the destruction of defensiveness: generation bruh

My oldest son is a teenager, and he calls himself part of Generation Bruh. When asked to expound on what this label means, he responds with hilarious memes of people dramatically being “done.” Mildly annoyed, sarcastically dismissive, mocking the obvious, hilariously put-out…all of his examples are basically combinations of 3 sentiments: Adults are dumb; Not my problem; Boy Bye.  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe Generation Bruh knows very well that America is their “problem”, and that they only dismiss those of us who live in isolated, defensive denial about what America represents.

Last week he was reading about the violence that tragically helped bring about the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  Specifically, he was immersed in the details of Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath.  When he looked up I caught his eye and asked him how it made him feel to read this part of our history.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It is terrible. I hate it. And I hate reading about how, once again, white men are the worst. I’m sick of it.”  

I was stunned for a couple of reasons. His honesty shocked me.  I was also dumbfounded that his response to the senseless and vicious murder of another human was somehow defensively about himself.  Generation Bruh is done with drama. They are done hearing about all the inequities and hypocrisies of America.  But they know it is there. The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize. 

Pity for white men is not an appropriate response to our racist history.  And yet, as I talked with him about his fatigue, I realized he is growing up exposed to realities of abuse in law enforcement, churches, medical offices, work spaces, churches, schools and homes.  He is growing up during the era of church sexual abuse, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo.  He is growing up in a world where the most powerful men in our country openly belittle and discriminate against women of every race, the foreign born and people of color. He is constantly bombarded with evidence that our world is unjust, and he only has to look around to see that white males possess most of the power and wealth in our country.

As a white male himself, how is he to navigate this world?  He observes abuse everywhere, and now he contextualizes that abuse with an honest historical examination of colonialism, patriarchy and a racially stratified America.  Perhaps my son is “done” with talking about the need to face historical abuse or to pursue diverse perspectives because he already does this on a daily basis (#sorrynotsorry).  I was not taught to recognize the deep tensions or hypocrisies in American history.  I was taught Columbus discovered America and the intercultural celebration of Thanksgiving was indicative of the dignifying partnerships between new settlers and Natives.  My son, on the other hand, knows that Columbus didn’t discover anything, and that the pilgrims’ approach to Natives was one of theft and displacement. 

The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

I was taught Christianity was always a force for good, and that every person who worked hard could improve their prospects. My son knows that Christianity largely legitimized the abusive global power of Empire, and that our laws created generational poverty that hard work cannot overcome.  I was taught that education is the great equalizer, and that if kids would only stay in school they would leave poverty behind. My son knows that many communities fail kids, and that majority minority schools in our city regularly graduate kids who do not read on grade level and will flunk out of college.  I was taught that democracy is fair and that voting gives us a voice.  My son knows that voting rights are not universal to American citizens, and that gerrymandered districts have corrupted our ability to ensure effective representation.  Generation Bruh can act oblivious, but they know things, yall.

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize.  As the Grammys opened Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar rapped while black men in hoodies were systematically picked off, all in front of an American flag.  U2’s Bono and the Edge walked through the men, reminding us, “It’s not a place, this country is to me a thought, that offers grace, for every welcome that is sought.” As if they knew we Americans are not so great at hearing the truth uttered by voices different than our own, Dave Chappelle stepped forward as a translator of sorts: “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”  Generation Bruh are growing into American adulthood as the idea of America is deconstructed and resignified.  Their entire nation seems to ask: Are we, as Lincoln said in Gettysburg, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

Can we blame Generation Bruh for doubting, with all their eye rolling and sighing and “lookatthisdude”-ing, that we in America are “dedicated” to that incredibly obvious proposition?  A simple look at our jails, schools, tax code, neighborhoods, payroll, or welfare programs clearly reveal that we are dedicated to no such thing.  We need only listen to comments collected at random from elected officials to know that we spend a great deal of energy governing on the proposition that all people fit nicely into a society stratified by economics, race and gender.  Our kids must grapple with what America is and what their places might be in it.  My study of Generation Bruh encourages me that their attitude of “done” stems not from apathy, but from a deep security that they understand inherent equality, and the open attacks to that equality, better than we do. 

