Episode 3: What Can Solidarity Look Like Among People of Color? (Part 1)
In this episode of the Be the Bridge podcast, founder Latasha Morrison and public theologian Lisa Sharon Harper discuss the implications of America’s historical narrative gap, Lisa’s journey to discover the stories of her ancestors, and how we can build bridges from our nation’s past to become more present.
“Scripture itself, particularly the biblical concept of shalom, is not about domination but rather about servanthood of the other—service, protection, and cultivation of all.” –Lisa Sharon Harper
“Race as a construct was created to determine one thing on this land that we call America: Who has the divine call and the capacity to exercise dominion on this land.” –Lisa Sharon Harper
“In order to understand where we are today, we have to look at where we were yesterday.” –Latasha Morrison
Lisa Sharon Harper is the founder and president of Freedom Road, a groundbreaking consulting group that crafts experiences that bring common understanding and common commitments that lead to common action toward a more just world. Lisa is a public theologian whose writing, speaking, activism and training has sparked and fed the fires of re-formation in the church from Ferguson and Charlottesville to South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Ireland. Lisa’s book, The Very Good Gospel was named 2016 “Book of the Year” and the Huffington Post identified Lisa as one of 50 Women Religious Leaders to Celebrate on International Women’s Day.
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The full episode transcript is below.
You’re listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:12
I cannot believe this! We have the one and only, Mrs. Lisa Sharon Harper. Although I like to call her “Auntie Lisa!” How you doing?!
Lisa Sharon Harper 0:25
Oh, that’s so much better. I will actually—let me just say, unless I got married to Jesus recently, I’m a “Ms.”! I guess I kinda married Jesus back when I jumped the broom with him, you know? But you know, I’m a “Ms.” Yeah. Thank you. “Auntie Lisa,” I love that. I love that.
Latasha Morrison 0:47
Yeah, you know, that’s how we do. But I just want to tell you guys a little bit about who Lisa Sharon Harper is. She is the founder and president of Freedom Road! This is a groundbreaking consulting group that “crafts experiences that bring common understanding and common commitments that lead to common action toward a more just world.” Lisa is a public theologian whose writing, speaking, activism, and training has sparked and fed the fires of reformation in the church, from Ferguson and Charlottesville to South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and Ireland. Oh, my goodness. Lisa’s book “The Very Good Gospel” (if you don’t have it, you must get it) was named 2016 Book of the Year, and the Huffington Post identified Lisa as 1 of the 50 women religious leaders to celebrate on International Women’s Day.
Lisa Sharon Harper 1:44
Wow. Well, thank you so much. I’m honored that you even thought of me! It has literally been, I think for everybody concerned, it’s been an incredibly disorienting and at the same time, profound experience to have to go into hibernation as we have over the last couple of months.
Latasha Morrison 2:06
I want—I read your bio, but I really want the audience to know who you are, what makes you who you are, and how long you’ve been doing this work—and then we can jump into that.
Lisa Sharon Harper 2:19
Okay! Well, I mean, that in itself is a, it’s a question. Well, whenever I talk about who I am, I find it impossible to talk about who I am, you know, and try to explain that without also going into my family history. Because I think that we literally, like our actual DNA is our ancestors—our ancestors are actually walking and moving in today’s world through us, because we are actually, in reality, their DNA. And that’s really become really amazing to me to consider as I’ve been writing my next book, which is called “Fortune” and God willing, it’ll be coming out next year in 2021. Before that book, I did a ton—I basically drew on about 30 years—of family history research that I started with my mom back in 1990. And it really has been going ever since then. And in the last decade or so, since the advent of, or the popularization of, Ancestry [dot] com, boy, that just “boom!” I mean that just exploded my research because so much is available to us now online. But what I found about who I am, is that if you look at my DNA, I am a map of the slave trade. Boom, like that’s what I am. I’m a map of the slave trade in my DNA. And that is not just in terms of Africa, but also Europe—several nations in Europe. It’s also a map of the colonization of the world and in particular, I didn’t even know this was the case, but it turns out that while oral history does tell us that we have connection to Indigenous nations here in the United States—and my uncle was adamant and my auntie is adamant, and my mom is adamant that the three nations that we are connected to are Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek—the reality is that the majority of the Indigenous DNA in my blood (that I just found out) is actually from South America!
