Let’s Stop Calling Ourselves Minorities

A version of this post was originally published in 2014 in The Root.com

minorities3It’s hard to believe, but it has already been four years (July 2012) when babies born of parents of color in the U.S. overtook births of white babies. What this means, according to demographers, is that by the year 2040, or thereabouts, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Blacks now make up about 13 percent of the population, while those hailing from the Spanish-speaking former New World colonies make up approximately 17 percent, and growing. Asians, both south and east, Middle-easterners and the cohort of mixed or “other” are also on the rise.

So why do we insist on using the word “minority” to speak of people of color, as a synonym for nonwhite? Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “minority” became an easy shorthand; an all-inclusive way to designate those who are not Caucasian. Since historically, this country has been overwhelmingly white (as much as 70 percent and more) it made its own kind of sense, and it was also easier than saying the mouthful “people of color,” or more daunting, calling each racial/ethnic group by name.

For some time now, I have sworn off using the term at all, and have tried to persuade others that the term is one whose time has passed. With the news of the nonwhite babies becoming a majority of births three years ago, I noticed such awkward constructions in the media as “majority minority.” Talk about oxymorons!

I believe that words have power to influence our thoughts and our thoughts influence our actions. If we cling to outdated and identity-sapping self-descripters, we forever regard ourselves as powerless.

So let’s take a look at how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines minority: It reads:

: a number or amount that is less than half of a total;

: the group that is the smaller part of a larger group;

: a group of people who are different from the larger group in a country, area, etc., in some way (such as race or religion)

That last definition is the one we are dealing with here; but think of the other definitions: minority is something that is less than half of a total. It is the smaller part of a group.

As long as we use the term as a synonym for the myriad people of color, we are, I believe consigning those people to lesser status and a smaller role, in short to powerlessness.

When you hear the word majority, on the other hand, it denotes power. The majority vote wins in elections. The majority opinion is sometimes able to silence the less popular. Speaking of the majority race makes it seem like a behemoth; something as immovable and inevitable as a mountain range.

But racial power is not inevitable; it is the result of various historical forces. What will happen when our country becomes a nation of fractured ethnic and racial groups, with no one group in the majority? Doesn’t it make sense to begin to speak of racial groups using their proper name, i.e., black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latino and Latina?

Recently, I read in the New York Times that Middle-Eastern immigrants would like a designated box on the census form. Currently, they must check white or other, and many of them do not feel white, nor are they treated as if they were. You have to wonder how the white bloc of citizens is over-counted due to quirks of the census like this. Same with Hispanics. They are also able to check a box declaring their race, black, white, or a combination. However, the same article noted that Hispanics, when given the option of choosing a race, overwhelmingly check white, despite the fact that few Hispanics from the New World have a typically Caucasian phenotype. Again, the white “majority” bloc is falsely expanded.

I was watching a movie in the Fast and Furious franchise the other day, noting how diverse the cast is. There are several blacks. A few whites, both men and women. An Asian man. Several Hispanics. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel face fight during one scene. My first thought, looking at the two men, is that I have seen the future, and the future will look a lot like them. More and more Americans are balking at the strictures of claiming one race at all: Diesel is reportedly black and white; Johnson is Polynesian and black. I am seeing more young people who belong to the nebulous “mixed-race group,” who see no reason to deny any part of their heritage.

In light of such trends, will there come a day when the census drops racial labeling altogether?

Maybe. But in the meantime, can a majority of us agree to stop using the belittling and power-robbing synonym “minority” for that blossoming, growing, expanding group of multi-racial and varied-race Americans?

 

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Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”

What?

That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/august/code-switching-for-kingdom.html

 

 

This Time, It’s Personal: Reflections on the Charleston Shootings

Black&White CharlestonIn the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America.  On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.

This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.

The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:

“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.

AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)

My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.

I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.

I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:

“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”

I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.

But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?

Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.

Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.

Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)

Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.

When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.

It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)

This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.

I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.

My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)

Pomp and Circumstance

Thoughtful Obama

 

By Hope E. Ferguson

Like many Americans, I was glued to my TV set for the pomp and pageantry of President Obama’s inauguration. I woke up Martin Luther King, Jr. day and flipped on CNN even before I did my daily devotions, something I never do.  I couldn’t wait to see if the president’s speech would match the fiery and soaring rhetoric of his groundbreaking introduction at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I couldn’t wait to imagine myself among the million on the Washington Mall, hoisting their little American flags. I had been to the mall for the rescheduled the MLK dedication in Oct. 2011, so I knew something about the palpable energy that would be there.

Then, there was the biggest question: What designer would the first lady be wearing?

As the president and first lady left the White House, two Marine guards, in their starched dress uniforms, stood on either side of the door, still as statues. “I wonder what they’re thinking,” I asked my fiancé. “Probably just about doing their jobs,” he replied.

I judged the president’s speech okay. There was no soaring rhetoric, but I liked how he spoke of the amazing diversity of our nation: a truth that hit home this fall when he was re-elected by a majority of people of color and just 38 percent of the white vote. I loved the imagery that poet Richard Blanco evoked with his metaphor of the sun rolling across our multi-hued, multi-faceted nation, and the near-final image of the moon shining on our windows. I loved the patriotic songs sung by James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé, who abandoned her skimpy garb for a dignified-looking black lace-armed gown.

I relished watching the parades from the different states – the president’s Hawaiian alma mater, Punahou School, trailing their volcano, the precision of the military bands, the playfulness of the dance troupe from Nevada, the rhythm of the Isiserettes of Iowa, whose irrepressible beat had the first lady and daughters shaking their shoulders.

I loved how the president turned one last time, to savor the sight of nearly a million American flags flickering in the wind.

Then leaders of both parties sat down to an American luncheon of steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, bison, and Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey made with New York apples.

As many a commentator said, it was a day that gave one goose pimples, and only the most hardened partisan could fail to be moved. This is how we do it, they intoned; we transfer power peacefully, every four to eight years, no bloody coups, no uprisings in the streets. Whether we voted for him or not, we honor the office of the Presidency, and the orderly march of time from the first to the 57th  inauguration.

For one cold winter sunny day, coincidentally, on MLK’s birthday, we join together as one nation under God. We openly invoke his blessings. We rejoice in our diversity. We break bread together. We stand on the mountaintop.

For this bright shining moment we are Americans joined by ideals, not by blood. Never mind that tomorrow we will be back to the fights over the debt ceiling, gun control, same-sex marriage. Never mind that the name-calling will begin again, that the heels will be dug in again. That things will grow ugly again.

Human beings, made in the imago dei, long for the sense of unity and purpose evoked at the Presidential Inauguration, where a young, white likely-Republican male dances with a Black Democratic first lady. Where the liberal Commander-in Chief  is cheered by a conservative U.S. military.

We long for the beauty of unity.

Maybe that’s because we really long for the One who will take government upon his shoulders. The One who not only can negotiate for peace in the Middle East, but who is the Prince of Peace. The One for whom every tribe, tongue and nation can exalt and praise with abandon, knowing that he will not prove to have feet of clay. We long, indeed, for the one whose government will have no end.

And the human pageantry we witnessed last week, no matter how beautiful, orderly and well-staged, is only a shadow of those things that God has placed in our hearts; for he has set eternity in the hearts of men and women.

And by the way, the dress our statuesque first lady wore?

A Greek column in red by immigrant Chinese-American designer Jason Wu.