Simran Jeet Singh:
Now I want to introduce our guest for the evening, Dr. Judith Weisenfeld. She is the chair for the Department of Religion at Princeton University. Her research and teaching focus is on African American religious history, religion and race, and religion and modern American culture. She’s the author of some fantastic books: Hollywood Be Thy Name, that’s about African American religion in American film. She has another book, African American Women and Christian Activism, and her most recent book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration. And that’s been an award-winning book.
So, without a doubt Dr. Weisenfeld with is one of the most, well-known and well-respected experts and thinkers on race and religion in modern America. Everyone in the academic world is a fan of hers and people in a public sphere appreciate her for her work as well. And I wanted to bring her into this conversation to help us think about anti-Black racism on a, on a personal level, as a historical phenomenon and also something that’s alive in our current world.
First, we want to offer you insight into what racism looks like and feels like in our human bodies. And that’s why each of our sessions will begin with listening. We’ll hear from our expert guests about their life experiences and what they’ve learned along the way. And this approach draws from James Baldwin’s wisdom: If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. The other thing we hope to do here is received guidance from our guests on how to move from just understanding racism into taking action, figuring out what to do with this information and this, and this knowledge.
And so, what I really hope we do is dig deep with sincerity and vulnerability, and challenge the racist ideas that are embedded within each of us. This is what we mean by anti-racism as a spiritual practice. We’re not just here to point fingers at the people around us and tell them they’re wrong. There’s enough of that going around as it is, and it’s not really helping anyone. It’s not serving anyone. It’s not making meaningful change. And so, we know from our diverse wisdom traditions, that true change starts from within.
So, thank you all for being here. Thanks for being on this journey with me. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that I’m sitting in my apartment in Manhattan, which is traditionally the land of the Lenape, the Indigenous nation that made their homes here and stewarded this land.
But welcome to Dr. Weisenfeld. I hate to begin by asking this question, but here we go. How are you? How’s everything going on your end?
Yeah, the thing is, is as well as it can be, I guess, under the circumstances with that. Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here, also to see friendly face of Dr. Tarango and her family.
Yeah. It’s, it’s great to have you, and I’d love to just have you start by telling us a little bit about your own background. Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? And what was your own sort of personal formation like?
I am I’m currently in, in Princeton, New Jersey, which is also Lenape land. But I grew up in New York City. I grew up in Queens in the 1970s. And my family is less unusual now, but certainly it was an unusual kind of formation at the time for the 1970s. My mother’s an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. She is, she grew up in Tobago in a very, very, very small town. She, she actually turns 90 today and I was putting together some photographs for the family Zoom on Sunday. And I was looking at a photo from the last time I was in Tobago and it’s just, it’s a remarkably small piece of land she’s from. And my father’s family is from, from Eastern Europe, he, he’s the first generation American and his father was from Poland and his mother from Lithuania. And so, my, my father grew up Orthodox Jewish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and my mother, Roman Catholic in Tobago.
And so, we were unusual family at the time. And lots of things about religion happening. It was interfaith, but not, in that my, my father was not practicing, non-observant Jew, but culturally in some ways and in, in for example, dietary ways, so my mother kept up just things that were familiar to him. So, I didn’t grow up eating pork, for example. And so, lots of dietary things made sense to me. And, and my mother is, is to this day, quite a devout Catholic. And so we were, we were raised Catholic in a Jewish way and so, in some ways, and so, but, but deeply Catholic.
So, but you know, when we talk about my scholarship, I think that combination in some ways led me to really interesting questions. It was less, that was less confusing to me or less kind of fraught because I, I grew up Catholic and that, that was my religion. And my father was not — he was Jewish, but not observant. So that, wasn’t a kind of, there wasn’t a balancing act going on in that regard. But in 1970s, America, being an interracial family, I was born before, before Loving v. Virginia was that decision was handed down. I’m the fourth of five children, so my younger brother was born the year of that decision.
So, my parents were married. They were married in, in Trinidad and that’s a long story, but my mother came here and did not know very, she did not experience grow up, experiencing the, the, what Richard Wright called the ethics of Jim Crow. Like what it meant to be formed as a Black person in a Jim Crow world. She, she didn’t learn the scripts of, of American racial structures. And so, she came into it as an adult, and that was a challenge for her in lots of ways to kind of, to learn how she was supposed to act and to decide how she would act in those contexts. And she told us lots of stories about that.
