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Blindsided by the Blind Side

The award winning movie, The Blind Side is based on a chapter in the life of Michael Oher, offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens football team. The son of a single mother trapped in the prison of addiction, Oher was left to fend for himself as a teenager and eventually became homeless. Enter Leigh Anne Tuohy, a privileged and opinionated White southern Republican, who was so moved to compassion that she “adopted” the socially disadvantaged descendant of African slaves into her family. Surrounded by an environment of love and nurture, Oher overcame academic obstacles and poor self esteem, eventually earning a football scholarship to “Ole Miss” before being drafted to the Ravens.

Just like Michael Lewis’ book on which it is based (The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game), the title of the movie is a double entendre. The term “blindside” is commonly used in football lingo to describe a surprise attack from the other team–one that the player did not see coming. In the Hollywood depiction of Oher’s story, the obvious reference is color blindness. It is probably no coincidence that the movie goes to great lengths to emphasize (maybe even exaggerate) the entrenched political identity and segregated lifestyle of Anne Tuohy. The marketability of the script was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that Sandra Bullock’s character was not a bleeding heart Northern liberal. Who would have imagined a Daughter of the Confederacy taking such a genuine interest in a Son of Negroes?

Seeing Beyond the Blind Side

The message of color blindness that the movie promotes is good in one sense, but in many other ways it can be problematic. Recently, during a frank discussion on race, I was blindsided by a startling statement by a White colleague from the American South: “When I see you, I don’t see a Black man, I see a man.” Many may view this as an affirmation that some have overcome the bigotry of their racist forbears. However, I actually interpreted it as naive and disingenuous. How can you look at me and not see a man whose gene pool is populated by many more contributions from his African ancestors than any of the other ethnic groups that are also in his permanent ancestry. True, I do have some non-African physical features that reveal my ethnic complexity, but if a person claims he does not see a Black man when he looks at me, he probably has a problem.

In that same conversation, my “color blind” conversation partner voiced his disdain for the Obama administration, asserting that his hatred of the President was derived from perceived “socialist” policies and not from his ethnic make up. To prove his sincerity, he further commented that he would have voted for other “Black” candidates had they run; such as Condelezza Rice, Michael Steele or Colin Powell. Once more, I found his statement problematic on two fronts. Firstly, it is a misnomer to call Barack Obama the first “Black” president. While he is definitely more “Black” than any other person who has occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we cannot ignore the fact that his mother was a White Kansan. Secondly, one has to wonder if change would have come to a nation if the person who ran for President were Jeremiah Wright, great grandson of African-American slaves, and not Barack Hussein Obama, son of a Kenyan immigrant.

The Myth of Color Blindness

Again, let me emphasize that although I applaud, encourage and actively participate in efforts towards racial harmony, I cannot fully subscribe to the myth of color blindness. In fact, many who claim to see beyond color have really only set up their own criteria for racial acceptance. For my colleague, one criterion for acceptance was obviously affiliation with the Republican party. Others may establish their criteria using other standards derived from academia, societal pedigree or religious affiliation. As far as I am concerned, those who use artificial criteria to measure a person’s acceptability are no different than the segregationists in apartheid America who favored foreign Blacks over those born in this country. Imagine; my Jamaican uncle who studied at Fisk University during the height of segregation could eat in any restaurant, go to any theater and sit anywhere on the bus, simply because he was not born here. He was able to go places where his American born wife could not, and in many ways shared the “honorary White” status of Black visitors to South Africa during their era of apartheid.

As we approach another General Conference session, questions of race and ethnicity are even more pressing to those concerned with social trends among Adventists. In this age of the unexpected, there are some who believe that this could be the year when change comes to 12501 Old Columbia Pike in Silver Spring, Maryland. The truth is, given the ethnic composition of our global community, if leaders were chosen democratically and members voted on the basis of familiarity with local or regional candidates, there is no question that the next General Conference President would be of non-European ancestry. However, the current political structure and cultural mind set of the Adventist church ensures the continuance of European dominance even as the bulk of our membership hails from the global South.

Conclusion: An Obstacle to Vision

Most of us our so oblivious to the European stamp on Adventist culture that few question the way in which it has shaped the mind set of the entire church. Imagine the uproar if the publishing houses decided to use Africanized pictures for all Sabbath School lessons from kindergarten to adult! Worse still, a significant percentage of the membership would really be disturbed if Dynamic Praise, a gospel choir from Oakwood University, performed (uncensored) on 3ABN. And under whose authority and by what criteria did a former Church Manual committee come to the conclusion that jazz was inherently evil?

Those serious about embracing all people as valid members of the body of Christ, will never achieve their stated goal by feigning color blindness. True camaraderie can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness and tolerance. Pretending not to see the differences between ethnic groups won’t get us anywhere. I don’t want people to put on racial blinders when they interact with me. I want them to see. I want them to be empathetic, sympathetic, confirming, and affirming. I want them to know that the experience of my ethnic comrades is just as valid as anybody else’s. I want them to understand that although there are things we can learn from the majority culture, there are also things we can teach them. I truly believe that if we moved forward with this attitude of openness, this church will be a much richer place.

Keith Augustus Burton has written widely on issues relating to Black Christians. His works include articles in the Encyclopedia of African American Religion and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible; and the books The Blessing of Africa and The Faith Factor: The Key to Black Empowerment.

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