Latasha Morrison 4:35
Lisa Sharon Harper 4:34
Right! And now I know who, that’s from my dad’s side, because my dad, his side is from the Caribbean, and well, yeah, from the Caribbean: French and British Guyana, Jamaica on my [paternal] grandmother’s side, and then also from Puerto Rico. But ultimately, that line stretches back to St. Lucia…Saint Kitts, my bad! St. Kitts and Nevis. And then ultimately to Africa, most likely Nigeria. And so, yeah, so I mean, we’ve done all the DNA, like, I know that the majority of my DNA is actually my Black DNA on my mother’s side, going all the way back, you know, the matrilineal line is Yoruba and Hausa, and I learned about those people. The Hausa are in northern Nigeria, the Yoruba is mostly in western and southern Nigeria. But it’s one of the largest nations, largest tribes I think on the continent (the Yoruba tribe) and it’s definitely [the largest] in Nigeria. So doing that research helps me to know who I am, right? So it makes sense then, it makes sense that going down through our family history, I find out that my mom’s line—they had actually been free! Living in the South, in Virginia since 1705, until you know, 1715, I think. And then from that point forward, they were indentured. And then finally set completely free by about 1745. But that meant that they were navigating a very particular kind of racialized experience in the South, a century and some years before the Civil War. And then I had enslaved family also from my mother’s line in the South, in South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and also if you count DNA and some family story, Georgia and Alabama as well. So I know that on her line, they were enslaved and they had another particular story. And other people in my family—my great grandmother ran North during the Great Migration! And so what does it take, first of all, what’s the terror that she had to experience for her to run? And what kind of chutzpah did it take for you to leave everything behind in order to find a better life for yourself and your children? Like…that’s in me. She’s in me. And my mom was a part of the Civil Rights movement. She was a member of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. I joke, but it’s true, she dated Stokely Carmichael for a hot minute, right! Like, she was that deep, that deep into the movement.
Latasha Morrison 4:37
Your mom is a Civil Rights [indistinguishable]
Lisa Sharon Harper 5:01
Yeah, yes! Just for that reason, right? So actually, she and Ruby Sales are friends because they met each other in the movement during the summer of ’66 at a training in Atlanta. And yeah, and then my mom went back to Philadelphia and helped to run the Philadelphia [SNCC] office as a teenager. She was literally 17 or 18 years old helping to run that office. Like she was trained by…the director of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] James Farmer and you know, trained by him to do outreach to the church. So she was doing church outreach in the movement, and here I am—that’s really what I did at Sojourners for six years, and I didn’t even know that that’s what she did at the [SNCC] office. And that’s what I was doing! So that’s what I’m saying. Our ancestors are in us, and I think really, literally, guide our paths. So you know, how I came to where I am now? That was already in me.
Lisa Sharon Harper 8:26
But I found Jesus through an evangelical stream. I found Jesus in Cape May, New Jersey, in the context of Young Life, I believe…it was always called “why.” And I never knew…to this day, I’m not sure if it was the letter Y or the word “why…” Nobody ever explained that! But given what they did and how they operated, I kind of understand now, I think it was Young Life. And because it was an area-wide youth group that kind of was a compilation of multiple youth groups in the area. So I found Jesus through that, through Young Life. And then, you know, I was discipled in the Wesleyan Church for a year before moving over to a Methodist Church that had a larger youth group. And then Campus Crusade. And it was in that context that I think God broke through, because it’s not the normal experience. But in that context, in Campus Crusade I went on my very first urban project in New York City. It was their second ever urban project [indistinguishable] inner city. And that’s where I was introduced to the God who sees and loves Black people. And I’d never even had the question before, but when I was confronted with that reality, I realized it was a new reality for me. And that meant that God sees and loves me! That was my junior year, the summer between my junior and senior year. When I came back my senior year into Campus Crusade I started kind of playing hooky on Campus Crusade and started hanging out with the group called “Are you with the homeless?” And they were the first group…my first activist experience. We literally opened a homeless shelter like right off campus. Students opened a homeless shelter! And my contribution to it, because I was the worship leader at our fellowship, was to bring our worship team down to the shelter. And they let me do this! This secular group let me do this every Sunday to lead the homeless folks in worship. And so that was kind of my earliest years.
