The Road to Hell is Paved with Blind Privilege

I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed today, just taking a little break between loads of laundry, when I saw this video, shared by a friend:

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003056479&playerType=embed

The video explores the phenomenon of Germans who are obsessed with “Native American culture” — both those who “live like Indians” and the followers of the story — now in books, film, and a live-action show-town complete with museum — of a fictional “Apache chief” created by German author Karl May.

The more I watched, the more shocked and angry I got.

As the video begins, it seems as though there’s this nice group of Apache/Lakota-culture-loving Germans who are inspired (though perhaps a bit ignorant and naive) by what they learn from this story of an Apache hero. But as I watched more, I saw all those excuses disintegrate.

  1. They don’t love real Apache or Lakota cultures, because this story and “culture” they keep reproducing is (a) an amalgam of many Native peoples, plus (b) the author never even went to North America before writing his books, so he probably made a ton of it up anyway!
  2. They’re not naive or really even ignorant — or at least the main actors aren’t — because they know the story of the author, Karl May, and they are aware of the fact that he made this story up and that the “Apache” culture they’re peddling is fake.
  3. As regards the other German “Indian hobbyists,” one says it’s fine for him to do this because “black and white people lived with Native tribes all the time.” But he’s not living with Native people — he just copied some of their ways and is now living a semblance of their traditional life in a vacuum in Germany. Not the same.

I can arrive at no other conclusion than that the people involved with this movement and production in Germany are willfully ignoring any pricks at their conscience, and purposefully avoiding consulting (or listening to) the counsel of actual Native people. I mean, at the show they had a German who had studied Indian Art in New Mexico and stood there and said that their dances were fake, stereotypical, and harmful. And the museum with the scalp in it! They had at least the one man the documentary interviewed (if not more) tell them, directly, that keeping human remains from being properly buried was unacceptable. And yet they refuse to release it!

I can’t comprehend why every(white)one seems to think that they know better than actual Native people what will honor or hurt Native peoples. I saw SO many examples of ridiculous, self-centered illogic in this film that I just want to smack something. The fact that this entire thing sits on such a huge throne of lies is proof of the chasm of cognitive dissonance that these German faux-Indians are straddling — and ignoring — every day.

Why does someone not have the right to respectfully bury their relative? Because it’s apparently more important that some museum of white people try to prove (or disprove) whether it’s measurably your relative, and then maybe they’ll think about permitting it. Why is it okay to reproduce on a massive scale a representation that slurs together hundreds of real people groups? Because it’s all in good fun — they don’t WANT to hurt anyone, so surely no one gets hurt!

This kind of willfully blind, arrogant, asinine privilege makes me sick.

If people want to learn from a Native tribe — like one actual group rather than a conglomeration of all of them — they should do it the old fashioned way: sit at their teacher’s feet like disciples instead of stealing their stuff and selling it to anyone who’s feeling existentially insecure.

This is the same sort of patronizing, dehumanizing, self-centered exercise of privilege that gets people saying “But the Washington R**skins ARE respectful!” or even, “Calm down, I’m sure the officer had a good reason to shoot, and more importantly, why do you keep looting stuff?”

When we relate to and talk about our sisters and brothers — whether they’re of the same groups as we are or not — it is incumbent upon us to do it in a way that THEY find respectful and humanizing, not one that meets our own definition of respect.

To look at it biblically, time and time again we see Jesus empathizing with people, differentiating his words and his approach based on who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re feeling. To Zacchaeus, he said, “I’m coming for dinner.” To the woman at the well, he said, “I will give you Living Water, and whoever drinks it will thirst no more.” With Nicodemus, he had a complicated theological discussion and gave no straight answers. With the disciples, he called them to drop everything — literally everything else — and gave them the gift of his physical proximity for three whole years. In dozens and dozens of other stories, Jesus rarely does the same thing twice. He relates to each person not based on the approach that is in his “wheelhouse”, but based on their unique selves.

Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. But the willfully blind privilege of “but I meant well” loves only ourselves, at the expense of our neighbors. Focusing on “good intentions” is about keeping our hands clean, and not about truly loving our neighbor. We are not called to have good intentions. We are called to have compassion.

I truly believe that if Jesus were here today, he would say to the Apache and Lakota (and all the other Indian nations), “What do you think is respectful? How would you like to be treated?” And to the angry, grieving, frustrated black community, “I grieve with you. I feel compassion for you. How can I be with you in your pain?”

I’ll conclude with a quote from a piece that (though I disagree with its assessment of liberation theology) I think speaks powerfully to a Christian response to the Michael Brown shooting, written by Pastor Brian Loritts and titled “It’s Time to Listen”:

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just get over this [the injustices of the past]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each others skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it. Tragedies like Ferguson are like MRIs that reveal the hurt that still lingers. The chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings.

…Facts are a first and last resort in a court of law, but when it comes to human relationships, let us first stop and feel, before we go to facts.The communication pyramid offers a revolutionary paradigm in our journey to understanding.

May we stop and feel what our sisters and brothers feel, as Jesus did. Amen.

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