You are here

But Some of My Best Friends Are Black

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Jul 24 2016


I consider myself to be one of the good white people, if you know what I mean. Like, when it was remarked this week that persons of color had made no contributions of note to civilized society, I, along with many of you, was taken aback; I was shocked. And so, when a friend posted on Facebook – and, I want to say: this was a black friend; some of my best friends are black – when he suggested that, all their outrage notwithstanding, most liberal white people probably could not name ten prominent African American personages anyway, not if you were to exclude civil rights leaders and professional athletes, well, I thought, I’ll show him. Because I am one of the good white people. I am going to prove my good-white-person bona fides. And, besides, since I don’t know any professional athletes, black or white, that’s hardly going to be a handicap here. This will be a cinch. So I made a list. I got Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Thurgood Marshall and, and Percy Julian, who was a famous chemist, and who I was especially proud to have gotten, as it felt like he counts as kind of a deep cut. And I got Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison (who, now, sure, admittedly, I do sometimes mix up, but that is not because a book written by a black woman is a book written by a black woman is a book written by a black woman; I mean, I confuse the Brontë sisters, too). Well anyway, I got ten, got more than ten, and without even crossing over into pop star sort of black people. I got ten, got more than ten – brainy, big name historically, culturally pivotal black people.

So I was feeling pretty solid, feeling like I was a brother, you know? I bought a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker even. And, I want to give myself some credit here: not just any Caucasian person would put one of those on their car. You’ve got to consider the resale value of the car. But, of course, if only you stop and think about it, that seems a small price to pay to be on the right side of history. Because after all, part of what it means to be good white people is that we help open the eyes of … those other white people – the bad, ignorant, bigoted white people; I, I have to help racist white people, have to help open the eyes of racist white people to their own biases – have to pry open their eyes with my little pink fingers! And bumper stickers can go a long way with that, especially in Boston, where we all spend so much time sitting in traffic. I can picture it: the grizzled white guy in a big pickup truck behind me, listening to some foul, retrograde whack-job on the radio. He looks up, and the light, as if from heaven, casts a halo upon my Black Lives Matter bumper sticker, so it is not just that the man sees it – but that he really sees it and the scales fall off and God has done something. God has done something through me. It’s my calling as a good white person – to be a missionary of enlightenment, to awaken the masses to their wrong thinking, to preach, on the interstate and online with post after post after post, to preach to the Neanderthals, to preach: ‘Check your privilege’. It is my sacred duty to call out every cretin.

The Pharisees were our kind of people, you know. They were the liberals of the Holy Land. Theirs was an open, generous theology which rejected strict literalism and slavishness to ancient texts and emphasized the importance of ever-evolving interpretations that kept pace with new knowledge. Theirs was an inclusive, almost populist politics which put the welfare of the poor before the flourishing of the few. Theirs was a radical, egalitarian piety which took on the corrupt, fat-cat priests who had compromised the faith by cozying up to the Roman overlords, and which sought to put religion back in the hands of the people in the pews. The Pharisees were the good guys. Paul was a Pharisee. No small number of scholars now think Jesus himself was a Pharisee. Whatever daylight there was between Jesus and the Pharisees should be seen and understood against the backdrop of otherwise pretty significant shared agreement. Their differences seemed so stark for the same reason as did those between, say, Hillary and Bernie: because the more common ground that is held as compared to out-and-out opponents, the finer the point put on those areas of divergence.

And so, when Jesus took issue with the Pharisees, it was not because he was miles apart from their thinking, but because their thinking was so often brandished in ways that undermined the core of their message, a message which Jesus was himself, by and large, behind, and lived and died to advance. He gave them hell for peacocking around and, in their haughty, holier-than-thou huffing, for betraying their own principles, for proving their ideals to be skin deep only, for showing themselves to be hypocrites, for standing up and pointing the finger at those other sinners, for putting on a good show as liberals, but sparing their own souls the same astringent once-over, for, quote: ‘trusting in themselves that they were righteous and regarding others with contempt.’ Now, I do not presume to know your hearts. Probably you all are far more moral and together, but speaking for myself: I think I have got some Pharisaism 2.0 going on here, or in keeping with my heritage, maybe it is some Puritanism 2.0 that is happening. Only, it is no longer dogma or having-good-manners-and-minding-one’s-Ps-and-Qs that at least this modern-day Pharisee gets all worked up over – it is the purity of other people’s politics. Are they making good as allies by proselytizing on their Facebook pages, you know, posting mercilessly acidic social commentary and sharing scathing, outside-the-mainstream blogs? Are they using the most of-the-moment vocabulary to describe the injustices of the day, or did they again fail to slap on the QIIA to the end of the LGBT? Did they speak out as they ought, speak out and not keep silent, as in my own mind, I determined was the needful thing to do? And/or did they keep silent as they should, keep silent and not speak out, so as to elevate the voices of the marginalized, as, alternately, I myself decided was more appropriate? Are they as angry about racism as I am? Like, are they foaming-at-the-mouth mad about prejudice? Because you do not count as one of the good white people, and you do not get to fantasize that, if we all went back in time to Selma in the 1960s, you would be one of the good white people marching with MLK, not if – no you do not get to be one of the good white people unless you prove it, prove it to me, the great arbiter of progressive street cred.

And, if today’s scripture is any indication, what Jesus might say to me, good white person that I am, is: ‘No one is good but God alone.’ What Jesus might say to me is, ‘You are so close and yet so far.’ What Jesus might say to me is, ‘Yes, I am aware that Donald Trump and your uncle are racists. You have indeed felt the need to … point that out to me … from time to time. But, why don’t we talk about you?’ And, having already been stripped of my good-white-person-hood, probably the thing to do would be to confess: I was riding the T last week and, you know, there is nothing like the Orange Line to summon the racist in you. And these two black teenagers – they were kids – they were throwing Pringles chips at one another. Laughing and throwing chips and stepping on them and making a mess. It was rush hour and there were people everywhere and these black kids throwing Pringles chips. And I thought, ‘This is why.’ I thought, ‘You people sure don’t make it easy to stick up for Black Lives Matter at the Thanksgiving table.’

Yes, probably the thing to do would be to confess. But you know, the end game of confession is not to feel sad and guilty. White people feeling sad and guilty is dangerous in the same way that I do believe white people feeling angry, even righteously angry, is dangerous. The end game of confession is repentance. And, since the cardinal sin of good-white-people hypocrites like me is lying to myself and lying to others, happily, I guess confession, that is, telling the whole truth, will get me more than halfway to repentance straight out of the shoot. But the spiritual hubris is only going to creep back in. And anyway, I do not think I can really be rid of racism once for all, always and ever. It seems to me that I should relate to my racism the way an alcoholic would to their addiction. No doubt I would do well to park myself on a folding chair in a church basement and say it, say it week after week after week: ‘Hi. My name is Anthony. And I’m a racist.’ No doubt, if, as a white person, the best-case scenario is that I will be a racist in recovery – no doubt this is not going to happen on its own, happen without disciplined, constant, trying, painful, unflinching self-interrogation and vigilance and conversation in a dedicated, supportive community. No doubt this is not going to happen on its own, without God, and without you with me. I am thirty years old. I do not know what to do about this disaster of an election and all the animus it has dredged up. I do not know what to do, policy-wise, about profiling and policing. I do not know what to do about all the other racists out there. But I do, I think I do know what I need to do about me. And let me tell you: we can do something. We can do something. We can do something. And that something is not nothing.