowie and Queen over Kanye West (or whoever is the current reigning king of hip-hop). Most slang words cause my eye to twitch. And I don’t understand the appeal of buying expensive sneakers, which many of my cousins vied for when we were younger. I always had a sense of being on the outside when it came to “being black.” Maybe it was my own obnoxious superiority complex that most teenagers have. Maybe it was my inability to truly look outside my own bubble. Maybe, and most shamefully, I was embarrassed. Growing up where I did, I was embarrassed to be considered different. Although I was in no way considered popular as a child, I wanted to fit in the best I could. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as “one of those people.” I was as proud as I was troubled when someone told me that I “didn’t sound black”– as though he or she was complimenting me on successfully dragging myself out of the muck that was being a minority.
But as I got older and moved away from the suburban cocoon that encased me, I realized that regardless of my background, my education, or the way I talk, I am black. Well, technically multi-racial. But I look black, even though I’m light skinned. When people look at me, that’s what they see, along with all the preconceived notions they have about my race. When I was followed in stores as a teenager, I tried to rationalize it by telling myself that I was different. Those sales clerks were just doing their job. They would do that to anyone else, regardless of race. But I was just lying to myself. To others, I’m not different. I’m one of those people. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve forced myself to associate with those who look like me, and who had upbringings completely different from my own. That’s why I’m so distraught. I see people, who look like my family, being shot in the toy section of a store, gunned down in the middle of the street, and having tear gas lobbed at their homes. I see great hostility against minorities in this country, and the response from those outside these communities is almost as heartbreaking.
I have a friend with whom I went to high school who converted to Catholicism several years ago. She visited me in March, and one night we had a friendly discussion about religion and the world in general. She told me how she loved the Catholic faith because of its history of civil justice and charity, despite the imperfect past. I believed her, and I still do. Or I want to anyway. I see her and all my religious (not just Catholic) friends on the Internet decrying birth control, the “black mass” in Oklahoma, and the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. I understand how this deeply affects them and their faith, and I’ve seen the official outcry from the Bishop and Archbishop. My friends repost clergymen’s statements, and they change their profile pictures to be in solidarity with their Christian brethren in other parts of the world. Again, I understand how this pertains to their belief system and their Christian faith, even if I am opposed to some of their beliefs.
However, in the past two years, a teenager was shot walking home with candy in his hand, a woman was shot in the head asking for the phone because her car broke down, a man was choked to death for selling cigarettes, a man was shot holding a toy gun in a Wal-Mart, and another man was gunned down with his hands up in surrender. And this is just what makes the national headlines. A black man is killed every twenty-eight hours by a member of law enforcement alone. Where is the outcry? Where is the call to action to stand behind members of society that are constantly under attack for the sole reason that they are different? Where is the social justice? Why is there no call for life from the various Christian hierarchies? None of my Christian friends (who aren’t black) have brought up Mike Brown or Ferguson, Missouri. The outrage has come from my Hindu, atheist, and lapsed Catholic friends. What if the police killed a Catholic or an Evangelical every twenty-eight hours?
As tear gas and rubber bullets lobbed through the air in Missouri, I had to make myself not cry at the silence emanating from people who, on a constant basis, claim that their faith is under attack in America. I laugh ruefully when I think of that. They will never be in fear of being gunned down for their skin color and their dress because society has viewed them as dangerous until proven otherwise. Yet, they claim discrimination when for-profit companies are required to provide insurance that pays for contraception, or when a mayor refuses to shut down a black mass (regardless of the massive Constitutional problems that would cause for the city). I see the pictures of those shot down, and they look like my cousins, my uncles, and my nephews. When fall and winter come around, I wear my college hoodie nearly every day. I sometimes wonder if I too will be shot because I look “threatening.” I guess I should consider myself lucky that I’m a woman and viewed as less threating. Unfortunately, that was not the case for Renisha McBride. I have two nephews, and I ask myself if they too will become a statistic — just another twenty-eight hours.
The pastor at the church I attended, even though I consider him illogical in his theology, said all the time that the world would judge us (Christians) by our actions. It was easy to nod along and think that you were portraying Christianity in a good light when you went to church twice a week, and when your school and your community believed and acted the same way as you. But, when I left the school, the community, and the religion, I was on the outside. I am now looking at what religious people are doing, and I am judging accordingly. I am “the world” who looks at Christian actions because I don’t go to mass or a service of any kind. Maybe there is talk of social justice in the pulpit. But I don’t hear what my friends hear every week. I only know by what they talk about publicly once they leave their churches. I now notice more acutely what they do and say outside their places of worship. I pay attention to what they say that’s important to their faith.
Is black life not important? Do embryos and fetuses deserve marches and official press releases but actual humans do not? Can the sight of seeing an American city in 2014 turn into a small war zone equipped with tanks and tear gas really elicit a shrug? No talk of the importance of human life. No talk of the systematic subjugation and aggression their fellow Christians in America are enduring. Is it because we’re black? Is it because we are the other? I don’t know. But I asked myself that as I scrolled through one more anti-birth control article posted by a college friend, while there is a city under siege due to the death of just one more black man.