There’s this joke that I’ve never been able to forget. I mean, literally, I’ve never been able to forget it. I’m not sure how many times I told it in high school or middle school, but I must have thought it was hilarious. It’s short, to the point, and shocking. I won’t share it here, because there is no need to perpetuate the words, especially since the only way the punch line works is if violence towards women is a joking matter, which of course it is not. It is mine to keep, mine to remind me, likely forever, that there was once a time I thought violence against women was quite a punchline.
I was never violent myself, but I remember my first encounter with partner violence. Senior year of high school, a fellow thespian came in looking a little shaken up, so I asked if she was ok. We got to talking, and she mentioned that her boyfriend hits her sometimes. Despite the cruel jokes, I was raised to be against any such behavior, and I told her, immediately, that she should leave him–he was a horrible person! She did not, defending his actions, saying that it will be ok. I pushed, but nothing came of it. I did not follow up.
I remember sitting in a tree with friends, when we were younger–13 or 14 perhaps–and jeering at an Asian-American walking around our otherwise white neighborhood. As I remember, it was hilarious and fun–the guy couldn’t see us, and it’s not like our words were hurtful…I can literally hear my younger self defending the actions in the back of my head.
And African-Americans? I’ll just say I was better than most. I grew up in New Orleans, so you can imagine race was a thing. People had names for the TV station BET. There were plenty of jokes, plenty of comments, plenty of everything. I remember classmates joking about Thomas Jefferson’s “chocolate love” –i.e., penchant for impregnating slaves–in a class presentation during sophomore year of high school. I remember it being funny.
I remember hanging out at a New Year’s Eve party on Bourbon Street, where a cop friend-of-a-friend was joking about how they got around racial profiling. “We can’t say ‘black male’ all the time on the radio, people think we’re profiling, so we call them [that is, Black Males] ‘Mondays’ because, really, what day of the week do you hate more than Mondays?” I was just old enough not to think this was funny, but still racist enough to stand there, silent, and continue the conversation.
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I am not here to reconcile my past with you. I deeply regret these actions, but such apologies are meaningless when not combined with penitential actions which embody the conciliatory attitudes so displayed. (Which, by the way, is a succinct way of putting Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent argument for reparations.) Perhaps one day I will be able to fully atone for these (and many other) sins in the city of New Orleans. Atonement, before God and neighbor, necessarily remains a physical act, a sacrament, in the truest of senses. Today, perhaps as a portion of that atonement, I am here to write.
Specifically, I am here to talk about race, oppression, and the possibility for positive actions in this age of constant social interaction. These four snapshots of a relatively stable childhood serve a single purpose, and allow me to make two points:
1. I am of the firm belief that these facets of my childhood experience are not only commonplace in New Orleans, but they are commonplace around the United States.
2. I am also of the firm belief that it is precisely such facets of daily life which led and continue to lead, quite directly, to the abhorrent amount of racism and oppression in society, a fact exemplified by the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and so many others.
The culture of the United States, despite–and sometimes because of–the trappings of Christianity which gird it, is a biased culture. If we believe that we can end the cycles of racism and bigotry simply by preaching “good Christian values” to our children and friends, we are wrong. If hate is subconsciously embedded in the commonality of teenage pranks, then love must be the enacted and vehemently argued opposition of the unconscious hate that is being planted in children, at all levels of growth.
There is more than enough evidence for us to assume that oppressive tendencies–racist, misogynistic, bigoted, homophobic, xenophobic–are constantly transforming our lives and those around us. We must actively work against such tendencies. To point: second hand smoke is not being eliminated by telling people smoking is harmful. Second hand smoke is being eliminated by active efforts that ban people from smoking in public places.
Innocent lives are saved through a cultural shift of accepted practices. Oppression kills bodies, souls, and minds at an undoubtedly higher rate than any virus or disease in existence. Positive and intentional actions against oppression, of all forms, are needed to combat the death toll involved. Actions of this sort–for which I prefer the term “anti-oppressive,” “anti-racist,” or “anti-misogynist”–move us from the realm of endless cycles of passivity (let’s define white privilege again, shall we?), towards the realized possibility of a world without oppression. In theological terms, such actions not only align us with Christ’s mission as described in Luke 4:18-9, allowing us to participate in God’s work within the global human body, but they also help us to realize and work through our own atonement for all those times that we, being silent, have consented in the past.
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I am beginning this series with my experience of growing up Catholic in New Orleans because, sometimes, I become afraid of my childhood xenophobic actions and tendencies, despite the fact that they never arose violently within me. I become afraid that the unsaid joke that surfaces in the most untimely moments will force itself into the open.
Theologian Karen Teel relates the story of a white grandmother, who was so anti-racist that she had bullied her own father into leaving the KKK so that she could marry a Jewish man. After confronting racism, violence, and bigotry for many years, the woman became afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. When this happened “Mabel could no longer identify her own children or grandchildren, but she did remember how to insult her African American caretakers when she got upset. The racism she learned as a child was stronger even than Alzheimer’s.” 
It is not enough to be transformed once older, to have quality education. Such transformations are absolutely and unequivocally necessary, but they are not enough. The human mind is so pliable, so easily molded, especially when young. To transform culture, one must tear the plant out by the roots.
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Becoming Anti-Oppressive, by John Slattery
Part 1: Growing Up Racist and Misogynist and Catholic
Part 2: The Act of Knowing
Part 3: Racism, Bigotry, and Theology
Part 4: Banging on the Door