We all need to struggle with our cultural legacies, and with the particularized setting history has given us. I am intimidated and profoundly grateful to have the privilege of helping my kids position themselves as subjects with agency, even as they are contextualized by a history of often failing to embody stated ideals.  Sadly, the wide range of defensiveness I hear from adults reveals the fact that many of us have not moved beyond feeling attacked by any reference to our unjust world.  My hope is that a diverse Generation Bruh can move through feelings of defensiveness or victimization into full agency as they reconcile the America that can be with the America that is.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to help us recognize and ultimately reject defensiveness as a response to the pain of others. In the meantime, adults who interact with Generation Bruh might do well to pay attention to what they see and hear, and join them in wrestling with how to be an American adult.

resolving with others in mind

The ringing in of the New Year traditionally brings with it a natural time to reflect on the year behind and to think about how to approach the year ahead.  While this can be a time for excessive navel gazing, I think it also offers us a chance to think about the way we interact with each other.  As 2018 begins, we would do well to think beyond how each of us can personally resolve to improve our physical, spiritual or mental health; I am challenging us to also think about our collective health as communities.

What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for?

The weeks surrounding the New Year are fascinating to me because we acknowledge for a moment that our intentions and resolutions are worth paying attention to.  We understand that these lives we live are fleeting, and that we can do better.  That the way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life.  Changing that number on the calendar causes almost all of us to recognize that time is moving on, that each of us are aging, changing, surviving, one year at a time.  The loss of control we feel at the relentless progression of time creates a moment where we think about the things we feel we can control.  Thus, we resolve.  We resolve to care more, to create space, to be courageous, to be patient, to be present.  We resolve to actively produce good in ourselves and in our environments. 

The way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life. 

As we resolve to advocate for ourselves and our families in our thinking and practices, I want to suggest we take advantage of this same moment to observe the way we take stances for or against the people and policies in our greater communities.   In this season of obsessive reflecting and resolving, why not also think about the way we think about our place in society?  Do you have issues you care about?  Is the stance you take primarily negative or positive?  The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

While many of us are committed to advocating for ourselves in our pursuits of emotional, physical and spiritual health, our default perspective in the public sphere is primarily negative.  When I reflect on the year behind, I observe that in small conversations and large interactions, many people approach others primarily through a stance-taking rubric.  I am against X.  The problem with my school/neighborhood/legislative body is the presence of Y.  These negative stances are the result of a paradigm of lack, of fear, and of blame, and they prevent possibilities of collaboration, destroying chances to improve through advocacy and cooperation. 

Many of us engage in the public sphere by being passively against things we don’t like, rather than being engagingly for things we find life-giving and good.  Allow me to be practical for a moment.  If you identify as a pro-life person, do you actually take action to advocate for life or do you demonstrate your stance FOR life mostly by being AGAINST abortion?  A person who resolves to be pro-life could advocate for life by educating themselves about rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity in their city, and then joining with the best non-profits to help lower those numbers.  They could find the best agencies in town who support and care for women navigating unplanned pregnancies, and walk with them as they try to care for their children after they are born and for the years that follow.  They could educate themselves about access to birth control, and work to make sure every woman capable of bearing children can prevent unwanted pregnancy.  They could educate themselves about the best organizations and government programs helping with early intervention and education for babies and young kids whose lives and opportunities are being slowly aborted with each benchmark they miss.  They could evaluate the other stances they take, and commit to align all of them with a perspective that values and affirms the dignity of every created being.  They could decide to be actively, productively, effectively for life.

The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

In these days of the New Year, what if we began to notice the way we resolve to improve the health of the communities in which we live?  Are our resolutions focused on advocating for ourselves alone?  Do we primarily engage with our greater communities through rejection and negative stance-taking?  As 2018 dawns, I want to listen to the way I think about myself, my family, and my city.  It is worth knowing if the ways we think about others is negative and critical.  Those thoughts are not only toxic for our own psyches, they are eventually destructive to the people around us.

In this first week of 2018, as you resolve to create environments where your best self can flourish, join me also in resolving to think about the stances we take in the public sphere.  What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for? What could be possible if we rejected the idea that being anti-anything creates a positive trajectory? What if we resolved to be people who advocate for the things that engage our compassion and passion?  If we approach society with affirmative perspectives on the resolutions we make, we can move through the world on a foundation of possibility, abundance and hope. 

charlottesville: Part 2

On Context and Moral Equivalency

We cannot talk about all the talk about Charlottesville without first talking about the context of this cultural moment.  In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida.  In the aftermath of his death, many voices blamed him for his nonverbal cues of threat: He was black, walking at night in a majority white neighborhood, and he was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood.  This blaming of the victim exists largely because of the strength of cultural normativity.  In America, the largest group of people with power—white people above the poverty line—get to decide what normal, safe behavior looks like.  This standard, while messily and informally arrived at, is very powerful, and difficult to change.  In a setting in which a teenager is blamed for his own death at the hands of a man who violated explicit orders from police, the blaming can be understood when placed in the context of normative safe behavioral standards.  “Safe” people, in the context of majority norms, are white people, whose belonging is almost always unquestioned (and who do not wear baggy clothing with hoods).  Martin was deemed “unsafe”, having violated all the standards of normative behavior, and was therefore preemptively followed, and, as a result, killed. 

