An Empty Toolbox

“Someone help! I’m choking. I… can’t… breathe!”

These words pierced the cacophony of conversations—a myriad of voices at a local restaurant—each forced to talk louder than the next to be heard over the live music and other conversations swirling about the room full of happy patrons at tables. Yet, above the indistinguishable chatter of people gathered for dinner, a choking woman’s gasps for air brought the entire restaurant’s activity to a halt. The woman struggled to make the exclamation into the entire Mediterranean-themed restaurant as she turned blue.

She clutched at her neck while gasping for air. A piece of skewered lamb had become lodged in her airway. While one man hopped over a table to perform the Heimlich maneuver, and I pulled my phone out to call 911, her frightened sister shouted once more: “She can’t breathe! She needs air!

Thankfully, the man performing the Heimlich maneuver was able to jettison the piece of food. The woman was able to go back about her dinner—though understandably shaken and even a bit embarrassed by the episode.

But what if the outcome of this event did not unfold in that manner?

Imagine how asinine it would have been if no one from another table came to her aid. What if I was quick to respond to the call for help with some broad statement how everyone needs air, even as the woman’s life ebbed away?

Now—no one in that restaurant would question the validity of that statement. Sure, everyone does need oxygen, but the statement misses the point of the woman’s plea for help. Not only would such a response be grossly inappropriate, it would be indicative of someone who was so innately detached from others that they truly could not care for the affected table.

That is why the quick and broad statements like “All lives matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter” are both callous and hurtful. They miss the point.

Trevon Martin. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray.

These men highlight the horrific tragedies of police brutality and endemic racism. The inexplicable deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the last days have once more showed both the racialization of America—and, the otherwise inexcusable indifference of white Americans toward racial inequality.

To be blunt, I am pissed. I am hurt. I am appalled.

Obviously, these men’s deaths are horrible in the own right. However, the tragedy has become further exacerbated by becoming a battle of hashtags. I am appalled that by and large, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has elicited stronger emotions and reactions from other white Americans than these men’s deaths.

In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith write that white Evangelicals, in particular, all ill-equipped to engage with racism because we have “cultural toolbox” that inhibits us from dealing with the actual issue at hand. We simply see everything through the lens of our sacred cow of individualism. We deny our own complicit participation in the inequality of others because we “personally” have nothing against someone who is different than us. We will brag about being “color blind.” When our own privilege is called into question, we will get angry because we didn’t individually do any harm to persons of color.

Furthermore, even for those who recognize the inherent racial bias and injustice in America, the “cultural toolbox” that Emerson and Smith speak of stunts any ability of actually enacting meaningful change. We think and see only in the “individual.”

But what happens when the problem at hand is not individual; but rather, structural?

Then, like our blanket responses of “All Lives Matter,” we badly miss the point. Emerson and Smith liken it to bricks within a wall. Anecdotally, they write “If a building is on the verge of collapse due to an inadequate design, improving the quality of bricks without improving the design is not a solution. Evangelicals, for all their recent energy directed at dealing with race problems, are attempting to improve the bricks, even having bricks better cemented to other bricks, but they are not doing anything about the faulty structural design.”

I write this entry as a white male. I am a white male with privilege—privilege that I did not gain by any effort or gumption of my own intellect or capabilities. I write these words as an impassioned plea—particularly to my fellow white Christians. Let us first become appalled, disgusted, and sorrowful for the deaths of Alton and Philando among far too many others. Let us then take a long and honest look at the brick wall that Emerson and Smith describe and fess up that it has a faulty structural design—one that we frankly have wrongly benefitted from. Lastly, let not carry on eating our meal while ignoring a brother or sister gasping for air at the table next to us.

Black lives matter.

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