What are the best rooms for Black people to be in? Back in June I caught Toy Story 2 on TV. The featured image of this blog was right where the movie was when I tuned in. I’ll briefly summarize the story. Woody, a special toy of a boy named Andy, is trapped in a foreign location and he’s trying to get back to Andy’s room. A greedy toy collector was responsible for Woody’s displacement from Andy. The situation is tragic, but it was in this predicament that Woody discovers his true identity apart from Andy’s room. Woody is introduced to some old friends who rightly inform him about his own narrative. Woody learns about the significance of his own unique story and mourns that he never knew about it. This new knowledge causes Woody to reconsider returning to a life centered on Andy. Woody realizes how much he has missed, he feels the pressure to return to his own story while at the same time feeling obligated to return to Andy’s room. What will Woody do? Will he embrace his natural identity and approach a life centered on his unique narrative, or will he maintain his contribution as a special toy of Andy’s room? I’ll share his decision at the end of this blog.
A couple years ago, I decided to end an almost 6 year journey of partnering with predominantly white spaces. I’d devoted a significant amount of my life to partnering with various kinds of predominantly white spaces and I did so in order to pattern my life based on my then developing convictional beliefs. Ideas about unity practiced from within these spaces was a huge part of my life. However, the ideas pursued on their terms (the common reality within predominantly white spaces) put me at a disadvantage. Besides that issue, I came to later believe that Black people have a greater need for economical and sociological independence, and it is difficult for Black people to commit themselves to that work if we do not break away from practicing “togetherness” from within these white spaces. This is what ultimately led me to make the decision to leave them.
As a Black man that is apart of an on-going historical struggle in America, living a life that has white people’s ideas of “togetherness” at the center is extremely problematic, and it distracted me away from the historical narrative of my own people. The predominantly white spaces I formerly committed myself to loved the idea of doing life together with me, and for a significant amount of time, so did I. But ultimately the experience disadvantaged me. This is the experience I picked up on in the featured image of this blog. Andy for example, would say that Woody is his beloved toy, but one of the many toys he has in his room. Woody may be particularly special because of the personal needs he fulfills for Andy. But the disadvantage for Woody however, is if Andy never seriously considered both the unique story and responsibility he has apart from Andy’s room. And because the value of Woody is limited to vague ideas about all toys being special, Andy won’t see the need for Woody to continue contributing to his own story (and he may even strongly discourage Woody from doing so), and therefore he may feel betrayed if Woody decided to leave his room in order to do that.
I have had several experiences with the tension described above, one being within predominantly white evangelical spaces. I embraced an white evangelical worldview at a time my people were being denied equity in my city. I buried my head in a Christian orthodoxy taught from their perspective at a time when my people were being discriminated against by local banks in my city. I had my head buried in the mere content of a gospel that “unified” all people, at the same time when some of the richest families in my city were eyeing my predominantly Black neighborhood for an MLS stadium. After enough time went by, I picked up my head realizing a few things; 1, the hermeneutic of white evangelical spaces were inadequate to fully deal with the cultural issues in my context. 2, I had unnecessarily created distance between myself and other Black people in my city, which was a mistake. 3, I realized that being the Black unifier among my white family wouldn’t stop them from disadvantaging my people, but rather, they were more than not in a position to be complicit to the disadvantages of Black people like me in my city; whether they realized it or not. And finally, I realized the pointlessness of spending so much effort practicing ideas of unity, when it seemed to me, that my people would be better benefitted from our own collective independence. The entire experience traumatized me, and I no longer felt safe in any predominantly white space (Christian or not), in fact I was becoming increasingly more dangerous the longer I stayed in one.
Now before any reader mistakes this blog for an attack on the above stated group, please hear me carefully. My experience partnering with white spaces was not all negative. I had genuine relationships within these spaces. I loved the people in them and they loved me back. The white pastors I served sacrificed precious time counseling and caring for my struggles and concerns, and one in particular was the best pastor I’ve ever had. Other individuals embraced me and made room for me in their lives as well. They treated me like family. There was a real sense of brother and sisterhood, and a feeling of unity that we all enjoyed having together. Ultimately these feelings didn’t meet my holistic needs, but I do remember the good will of the people I shared almost 6 years with. Publicly lamenting traumatic racial experiences with predominantly white spaces is only hearing half the story from black lamenters. These white spaces are not completely responsible for the trauma we experience while with them. Much of the racial trauma I experienced in predominantly white spaces was a result of repetitive cycles of cognitive dissonance. I continued to gamble with the idea of practicing unity from within white spaces even when I saw the various ways it disadvantaged both me and my people. So regardless of the particular contexts in which the trauma was experienced, it was necessary for me to take responsibility for choosing to remain there in the first place. I also believe that it took me longer than necessary to heed to the historical and present-day witness of my own people. The internet is filled with a sea of laments and critiques from Black folks (including myself) responding to their experiences among white spaces. Some of us thought we were getting more in touch with our collective Black narrative, awakening our consciousness to patterns of historical racism, ignorance, and complicity in our white family. But what I’m afraid some of us too quickly overlooked, was the fact that the Black communities we came from, the very communities some of us left in order to pursue our multi-ethnic dreams with our white family, already knew what our personal experiences caused us to understand (or remember) about practicing ideas of unity from within predominantly white spaces. Whether in ignorance or not, we decided not to listen to them. Taking responsibility for this is crucial to the healing process. If we skip this process, we never truly learn the bigger lesson.