So, and my father his, his parents never spoke English. They, they were observant. They did not approve of this marriage. And so, I didn’t actually grow up with any of his family around us. And so, the interracial part was a very fraught and challenging to navigate both in the public of America and in the kind of private of, of an extended family and, and you know, I, my father is still around, he’s 88, also. And I don’t know.
It’s just what — I think a lot about when I teach a course on — I’m rambling now, but — on, I have taught a course, I like to teach for freshmen on religion in the civil rights movement. And one of the threads through it is thinking about what, what gets someone who has lots of kinds of privileges to make the step into something different? And so, what I, I don’t, I don’t know that we can ever really understand that. Might be some kind of experiences, but it’s just, you know, odd.
I often ask my mother’s sisters, like, what did you think about this? Why did she do this? What did you all think was happening? And they’re like, I don’t know. It was just weird, and she did it, but, so what makes someone take a step out of that, of some kind of comfort and into real challenges, is something that I just, I wonder about and I try and work through and in an American history context some ways.
But so, growing up as a big interracial family, you know, with five kids, my parents, in 1970s, America, even New York, New York’s not, you know — the North has many, many of its racial problems and it was, it was stressful. I can say other things. But you, you might’ve seen, there was a story in the New York Times in the summer. Some, someone on Twitter posted a little film clip from, from, it would have been like 1975 of some Black kids in Queens who were riding their bikes through a white neighborhood and were really jumped on and that, that happened right where I grew up. Right when I was about 10. Those were, I didn’t know those kids, but those kids could have been me and my siblings. We rode through that neighborhood all the time. And they, the Times did a story where they, they tracked down these adults now, but it was just that, that was it — there was, there were race riots in the high school, in the 70s, and sort of being an interracial family in that place in that time was, was often very stressful.
So, how did you, how did you navigate your, your multiple identities? Right? So, so part of it is for you from the religious perspective, it seems fairly clear in, you were saying that wasn’t complicated for you or as complicated. What about your racial identity? Right? You have a father who is Eastern European, Polish, white, mother who is from Trinidad and Tobago. And, and so, you know, you’re, you’re sort of living in two different worlds. Do you feel like you’re living in two different skins as well? Or how does that look for you?
I don’t think I experienced it that way. I should say that my father was not observant, but I was always interested in what it meant for him to have grown up as Orthodox. And, and the neighborhood we lived in was, when I was young, was fairly integrated and a lot of my white classmates were Jewish and it was a kind of Jewish and Black neighborhood. Although I may be wrong about that. That’s just kind of how I reconstructed it. But so, so I was interested in that, but it wasn’t that I was kind of choosing between this or that because we were just Catholic and I, I don’t recall feeling kind of torn in that sense.
I mean, I think I, in terms of questions of race, I think my, neither of my parents really had easy resources to help all of us know what it meant to be Black in America. Obviously, my mother experienced racism all the time. And my parents were challenged. They were denied lodging at a hotel in Atlantic City when they were first married in the 50s. So, they, they learned certain sorts of things, but I don’t — and, but, but I think they… I learned maybe from my older siblings about how to navigate certain sorts of identity questions. And so, from them, from us as a group, really thinking through what it meant to be American in, in a way — my mother, my mother is an American citizen, but she’s kind of ever the Queen’s subject, I think.
Well, what I’m hearing you say is — It’s, it’s almost like what you said. You said that your mother didn’t really all follow the scripts. Right? She, she was, she came to this country and perhaps was expected to learn or was supposed to learn what it was, what it meant to be Black in America, but she never really bought into that. Is that something that you would say you were then socialized into as you know, as, as a Black girl growing up, or do you think that’s something you resisted constantly as well?
I think the scripts she didn’t buy into were about certain kind of deference that, and compliance with Jim Crow laws. And they were, when I hear these stories, they’re funny to her in a way, but they’re terrifying to me. My father was, was in the military. He was in the Army shortly after they got married and moved here and he was actually, he was in, he was in bootcamp in Georgia and then he was stationed in El Paso. And so, this would have been 1955, 56. And she took — she was living in Brooklyn with some friends of hers who lived here — and then she took the train to Georgia to, to visit him. And they had to, she had to change into the Jim Crow car in DC. And she was just like, I don’t know, I’m not, I don’t think I’m going to do this. And so, she sat in another car right next to the Jim Crow car, the segregated car and, and when, and there was a white soldier there who was also going down from New York and they were chatting. And, and when the conductor came around, she started speaking French, which she had learned in school and, and the soldier was like, I don’t know. I don’t know French, so I’m not really talking to her.
