A Comedian and Racism: Wow!

A familiar tone sounded on my smartphone.  An email arrived.  I glanced and saw that it was from the public library.  I had been on a waiting list for a book.  It was now available.  As soon as I could, I went online and had the copy sent to my reader.  I couldn’t wait to begin Trevor Noah’s biography, Born A Crime.

South African born Trevor Noah is a stand-up comedian.  After John Stewart retired from The Daily Show on the Comedy Central Network, Noah became the host.  When he began, his humor was a bit sophomoric.  But over the months, he became deeper and more insightful in his comedic critique of current events. He often compared current events with the life he knew growing up in South Africa.

Noah was born during the Apartheid rule of South Africa.  This system of institutional segregation was woven into every aspect of South African life for approximately 50 years.  By being born mixed race, to a black African mother and a white European father, Noah’s birth was a crime in the Apartheid system.  Both of his parents should have been jailed and he should have been placed in an orphanage.  But his mother was creative in working around the system.

Most striking to me about Noah’s writing is his clear understanding of the dynamics of oppression.  Apartheid legislated different rights for each group based on their skin color.    There were major groupings like white, black and mixed race.  But even within these groups, there were something like subgroupings.  Perhaps most bizarre to me was this:  an official could change your racial designation so that a person who was clearly black could be designated white.  Asians didn’t have their own grouping.  Instead, Chinese were black but Japanese were white. What made Apartheid so effective was that groups were taught to distrust each other and learned to hate each other.  For decades, members of the various groupings spent their time working against other groups effectively keeping each other down.  Black speakers of one language would work to oppress black speakers of another language, and so forth.  Organizing together to stand against the oppression was very difficult because people were trained to want to be designated as “white.”

I remember during the years of the Apartheid regime knowing about the systematic oppression.  I boycotted companies doing business there to help be part of the resistance movement.  But I never realized until reading Noah’s book how finely crafted the oppression truly was.

As I thought about the experience he described, I considered our current political context in the United States.  A few friends have commented to me that they were getting tired of hearing about “identity politics.”  I did my best to listen to their concerns but my liberal perspective was trained to think about the uniqueness of each group in society.  Yes, African-American rights were important to overcome racism. Native-American rights needed to be restored to overcome centuries of genocide.  There are Muslims, Jews, immigrants, trans people, and the list goes on and on.  Then it became clear:  our thinking in the United States is focused on the rights of individual groups.  While these groups aren’t taught to hate each other as in Apartheid, they are kept separate and don’t work together.  Rather than advancing the cause of the common good of all, we focus on one group or another, often at the exclusion of the others.  We miss the vital sense that all the “minority groups” together make up a majority of the country.

Keeping people separated into small groups which were antagonistic toward each other is what made the Apartheid system work. It’s also what enables right-wing people with money to maintain control of the country today.  As long as “rural whites” see themselves as different from “inner-city blacks” who are both different from newly arrived immigrants, then those in power are able to rule the masses and take advantage of them.  People in Appalachia chanting “Build the Wall!” only serves to strengthen the power base of wealthy oligarchs who will do nothing substantive for economic development.

In the case of Noah’s biography, Born A Crime, I think that we Americans have a chance of better understanding the politics of “divide and conquer” at home by reading about how it worked in another country and culture.



© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Time and the New Year

If you’re like me, you live most of your life with an acute awareness of time.  Minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months organize appointments, deadlines, and opportunities for routines like sharing meals or engaging in spiritual practice.  Everything is governed by time.

Or is it?

We know that time is a relative concept.  Organizing the rotation of the Earth into 24 equal periods, while brilliant, was also an arbitrary decision.  The duration of a day on Earth is not the same as on Venus, Mars or any other planet.  The same is true for the duration of a year.  It’s just how we organize the movements of our planet.  Indeed, time, as an applied concept, is relative to our planet.

Physics considers time differently from ordinary experience.  Time is generally understood as a relationship between events, i.e., this event happened before that event.  That said, Einstein’s work helped us to understand that both speed and gravity impact the pace at which time passes, leading to a slowing or quickening of time.  Early in the 20th Century, McTaggart suggested that time is essentially an illusion:  that things exist only in the present. It’s our perception that creates a past.

Okay…..before you think I’ve lost all grasp of reality, what’s the point I am trying to make?

Across the globe, people celebrate the beginning of a new year.  We make resolutions and plans for the future.  We set out goals and envision how this year will be different from the past.  We start the new year looking forward with a sense that, “this time, things will be different!”

