DeForest B. Soaries, Jr.
My maternal grandmother had an aunt whose name was Carrie Brown. Aunt Carrie, as we called her, lived in the family home with my grandmother, three of her children, and four of their children. Aunt Carrie functioned as a type of grandmother for me and all of my cousins, even though she was technically our great aunt. When Aunt Carrie died, there was no doubt in any of our minds that we would all attend and participate in her funeral. The problem was that many members of our family worked for companies whose bereavement policies required using a vacation day or personal day to attend Aunt Carrie’s funeral. If anyone had no additional paid time off (PTO), attending Aunt Carrie’s funeral would result in the loss of a day’s pay or worse.
One of my cousins had a supervisor with whom she had a friendly, personal relationship; they considered themselves close friends. They socialized together, they vacationed together, and they even went to church together. My cousin was in shock when her friend – and manager – said she could not attend Aunt Carrie’s funeral without facing repercussions on the job. My cousin expressed a willingness to accept any consequences she would meet; she was not going to miss Aunt Carrie’s funeral.
The challenge in this situation was that the corporate policy stated that PTO would be granted to attend a funeral of “immediate family.” As defined by uslegal.com, “An immediate family member is defined as a parent; sibling; child by blood, adoption, or marriage; spouse; grandparent or grandchild.” Unfortunately, Aunt Carrie did not fit into any one of those categories.
My cousin’s manager was Caucasian, and my cousin is African-American. When my cousin’s manager penalized her friend for attending Aunt Carrie’s funeral, it made her appear to be racist. Many who were familiar with what happened believed that her action brought to light the latent racism that many blacks believe all white people possess. But to call my cousin’s manager a racist would be an oversimplification of the problem and miss the complexity of the matter. It would simply increase the racial tensions that persist beneath of the surface of our everyday experiences, indict an innocent person who was simply obeying company policy and obscure the real problem. The real problem was that Aunt Carrie was in fact immediate family for my cousin (and for all of us). We considered her immediate family because our culture defines what family is, not dictionaries. This cultural distinction is why so many activists and social justice critics invite all of us to an understanding of “systemic racism” and “white privilege” in order to understand the real culprits of ongoing racial conflict.
Corporate and governmental policies/systems cohere with cultural norms that often contradict African-American morals and norms. The cultural gap and lack of understanding play out in unlimited ways every day. Every day we hear about incidents that have adverse racial impact despite their not necessarily having malicious racial intent. Then we constantly fail to flesh out causes for our racial failures and solutions for our racial divide. And it seems to be getting worse.
A recent example of this malaise involves the Christian music industry, which has felt the heat of racial criticism by one of the largest Christian and gospel artists in the world – Kirk Franklin. Mr. Franklin’s music and appearances have enjoyed widespread acceptance and support by a broad cross-section of audiences. However, during his acceptance speeches at the Dove Awards in 2016 and 2019 where he received the Gospel Artist of the Year Award, Franklin brought attention to the tragic killing of unarmed African Americans by white law enforcement officers. In both instances his acceptance speeches were shortened in the recorded versions of the broadcasts of Christian music award show on the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). In 2016 Mr. Franklin complained about the deletion of his remarks and he was assured that this would never happen again. In October 2019 the Mr. Franklin’s acceptance speech was edited again and the portion of the speech that mentioned the killing of a young black woman by a white policeman in her apartment was edited eliminated from the broadcast version of the show. The television network and the sponsoring organization (Gospel Music Association (GMA) believed they edited the content to conform to a format acceptable for broadcast. They purported that all of the award recipients’ acceptance remarks were edited and shortened.
Mr. Franklin interpreted this editing decision as a breach of the promise made to him in 2016. He also viewed this incident through the lens of historic racism, often supported and enforced by white Christian churches and organizations. Franklin said “not only did they edit my speech, they edited the entire African American experience.” He cited that the very distinction made between gospel music and Christian music (the former being a euphemism for black and the latter for white) is code language that has persisted in maintain the climate that we experience today.
Mr. Franklin is not an activist but understands himself as more than simply an artist. He feels the compelling force of history, calling him to prophetic activism as a “woke” artist leveraging his commercial success to speak “truth to power.” Mr. Franklin declared that he felt offended by the censorship of his speech, especially since he led the audience in prayer for the black victims and the families of white police officers who had also been victims of racial violence perpetrated by blacks. He believed that moment punctuated by that prayer had been a “shift in the climate of our separate worlds.” By deleting that potion of his acceptance speech, Franklin believed that both organizations displayed gross insensitivity and crass racism. He has announced that he would withdraw his support and participation from both organizations. There is growing support for his withdrawal even though he has not invited others to do so.
After hearing this news, whites who have black friends, enjoy black music, and possess no racial malice in their hearts were hurt, confused, and even offended. Blacks, on the other hand, felt that a long silence was finally shattered, and they felt their voices were heard through this gospel music superstar. Once again the racial divide has left us with two contradictory views of the same situation. This incident is just one example of how inept we are at understanding and resolving race issues, even among those with similar religious and political views.
Our future as a multiracial nation depends heavily upon our willingness to do more than tolerate the differences that exist, but rather that we have genuine relationships across the divides of our differences. Race may be the most volatile and divisive social issue but it is certainly not the only one. The remedy of choice in response to our racial challenges is typically limited to conducting diversity training and instructions in areas of unconscious bias. I am not opposed to such endeavors. Still, there is no substitute for genuine relationships that allow people to learn from and teach each other. When we enter each other’s worlds and share our respective perspectives, we develop the foundation for creating an active and integral community, and we develop the control of our mutual narratives.