Last week, I watched as my friends in Kenya went to the ballot box, then waited anxiously for the results. I watched as the vote broke largely along tribal lines, as it always has. And in the fray, some of the brightest candidates – candidates who refused to play tribal politics – were unable to garner enough votes to triumph.
I watched as the results came in and tensions rose – as the opposition candidate fanned the flames of tribal anger and then retreated to his private, secure, luxurious compound to watch the city burn. And I watched as a small number of people tried to give him what he was looking for. These are desperate people, people who have nothing to lose and nothing better to do, riled up into a rage by a bitter politician. And in that rage, many protested, some got violent, and lives were lost.
Lost, too, was the greater story – the story of a democratic nation in East Africa whose citizens take pride in their opportunity to vote and to do so in a fair and just system. This is Kenya, a place where post-election violence nearly tore the nation apart 10 years ago. This time around, there was relative calm. Sure, the media was full of sensational reports of violence, but for most Kenyans, life went on. As people in democratic nations do, they accepted the result and went back to work.
As I took all this in late last week, I was reminded of parallels in the United States. Leading up to our election, there was a lot of divisive talk. After the election, there were mass demonstrations and even some acts of violence. I don’t recall, however, sensational headlines suggesting that the U.S. was some kind of backward nation on the verge of upheaval. But this is how the Kenyan election was being reported, especially by U.S. and British news outlets.
I was enraged by the double-standard being applied. I was irritated by the narrative being perpetuated by people who should know better. Many who read these stories might be excused their ignorance, having not experienced any life outside of the borders of their native homes. But the reporters and editors sharing this false narrative knew it was a lie. They had to work hard to find the conflict. They had to bend over backwards to get that one photo they could use to play into the old stereotype of the “violent African.” It was irresponsible. It was reprehensible. It was racist.
Vitriol in Virginia
Then, on the evening of August 11th, as I continued to check Twitter, looking for updates from Kenya, I started seeing tweets about an event happening on the campus of the University of Virginia. It seemed some idiots had stopped by the local Walmart, spent some coin on tiki torches, and descended upon the UVA campus in a supposed show of “white power” (nothing says power like the scent of citronella). I shook my head and went to bed, knowing that, just like in Kenya, these desperate men didn’t represent me and didn’t tell the whole story.
What transpired the following day would become a national tragedy, and begin a national conversation. As white nationalist protestors clashed with anti-protestors, a group of Christian clergy gathered to lead non-violent resistance, but tensions continued to rise. The protestors were told to go home, a state of emergency was declared, and the crowds began to disperse. Then, at 1:42pm, a car driven by a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of anti-protestors, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer. At 5:00pm, a police helicopter crashed, killing Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates. Three lives lost and many injured because a group of white people decided that there lives, livelihood, and sense of pride is more valuable than anyone else.
Celebrities, politicians, religious leaders, and regular people were quick to condemn the protests and the violence, as they should. But I couldn’t help but think, “Wait…this is the natural result of the path many of these same people are on and have been advocating.”
You see, while the overt racism and violence we saw this weekend in Charlottesville is certainly evil, so is any rhetoric or action that values one life over another. The tribalism in Kenya and the white supremacy in Charlottesville are born from the same place. The stereotypical press coverage of the Kenyan election and the rage-induced killing of an innocent woman in Charlottesville are birthed from the same spirit. What’s more, anti-immigrant, exceptionalist, nationalistic policies are just more socially-acceptable versions of the same evil – the evil of valuing myself and people like me more than those who are different than me. Same demon, different name.
And while I’ve tried to process the events of the past week, trying to figure out how to respond, not just with words, but with action, I’ve wrestled with what it looks like to live in the tension between, “I will praise you in the storm,” and, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” To find the balance point between blind optimism and abject hopelessness. This is an onerous endeavor to be sure, but to land in this place is, I believe, to find the place of peace, the way of Jesus, the path forward.
But how do I get there? On one hand, I can’t live in denial, pretending that the evil of racism doesn’t exist in my world, and even in my own mind. But I also can’t just give up, willfully allowing evil to triumph. Somehow, I have to summon everything within myself and everything from my God to say, “We shall overcome!”
We shall overcome!
Jesus told us he had overcome the troubles of this world. He didn’t say he had smoothed them over or eliminated them. He said he had overcome them. And I think it’s time we begin those long, hard conversations about how we are going to overcome this demon of racism, tribalism, nationalism – of selfism – in our world.
I think it’s time we begin those long, hard conversations about how we are going to overcome this demon of racism, tribalism, nationalism – of selfism – in our world.
The marginalized have been beating this drum for a long time. Those of us in the majority need to wake up. If Charlottesville serves as a wake-up call, then I guess there’s a silver lining to this very dark, evil cloud. But if Charlottesville ends up being a symbol of how true racism looks like “those evil people” and not like me, then we only compound the evil.
If we are repulsed by Nazi salutes, that’s great. But if we are satiated by the idea that we’re not as bad as those people, then we’ve missed the point entirely. We are those people.
I am those people
No, I’ve never espoused white supremacy or extolled the virtues of Adolf Hitler, but I have made negative associations about people based on the color of their skin, or their accent, or their loose grip of the English language. I have made generalizations about people based on their ethnicity. I have passed judgement on people because of how they are dressed – for religious, cultural, or personal reasons.
Some would call that reasonable discernment, good judgement, or an abundance of caution. Same demon, different name.
I am those people, but I’m growing. I’m changing. I’m working on it. I’m listening to the stories of marginalized people and trying to let them soak into my being. I’m trying to turn off my “I’m right” switch and my “yeah, but” switch and actually listen to the stories of people who have been victimized by the threads of racism woven so intricately into the cultural fabric that they easily go unnoticed by those they don’t oppress.
So, for my friends who are part of marginalized people groups, I’m sorry. But I’m also an ally. I don’t know how to be a good one yet, but I’m trying. I don’t feel your pain, because I could never fully feel it, but I recognize your pain and feel some of it. I know my white skin affords me far more benefit than I know and far more than I deserve. And I know I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with being complacent – that the core of my being (not just my mental assent) cries out for justice.
Complacency is complicity. And I just can’t do it anymore.