Lisa Sharon Harper 10:39
And then I graduated and went to New York City, worked off Broadway because I was a theatre person, and in that context began to really kind of delve into my family history—after watching “Dances with Wolves” and crying through the whole thing so that my eyes were like golf balls with slits in them because they were so puffed up at the end. It was really scary to look at myself. But I realized by watching that movie, I met a part of myself that I never even knew really existed. And then I started doing research into family history to find out more about that, and then it just took off after that. So, you know, I ended up spending 10 years on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Greater L.A., and was their Director of Racial Reconciliation for the last 5 years that I was in Greater L.A. And then my last year on staff with Intervarsity, I was the Specialist in Racial Reconciliation for all of Southern California before going back to grad school and getting my master’s in human rights because I said, you know, I need to know how systems work. I need to know the pilgrimage that I took that is talked about in my book. It convinced me, okay, so you know a little bit about race, but you really don’t know…how did this all happen? How was race constructed? How is it still working in society today besides cultural difference, which is where we were really focused? And that’s where most of the church, the evangelical church, tends to focus—is on cultural competence. On you know, what worship music are you going to sing on Sunday morning? Right? That’s where people always land and get stuck. What they don’t realize is that race and culture are two different things. And then there’s ethnicity and nationality, and we talked about [that] in Chapter 9 of my book “The Very Good Gospel.”
Lisa Sharon Harper 12:33
So I went back and got my master’s degree in human rights, and it was there that I began to understand the impact of law—and that we really can’t understand race until we understand the law and how it works, and when different things were instituted, and which of those laws have been dismantled, and which have been shape-shifted into different…various ages. So you know, I think the greatest example of that, and I’ll take a breath, but the greatest example of that that we have been given in the last decade or so is through Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” where she really goes back into the history of Jim Crow and helps us to see how our current system of mass incarceration is literally just a legalized structure of peonage. [Peonage] was a construct created during Jim Crow where they lowered the bar of criminality in order to do a mass sweep of black male bodies, and put them back on the plantations they had just been freed from in the latter part of the 19th century. And when that became outlawed in the early 20th century, they just re-envisioned it starting in the 1970s. They began to re-envision peonage in order to build up the South, really. In order to build up the economic viability of the South, that economy necessarily (at least according to the mindset of the people who run it) depends on free or cheap labor. So how do you…what’s another way to get that? According to our Constitution, the caveat which was created in order to placate the South, the southern farmers, is: “Well, if you can’t have slaves, you can still have slaves, if they are imprisoned.” And so that’s our current way of getting free labor is through the prison system. But another way that we get near free labor today is also through our immigration system. And so I think what I’ve learned in a lot of the research that I’ve been doing over the last several years through Freedom Road and then also for the book, is that as a nation, our system is set up—our laws, our policies, are set up—to give us the cheapest possible labor to uphold our economy. And that means stretching or even changing the laws in order to be able to give people less than what their work is worth.
Latasha Morrison 14:45
I think context is so important, especially when we start getting into this subject, you know, just understanding who you are. Because I think when we start talking about the impact—the historical factors that impact our interconnection—it’s because we don’t know who we are, you know. And so I think that’s important to start off this conversation like that, and this need. So let’s just start from there. Why is there a need for interconnection as it relates to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color]?
Lisa Sharon Harper 15:28
I think that the main reason that we need to have this conversation right now is because in this COVID moment, we actually have a breath, we have an opportunity to envision a new world—to envision a new way of being in the world. And according to, well, the way that we have operated in this world for the last at least 1600 years (1400 years actually) since Constantine, we have operated in the world in a way that abides by the logic of Empire, and the logic of colonization, and the logic of domination. And the Scripture itself, particularly the biblical concept of shalom, is not about domination but rather about servanthood of the other—service, protection, and cultivation of all. And in order for us to envision a world where all can flourish, we as people of color really need to come to terms…we need to come to terms, we need to face, we need to reckon with the reality that not only have we been dominated by this logic of colonization and Empire, and usually in our context, by people who came from Europe. So they were European logics, European ways of looking at the world, European ways of creating human hierarchy…we have soaked in that hierarchy for 1400 years depending on where you begin your count. And so if we are going to imagine another way of being in the world, we have to see that. And we have to understand how the logics of whiteness work, because we’ve been soaking in them. So we can’t think that—yes, we have been oppressed—but we can’t think that, that oppressive logic is not also in us, in the way that we deal not only with others, but also with ourselves.
Lisa Sharon Harper 18:08
And so when I asked the question of what are the logics of whiteness, I always turned to Dr. Andrea Smith, who wrote an incredible, I think, literally, like breakthrough paper on this topic. It’s called the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy”. You can Google it, it’s very easily found in several forms, but in short, her theory is that there is…(also by the way, this is a very fluid discussion, she is really open to everybody’s input on this and if there are more than three logics, then let us know, that kind of thing.) But I’ll share, I’ll share the ways that she has interacted with it first.