What is The Bigger Lesson?
It makes more sense to devote my time, resources, and energy to my own people. Cultural assimilation is not a means of empowerment for Black people as a collective. It does however empower the Black individuals who choose to assimilate into white systems. But it no longer matters to me how well a Black individual is managing themselves in white spaces. Besides making other Black people look good, what are we doing for the collective independence of our people? Besides the services we can offer from the white spaces we partner with, what institutions are we exclusively securing for our own? To some extent, Black assimilators may not be taking our historical tradition and experience seriously enough, and we may be making a mistake by trying to bring these traditions into predominantly white spaces.
I don’t want to continue functioning as a double-minded Black man, approaching American life with a split conscience, bouncing back and forth between an exclusive commitment to the on-going narrative of my people and inequitable practices of unity with white associates. More than anything else, my people need economical and sociological independence apart from white spaces, but we have over and over again traded this in for integration and the concept of unity, and our white associates expect us to keep this up. This is particularly true for Black individuals like myself who have willfully joined themselves to predominantly white relationships, networks, and organizations. We find ourselves primarily trying to teach them how to treat us better and neglect to secure our essential independent institutions. “Black unifiers” are not doing this work because of their commitments to the concept of unity….even a unity that keeps them largely disadvantaged. The more time we give to a concept of unity that is devoid of our independent and economical standing from white spaces, the more an exclusively Black centered approach to all our concerns is neglected. It doesn’t make sense for me to keep contributing to this pattern. To me, it is a never ending cycle of realizing nothing is being secured exclusively for my people. Working from within a supposed multi-ethnic space (that is more honestly predominantly white), anything I intend to establish for my people will be diluted by the concept of unity.
Why Some Can’t Break Away
I understand that not all Black people are able to do this. Some of us are in too deep to break away from the inequitable communities of unity I have described. Some have legitimately good reasons not to break away and they don’t necessarily need to. But some have factors involved that make this almost impossible to do anyway, and they should recognize this. Some have already married a white spouse, others are products of loving white parents who adopted and raised them. For many others, the mortgage agreement has already been signed, and they signed that attending to pay it off with the money they earn from doing work in these so called multi-ethnic spaces. They have kids they have to think about. So even if they wanted to, all the previous factors mentioned could make that transition very difficult. My point is, we should realize that certain factors make the exclusive commitment to the Black community nearly impossible. So instead of disagreeing, it may just be that some Black folk have factors involved that make a covenant to the Black community an unreachable goal. This is not to say that these Black individuals can’t commit to nothing at all. These individuals should just be cautious of thinking they are doing more good for the Black community while partnered with their so-called multi-ethnic space. When it comes to my own family, I don’t want to hinder my exclusive commitment by reintroducing factors that are commonly associated with Black people in white spaces. I married a Black woman and we have one son. We haven’t yet bought a house or signed any long term agreement that would largely affect the way we lived our lives. We don’t have the kind of jobs that make us concerned about what we can or cannot say, think, and feel about our people. And we have decided to avoid committing to compromising and inequitable multi-ethnic spaces. So simply put.. We were able to make this transition a little more easily than some.
I see myself as apart of a collective historical narrative that is still unfolding, and I would like to continue giving attention to it. I no longer intend to be distracted by ideas of diversity with white people. These ideas of togetherness have proven to be inequitable exchanges for Black people, because they foster a space that still leaves Black people in a position of dependence rather than having our own independence within these diverse spaces. I believe this is common sense and various people groups already operate like this (Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples). We don’t have to physically be together to have unity.
On July 28th, 2019 in Downtown Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, pastor Damon Lynch III made this statement to an all Black audience:
“…..it does not hurt white people when Black people get together, it just strengthens us.”
Hopefully my readers didn’t forget that I promised to explain how Woody resolved his dilemma. So what was Woody’s decision? Well… Woody would eventually surrender to the obligation he felt to remain a member of Andy’s room, and he even convinced the friends from his own narrative that there would be a place for them in Andy’s room as well. As nostalgic as Toy Story 2 is for me… I just don’t see the fun in that anymore. If we’re talking about American contexts, the best rooms for many Black people to be in, are rooms where they are surrounded by other Black people.