For our next reflection as part of Black History Month, Emmanuel Noisette – MA student at Chicago Theological Seminary – shares his personal story of how he come to understand the Movement for Black Lives, and how the murder of Michael Brown forever changed what he thought about himself and the realities of race in our country. I wonder if you might consider this piece a theological narrative about the life experience of a child of God, our neigbor, who we are called to love, and for whom we help seek justice. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I want to make it very clear, that I am writing this article from the perspective of 33 year old, African American, cis male. Over the course of the past 2-3 years, I have to say that the racial tensions that have been continuously exposed in our society have only introduced a new level of anxiety I could never imagine.
I can remember this feeling begin to manifest when the story of Trayvon Martin starting making the national news. While I thought the story was indeed tragic, and the circumstances to be extremely suspect, I still isolated that situation in my mind. I didn’t think to myself “Well that could happen to me.”
Then the story of Mike Brown made headlines.
The story of this young man who allegedly fought with an officer causing him to lose his life. Again, the details seemed rather suspect, so despite feeling as though an injustice had occurred, I stored it away in my mind as another isolated incident. I even further tried to convince myself into thinking, “well that can’t happen to me…those were young boys probably acting immature or something.”.
Not too long after, the story of Eric Gardner started to trend with the hashtag #ICantBreathe. This story is where I started to pause for a moment and ask more questions. Why did 4 police officers have to be that aggressive with him? Why were they so forceful that they completely disregarded his plea to simply breathe? While I tried to compartmentalize this situation like the others, it became a bit more difficult to do.
At this point, I almost started to feel bombarded with more cases of unharmed minorities being brutalized or killed by the police. I recall watching the news about Terrance Crutcher. It was at this point that the severity of these situations had hit me like a ton of bricks. Mr. Crutcher was pulled over by police officers who all pulled out their guns aiming at him. He had his hands up during the event to show he was unarmed. Police shot and killed Mr. Crutcher. Prior to shooting him, one of the police helicopter pilots was caught on the radio to say “He [Crutcher] looks like a bad dude.”
That’s when it hit me. From 3,000 feet high into the air, with nothing else to actually see except for the color of this man’s skin, Mr. Crutcher was perceived to be a “bad dude”.
As I said earlier, I’m a 33 year old African American male. More specifically, I’m 6’2, 250+ pounds. I probably look like a “bad dude” to other officers as well. That terrifies me. It scares the daylights out of me that I just so happen to fit some biased perception that officers may have that evoke fear within them. A fear that is so dangerous that it kills. A fear so diabolical that it also serves as a way to bypass actual justice for the slain, unarmed victims.
As probably any African American can recount, simply seeing a police officer in our rear view mirror would almost cause an anxiety attack. It doesn’t even matter if I know that I’m doing the speed limit, with my seat belt on, and classical music was playing in my car. If I even get pulled over by police office, I don’t even have the luxury to fear for my life. Instead, I’m fearing for the lives of my wife and children. I fear that if this officer is having a bad day, or if they’re on edge, then there’s a chance I won’t make it out alive. Given the example of Philando Castile, I don’t have as much confidence of living even if I were to fully comply! My fear is that my family won’t even get justice for my death. The police officer will get off, “fearing for their lives” and the case will be closed.
My family will be left with pain and sorrow and injustice. Worst off, there would be nothing I could do about it because I’d be dead.
I suppose, the biggest issue I’ve had with this racial phenomena in our society is the reaction to all of this from White America. For almost every situation I’ve mentioned earlier, there was a large enough group of white Americans that were defending the unarmed killings, or ignoring them completely. This “white resistance” to racial equality was further compounded with the notion that minorities were keeping the nation divided by evoking racial issues. This sentiment was echoed even in the sports realm when Colin Kaepernick began to take a knee against police brutality.
Ultimately, if I have to be as open as can be, this has placed a major burden on my faith journey.
When I started my graduate seminary courses, I was gun-ho on Christian apologetics. I was excited to defend the faith at all costs from a philosophical perspective. I looked up to a number of popular [white] theology/philosophy professors who would defend Christianity against the toughest of opponents. Then reality struck when every single time a racial incident would occur, those professors would go MIA. I’m not discouraged per se, but more so disappointed. It’s disheartening when the object of your faith appears to not be interested in fighting in your corner. Nevertheless, I still continue to listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance and revelation.
Thus, I think as with any social issues of race, gender, or sexuality there is a pretty simple formula we can follow if we’re truly interested in bridging that social divide.
If you ever find yourself frustrated in a conversation or a topic, ask yourself if you’ve honestly followed these steps.
1)👂-Listen: Often times, we don’t take the time to even listen to what the other person or social group is saying because we’re just waiting to respond.
2) 🧠-Understand: If you don’t listen to what the person is saying, then you’ll never really understand what their issue or perspective may be.
3) ❤️-Empathize: If you don’t understand where they’re coming from, then you won’t be able to empathize with their position. Empathy is one of the most effective ways for us to break free of our own social privileges or ignorance.
4) 🗣️- Speak: Notice this step is close to the end. You don’t have to always agree with people. However, often times speaking before the previous steps may likely undermine the other person’s position, lead to misunderstandings, or keep you in a state of ignorance.
5) 🤝 – Relationship: Building a relationship with someone is probably one of the best ways to edify yourself and truly learn more about a perspective outside of your own. Having relationships are what humans probably do best. Not only that, but it sustains everything else previously mentioned for a longer period of time. No, sorry. That random (insert social group) friend at work doesn’t count.
I truly believe that if these simple 5 steps are followed, a lot of progress can be made in our society. The key is to really focus on each step individually. Furthermore, you must only progress to the next step until you’ve mastered the current one. When in doubt use this formula and pass it down to others.
I’m more than positive the internal positivity it creates will be contagious to all.
Emmanuel Noisette (he/him/his) is a multi-year student at Chicago Theological Seminary in the Master of Arts program. Emmanuel’s primary focus is in ethics, philosophy, and theology. He’s a proud father of three beautiful daughters and is a loving husband. He currently works at the University of Chicago in the IT department. When he’s not at his full time job, he’s also a film critic. He’s got a significant following of over 40K fans on his Facebook Fan Page, and regularly produces video content on his YouTube Channel, E-man’s Movie Reviews.