Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sleepless in Ferguson, Waking Up in Toronto

by Dean Dettloff

Two nights ago, on August 9th, I was checking my usual news sources and social media after being away from the internet for almost two weeks due to traveling. After taking planes and cars around North America, attending a best friend’s wedding and spending time with two newborn twin nephews, I quickly realized that yesterday was the anniversary of Mike Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, an event which a year ago transformed my orientation to philosophy, religion, myself, and my world. I took some time to follow the difficult reflections from a variety of activists I became familiar with in the last year. Demonstrators gathered in Ferguson to mourn Brown's death and continue making sure he was remembered, and I watched as twitter was constantly updated with videos and photos of police in riot gear. I was ready to go to bed at a reasonable hour, back home, safe and sound in my own familiar bed in Toronto, when I started seeing reports that someone among the Ferguson protesters was shot.

I stayed up late watching reactions and hearing news in real-time from reporters and activists on the ground via twitter (a better strategy than waiting for Fox or CNN), anxious about new details. Who got shot? What were the police saying? Why did a man just get arrested for taking video of the shooting victim surrounded by armed officers? Having just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book Between the World and Me, all this news hit me differently and even more profoundly than the news of Mike Brown's shooting a year ago.

A rush of thoughts paraded through my mind as I tried to finally fall asleep. What does it mean to be a white, American, Christian man studying philosophy in Canada at a place called “The Institute for Christian Studies,” working for the “Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics?” How will I explain the transformative months between August 2014 to August 2015 to my children? Am I allowed to comment on this? Who can I listen to in order to purge myself of the ways in which I participate in a systemically racist society? Should I really be worried about my own guilt when a black person was just shot? What headlines will I wake up to tomorrow morning? Will the activists I’m following be alive and out of jail (as it turns out, at least two ended up being arrested)? How many of these questions are hiding a deeper racism in myself that remains to be dealt with?

How many of these questions are hiding a deeper racism in myself that remains to be dealt with?

Even growing up in rural, northern Michigan it seemed obvious to me, intellectually, that society is stacked to favor particular persons, groups, skills, etc., and that this was an injustice—and I recognized, in theory, that this meant society was racially biased. But I never came to terms with the fact that racism meant actual bodies were actually shot and actually stopped breathing. I never recognized the ways in which my own pacifism was complicit in violence against black persons, or how my religion constructed the very notions of race and control that result in the pathologies of racist power, or how unwilling I really was to learn from and appreciate the gifts of black culture and persons. A year ago, the events in Ferguson taught me more about concrete life, despair, and hope than all the books I ever read on existentialism, pessimism, or utopian philosophy.

At the same moment, the world became both darker and brighter; what I paid lip service to in theory was painfully in front of me. “I can't breathe,” cried a choking Eric Garner on camera right before his death at the hands of police. Mike Brown was a “demon” not only to his killer but to a variety of people I actually knew in real life, who defended the “right” to defend oneself with lethal force and ask questions later, who in all other circumstances vehemently distrust any action by a government official. Texas police expected me to believe Sandra Bland not only deserved to go to jail after releasing a poorly edited dashcam video of her arrest, but also that she killed herself in her own cell, even after suspicious toxicology and autopsy reports became open to public speculation. News outlets thought the burning down of a CVS pharmacy was somehow more important than the emotional energy spent by those who were fighting for their survival, and police stations in “riot zones” actually cited protecting businesses as a key reason for their activities rather than noting the feelings of anxiety and insecurity reasonably felt by protesters stared down by officers in battle armor.

But my guides through all these tragedies were mourning activists, journalists, fellow students, and comments from victims' families and friends. I watched journals and periodicals devote issues to race, I watched white persons try to do the hard work of listening and wrestling through our own violence, and I watched black persons extend immeasurable grace, by definition undeserved, to their oppressors and sympathizers.

Sorting out whether I should feel guilty, active, passive, loud, silent, forgiven, hopeful, defeated, cynical, or imaginative was impossible, so I decided to allow myself to feel all those things at once. Before August 2014, racism was for me an apparition haunting society, but one that would soon dissipate in the grave where it belonged. Now I realized racism was alive and well, fleshy and bodily, and it will be a long time before it ever becomes a corpse, let alone a ghost. And that meant dealing with how my body, sustained by a nexus of forces that allow it to move freely wherever it pleases, was bought at the expense of other bodies, real bodies, who weren't allowed to breathe. My opinions and feelings were able to be so playfully suspended and tried out because my social privilege meant coming to a conclusion wasn’t necessary to my immediate survival.