So, she would do these kinds of things. You know, I — Angela Davis talks about growing up in Birmingham and using speaking French in a shoe store so she could try on some shoes. So, my mother did a lot of things like that to skirt some of the regulations. But so what I learned from her, you know, those are scary stories, but a certain kind of insistence on, on you know, what, being treated equally, but it’s, you know, within certain kinds of racial structures, it’s very hard to make that happen. So, you know, these were these kind of momentary acts of resistance that were, and my parents were still very much constrained by the structures.
And so, I think for the next generation for me and my siblings in the North, in New York, was somewhat different and the time was different. But I think among my siblings, there’s just, again, back to your earlier questions there, wasn’t a kind of feeling torn. There was a lot, I think the thing I had to navigate most as a child was it was a kind of accusation of, of disloyalty to one group or another, or not like, or, or a, a way that people would resist welcome, right? Or, or refuse me a certain kind of authenticity. And that’s something that I think has changed over my lifetime in part, because — and the main, one of the main kind of engines of that is my name. Right? It’s kind of less unusual. The older I get people assume that it’s, it’s a marriage. Like it’s a name I took in marriage. Which, you know, my mother did that and that caused her endless problems. And in a time when women couldn’t have their own credit cards, so her credit cards said Mrs. Bernard Weisenfeld and like, that was so she had to be really strong every time. She actually, now that I think about this, my parents do not like to charge things. They pay cash because, and I think it’s partly, my mother just didn’t want to have that experience.
And the kind of, what it means for me in this body to show up with my name in a lot of places has been very fraught and it’s been fraught in Black context. It’s been fraught in white context and fraught in a lot of contexts. I met a colleague I knew through — that was years ago — correspondence or, and she said she met me in person. She said, she said, you know, you have a problem because you don’t look like I expect because of your name, like — this is this, is it. Sorry.
What does, what does that tell us? I mean, it’s, it’s funny because it’s funny. What, what does, what does that tell us? What does, what does it tell us about this question about the entity? I mean, there’s, there’s this like — here’s this question of like, are you authentically Black? Are you authentically Jewish? Are you, are you authentically a person? Like what, what does, what, what do we get out of these questions around authenticity and what does, what does authenticity have to do with, with ideas of white supremacy?
Sure. That’s a really interesting question. I think in some ways it’s, it is one of the animating questions in my research, which is to think about both. I think I could fold most of whatever into some version of this.
So, what, what are the structural constraints? What are the social structures that produce ideas about racial authenticity that are oppressive and disempowering? So often I think authenticity could be a good thing. Like you’re authentically whatever, but it actually can in certain kinds of structures, and I think my work on, on representations and film and the current project that I’m doing on how early psychiatry understood, interpreted African, Black religion as a way of, of talking about ideas about essential, natural Blackness, right? That’s authentic. That’s a version of authenticity, but it’s a constraining one, it’s an oppressive one. So Black, white psychiatrist said Black people are naturally emotional and fanatical in their religion and politics. And so that’s a version of an authentic Blackness that is disempowering.
And then in, in in my work, in on Black new religious movements of the early 20th century, I was interested in how Black people, African Americans and also those groups had strong, strong representation of, of immigrants from the Caribbean. How, how did they navigate these questions? So, one of the ways of breaking out of those constraining images of a certain kind of Black authenticity is to produce other kinds of narratives that — and so these would make other kinds of claims. There are different ways to do. So, but those groups I was interested in were, we’re saying, we’re not that — race is it’s a different version of the kind of racist constructed. That race, those racial, that racial category you have imposed on me at the time, early 20th century Negro is, that’s not what I am. You made that up and you made it up to oppress me.
And so, I am in search of my real, our real collective history, our real name as a group. And in, in those groups for them, knowing that that, who we are as a people also was, was a religious project. So, who we are as people is something that God did. And so, the religious, our religious orientation is intimate is connected to that knowledge of individual and collective self. So, as they were creating, they were creating to them, they were, they were rediscovering and reclaiming a different kind of authenticity.