Lisa Sharon Harper 18:57
What she says is the logic of whiteness—when whiteness as a construct, not white people—which was, by the way, created in order to determine who can exercise dominion on land—when that construct looks at other people groups, it sees other people groups in relationship to whiteness. So therefore, whiteness is the center of the universe and everything else is seen in relationship to it. And so when whiteness looks at people of African descent, whiteness sees people who were created to uphold their flourishing, white flourishing, through no-cost or low-cost labor. So when whiteness looks at Africa, whiteness sees slaves. When whiteness looks at people of African descent in America, whiteness sees people that they can imprison for cheap labor. Peak whiteness sees people that they should be conditioning to uphold the economy either as consumers, or as ones who will preserve the economy through their no-cost or low-cost labor in prison. When whiteness looks at people who are Asian, or in the academic sense, what they would call Orientalism (so it’s not just Asian but also Middle Eastern)…What whiteness sees is a people that is almost human, but not fully human. They’re almost there, but they’re not fully there. And as a result, they can be a formidable enemy against the full humans, which are the white people. And so as a result, they are the perpetual enemy that must be conquered. So whenever we look at Middle Eastern people in the Middle East, we think conquer, we think dangerous, we think they are out to get us. When we think of Asians, you know we kind of let them be until there’s a threat and then we must conquer them, we must contain them in America, through the Japanese internment and then also the Chinese Exclusion Act. And now what you see Trump doing is actually completely x-ing out multiple nations in the Middle East for any kind of naturalization, or even even banning travel in his attempted Muslim ban. So when whiteness looks at indigenous peoples across the globe, and this just bears itself out in history and current day, it sees two things: it sees land and it sees savage. So it sees savages living on land that should be in the hands of white people because white people are fully human, the only full humans who were ordained by God to exercise dominion on that land. So the savages must be cleared from the land, either through genocide or removal. And the land then must be acquired, stolen, bought for a penny, that kind of thing, in order for that land to be cultivated by full humans. That’s the logic of whiteness as it’s applied to indigenous peoples all over the world. And then there’s the logic of whiteness as applied to Latinx people, folks of Hispanic origin and particularly when we talk about America, South America, Central America, that logic actually sees Latinx people in several different logics because of the mestizaje nature of Latinx people. In other words, they are mixed with both European (in terms of Spain), African, and indigenous blood. How whiteness sees Latinx is fluid, if they present as more white then they actually get to be more white, in that world. But then if they start talking with an accent or speak Spanish, well it goes down a notch, and so then maybe they’re seen as the foreigner who’s almost human but not fully human—and seen as a threat. We actually see that on our southern border with the talk of the wall, right? Like they are the threat, the hoards that need to be kept out, they are the ones who are disturbing our economy, taking our jobs, and also you know, drug mules, right? But if they are brown-skinned, if they are darker skin, usually what ends up happening is they are the ones who are brought into the country by our policies in order to do the cheapest labor.
Lisa Sharon Harper 23:43
So those logics are—different logics are applied by whiteness to different groups. And so therefore, white supremacy feels different. It interacts with different groups differently. And what we end up doing is we end up playing the oppression Olympics when we get into a room with each other, “Well I was more oppressed than you!” Oh no, you know. But that’s not the way for us to move forward. If we are to actually leverage this COVID moment and actually redeem the moment, then what we need to do is we need to be asking the question, “How have I internalized the logics of whiteness? How have I internalized it for myself? How do I see myself in the same way that whiteness sees me? How do I, as an African American woman, see myself as one that was created to offer cheap labor to the world? Or no-cost labor, aka nonprofit industrial complex?”
