Newsletter #7: Is it okay to be white?

The bi-weekly newsletter: speaking out on racism, conversion therapy, dumb phones, white fragility, Christian movie reviewers, and more!

Happy Tuesday! It’s been quite the week so far. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to represent a Fortune 50 company on an LGBTQ+ panel. One thing I reflected on was the cost of being gay. I’ve been kicked out of my dorm, lost a job, and been threatened for being gay. At the same time, I’ve had incredible experiences and met the most beautiful people through being “out.” I wouldn’t trade the “safety” of the closet for the beautiful challenges of being “out.” So I hope you all had a great #NationalComingOutDay yesterday!

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Yesterday was also Indigenous People’s Day. You should read this piece on Christopher Columbus.

Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:

  • The impact of speaking out

  • Catholicism and conversion therapy

  • To eavesdrop is human

  • White Fragility

  • Jungle Cruise, Luca, and Christian movie reviews

The Impact of Speaking Out

After the killing of George Floyd, I took a long look back on my life, including my professional life. I realized that there were many things I regretted not saying. So I said them. Among other things, I wrote a letter to all the attorneys at a law firm I used to work at, pointing out racism and other issues and suggesting that the firm undergo a change in leadership.

I recently heard from one of my old colleagues at the firm, one of the top attorneys. Apparently, the day he got my letter, he started planning his departure. He and one of the other top attorneys have started their own firm, hoping to create the inclusive environment that should have existed at our old firm. They'll be great leaders at their new firm.

You don’t always get to see the impact of your vulnerability, but I was really happy to hear the effect my letter had on them. It's a good day for the legal community.

As for me? My career did just fine. I landed in an awesome job where I’ve been able to be myself and help advocate for others. This month, I’m representing a Fortune 50 company at two LGBTQ+ events.

Catholicism and conversion therapy

Since I first started exploring the connections between conversion therapists and Catholic institutions, the number of connections has exploded. I wrote last week about how conversion therapists provide the foundation for Christopher West’s and Jason Evert’s approach to homosexuality. I also wrote how they and other Theology of the Body Catholics prime LGBTQ+ people to reject the Church’s approach to same-sex desire. I’m now working on a piece at the request of a Catholic publication, exploring these connections at the highest levels of the Church.

In my research, I also discovered that for many years the undergraduate seminarians for my diocese were all subject to a modified form of conversion therapy. (They didn’t realize this at the time, and most probably still haven’t.) I’ll be sharing what I found out about that, too. This stuff is everywhere. If we want a healthy Church, we need to identify it and root it out. I’m incredibly grateful to those of you who have reached out to share your stories.

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Ditching the iPhone: to eavesdrop is human

I, like most Americans, struggle to have a healthy relationship to my phone. More than half of Americans spend more than 5 hours a day on their phones. And even after tech companies rolled out features to help Americans limit their smartphone and social media use, such use increased. A small American tech company is trying to find a way out of phone obsessions, with what they have named “The Light Phone.”

The Light Phone is “designed to be used as little as possible.” The developers are committed to never supporting “social media, clickbait news, email, an internet browser, or any other anxiety-inducing feed.” The phone is about the size of a credit card, and its functionality is currently limited to calling, texting, podcasts, a calculator, directions, and a simple music player. (They are working on developing ride sharing and other features.) It has an e-ink screen (like most e-readers), which is better for your eyes and less addictive.

I got The Light Phone a few years ago. I don’t use it all the time. I tend to use it for a season when I notice my iPhone contributing to anxiety, or during certain liturgical seasons like Advent or Lent. Texting on it can be a bit clunky, and at times I need to switch back to my iPhone for certain features. But when I do use The Light Phone, I notice that my everyday life has a different feel to it.

The most striking experience was during a night out for dinner. During dinner, my friend went to the bathroom, and I immediately felt the inclination to pull out my phone and check my email. But I couldn’t. Instead, I found myself eavesdropping on a hilarious conversation at the table next to me.

I then thought, “When was the last time I eavesdropped?” I couldn’t remember. Eavesdropping used to be an integral part of the human experience. When we’re alone in public, we can’t help but take notice of the interesting world around us. But our smartphones largely hide that world from us. The Light Phone helps drawn me back to those parts of the human experience.