And so, so what it says, I think, I think one of the, one of the things I’ve been interested in, in my work is to, to just undo the kind of natural — There’s no one there’s no one way, and these ideas are deeply contextual and changing and, and just to me, endlessly fascinating. And so, I think just kind of destabilizing ideas that there is some kind of natural singular way of being X thing, you historicize, and you interrogate it, you, it, it, it allows you to connect to people in ways that both recognize context and histories and collective, you know, communal connections and also the individual deeply. So, you’re not just putting the garment of the, your idea of the group on the person but that idea of the group, whether from the group or from outside may have shaped that person, but you are also connecting to the person, if that makes sense. Both, both of those things are possible once you I think loosen up ideas of, for understand authenticity as, as a multiple thing, authenticity.
Yeah, I, I appreciate that. I think it’s a, it’s a strand that I see in your work and I’m helping, I’m glad you helped us sort of pull it together a little bit. I think, you know, another way of saying this is to say, you know, authenticity is about a sense of purity. It’s about a certain standard that that is decided arbitrarily about who gets to count as a person. And so, we can talk about who is authentically human in a racial hierarchy. And, and the first thing that immediately jumps to my mind is the Three-fifths Compromise, right? Like, who is a full person and who is three fifths of a person. We can think about authenticity as, as somebody like me walking around the streets and being told you’re not a real American. I’m like, I’m born and raised here. Like I think I am, but like, that’s, that’s not this, I don’t get to set the standard of that.
And so, I really, I really appreciate you helping us sort of make that connection around, I mean, I know it’s, it’s not common for everyone to think about these, these ideas as racist ideas, as mechanisms that are used to set barriers for some people and to create platforms for other people. But I think that’s really important for us to recognize.
I’d love for you to help us understand historically, okay, so, so this is a big question I’m going to ask you, but you you’re the, you’re the best person in the country to ask. So here we go. Can you, can you give us logic? So, so a lot of times we dismiss, right, anti-Black racism in particular. Those of us who, who are against it we dismiss it as illogical, but it’s that, it’s just, just a bad idea and dumb people do it. And I think what’s important for us to recognize is that there is a real logic to it and then smart people who do it too. And so, can you help us understand the logic, the historical development of anti-Black racism? Where does it come from and why?
Where does it come from? I, I think there are lots of ways to approach this, but, but I do think that religion is a critical component of this. That you cannot understand anti-Black racism without understanding the history of, of Christian missions in Africa and how European Christians interpreted African religions as not, not religions, right? As fetish, as a kind of — so Sylvester Johnson’s African American Religions is a great resource for this. There are several other – Lauren, Randy Matory, his new recent book on fetish. That’s kinda like revisiting fetish.
So, the, the assessment of the, of the things that African peoples in all the variety were doing was not religion. It was, it was fetish. So it was, it was, it was something we might talk about in another terms — a kind of idol worship, a kind of investment of mistaken mistaking the physical thing as a, as having spiritual properties is, is what the idea of the fetishes, that it was consorting with, with demonic forces and, and that and that, that the fact that on encounter that many people were engaging in spiritual practices that looked like something that European Christians thought was, again, mistaken religion or bad religion that therefore these people were on a lower scale of humanity. You find this kind of this lie. I was reading something today, the scale of humanity. And I was thinking like, why does it have to be a scale? Right? It’s just, there’s this kind of verticality of it.
And so, once it’s this, these ideas support a drive to, to convert, to missionize, to extend Christianity to people, some of whom were quite familiar with Christianity already and, and justified enslavement. And so enslavement becomes justified through the idea of the need to extend Christianity.
And so, it’s not — race is not necessarily an operative formation at this time. And so, I, I think you know, I’m not I’m not a specialist in this early period. I think some of the most interesting work that’s going on now, Kelsey Moss, who is a graduate of our program and teaches at USC now, is thinking about how one narrative people had had was that, that this, these ideas of religious difference were supplanted by racial difference. That race comes into being in the wake of certain other kinds of processes. And she’s trying to think through a different way of thinking about it — not as one, replacing one another, but of a constant kind of race, racial formation happening in and through, through Christianity in the Americas.
