This is guest post from Elle Dowd a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA. Elle was active in the Ferguson Uprising (pictured above) and an active voice in the #DecolonizeLutheranism movement recently sparked. She is a friend, a colleague, and someone who I have the utmost admiration for. She has a message for white people, as a white person. She also has a message for “nice” Church:
White people love to think of ourselves as Nice.
This is especially true of a certain brand of white people, many of us middle class and hailing from the Midwest. We pat ourselves on the back with pride for being [Your State Here] Nice. Where I grew up, in a state that is about 94% white and filled with Lutheran churches, we liked to say we’re Iowa Nice.
Niceness is about convenience. It’s about our comfort. It’s about control. It can never include disruptions. It is exactly what MLK disparages in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a “negative peace”, set up to keep the status quo.
It is our pathological desire for Niceness that leads white people to look at young Black people crying out in the street and say:
“They should really say #AllLivesMatter.”
“I’m all for protesting, but do they really have to inconvenience other people?”
“No one is going to listen to them if they are going to be so rude like that.”
In other words, “Why can’t they be Nice?” A nice that is tame, palatable, compliant, and always always always centers whiteness.
For white people and white culture, Niceness is a False Idol. And it’s a False Idol with a body count. In 2015, unarmed Black people were killed by police at a rate of 5 times the rate of unarmed whites. Yet when our Black siblings are crying out, “Black Lives Matter!” we continue to make human sacrifices to the altar of our bloodthirsty God of Niceness, caring more about our own comfort and security than about children dying in the streets.
Body counts and blood sacrifices don’t sound very Nice. But that’s the thing about niceness and its dangerous relationship to power; its slippery and like most other things, finds a way to center itself on white ideals, white experiences, white feelings.
When people in power are asking oppressed people to “play nice”, questions worth asking are:
What is Nice?
And who gets to decide?
For most white people we live a life of unexamined privilege and the world seems at least mostly fair. Because we don’t experience systemic racial discrimination first hand, it’s easy for us to assume that the world and its institutions are good or at least neutral. Most white people have a worldview that the playing field is level, except for maybe in a few isolated circumstances. But the truth is that the world is not only NOT neutral, but is in fact actively and aggressively hostile towards people of color. There is a system in place that has benefited me and people who look like me, and it’s been in place for hundreds of years before I was even born.
To a world wrapped in whiteness, the Movement for Black Lives seems aggressive. We don’t see where this anger is coming from because we assume that our systems are neutral. And so we assume this anger is unprovoked. We don’t see that what’s truly aggressive is racism, that white supremacy started this fight, that the Movement for Black Lives is acting out of self defense against a system that would see Black people be annihilated before it would see them be free.
That doesn’t sound Nice. Because it’s not. And because white people value Niceness so much, when we hear this, its uncomfortable for us because it creates cognitive dissonance. And since we value our comfort above everything – even our Black siblings’ lives – we try to find a way to make it not true. Any reminder becomes the object of scorn and disbelief, and we will find any polite way to undermine it.
Burning crosses in people’s yards to silence them is passé. But #AllLivesMatter has a Nice ring to it.
White people love niceness, but we fail to see that our ideas about polite society are not very nice at all. They serve instead to preserve a system that is criminalizing people of color and dehumanizing white people with our callous indifference. They act to protect institutions built on killing the bodies of people of color to the detriment of our own souls.
We say we value niceness, but what we really value is being in charge of what that looks like and when it’s appropriate, by our own standards. We value control.
We say we value niceness, but we look away when the state, with our tax dollars and on our behalf, is slaughtering our siblings. We value “security.”
We say we value niceness, but we silence anyone who dissents to this genocide. We value “peace.”
We say we value niceness, but this kind of niceness isn’t kindness or compassion or accompaniment or self-sacrifice. It’s not Christ’s example of emptying ourselves for the sake of the other. It’s the opposite – silencing and oppressing the other for the sake of ourselves.
We say we value niceness, but the truth is that we care more about being polite and comfortable than we care about liberation. We are worshipping at the altar of Niceness instead of following the cross of Christ. This is an abuse of priorities that is abhorrent to the God who introduces Herself over and over as the one who “brought us out of the house of slavery”.
White Niceness has become an idol that is the antithesis to Black Liberation. They are in direct opposition to one another. We know we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve our own comfort when it sacrifices the lives of our neighbors. We must choose this day whom we will serve. Will we worship the lies of Niceness? Or will we follow the God of Liberation?
For further reading see this article on tone policing
and this article on respectability politics