The acquittal of his killer created a new context in which Alicia Garcia, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors started a hashtag that birthed a protest movement that has helped define the last 4 years of American cultural discourse: Black Lives Matter (BLM).  This phrasing is important contextually because white supremacists chanted “White Lives Matter” (WLM) in Charlottesville last weekend.  The phrases are similar, only three words each with two shared in common.  Claims have been made drawing a moral equivocation between BLM protests and alt right rallies; however, this equivocation can only exist outside of context, for the types of people who claim these phrases want very different things, making moral equivocation absurd.  BLM is an assertion of the value of people of color, a plea for equity and a place in a shared society.  WLM, on the other hand, is a defense of supremacy, and a plea to continue excluding others (“You [Jews] will not replace us!”).  The former group is asking for a seat at the table.  The latter is demanding the door be locked so no one else can get in.  BLM can resonate because the policies, norms, policing and economic standards of our country suggest black lives do not, in fact, matter as much as their Caucasian counterparts (more on this in next week’s essay).  WLM must be seen as immoral because of the clear rebuttal it offers black—and all “other”—lives.  In America, as a rule, the value of “white life” has not been systemically questioned in the same way that “black life” has been seen as expendable.  Any survey of American history—despite massive gaps—reveals that most power, wealth and normative standard-making rests in white hands.  To be sure, America has deep class divides, and many white folks feel powerless and undervalued.  Still, the vast majority of oppressive violence has been acted upon black bodies by white hands throughout our history.  One cannot take on the mantle of victimization when there are actual victims in the room!  I don’t say this to incite defensiveness or reopen old wounds; rather, these simple facts are critical to a thoughtful response to Charlottesville.

The former group is asking for a seat at the table.  The latter is demanding the door be locked so no one else can get in.

This is the context we must recognize when thinking about Charlottesville and our lack of moral authority.  Foundational racism in our society is demonstrated in the fact that the cultural norms invoked by many in the majority to condemn Martin and BLM protests have not been applied to white supremacists and their protests.  No one seems to have noticed that the coalition of white men who marched made intentional choices that placed them in a context deemed unsafe, even by white, normative standards:

Foundational racism in our society is demonstrated in the fact that the cultural norms invoked by many in the majority to condemn Martin and BLM protests have not been applied to white supremacists and their protests. 

Jason Kessler, who requested the permit for his self-named “Unite the Right” rally, argued he was trying to have “a pro-white demonstration” (Business Insider).  Many of the men who attended wore clothing that signaled the KKK and neo-Nazi groups, hoisted confederate and nazi flags, and carried semi-automatic assault rifles and bullets.  The men also marched after sunset, carried lit torches reminiscent of KKK gatherings where minority men were lynched, and chanted phrases documented to have come from Nazi Germany and the Confederate South, two societies sustained by the violently enforced supremacy of Caucasian Christians.

These men sent every sign that they were placing themselves in a specific historical context in which white males had all authority to attack or end the life of anyone they did not appreciate. This context must be a part of the conversations we are having on moral authority and equivalency. 

These men sent every sign that they were placing themselves in a specific historical context in which white males had all authority to attack or end the life of anyone they did not appreciate. This context must be a part of the conversations we are having on moral authority and equivalency. 

In a just and fair society, there are laws protecting freedoms like our first amendment right to free speech and a permitting process guaranteeing our right to assemble.  However, moral authority recognizes that “all things are permissible, but not all things beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  Normative standards in America state that an act can be legal and condemnable.  It is true that our freedoms are meant to protect lives, not feelings; that said, legal acts, like marching with torches and guns while shouting racial slurs and white superiority, are morally reprehensible, and must be denounced as such by our leaders, not dismissed as the equivalent of movements to elevate all lives. 

We all seem to be lacking in context these days, however, and in that way our president reflects us.  As we try to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville and struggle to address the monument issue, we need the moral discipline to place every event in its proper context, the wisdom to analyze the moral authority of that context (is it fair for all or just normal for powerful people?), and the words to denounce hate, legal though it may be.  We cannot ask our leaders for what we do not demand of ourselves. 

Next week, we will revisit the debate around BLM and All Lives Matter, mining that conflict for the foundational context it laid for the present.