I still have my iPhone, which I normally use (switching the SIM card back and forth). But The Light Phone has been a great investment so far. I’d highly recommend checking it out.

What I’m Reading: White Fragility

I recently finished Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as part of a discussion group at work. I have mixed feelings about the book but have found it helpful as a book about social dynamics. It’s full of examples of tactics used to avoid conversations about race and racism. DiAngelo focuses especially on her experience as a white woman to illustrate the subtle ways that white women engage in emotional manipulation (similar to the tactics used by the woman I discussed here). One interesting feature of the book is its definition of racism.

DiAngelo believes that only white people can be racist, because her view of racism requires the existence of unequal power dynamics:

“When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.”

DiAngelo’s conception of racism is common in the academy. Interestingly, Ibram Kendi takes an opposing view in How to be an Antiracist. For Kendi, all people, including Black people, are either racist or antiracist. Because we live in a society grounded in racist policies, Kendi believes that the only way to “not be racist” is to work actively against racism, and that neutrality means consent to racism (and, thus, being racist). Kendi outlines a number of instances in his own life where, rather than really combatting racism, he tried to re-make hierarchies with pseudo-scientific stories about how white people are evil and inferior to black people. In the book, Kendi shares how he’s had to work to overcome his own racist inclinations and dispositions towards both white people and other black people.

I share this to highlight how the views among “antiracist scholars” are actually quite diverse and, at times, contradictory. It’s important to recognize these differences in working through the best way to address racism in society. If you want a popular introduction to race, racism, and racial dynamics (and don’t want to start with an academic activist), I frequently recommend Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?One thing I especially appreciate about Tatum’s work is how she goes beyond just addressing the dynamics of “white fragility” and spends time addressing how white people need to develop a positive relationship to their own race. This is something that DiAngelo disagrees with; DiAngelo argues that “a positive white identity is an impossible goal” because “white identity is inherently racist.” In this conflict, I side with Tatum.

From Tatum’s book:

"As a White person's understanding of the complexity of institutional racism in our society deepens, the less likely he or she is to resort to explanations that blame the victim. Instead, deepening awareness usually leads to a commitment to unlearn one's racism, and marks the emergence of the pseudo-independent stage.

Sometimes epitomized by the 'guilty White liberal' person, the pseudo-independent individual has an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage, but doesn't quite know what to do about it. Self-conscious and guilty about one's Whiteness, the individual often desires to escape it by associating with people of color... [E]ven if these efforts to build interracial relationships are successful, the White individual must eventually confront the reality of his or her own Whiteness.

"We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride. But, as we see in these examples, for many White people who at this stage have come to understand the everyday reality of racism, Whiteness is still experienced as a source of shame rather than as a source of pride. Recognizing the need to find a more positive self-definition is a hallmark of the next phase of White racial identity development.”

So there you go. I want black people to develop a positive relationship to their race. I want white people to develop a positive relationship to their race. I want all people to develop a positive relationship to their race.

I’ve been trying to do a lot of reading on race and racism this year. Here’s the list so far, in order of my most to least favorites (subject to change):

  • Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum

  • Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw et al. (in progress)

  • So You Want to Talk About Race?, by Ijeoma Oluo

  • All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung

  • Heavy, by Kiese Laymon

  • I Can’t Date Jesus, by Michael Arceneaux

  • White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

  • How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram Kendi

I still have a number of books on race and racism on my list to read, including Bryan Massingale’s Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis, The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, Black Natural Law by Vincent Lloyd, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, A White Catholic’s Guide to Racism and Privilege by Dan Horan, and Olga Segura’s Birth of a Movement. If you want to learn a bit about Native history, I’d highly recommend a trip to Phoenix’s Heard Museum! You can also follow my friend Kirby, who often writes about being Catholic and Native.

You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.


What I’m Watching: Jungle Cruise, Luca, and Christian movie reviews

Ok, I haven’t actually seen Jungle Cruise (starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson). But let’s talk about it. Catholic News Service recently published a review of the movie. The review is largely positive, but it “precludes endorsement for youthful viewers” because of a discussion of same-sex desire. The review says:

That would normally leave the field to teens and grown-ups. But, in a wildly anachronistic exchange, McGregor confides in Frank that his fierce loyalty to Lily primarily springs from the fact that she alone has stuck by him after his repeated refusal to marry made his sexual orientation apparent to friends and family — all of whom, besides Lily, then turned on him.

