I want to take a few moments to respond to Ms. Gaye Clark’s article posted by The Gospel Coalition, where she offers advice to our white siblings whose children are in interracial relationships. She writes this in response to the surprise she felt when her white daughter brought home a black man donning dreads named Glenn. It’s important for me to say I found her insights to be very well intentioned. I really do believe she gave it the proverbial college try. She shot her best shot. But, the article is misinformed.
Her words bore the aroma of reformed theology and were laced with historical references and the requisite John Piper quote. All standard fare for a blogpost by my beloved friends at The Gospel Coalition. While I do say this with a degree of tongue in cheek, I feel compelled to wade into her insights out of a conviction of mine that some of the most dangerous and divisive threats to the Christian faith and well being are those that seem the most harmless.
Since Ms. Clarke takes us back parenthetically to 1967, maybe I should begin there. This was the year the landmark film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” came out. As you know this was to many a scandalous work, diving headlong into the subject of interracial marriage, as Spencer Tracey (It would be his last film) and Katherine Hepburn’s San Francisco based characters are thrust into the subject, when their daughter comes home with a black man (played by Sidney Poitier). After initial shock and hesitancy (especially on the part of the dad), they come around and finally embrace him, and you’re left in awe of this “courageous and progressive” white couple who would stand so big while stooping so low as to accept a black man. Think about it- in 1967 a mark of being what we would now call progressive, is accepting a black person. So once the final credits roll what are we left thinking? Oh those great and wonderful white people. Boy isn’t that big of them to accept us. They’re the real protagonist’s, the real heroes, of this story.
And that’s exactly how I felt reading Ms. Gaye Clark’s article. Now whether or not she meant to do that is not the point. I fully believe this was not her intention. But I can’t help it, there is just an air of arrogance and paternalism here. One can easily leave thinking, “Well isn’t that just kind and big of her. This white woman accepting this black man, dreads and all?” It’s this subtlety that actually undermines Ms. Clark’s purpose. Instead of trying to fight against inequality, she actually entrenches it by unintentionally posturing herself as the Katherine Hepburn of this modern day, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
But there’s more. Now why is it that we would expect a white person to coach other white people on how to accept a black person into their family, but not expect black people to coach other black people on how to accept Heidi (started to say Becky, but that’s already been taken) into their home? The racially biased innuendo here is that we need to help the “superior” in how to embrace the “inferior”.
One of my sons in the ministry is not only African American but is a richly deep dark chocolate complexion. He and his black wife foster. Not too long ago they fostered a young white girl who immediately took to them, and even called him daddy. With roars of laughter he regaled us of tales of being in some store in their small southern town, and his daughter calling from across the aisle, “Daddy!” while all the white folk looked on with shock and horror. You know why they were shocked. The same reason why we don’t see black folk going on missions trips posting pictures on FaceBook of that impoverished white baby they’re holding: For the historically “inferior,” to help the historically “superior,” is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. So Ms. Clark’s article only helps to buttress the long running historically sad narrative that white folk need help in embracing the “Dreaded Glenn’s” of the world.
If I were to give Ms. Clark a mulligan, I’d want to see more humility from her. I’d want her to put pen to the culturally conditioned consternation that was in her soul that lead to her surprise when Glenn came to her home for dinner. Why were you surprised and implicitly filled with an initial angst? What forces were at work in your own experience that made this even a significant issue for you? Oh yes they were there for you, just like they are for all of us. I want to hear more about that. Pull us into that pilgrimage.
And, given the reformed undertones of her article, which I love by the way, shouldn’t Ms. Clark’s “Big God Theology,” lead to a robust anthropology. She writes of accepting Glenn as if it was a part of God’s permissive will and not his perfect will. I mean she actually talks about the need to rejoice in the trial. Is that what we are now? A trial? Seen in this light, her eight pieces of advice seem more like strategies in how to cope with some incurable forms of arthritis- you know something you can’t get rid of, but you can take something to make you more comfortable with this less than ideal situation. Oh how my heart breaks.
As if this isn’t enough she pleads with our white siblings to show patience with the white bigots in their family who won’t accept the “Dreaded Glen”. Patience with racist’s. Now this has been the historical christian narrative in this country. This is the very reason why MLK wrote his prison epistle, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, to white clergy (many Christians), who like Ms. Clark pleaded patience. No, what we need is a kind of awkward prophetic courage that has the biblical audacity to call this stuff out around the Thanksgiving table, forcing cousin (and probably deacon) Jim to turn red, and abruptly leave the table to use the bathroom for his nonsense.
If you sense some passion in me it’s because like the “Dreaded Glenn,” my mother-in-law is white. But unlike Ms. Clark, my white, Irish mother-in-law is at best a very private person of faith who occasionally (as far as we know) goes to church. Sure we got off to a bumpy start but that was never about race. She just profoundly loved me, loves our ti-racial children, and has never used me as a teachable moment for some blog she’d write on how to help her white siblings to cope with a trial like me. And for that matter, my black parents never asked me to be a show and tell item to the evangelical world to announce how progressive they were in accepting my beloved Korie and her Irish and Mexican sides of the family. Oh yes, white folk aren’t the only one’s who can struggle with accepting what MLK called the beloved other.
Permit me one more moment. Why would our friends at The Gospel Coalition publish this? Are they bigots? Hardly. I know many of them and they love Jesus, but some of the many are likewise misinformed. Ms. Clark’s heart felt piece is a very dangerous one that can perpetuate a kind of narcissistic, evangelical paternalistic imperialism cloaked in white garb. Next time I’d love to have her article coupled with the “Dreaded Glenn’s” insights, or better yet his folks. We need a multiethnic tribe of voices wading in to this piece. It’s in that eclectic cohort and conversation that somewhere in the midst of it all truth can be found.