“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live.”
When I was in Jr. High, my church youth group held a fundraiser for a ski trip. The event was a spaghetti supper, and an opportunity for the adults to place a bid on one of the youth to come and do work around their house for a day.
We called it a “Slave Auction.”
Pick your jaw up from the ground, because that’s not the worst part.
Rather than walking up one by one to be bid on, all the youth walked out in front of the audience from a room off to the side, connected by a steel chain. We wore tattered clothes.
Still not the worst part.
One of the adults in the crowd jokingly walked up and asked to look into the roof of our mouths to see who he wanted to bid on.
We were reenacting chattel slavery, and making a joke of it.
Now, if you had walked into that Fellowship Hall, looked around at what you were seeing– the adults enjoying their spaghetti and sweet tea, bidding on young “slaves” to come do manual labor at their houses– and said, slowly, matter of factly, and out loud, “You….racist….motherfuckers,” we would have all been outraged. And only a small fraction of our anger would have been aimed at the last word of that sentence being uttered in church.
We would have gone to the mat to prove that what we were doing was not racist. And we would have believed with our whole hearts that we were correct, and that you were just too easily offended and looking to stir up trouble.
We were conditioned to believe that active violence or discrimination, or (being caught) using racist language against people of color are the only things that can qualify as “racist.” This further conditioned us to dismiss people of color who tried to tell us that our words and actions, (or, sometimes, our lack of words and actions), contributed to an environment of hate.
I’ve been thinking about that “slave auction” quite a bit in the days since the murders in Atlanta of eight people, six of them Asian.
There were hate crimes against black people well into the 1980’s and 90’s in East Texas, where I grew up. And when those truly violent events occurred, like the murder of James Byrd Jr., we felt sadness and grief, but not one ounce of responsibility. Because we believed if there was no straight line between our actions and those of the perpetrators, then we were let off the hook. But that’s not how communities work. Communities are ecosystems where small, minute variables can wreak havoc (or healing) well beyond their place of initial action.
There almost certainly were people trying to tell us these things back in the 80’s. But in a less connected world, it was easier to plead ignorance and pretend we didn’t know.
But here in the future, we have to really be trying to ignore the warnings.
For over a year we were told that using phrases like “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” would inevitably lead to violence against the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. And for over a year we have seen a continual escalation of violence against the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. Of course no one who has committed violence has openly done so because certain “leaders” insisted on using racist phrases. But communities are ecosystems, and we sat by while a toxic variable was introduced. And it introduced poison that killed.
Watching it unfold has been like watching the pandemic unfold. Like the Deuteronomic promise, we had a road map laid out for us by those who know what they are talking about.
Do this, and this will happen.
And it did.