Leaving aside the fact that such conversations were far from commonplace in the days of Woodrow Wilson, the scene comes across as ham-handed propaganda. The obvious intent of screenwriters Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is to send a message to young moviegoers that, while it poses as an anti-discrimination plea, entirely lacks the moral discrimination for which the subject calls.   

The critique of anachronism is interesting, because it seems to exclusively apply to the issue of homosexuality. As one commenter shared, “Apparently the idea that the dead can be revivified 400 years after their death is no big deal, but someone admitting to being gay in the era of Woodrow Wilson is really impossible.” This suggests that homosexuality receives scrutiny for issues that get overlooked when they arise in other contexts.

What’s concerning here, however, is what the review presents as objectionable for children: a gay character receiving acceptance from a friend after sharing that he was ostracized by family for refusing to marry someone of the opposite sex. The review presents this alone as adult content and worthy of critique. I would think it a good lesson for kids, to stick by your gay friends when they don’t cave in to pressure from family to marry. But the apparent disagreement on behalf of the Catholic media is a significant problem for Catholic culture.

A similar issue arises with a recent review of Pixar’s Luca by David Deavel. In The Imaginative Conservative, Deavel contends with concerns that “Luca might have ‘subtexts’ that are unhealthy.” The subtext considered in the piece is that the movie “has been embraced by many as a ‘representational’ movie that affirms individuals who are ‘LGBTQ+’ who have to hide in a society that thinks them dangerous monsters.” While Deavel gives a thoughtful review worth a read, I take issue with the fact that he never pushes against the subtext-as-framed as “unhealthy.” Should we reject representations of LGBTQ+ persons who have been treated as dangerous monsters? I think about my own life as a gay man whose experiences and desires have been incorrectly tied to pedophilia, who has been threatened, and who has been discriminated against (by Dr. Deavel’s department) because of my sexuality that many want to treat as a pathology.

It seems to me that such representational movies are what the Church needs. Indeed, letting the movie have such a representational spin can support the Church, if one sees the movie in the way that Deavel sees it, as “about friendship and, importantly, the need for fathers who are present physically and emotionally.” The movie is about a need for the love of friends and fathers. What would make LGBTQ+ representation in such a movie “unhealthy”? Christian communities are so intent on ensuring that same-sex desire and marriage are not accepted, that they don’t want depictions of any acceptance for LGBTQ+ persons. If acceptance is depicted, they want it to be explicitly conditional.

Parents generally need to have proactive and positive conversations with their children when it comes to sex and sexuality. One interesting finding about priests in the John Jay Report was, “Priests who, as minors and/or in a family context, were involved in discussions about sex as a ‘taboo’ subject or who never discussed sex at all as minors or in a family were more likely to have post-ordination sexual behavior.” Studies have also found that kids are more likely to have sex as teenagers when parents use scare tactics to discourage sex, but that supportive and receptive conversations with parents can decrease the likelihood of kids taking sexual risks.

For LGBTQ+ persons, the way in which sex and sexuality are discussed in Catholic circles can be a matter of life and death. LGBTQ+ persons continue to be at a higher risk for suicide, homelessness, bullying, rejection, and other harms than their peers, especially when we come from religious backgrounds. The Catholic Church is in an especially bad state when it comes to LGBTQ+ persons. The Catholic media bears significant responsibility for this. When acceptance after resisting pressures to marry is characterized as inappropriate and adult content, one can see the groundwork being laid for self-hatred, insecurity, and fear for LGBTQ+ Catholic youth.

This was ultimately a missed opportunity on the part of Catholic News Service and The Imaginative Conservative. Rather than characterizing “anachronistic” acceptance as “propaganda” that “precludes endorsement for youthful viewers,” CNS could have presented the movie as an opportunity for parents to initiate conversations with their children about sexuality, love, acceptance, and the dignity of the human person. And rather than resisting LGBTQ+ subtexts as harmful, The Imaginative Conservative could have explored how such a framing could further the Christian vision. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed.

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