Lisa Sharon Harper 24:54
Okay. Did you know that the nonprofit industry employs more people of color than any other industry in the entire United States outside of the government itself? We internalized how whiteness sees us! For Asian Americans, how have Asian Americans or AAPI [Asian American & Pacific Islanders] people actually internalized the lens of whiteness on themselves? How have they seen themselves as the perpetual enemy foreigner, the one to be distanced from? How, how within your Asian community are you distancing yourself from the actual people who are coming newly, like the new immigrants from Asia, and making yourself—distancing yourself in order to feel more American? Is it possible to feel as American with an accent as without? Is it possible to feel as American with a dinner table that has kimchi on it as much as [one that] has hot dogs? Right? For Latinx people, how have, within the Latinx community, have we distanced ourselves? And I say ourselves because one of the strains in my family actually, like I said, goes back to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. So they would consider—I’m not even sure they would consider themselves, but they are—Black Latinx. And so the culture in that part of the family is very, very, very different from the culture in my mom’s side of the family, which is like, African American back to the 1600s. Right? So is there a way that within Latinx culture, within the Latinx people, that there’s been an internalization of the lens of whiteness on the self? Is there a distancing of people who are working in the fields more? Is there a distancing of people who are at the border who are trying to get in? Do you see them as the enemy that must be kept at bay? That is a logic of an internalized logic of whiteness that is happening within us.
Lisa Sharon Harper 27:17
Then the next step is for us to look at each other. How am I, African American, viewing my Asian/Middle Eastern brothers and sisters through the logics of whiteness? How have I seen them as the enemy that must be kept at bay, that must be conquered? How have I interacted with them in a way that says they are the perpetual foreigner? That they are not American, right? Or [like] they are not even fully human right? Because that’s also another logic of whiteness. How have I looked at Indigenous people and completely erased them from the story altogether? By embracing, and this goes to all of us who are not Indigenous, how have I embraced the narrative of “the untamed wilderness” and “we are all American” and “God ordained us to come and be a city on a hill and to come to this land”? Well, how has that erased our Indigenous aunties and uncles, and grandmothers and great grandmothers, from the story altogether? How has it erased my need to actually ask permission to be on this land from them? Because they were the ones who were actually brought to this land by God and given stewardship of the land that we took! And so I think that if we’re going to find a new way of being together in the world, then we have to understand how those logics work, how we have internalized them, and how we have applied them to each other as people of color.
Latasha Morrison 28:57
And I think that’s so important because…You gave a LOT of background, a lot of background! But it’s so neat, because like one of the questions—I mean, you answered several questions within that framework. Because when we start talking about the historical factors that impact our interconnection, those are questions we have to ask ourselves individually and as a group, and examine those and where that’s coming from and kind of dig up that root. Like, in order to move forward, you have to go back. And in order to understand where we are today, we have to look at where we were yesterday, you know, and so I think that’s just so important, what you’re saying! So, I mean, we have to flow with you, as it relates to that, and I think that’s so true. There’s so much vertical work that has to happen in order for us to move this conversation forward. You know, because what you see is us really adopting the indifference, and adopting the expression of the system of whiteness on each other, you know. And we act it out, you know, you see it acted out, we act it out in our families with comments that are being said, you know. One of the things we’re working with the youth now, and some of the comments even from the students of color, you know, they’re saying, “This is a major issue, but I’m also having to address this in my friendships and my family.” Because, you know, with things happening, we are saying really racist comments, you know, toward other people of color.
Lisa Sharon Harper 30:44
Yeah, yeah. Those are the ways that whiteness has categorized our society and has structured our society. These are the structures we’ve lived within. So I think that any process would have to do several things, the process would first of all have to be communal, we would have to go back within our communities to do deep examination of how we have interacted, how we have taken in these logics of ourselves, and then also how have—do an interrogation of how our communities have applied those, those false logics to others within the community within society. And then we would have to come together and communicate and confess and repent and decide on a new way of actually being in the world. And I hate to keep saying that, but it’s true. I think that we would have to decide together that whiteness as a construct doesn’t work for us anymore, and so we’re no longer going to use it. In fact, we’re not—we’re no longer going to even use the category of race at all. Because race as a construct was created to determine one thing on this land that we call America: Who has the call and capacity, the divine call and the capacity to exercise dominion on this land. And that’s why whiteness was created, and blackness, and everything else that was created along with it was created in relationship to whiteness and blackness. And that’s what we’re talking about: power. That’s a good reason for us again to make the distinction between race and culture. Culture cannot be erased. Culture is from God! Culture is inside of us. Ethnicity cannot be erased because it is the experience of people groups who move across land over long periods of time, and the ways that they’re shaped by that land, by their experiences on that land. And nationality is just what passport do you hold in your pocket, right? Like that’s your nationality. But when you talk about race, that is the only reason race exists: to determine who holds power. So I think that ultimately, what we’re really going to have to decide if we are going to live into that radical connected vision is to actually renounce race altogether to say, “I will no longer live according to the logic of race, according to the logic of whiteness.” And why did I just make those two things synonymous? Because whiteness was the first construct of race. So if you dislodge whiteness, you no longer have race. If you erase whiteness as a construct, race doesn’t exist because race only exists because whiteness exists as a construct. It was the first [indistinguishable] of everything.