But the marking of time is a social convention.  The years, the months, the days, the hours, and the minutes are just ideas we share to make some sense out of life.  And there we have it!  Yes, this thing called “time” is all about making sense out of our lives.

Perhaps the changing of the calendar is an opportunity to consider this:  how is it that you make sense of your life?  The events that have occurred in your past have brought you to this point.  What do they mean for you?  What do they mean for what comes next?

Since time isn’t objectively real but is just a social construct we accept, that means we have the freedom to decide how to approach what comes next for us.  What would be meaningful for you?  What would be fulfilling?  What would stir your passion for living into the future?

Time: it’s a relative concept.  That means you can choose to make of it what you will.  From that perspective, choosing to make time mean something of value may be the best gift you can give yourself.



Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-photo-of-clocks-707676/

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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So, This Is Christmas …

It was quite unexpected.  Her mother fell on a patch of ice the week before Thanksgiving.  The broken hip was a concern, but following surgery, she was admitted to rehab. It seemed as though all was well.  But then there were complications.  She died about a week ago. The family gathered for the funeral on the Saturday before Christmas.

Three adult sons are living with their mother.  One had spent time in jail for a drug-related offense. Another, well….the neighbors said that he was “a bit slow.”  The third left a failed marriage.  They were trying to get by on mother’s social security and working various jobs in big box stores and fast food restaurants.  They were good neighbors and helped others, including doing yard work for those who due to age couldn’t keep up with the work.  Just last week, the notice went up on the front door:  the bank was going to foreclose on the mortgage.  What would be next for them?

I met for coffee with a man I know.  In his 40’s, he’s a successful businessman … and white.  His wife, working in government, is African-American.  They have two teenage boys nearing adulthood.  While the boys are mixed race, most people identify them as African-American.  The man tells me that he’s afraid for his sons.  “What will happen if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time?  What if they have a run-in with the police?  I don’t know how to help them.”  Yes, it’s a problem Black parents face, but this white man finds himself confused and troubled on how to sort out his own experience of “white privilege” while being a good parent to young African-American teenage boys.

As John Lennon sang in a song from my youth, “So, this is Christmas!”

Our images of Christmas are of warmth, good cheer, and peace among people.  While there is a good deal of merry-making and celebrations small and large, the world doesn’t stop for Christmas.  If anything, our hopes of what Christmas should make the realities of life seem more harsh and frustrating.

Our fantasies about Christmas gloss over the sacred stories of the birth of Jesus that are the foundation for this holiday day.  Perhaps we forget that it was a poor young couple who made a difficult journey and had no safe place to stay.  Or we romanticize the shepherds and miss that they were viewed as second-class citizens who lived with their animals, didn’t maintain the religious laws of cleanliness, and were not welcome in most social circles.  We mistakenly refer to the magi as “kings” but they were foreigners of a different religion and culture.  Then, much like today, foreigners of a different culture and religion were viewed with suspicion, not a warm welcome.  The bottom line is this: the sacred stories of Christmas are about those who were outsiders, down on their luck, without any redeeming social value.  Yet, they were the ones who are the central characters for the beginning of our stories about the birth of Jesus.

The sacred stories of Christmas are meant to remind us that hope is born in the lives of people who are struggling, facing hardship, and live in fear.  These stories are the most significant when we allow the darkness of our lives to be filled with light – even if that light is just the glimmer of a single star.  The depth of meaning in the stories of Christmas is most relevant for those living on the edge who aren’t sure what may come next.

I think the meaning of Christmas is captured in a sermon from the fifth century by Peter Chrysologus, a bishop in Central Italy, who wrote: “God saw the world falling to ruin because of fear and immediately acted to call it back with love. God invited it by grace, preserved it by love, and embraced it with compassion.”

The essence of the sacred stories of Christmas is that because the world is falling apart, because people experience pain and tragedy, because wrapped in fear we fail to do better, grace calls again and again to be people of love and compassion.  The hope of Christmas is that struggle and strife aren’t the end of the story.  Instead, something new can be born into our world that calls us to do better and to be better.

Yes, so this is Christmas!  It’s not plastic sentimentality sold to us by commercial opportunists but it is the opportunity to allow hope be born anew.  It is the hope of Christmas that bring us out of fear to a new faith that sets things right.

As I think about the pain and tragedy in the world and in the lives of people I know, it seems to me that we need Christmas more than ever.  Indeed, we need to allow our lives to be transformed by love and compassion for the healing of the world.

On these last days before Christmas, I look for this hope as I pray the words of the ancient hymn: O Come, Emmanuel!


Photo by Alexey Kljatov (ChaoticMind75) on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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