And so, but one, one thing that one finds in, in lots of this early material and I’m influenced here again, this is not my time period, by — the name of it is escaping me the book title it’ll come to me. One finds the sense that we must — we have enslaved these people because we must extend Christianity to them. And yet there’s a sense that they can never quite be Christian.
And so that’s something that I’m thinking about in the late, late 19th century after the end of slavery, a new round of arguments about this of a kind of failure of Black Christianity. It’s not, it’s never quite right. It’s either, has hidden fetishism in it. Right? Talk about an innate superstitious nature among African Americans is part of the, the language at that time, or it’s the wrong kind of Christianity. It’s too emotional. It’s too physical. It’s too, it’s not, it’s not rational. It’s emotional.
And so, I think, I don’t know that I can say where it starts, but, but I’m, I will, I am certain that the logics of Christianity in, as it comes out of this European context into various other contexts, but as, as it lands and sets up in the United States, I’ll say the logics of Christianity support the logics of anti-Black racism. And not all of Christianity, but I mean there — and there are lots of, you know, if there’s lots of, of rich theological thinking that — I have my students read a lot of racist theology to, to work through the logic of it.
What are the arguments on which someone like Thorton Stringfellow who writes, it’s like a brief examination of scripture, testimony on, I forget. I think there are early Americanists in the room here, on whatever on slavery. So how does the Bible justify it’s — how do they use the Bible to justify slavery? And they do. And these are, these are very clear, straightforward arguments that draw on biblical texts. You know, you can prove texts, lots of things, but, and, and I do have my students sit with this work.
I think it’s really important to see how 19th century white Christian thinkers worked through these logics for themselves. And, and one of the great things is that you can pair the kind of mirror images, something like Angelina Grimké’s, it’s, she’s addressing, it’s called like a plea to women of the South, or something like, to white women calling them to be anti-slavery and they’re exactly the same text and arguments. So, it’s I don’t know, then I got to your question, but, but I really do, I think we can’t in America, you kind of understand — if we want to see racial hierarchies, the logics of that as, as having a logic, you can’t understand it without understanding the role religion plays in producing and supporting and sustaining that.
That’s great. That’s, that’s really helpful. And I know it’s a, it’s a tall order to ask you to give us the history of racism in two minutes. But it, it’s really helpful. And one of the things that really struck me, you know, you, you, you made this point that the impulse is to bring Christianity to these people who can actually never really be fully Christian. And, and another way of saying that is, and another part of the logic is, let’s bring civilization to these people who can never really be fully civilized. And that’s something, I mean, the, the, the, the language of civility is still something that’s highly charged, highly racist in our society today and I’d love —
Okay. So, let’s, we were talking centuries ago. Let’s fast forward into today. What do you see in the logic of anti-Black racism that is similar? Like what, what is, what is the legacy that’s held? And how is it adapted in ways that, you know, somebody from 300 years ago would see it and be like, oh, this is not what we meant.
Well, that is hard. That’s a tall order. I, I’m not, I’m going to make a stop maybe in the late 19th and early 20th century where I live in my own research. But my current project has — I, I, most of my work has been in the early 20th century. Cause it’s a period for me that has, I’m interested in the Great Migration and mostly the urban north, and that there’s a kind of liberation that That generates all sorts of religious creativity as people move out of the south and into cities in the north and there’s immigration from the Caribbean.
And so, but this, this current project that I just kind of fell into is on psychiatry. How the beginnings of psychiatry in American, the late 19th century, when, when certain set of doctors are starting to call themselves psychiatrists. And there’s a, there’s an emerging network of, or it’s there, but it’s growing of, of mental hospitals and these white southern doctors who are encountering Black patients in these hospitals are, are proclaiming themselves to be experts on, on the Black mind and what I’ve, I’m still in early research on this project, but what I’m seeing is that — so one of the arguments they make as Black people have just become free in the south, is that, is that slavery was, was a restraining and beneficial institution for Black people. That it kept them in check emotionally. It kept them moral through contact with the civilization of white Americans. And that now, free, and they didn’t have to worry — Black people, enslaved people didn’t have to worry about anything. Now they’re thrust into civilization suddenly. They have been fast-forwarded into the highest form of civilization in the world, 19th century white America, and they can’t hack it.