Latasha Morrison 33:47
So I know people are listening to this and they’re like, “Okay, so how do we do this in a racialized society?” Yeah, with the power that we have now like, how do we begin to denounce this? And I know with some of the work we do and some of the work you do, that education is a key part of this. Because I know there were just gems that you dropped, [part of the problem] is we don’t know each other, we don’t know each other’s story. And so that also creates barriers and obstacles. We don’t know the Indigenous story here on this land and why we should value it and honor it. We don’t know the Asian American story and why we should respect it, you know, and vice versa. So, like, how could we? How can we do something like this in a racialized society like, or is this just inherent in the DNA of who we are?
Lisa Sharon Harper 34:47
But it’s not, it’s not. It’s not. It’s not, and I think we have to get out of that. It’s not inherent in the DNA of who we are. We created this construct, which means we can disable it.
Latasha Morrison 34:58
We made it up, we can unmake it!
Lisa Sharon Harper 35:03
We can take it down, that’s really true! If it’s constructed, it means it can be deconstructed. It’s not of God, it is of human beings. If it was of God, we might have a hard time because God would come back and like, hit us back. But it’s not! It is human beings—we made this. We can unmake it. And so I would, I would actually—the way that I have been working at this and actually counseling people to do it, is to first learn your own actual story. I honestly think everybody in this country should have an account on Ancestry.com 23andMe, AfricanAncestry.com, if you are a Native American, you need to really understand the story of your people (if you don’t already). Maybe you grew up apart from the people from your nation if they were put on a reservation, or if you live in an urban center, which actually most Native people do live in urban centers around the country, not on reservations. But then if you are disconnected, get connected again, get connected to your story. That’s the first connection that has to happen is connection to your own story. Because I think the thing is what we don’t—what we tend to think of is, we think of history as a list of wars, or a list of presidents, or a list of inventions that happened at a particular time. But we don’t realize that history is our ancestors’ lives. Like, our ancestors are the ones who actually made the decisions that made the history. My ancestor joining the Great Migration, made her one of the 7 million people of African descent who went north during the Great Migration. The Great Migration was not written by somebody on high, the Great Migration was written by 7 million individuals who made a choice to flee terror and went north. But we read it as okay, this is the Great Migration, as if it’s like this static thing that it was just going to happen, no matter what, because that’s just the way that it was…no people made choices. So we need to ask the question, who are we? Who are our ancestors? What were the choices they made? What were they facing in their lives? How did they overcome? How did they not overcome? How were they overwhelmed by those choices? What were the choices that were made from on high in terms of law and policy and structures that impacted their lives? See, I don’t think until we do that—and I’m not just saying people of color, I’m actually also including people of European descent in this—that until we actually understand our own story, then we can’t have a sense of who we are in the present story, and who we should be in the present story.
Lisa Sharon Harper 37:59
Like one of the things that’s blown my mind is the reality that for most of the people of European descent who came into the United States, particularly in the 19th century, right? So 19th century, they’re coming in pretty much right after the Declaration of Independence and this Revolutionary War. It’s a brand new country. And they’re asking the question, the reason they came was to flee persecution, or to flee famine. It’s one of two things: either oppression or poverty they were fleeing in order to come here, or they got here in order to flee those two things. Well, when they got here, they got here in the context of a racialized society. So they had to choose. And when they chose…who in the world is going to choose to be a non-human being?! Nobody, nobody is going to choose that! So everybody, when they came here, was trying to be white. Why? Because that’s the construct that the legal framework provided to be counted as fully human. So throughout the entire 19th century all the way up into the mid-20th century, you had people fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to be counted as white, including Asian Americans. In fact, the last one that I saw was in the 1920s, where a Japanese American was fighting to be seen as white. And the Supreme Court said, “You ain’t white, go back down where you belong,” right? They patted that guy right back down, swatted him down. And why? Why would you want to be counted as white? Well, because at that time, you actually had the Chinese Exclusion Act going on. And it was causing—it was not, and I realize he’s Japanese, he’s not Chinese—but there was hatred of all Asians that was permeating that time. So why would he want to be counted as Asian at a time when Asians were hated? So he tried to be counted as white because whites were the only humans in this land.
