Subtext is kind of a shrew.
As I enter into a blogging journey and try to figure out how to describe how I have become a Black lady campus minister, with a passion for anti-racism, playing soul pop music, and lifting heavy weights, I have come to a deep recognition that subtext has played an undeniable role in my story.
What I mean is that for my whole life, even as I have been told one thing, another reality has been present, gently or violently superimposing itself on every aspect of my development.
I suppose I have been most aware of this reality in my racial journey. Given that multi-ethnicity and anti-racism will likely present themselves as some of the primary topics of this writing endeavor, it feels fitting to express, even if in part, the reason why it has become so significant for me.
So to start, a Steve Martin quote:
“I was born a poor black child…”
Ok…so not in the same way Steve talks about, I just couldn’t resist using a quote from The Jerk.
You could say in the truest sense that I was and have been the black sheep in my family.
Here is a picture of me and me family circa 1992 (?), for your reference I am the one on the far left…
…ok, I am sure you have called my bluff. If the hair wasn’t a big enough give away, I suppose very little would be, but I digress.
Regardless of how loving of a family you have, as a biracial person, living in a predominately white home, in a white state, in a white city, in a white culture, it seems like no degree of good intention can protect one from the danger of subtext or overt racialized messages-intentional or not.
“No, you cannot play “family” with us, because you don’t look like our sister”
“Are you adopted?”
“Oh, you have a white family? HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?!”
“I don’t see color, I just see you” (insert wall to beat head on here)
It is the reality that no matter how many black dolls and angels you have, it does not erase the messages that black and brown folks are “less than” or “not normal” at best. And if those messages weren’t spoken explicitly at school, home, wherever, it was certain that the media would do its fair share to indoctrinate me on how black folks (men in particular) were violent, got what they deserved, and were in their current state because they didn’t work hard enough and did too many drugs.
I suppose much of my learning about race is a product of a white-knuckled insistence in the United States that we are post racial and have a meritocracy. This served and serves to make sure that impoverished black and brown folks are seen as lazy and deserving of the life that they receive, instead of a product of historic oppression, disenfranchisement, chattel slavery, colonization, genocide…I need not go on.
The point is, I did not grow up around people that looked like me, and thus consumed all of the messages that claimed through violent subtext that “white is right.”
The result of this embedded ideology in my life was staunch social conservatism- particularly when I joined the church and started to explore what God was like. I rejected being seen as black and clung to the times when people would call me an “Oreo” or the “whitest black girl they had ever met.”
That’s some heavy stuff y’all. To be passively taught self-hate, but never given a language to describe the internal dissonance.
Again, I will not claim I wasn’t loved, I have a family that I love and that loves me, my grandmother did everything she could to protect me from racially problematic stuff, and for that I am grateful; however, the broader culture has so much power to subvert even the best intentions- subtext is very loud and pervasive.
I wish I could say that the church taught me about the value of being a person of color, but deeply embedded in the implicit regard of Jesus as a conservative white man, was the suggestion that I was being saved by that very thing, a conservative white man. And not just that, but in being “saved” that I had a spiritual and social responsibility to make sure that all my friends knew that if they were drinking, having sex, part of the LGBTQ community, doing drugs, or simply not believing, that I needed to hit them with proof texts in order to get them out of here one day to a better place with this lamb-holding, graduation picture Jesus.
Granted, these communities of Jesus people taught me so much about hospitably, generosity, community, conflict, love for God’s word, and friendship. Somehow though, I was able to go through about 8 years of church life without a semblance of a conversation about race that wasn’t about getting “illegals” back to their country or telling me once again that I was “not like other black people they knew.” They spoke a subtext that I had somehow surpassed the downfalls of my racial group.
This pains me deeply… That I was never told that God cared about ethnicity. That I believed that God was not interested in right now, but a future past death, in which morality would allow me to be a light-skinned cherub in the sky playing harps to Jesus forever (for the record, that sounds so awful).
The story was this: God wants everyone to go to heaven because they are good and moral and believe the right stuff, with a subtext that people that look like you (me) typically don’t fit the bill.
As a result, when I looked at people of color communities and saw all the things that I was learning to hate (drugs, sex, alcohol, etc.) I saw the depravity that I never wanted to associate with.
So I decided, prior to college, that I hated people of color- I hated them because I hated liberals and because I hated sin- an extension of what I was taught, both explicitly and implicitly about Jesus.
…and then I went to college.
I was all about God when I went to college at Willamette University. Though the inherent hedonism of the private liberal arts college was problematic to me, I decided to go anyway, largely funded by a scholarship I received from the Black United Fund of Oregon. Incidentally, given my near Tea Party beliefs at the time, I thought it was ridiculous that I was receiving a race based scholarship- nonetheless, it would have been insane to deny $60,000, so I went with it.
I entered college saying that I hated people of color.
I don’t know that it was true, but I said it and certainly voted that way…so…yeah.
I said that they got what they deserved, needed to work harder, get legal, etc. and I was not quiet about it.
…Then I signed up at a table with a campus ministry.
Now, I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into. They were collectively interested in Jesus, experiencing him more, healing the world right now, and…and anti-racist justice. I somehow fell into a group of people who really loved me, reached out to me, and talked to me about God’s heart for healing now, and his heart for justice and I just wasn’t having it. Shout out to Jake and Rachael, Lindsey, Leigh Ann, Angie and Ruth in particular, I wouldn’t be where I am without you.
I recall a particular moment when I said to them- “You are all brainwashed by this ethnic studies stuff, you are so inclusive that you are exclusive, and you make everything about race and identity. I will never take a class in ethnic studies or from this Professor Drew.”
Famous last words…
The thing about this community is not JUST that they were into justice, but they claimed they could hear from God in real time. To my alarm…they really could and they taught me how to.
Now this is a dangerous thing to do, learning to hear from God, because the point of listening is to say “yes.” And when God begins to take charge and speak, he is unwilling to be relegated to the convenient and “functional” places in our lives.
As I learned to listen, I fell in love with scripture all over again.
The following moment is the most clear word that I have ever received from Jesus:
I was sitting in my dorm room in 2008 and reading Exodus. I didn’t get very far before I was stopped in my tracks by Exodus 2:23-25:
“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
Something about God seeing, knowing, and acting, for the rest of scripture, on behalf of reconciling people to himself, each other, and the creation, stuck out to me. As I sat there, confused by what was happening, as I read the story of a guy who grew up in a multi-ethnic family as the odd one out and was invited by God to rescue people from oppression, I heard God say:
“Brandi, If you want to be about the things I am about, you have to be about what I am about- and this is it.”
He was straightforward. There was no subtext. I had been wrong, I had misunderstood God, and this new word invited me into one of the most humbling seasons of my life.
I had to start a journey of learning, apologizing, asking questions, and digging into scripture. Ultimately, I ended up as an ethnic studies major, taking six classes from Professor Drew and having her as my advisor. I studied the intersection of Jesus and justice, media portrayals of intersectional identity, and the industrial prison complex.
Somehow, in studying all of that, I have been left with a deep sense of hope that Jesus is out to heal the world and wants to partner with people to do it.
The intersection of community, prayer, and scripture started me on a journey of healing, redemption, and a pursuit of a more just world that is available right now- because that is what God is up to.
So, that is why I am a Black lady, (besides obvious biological reasons) anti-racist, campus ministry staff – because a community of Jesus-following people came alongside and taught me that there is nothing better to give my life to than the redemptive work of inviting people to experience holistic personhood right now and forever…all subtext aside.