And so, they are breaking down. So mental illness is a, is a consequence, this is, these are the arguments the psychiatrists are making of the, of the inability of Black people to deal with civilization. And, and you could get committed to a mental hospital for practically anything, based on my research. It’s, I mean, really astonishing.
And what arguments one might hear today is — why can’t they just, why can’t they just, you know, pull it together? And, and at that juncture of the, of 1870, 80, 90, as Jim Crow segregation is coming into place, as a, you know, a net over a certain region of the country, right, with implications elsewhere in other forms. They’re just, there’s just, there’s a net, I guess, a carceral net pulling people into prisons, into certain forms of labor, into mental hospitals. There’s just so, they’re just, it’s a moment where I’m just, I, in my research, I feel kind of overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against Black people who are just stepping out of, of an oppressive institution that we cannot fathom. We can’t fathom it.
And, and even as people now will say, well, that was such a long time ago. It wasn’t, first of all. And I, the resonances of that are, I’ve been thinking through — So, I did a short piece for the scholar strike about the criminalization of mental illness and policing and about the high incidents, of the kind of confluence of, high incidents of police killings of, of people with mental illness and of Black people. And I think there’s a through line there of a sense of, you know, the, the racist argument of Black peoples’ just inability to cope in modern society without any attention to, I mean, so many, so many things, including the, the very deep and long-lasting effects of, of, of everything arrayed against individuals and communities. I just, I’m in a very sobering research project right now.
That’s great. That’s, that’s really helpful. And I have a question here that I wanted to read out to you and that is around, okay. So, it’s saying that so many people here are aware of anti-Black racism now, even if they haven’t been before, and that it can feel paralyzing once, you know, because there’s no, there’s no clear answer on what to do. So, what advice do you have for people once they learn about anti-Black racism? What should they be doing?
Learn about Black history and Black culture. So, even as — I think also about my, my work is a kind of pendulum where I started off really interested in what kinds of, how did Christianity provides sources for Black women in the early 20th century iIn New York, to engage in public culture and politics and economics? And so, I looked at the YWCA as one as a way of thinking about that, how do Black women form their own platform for voice.
And then my next project was on, it wasn’t entirely on this, but on how Hollywood films used images of religion to, again, provide a kind of constraining, how popular culture representations worked against Black flourishing in the same period.
And then my next project was about how, how these new religious movements were a sign of incredible creativity on the part of, of migrants to the urban north who were making new ways of thinking about Black racial identity through religious means and new community forms and challenging the government in different ways. And now, now I’m looking at how white psychiatrists produced these kinds of constraining images.
So, I’m kind of back and forth in this way. I think, I think you have to, you have to understand in, I think in really fine texture, the, all of the arenas of American life in which these kinds of representations and social structures are constraining people and, but you can never forget that within this all the time, you know, Black people live and work and love and make families and worship and, and create. And so, to only focus on, on anti-Black racism is to miss something, you know, that crucial about Black life in America. It’s not just the story of, of racism.
I wrote a short piece for Imminent Frame on, I was just asked to write about space and places, keywords, and I, I wrote about what, what I took from a TV show, the shadow map. Black people have lived in a kind of, they have mapped worlds of, of spiritual worlds and cultural creativity and intellectual life and politics and fun. And in a shadow map that is, that provides places of connections outside of the, the surveillance of, of white racist structures.
Yeah, what I’m, what I’m hearing you say is to only focus on the dehumanization means that you’re never actually humanizing anyone. And then if that’s the problem then, then you’re not being part of the solution. And so, I think, you know, it’s a, it’s a both, and, it sounds like from what you’re saying.
I have another question here. Historically Christianity has actually supported anti-Black racism. That’s much less straightforward now, but as of late, we’re seeing religion used to condone anti-Black practices. In what ways is Christianity currently doing that? And what responsibility or changes need to happen by Christians to counter those?
In what ways is, are, is Christianity supporting anti-Black racism? In lots of ways. I think one, one thing that strikes me about now, let me see if I can say this well, is, the focus on in this may… well, obviously Christianity is plural. One, one form of — this is not my specialty at all — of evangelical white evangelical Christianity that has not been interested in the, kind of the fortunes of the racial reconciliation movement from the 90s on and that you know, I had a, a colleague who had been my professor actually. And then we, we taught together ,and he grew up in a fairly conservative, evangelical context.
