As we enter into MLK weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about Black Lives Matter and the current civil disobedience taking place to fight for the dignity and humanity of Black people today. At Urbana15, Michelle Higgins, an activist in BLM, was given a platform to speak prophetically to the 16,000 people present, challenging them to enter in to the fight alongside our Black brothers and sisters made in the image of God. It was powerful and a significant moment in the history of InterVarsity and Urbana.
But I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t quite sure where I belonged in that night. For my Black colleagues and friends, it seemed to be a night of incredible healing and affirmation. While I was grateful for people I cared about, I also knew it wasn’t my story being affirmed. So as a friend of that community, I rejoiced and wept on their behalf as we are called to do as one household of faith.
At the same time, much of the talk given by Michelle Higgins was often focused on the White majority culture, inviting the White community to lay down their privilege and give up the need to “be in control”. I am a Christian and I do have privilege in many ways, but I’m not White. In fact, the Latino experience in the U.S probably more closely resembles that of the Black community in the area of police brutality. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow also makes mention of Latinos in her statistics about mass incarceration and discrimination. So while it was a strong charge that Michelle Higgins made that night, it didn’t necessarily feel like my charge. My community’s story is different than other Evangelicals who might need to stop hiding their head in the sand.
The experience overall reminded me of the stories my parents would tell of what segregation and the Civil Rights era felt like for them as Mexican Americans. My dad once told me he never quite knew which bus he was supposed to get on or what door he was supposed to walk through during that time in history. His complexion was dark, so he wasn’t seen as white. But he wasn’t seen as black either. He just simply wasn’t seen.
Latino theologian and priest Father Virgilio Elizondo wrote of his own story in his book The Future Is Mestizo. He wrote about the days of segregation and the way that shaped him and his community’s identity: “I remember well the problems we experienced just trying to go to the toilet. If we went into the one marked ‘colored’ we were chased out…because we were not technically Black. Yet, we were often chased out from the ones marked ‘White’ because we had dark skin. So we didn’t even have toilets to which we could go. Our being was actually our non-being”. (p. 18)
That night at Urbana, as I listened to Michelle Higgins speak, I resonated with her words about police brutality and discrimination. Because the Latino community experiences many of these same things, it wasn’t a huge leap to believe the experience of the Black community. But Michelle wasn’t talking about the Latino community that night. On the other side of this were the reactions of many White evangelicals after her talk, which varied. Some felt offended and threatened by her language of White supremacy being the “side piece” of the Evangelical church. I, though, just felt like an outsider looking in.
Ultimately, I am and have been committed to listening to my Black friends and collegues in order to understand and carry with them the burdens and pain they feel. I come alongside BLM not because of InterVarsity or any other ministry, but because I believe my Black friends and know that I have to do something about it too. I also see my Latino mentors and other leaders of color in the Christian community doing the same thing, bringing what voice and privilege they have to the dialogue and public conversation. I know this is the right thing to do.
But, if I’m honest, at the end of the day I do still wonder where we belong in this narrative unfolding right now. What will history record about the Latino voice in this new Civil Rights fight? Will we be non-beings? Are we non-beings now?
photo courtesy: National Archives