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How I was tokenized as an obstacle to antiracism
When Kanye West was in the news last week for his attention-seeking “White Lives Matter” shirt, I told some friends that his behavior was reckless and could add fuel to the fire of white supremacists. Unsurprisingly, one of the chiefs of white supremacy in this country, Tucker Carlson, had him on his popular primetime show, and what followed was a rather unhinged interview. Ye would go on to have an anti-Semitic diatribe that got him banned on Instagram and Twitter. Ye is particularly attractive to those on the far-right because he is Black and he is making white supremacist talking points, maybe for attention, maybe in earnest, but he is helpful in disrupting the unified struggle against racism because his opinion is unique to the plurality among his community.
White people love to defend against racism by naming that they have Black friends and friends of color, but oftentimes, those BIPOC have very much assimilated into white culture and have learned to tolerate their experience of racism simply as a matter of survival. I know this because it matches my own experience. I know how to navigate white organizations, white people, and white churches. In fact, I have worked very hard to assimilate into white and American culture. My parents instilled in me the need to “fit in,” at a very young age. For example, known for running late because of a different cultural understanding of time, my parents strived to be punctual to fit the American norm. So they changed their values to fit in, to belong.
No one can or should fault minorities for trying to fit in. Racial minorities often want to assimilate to whiteness. We survive, we try to belong, and we make due when we don’t. I don’t fault my parents whatsoever for their assimilation, and they gifted me with the ability to adapt. I think my parents put up with too much racism, and that difference in experience has been a source of strife between us. But through them, I learned how to survive. To this day, I am known as someone who can adapt to various circumstances, and I pride myself on that. But when you are forced to adapt to survive, sometimes you forget, or never learn, who you even are.
Who I do fault is white folks who exploited my ability to assimilate and then used me as a token to guard against antiracism. When I was young, I wanted a place to belong to, a place that might accept me. I grew up thinking I was a misfit – a progressive, Egyptian Christian, in conservative Lebanon Country, Pennsylvania. So I joined the church to have a new chance at family. I longed for belonging and acceptance, especially after the way I differentiated from my parents isolated me. I was welcomed, seemingly, with open arms.
Not only was I propped up as a brown leader, I was used to argue that the church I am serving in was antiracist enough. Our pastors often resisted any interrogation of the racism in our church, and I was often in meetings where their resistance was plainly named and articulated. One time, when a group of members from our church went to an antiracist training, the pastors warned me against the coming wave of “deconstruction.”
I have a distinct memory of being put on a panel to talk about antiracism, with two women of color, and my voice was meant to protect the institution against accusations of racism. I wasn’t a pastor at the time, but I remember being congratulated by the pastors for the representation I did. What more could I want, after all? Affirmation for what I was doing and a way to belong in a community.
Often, when we wake up (or become “woke”), minorities often flee institutions that are not made up of people like us when we learn that we don’t have to put up with oppression. I have seen this a lot in books recently written (check out my interview with Rohadi Nagasser who wrote When We Belong, or with Dante Stewart who wrote Shouting in the Fire, or the one I did with two our leaders who read Andre Henry’s All The White Friends I Couldn’t Keep)—consistently, minorities are saying that predominantly white institutions are not safe for them. Many people in our church left because of that. But I remember being used to fault the BIPOC who left our church for leaving, to ostracize them, and to name them as problems. I was a “good person of color” for adapting and surviving, for propping up the organization’s colonialist ends, and its obsession with growth and expansion. I was a poster child for why our church was diverse and antiracist enough, and why our mission was righteous.
The issue is that the diversity that the church enjoyed because of my brown skin color and heritage (I remember when we had a page on our website with all the international flags we had representing the so-called diversity in our body, including the flag of Egypt) stopped when we wanted that diversity to equal representation in leadership. When white allies woke up, like one of our pastors did after he went on a sabbatical, they were sidelined as activists and detriments to our mission.
The trouble came to me when I learned that I didn’t have to merely assimilate to belong, but that liberation was possible. I didn’t have to hide my sexuality and my culture, nor did I have to assimilate to whiteness. I only learned this when I listened to other minorities about their experiences. The trouble with being able to adapt to whiteness is that you never meet your own people, and you don’t even know or understand your experience. What we experience as an inconvenience or a misunderstanding or just the consciousness of being different is actually hatred, prejudice, and racism. We don’t know how to put language to that when we don’t relate to people with the same experience. White organizations keep BIPOC and other minorities apart from each other, and we get robbed from understanding our experience.
When our BIPOC eventually got together, we learned that we had a common experience. And to this day, we are trying to stay united to help our church become a tool for antioppression. But because of my past, I know how easy it is for racial minorities to continue to assimilate to power and to whiteness and mute their own experience. I pray that we have the courage to stand up for our own selves, in our own sincerity and dignity. It is risky business to do this, it is hard to leave the comfort that we have away from our painful experience, but it is worth for our liberation. We don’t have to live hidden and closeted lives because we are hated for being our full self. Another way is possible.