And he said, you know, my father went to one of these, it was at Promise Keepers time. I went to one of these things and there was a Black man as part of this event. And, and everyone was talking about racial reconciliation and, and they. They surrounded him and they hugged him, and they apologized, and his father was deeply moved, and he thought, you know, his father was, was transformed by this event. And I do not, I’m not saying otherwise, but, but there’s a way that, that a certain focus on the individual, on the individual heart is, is something, it seems weird to say, like, that’s not, that’s actually not the answer always.
And so, the kind of individualizing of, if you act like this, then people will respond to you differently rather than recognizing structures. And so, I — this is a rambling answer — but I think the idea that racism is in the individual heart and that churches can engage in this kind of reconciliation that assumes an equivalence and requires Black forgiveness is not, is not to me a really productive thing on its own. I’ll say that.
You know, you hear people get caught saying racist things and they say like, well, in my heart, I’m not like that. But, but the rest of you is like, or you don’t, you don’t have the bone. You don’t have the racist bones. And I do, I think, again, I’m not, this is not my area of expertise, but I think there’s something that I think one could be, could explore in a productive way the, the thread between a certain kind of theology about the individual and, and that is a particularly certain kind of evangelical Christian theology, and the idea that the answer to these things is about in, in my heart only and not other kinds of things. I lost the second part of that question.
Yeah. I mean, I think, I think it was a great answer and I guess, I guess what I’m hearing from you and I’d love to hear you –
Restate it cause it’s so much better.
Well, it’s, it’s this is like my dumb, my dumbed down version of trying to understand your smart, your smart brain. It’s, it’s almost like you’re talking about, well, my intention was this. And I, so, so in, in racial justice language, we, we often talk about intention versus impact. And I imagine for a lot of folks who are here, that they’re familiar with that, but this the, in my heart thing seems a little bit different, which is like, my intention was this. And if I made a mistake, that was an accident. And it’s not even, it’s not even worried about the impact of, of what’s happening. It’s, it’s almost like deflecting the possibility that someone made that someone made an error.
I don’t know if that’s, if that’s resonating with what you’re saying, but that’s, that’s my understanding, my, my simplified understanding of what you’re saying.
I don’t know if there’s even an intention in the, in my heart, is that I acted badly, but I’m actually a different person because that’s what I think.
Like the external is separated from the, from the internal.
Yes. Yes. And so in that same, in that same way, America can, America is not a racist country because its heart — Dr. Turango is, is laughing. There, there’s a disjuncture between maybe between the ideal image of the thing and the way it acts and the right of the person’s ideal of themselves and how they act. And, and so for me, the only way to get to, to connect those two things is to understand history and structures and power and so on. So, I think that’s what I was trying to say.
Yeah, no, that, that makes a lot of sense. And I think, you know, one of the really difficult things about being racialized in this country and watching, watching the rest of the country say, there’s no such thing as racism is like, wow, like how can there be such cognitive dissonance about the reality of our experiences versus what you think is happening? And I think that helps explain it. So that’s, yeah, that’s really helpful.
I mean, it’s, it’s just so hard to try and get to that place where you can see how somebody could adjust it by that. But that’s, that’s a really helpful explanation.
It has to be, I mean, there’s a people it’s hard, it’s hard to, right? It’s hard to own up to these things. And that’s why I, I, I find the — it’s work to understand. And so the, the — again, it’s not my world. It’s not my research. But what I was always so struck by about the Promise Keepers, things that you could just say, okay let’s reconcile. Like, it’s done. It’s like, it’s work, it’s ongoing work and it hurts. And it hurts. You have to admit things about history. You have to recognize the history and to recognize that the fact of history is not to smash the ideal. It’s actually to move towards it, you know?
And I think that, that our current discourse about something like the 1619 Project, you know, whatever you can decide that’s the real founding date or not, and even if you decide that it’s not, it’s a call to recognize this painful, factual history. And I won’t get into what the blow back about certain kinds of facts. The painful history, the painful reality of American history, and a lot of people, they just don’t want to do that.
Yeah, that’s great. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time. This has been a fantastic conversation and for sharing all your knowledge and your, and your wisdom and your insights really, really appreciate everything you do. And, and, and especially for taking time with us today.