Latasha Morrison 39:55
We see that so much, I mean, so much in our history.
Lisa Sharon Harper 39:58
Latasha Morrison 39:59
I read a story of a man from India.
Lisa Sharon Harper 40:03
Latasha Morrison 40:06
What did you say his name was?
Lisa Sharon Harper 40:07
Oh, I don’t know his name.
Latasha Morrison 40:09
Oh, I thought you said his name. I can’t think of his name right now. But we see that even today when it comes to the census, and we’re, you know, in these, this construct, you know, because a lot of countries have also been colonized. That mindset also follows groups of people here as they immigrate to America. And you see that some people, although they’re considered people of color in this country, they still identify themselves as white because like you said, who wants to be identified with another group that’s not seen as fully human? Or a group that is not going to like, you know—the system is not set up that they may flourish also.
Lisa Sharon Harper 40:58
Right and see this is the way we’ve internalized it right? So it also comes out in the colorism that you find in the African American community. And that, and it’s funny because that actually didn’t exist, colorism did not exist in the way that it does now, until after the Civil War. I found out again, through the research, that before the Civil War it wasn’t a color line, it was the line of free or not free, right? So those who were free, they were considered like, well almost full humans. They were able to vote, they were able to own land, they were able to do everything really anybody else could do—but they were still not seen as fully white. But they were seen as above those who were enslaved. But after the abolition of slavery, there’s no longer that demarcation. So within the African American context, we then began to make another demarcation, a hierarchy. And that hierarchy was along skin color, and that carried all the way through the 20th century. And for many still exists today!
Lisa Sharon Harper 42:21
So I think that the question that we really—so I mean, just on a really practical level, what I would suggest to your listeners, is that where you’re sitting right now, close your eyes. Close your eyes. And I want you to imagine a world. But first of all, I want you to see the lie, the lie that we have been told. See it, visualize it for yourself in whatever way helps you: the lie of human hierarchy, where whiteness is on the top, blackness is on the bottom as being non-human. And others come into that hierarchy somewhere on that hierarchy. But the rest are neither fully non-human nor fully human. Right. So that’s the hierarchy that was established within the United States. Now, what I want you to do is to erase that. Just take an eraser and erase it, erase it altogether in your mind’s eye. And now, I want you to imagine another way of organizing ourselves in the world. What if, instead of a ladder, we saw ourselves in a circle holding hands? That we are connected, and we are in a circle—meaning we are all equally human. And we are all equally called to exercise stewardship of this world, of this land. We are all equally called to exercise agency. But within this land called the United States of America, we actually have elders, ones who were here first, ones who God actually established as the stewards of this land. What would it look like for us to center them? What would it look like for us to actually allow for the way that they would like to do things to be the center? To guide us at least for a period of time? What would it look like for us to ask them, “How do YOU say things should be?” and then to follow. And then for people of African descent, what would it look like for the rest—for everyone who has abided by, and lived according to, and benefited from the construct of whiteness in relationship to people of African descent? Whether it is that your family actually did own slaves, your family enslaved human beings that were descendants of Africa. And if that was your family, then hold that…what would it look like for you to repent of the taking of dominion from people groups? What would it look like for you to recognize their dominion, to recognize their capacity to exercise agency? What would it look like for you to say to THEM, “What will it take for things to be made well for you?” and to listen and then do it. That’s what it looks like to then shift the power to put the power back into the hands of the one from whom it was taken. And the same goes for Asian Americans, from those of Chinese descent who descend all the way back into the early 1800s, all the way to the very newest immigrants and refugees that are coming into our nation. And African refugees and immigrants that have come into our nation and become American. And we can’t go back. I think that’s actually—it’s clear not only from African American scholars, but also from Native American scholars—I don’t think anybody now is actually looking to make it what it was. It’s not possible. It just is not possible. But we can shift the power dynamics so that we live within the context of a circle and not a ladder.
Latasha Morrison 45:52
So good. Whew, well, you’ve given us a lot to think about as it relates to this conversation. And if there can be just solidarity among people of color, I think this is a really good, you know, step toward what true interconnection can really look like. It starts with you. I mean, just when I’m talking about this work of racial healing, I always tell people like, you cannot lead people where you’re not willing to go yourself personally.
Lisa Sharon Harper 46:25
Latasha Morrison 46:25
And how this work starts with you. And I think what you’re calling people to do and to examine, and to go back is so important in order for us to be able to come together. So I know, things are, you know, with COVID we’re trying to make sense of all of this. This too, is tied into that conversation.