My opinions and feelings were able to be so playfully suspended and tried out because my social privilege meant coming to a conclusion wasn’t necessary to my immediate survival.

I solicited advice from friends who were long aware of the reality of racism, and I turned my academic pursuits to trying to settle these questions. Twitter, facebook, and online forums provided a vast network of individuals from a broad spectrum capable of interacting with my questions and often rightly refusing to answer them. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones. My former classmate Josiah Daniels wrote a piece for Ground Motive, and I followed the work of acquaintances like Daniel Camacho. Scholarly orbits were opened up by the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I revisited work by Cornel West (also arrested in Ferguson along with the activists I followed). The president of ICS, Doug Blomberg, kept up an e-mail exchange with me on my conviction that our institution needed to respond actively to the pressures of racial injustice, significant among the “hinge issues,” as he put it, of our time and place. Despite plenty of mixed emotions, I was hardly short on friends, colleagues, and scholars willing to walk me through them, directly or indirectly, personally and anonymously, graciously answering and rightly rebuking.

I'm grateful for a variety of voices who are helping me sort these issues out, voices I can listen to among an oppressed community and voices who are willing to listen to me who are in similar positions of privilege. Whatever happens in the coming months between August 2015 and August 2016, a time when political platforms are competing and media outlets are looking to boost ratings and ad revenue, it's a desperate prayer on my lips that black bodies stop being demolished for the sake of a paranoid and violent society and that white persons, especially white Christians like myself, learn to, as Josiah put it, overcome our whiteness. It’s a desperate prayer on my lips that I won’t settle for knowing better but will find a way to do something, or be something, other. As Coates’ writes in his book, “The new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish--and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths” (7).

I'm grateful for a variety of voices who are helping me sort these issues out, voices I can listen to among an oppressed community and voices who are willing to listen to me who are in similar positions of privilege.

In any case, the past year has been nothing short of an alarm attempting to wake me up from the dream of a white, American, Christian solipsism. I’m still stirring, and the dream, which comes to me in and out of my comfortable Toronto sleep, is much easier than the reality of Ferguson at midnight. On August 9th, 2014, Mike Brown, an 18 year old black teenager, was shot in Ferguson. On August 9th, 2015, Tyrone Harris, also an 18 year old black teenager, was shot in Ferguson. I went to bed that night reading the chilling words of Jeremiah 6, hoping to ward off an all-too-comfortable trance:

'They dress the wound of my people
     as though it were not serious.
"Peace, peace," they say,
     when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
     they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
     they will be brought down when I punish them,'
     says the Lord."

A Few Links For Further Reading:

#Ferguson Syllabus

What is Whiteness?

11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies

Women in Theology

Syndicate Theology Symposia:
Ferguson and Theology
In the Shadow of Charleston
The Christian Imagination

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, where he is working on a thesis exploring Peter Sloterdijk's work on cynicism and creative action in spiritual life.


  1. A compelling, challenging cri de coeur, Dean. A challenge not the least to us in the place where God has called us to serve, to continue to reflect and act more intentionally on what we describe as our focus on "hinge issues". What would our scholarship look like if we more assiduously addressed "concrete life, despair and hope", became more accountable to the (far from) ordinary lives of ordinary people, as we profess is our mandate?

    1. Thank you, Doug. I'm proud to be at an institution willing to do the hard work of determining what it might mean to respond to the problem of racism, both intellectually and structurally.

      I wonder if perhaps we might expand and reflect further on your last question: what, indeed, would our scholarship look like if we became more accountable to the lives of ordinary people, especially ordinary people who suffer at the hands of structural racism? What would it mean for ICS as an institution to grapple with and respond to these issues, not only by offering a word of solidarity but by thinking through how our policies, hiring procedures, cultural norms, etc. might be transformed by the desire for racial justice, not unlike how ICS has responded institutionally to the desire for gender equality?

      Hard questions, to be sure--but it's so encouraging that they can be asked!

    2. Thanks for this significant elaboration, Dean. You explicitly make concrete what was unarticulated in my last sentence.