Drew G. I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Herald, Harrisonburg, VA, 2016. 189 pp. $16.99. ISBN: 9781513800004.
What does it mean to live as a racially oppressed group within a society? And why is it so hard for those of the dominant social group to see this racism? Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen explores the ways we think about racism and how we can go about listening to those in our society who are racially marginalized. I write this review as a woman of color in Winnipeg, Manitoba—a land with an ongoing legacy of violent settler colonialism and racialization that has impacted Indigenous peoples in particular. Hart speaks from his context of being African American and explains what it means to be “black” in the United States.
If you have watched American news and tried to understand the dynamics of the racial tensions and injustices south of the colonial border, this book is for you. I have cousins in America who are often so angry on social media. I now understand. I understand because this book shows what Hart calls the “underbelly” of racism, the part that you don’t see unless you actually live it. The book serves as a call to “white” churches to examine their role in racist societal structures and embrace the true image of Christ—a Jewish, not European, man who challenged unjust systems, walked in solidarity with the poor and the marginal, and invited the rich and powerful to act justly.
Hart begins with an exploration of the dynamics of a racialized society, sharing his experience of being racialized. What does it mean to be racialized? It means having people think that they know who you are without having any relationship with you. It is the tiring task of daily being thought of as morally, physically, and intellectually inferior and having to constantly prove you are not a “thug” or a “welfare queen” and remind yourself that, despite being a despised human being, you have value and were created in the image of God just like everyone else. It is feeling like you never quite belong in your country, hitting glass ceilings, “driving while black,” fearing for the safety of your children when they go out, being blamed for your poverty, and going to jail while someone white gets a slap on the wrist for the same crime. It means seeing one’s country’s long history of racial oppression still being played out, while members of the dominant society—who benefit from that history and have been taught that they are innocent and nice—see racists’ actions as isolated, even normal incidents, and label the racially marginalized as bad.
Ironically, Hart points out, the racially oppressed are often not believed when they identify racism, though it is precisely the racialized person who truly understands racism because he or she lives these experiences and confronts the injustice of the dominant group’s system on a daily basis. Being racialized also means being courageous and strong in the face of oppression and, through peaceful resistance and restorative justice, leading the oppressor to see Christ embodied through your stance.
Hart then takes the reader through a historical sketch of the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness,” concepts wielded by Europeans to entrench racist structures, values, and racial violence in the United States. Those concepts persist today under new guise. This new form legalizes inequities in education funding for children of racialized groups; disproportionately incarcerates the young men of these same groups; denies skin color—and therefore racism—but blames skin color, not the unjust system and attitudes, as a problem. Hart concludes his historical survey by highlighting the colonial thread that connects the Native American experience of being forced off their land and becoming invisible, to the African American experience of being forced to come to another land and being subjugated in order to maintain the belief in white superiority. As regards the Indigenous experience, he reminds the reader that America was built not on Christian values but on stolen land. Land that’s still stolen and in need of reparative distribution.
Trouble I’ve Seen invites anyone in a dominant social position to peel back their societal attitudes toward the racially marginalized—attitudes they see as normal—and measure them against the teachings of Christ, who aligned himself with the marginalized. Christ is a model for both the oppressor and the oppressed. To the oppressor he offers the example of justice and solidarity with the sinned-against and an invitation to see others through God’s eyes—as most worthy of being loved. To the oppressed he offers the comfort of one who himself has also been socially rejected and despised. Jesus calls both groups to conform their hearts and minds to his likeness and not to the patterns of society. We are called to be vigilant about all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, classism, and so on—where one group tries to dominate another. We must challenge them just as Christ did and strive to build a just society that treats all God’s children with equal dignity, both at home and abroad.
While reading this book, I cannot help but think of the racism that my Indigenous brothers and sisters here in Canada experience on a daily basis. They face negative stereotypes and still live under the colonial-imposed Indian Act that strips Indigenous peoples of their jurisdiction and rights, legislates them into poverty, and puts them into a separate, less-funded system than other people in Canada. Their lived reality witnesses a betrayal of the treaties that they covenanted to with the Crown. Moreover, their reality witnesses a betrayal of the kind of just society that Hart summons us Christians to. So what might we do with this?
Here are some questions that we in Canada could explore:
- Does my church intentionally invite Indigenous voices into our spaces so we might attend to their perspectives and experiences?
- Do we speak up when we see Indigenous persons being treated disrespectfully in our neighborhoods?
- Are we learning about our colonial past in order to get over our instinctive drive to tell Indigenous Canadians to “get over it”?
- Are we finding ways to share life together as members of one treaty family?
Trouble I’ve Seen is a helpful text that encourages me to be brave and to seek transformative action. We are to be just as Christ was, bringing forth God’s kingdom as we face the underbelly of racism in our society.
Dr. Mary LeMaître is French professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Winnipeg. She holds a PhD in French and Catholic Studies, specializes in the analysis of social discourse, and is currently writing a book about Indigenous Canadians and the problems of stereotypes.