Lisa Sharon Harper 46:50
So I think when we look at the current situation around COVID, we have to understand that that also comes in a context. And it was right when we began to realize that it’s people of African descent and brown people, people of Latino descent, that are the ones suffering the most, dying the most from COVID. It doesn’t mean that we are genetically predisposed—there are some people who are doing that research to see if that’s true. But I think that doctors are saying very clearly, these are the folks who are coming in with more pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments, obesity, that actually make it so that they are more vulnerable to attack by COVID. COVID can get at their system easier because they’re coming in weaker. Well, then you have to wonder, okay, so are they just weaker? I mean, look, there’s been a lot of research over the last couple of decades that has shown definitively: No, we are not weaker. And what we are is: we are a people that has had systematically, incinerators put in our communities, bus depots put in our communities where they idle for hours and then put all these particles into the air that we ingest, and then have more asthma, which then creates a situation where COVID can take over our lungs easier. We have been placed in poor housing through the Federal Housing Association calculation that they made in 1935, when they actually created the calculation that determined what housing or sorry, what the land value would be, and the calculation was if you have even one person of African descent in your community, your entire community’s land was worth less. And so what does that do? It creates like Black—that’s what white flight was! White flight was fleeing from lower housing value that was created by the federal government, and that has never really fully been recovered from. Even though they outlawed that in the 1960s, they never actually then upped the value of the land. So what do you have? You have slum lords and you have depleted neighborhoods and you have under-resourced neighborhoods to this day. You have food deserts where people can’t find within a five-mile radius healthy foods, so when all you have to eat in your community is Coca Cola and Cheetos, or soy, corn, and sugar—then you are going to be obese and you are going to get diabetes at a higher rate. And when you have diabetes at a higher rate, you are going to die from COVID at a higher rate. So that’s what we have to…take a look at and rectify in our community. Again, COVID has given us an opportunity to make things right. It has shown us the way things have been that are wrong systematically. And now we need to go in and change the laws! Change the zoning from having our neighborhoods be the zoning areas for fast food as opposed to supermarkets. Right? Change the way that we calculate land value from being [harming] historically black neighborhoods. We have outlined redlining, but it’s still happening. So there you go, that that’s what I would say.
Latasha Morrison 50:32
That’s so good. That’s so good. And that’s a conversation that I think that’s really being illuminated when we start seeing these disparities. Because we don’t have this historical narrative, we disconnected from the things that are happening right now. And it’s important for us to go back, so that we can understand what’s happening right now and not attach it always to behavior. You know, so I think that’s good. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Lisa Sharon Harper 51:02
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.
Latasha Morrison 51:04
And so we don’t know what the remainder of this year is gonna look like, we don’t know. But there’s things that you can begin doing right now in this moment, you know, during this season to really start thinking about this conversation. So Lisa, thank you so much for joining me and having this layered, complex conversation! You know, if you haven’t read Lisa’s book, “The Very Good Gospel” get that, we’ll make sure that’s in the show notes…and so we’ll make sure all that information is in the show notes. And Lisa, how can people follow you and find out more about what you’re doing?
Lisa Sharon Harper 51:54
Oh, that’s so great. Well, you can follow me on social media all over the place. So Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Lisa S. Harper on Instagram and Twitter, and just my name Lisa Sharon Harper on Facebook. Also come on over to my website at LisaSharonHarper.com, or FreedomRoad.us, which is the consulting group that is dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. And we also have now the Freedom Road Institute, which has webinars every single day of the week it seems now, that there are new webinars popping up and you’re absolutely welcome to partake. In fact, we have one that’s going on now that you might be interested in! It’s “how to decolonize the Bible.” And we just had our first session, our first webinar session on that, and anybody who signs up can actually get the video recording of any of the previous sessions so you can be caught up and then join us on the next live one. They’re happening through the rest of this month. And then, of course, the last place I’ll just say this, is the Freedom Road podcast, which is really where a lot of people journey with us from month to month. That podcast comes out the first week of every month.
Latasha Morrison 53:07
Thank you so much for taking this time, and we appreciate all the work that you’re doing and you are continuing to do, having these hard conversations. That’s a part of it. That’s a part of our growth. So I’m just grateful for you and for your leadership.
Thank you for listening! For more bridge building resources, visit our website at BeTheBridge.com.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai