[EDITOR’S NOTE: We are delighted to present this new piece by Dr. Amy Moehnke as a sort of rejoinder to a post she wrote here in the summer of 2020, “Showing Up and Sitting Down.”]
By Dr. Amy Moehnke
This semester I’m auditing a class, Black Theology in an Age of White Nationalism, at the Seminary of the Southwest here in Austin. We recently watched the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning about a small town in Mississippi following the disappearance of three civil rights workers in 1964. Much of the plot centers on the dynamic between two of the FBI agents who are sent to investigate the disappearance, particularly the ways their approaches differ from one another. One agent, played by a buttoned up, serious Willem Dafoe, charges in and “does things by the book” while the second, played by a laid back, wise-cracking Gene Hackman, takes a more “get to know the local people and their ways” tactic. In the end they do solve the mystery and “get their man” (or more accurately men) but not before their actions bring about many instances of extreme violence against individual Black members of the town and the Black community in general.
The movie is very good. And it is not for the faint of heart. Many Black churches are burned to the ground. Many homes and properties owned by Black families are destroyed. Many Black men are beaten and lynched. And these violent acts are all a direct response by the white town members to what the white FBI agents do in their attempt to get to the bottom of what happened to the missing civil rights workers.
I saw this movie for the first time when it came out in 1988 and then a second time within the next five years, probably as a feisty college student eager to put her newfound knowledge to work to save the world. With the zeal of a new convert, my reaction watching it then was to sympathize and agree with Dafoe’s character who was hell bent on righting this wrong because “there are just some things that are worth dying for.” Back then I saw myself in him, wanting to be the one who comes in with the righteous anger and the law on my side to vindicate the ones who were killed—a wholly righteous cause.
Watching it this time, I saw Dafoe’s character differently- this time as an uninformed “white savior” swooping in from out of state to fix a problem he didn’t understand in a community that he didn’t know and in the process of trying to help instead made things horrific for the Black community he thought he was working on behalf of.
Watching it this time, I was acutely aware of how easily and casually we white people step into complex situations, often uninvited by the people who inhabit the places we’re stepping into, and very often do infinitely more harm than good. While I might be willing to “die for the cause,” as a white person I’m almost never the one who’s life is actually at risk. It is the ones on whose behalf I’m working that inevitably will bear the consequence of my actions, no matter how “well-meaning” I am.
This reality alone should make me tread very carefully, and it should make me ask the people of color, on whose behalf I say I’m working, how they want me to show up and what they believe I could do to assist. My ideas may or may not be good ones and I am not the expert in the room, even if I come with certain bona fides and have “the law on my side” as Dafoe’s character did in the movie. The ones who find themselves on the receiving end of the abuse of the law know how power really works so I would do well to listen to their voices.
When I wrote my piece for this blog in the summer of 2020 after participating in the local Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, I talked about the importance of sitting down (literally on the day of the rally) as a symbol of the way that white people need to show up in spaces where we are trying to be in solidarity with people of color. I talked about not going first when we started the march part of the day, but instead waiting for the Black and brown bodies to lead and to then follow behind them.
While watching Mississippi Burning, I thought about what it might have looked like for Dafoe’s character to take a page from that day, to embody that kind of solidarity, to step back and follow behind rather than pushing past the bodies that would later be traumatized and brutalized because of the way his character acted. Would he have still “gotten his man(men)”? Maybe not. But at what cost did his “victory” come? And how many more Black lives were lost because of that kind of behavior?
More importantly, it made me ponder: when am I still pushing past people I need to listen to; how am I still plowing ahead into places I’ve not been invited with ideas that won’t actually help? As I muddle through the messy process of being a white person standing in solidarity with my Black and brown peers, my prayer is often, “Lord, help me get out of the way. Give me the grace to shut my mouth and open my ears.”
This work is hard, and it is slow, and I’m honestly not sure how much I’ve contributed since the summer of 2020. But as a follower of Jesus who calls us to be in solidarity with the ones the world wants to cast aside, I will continue to fumble my way down this path, sitting down and following behind as required.