I unashamedly proclaim that black lives matter. Some people hear my proclamation as an invitation to voice their disagreements. Last fall one of my Facebook friends sarcastically scoffed at an article I posted about a possible boycott of a company that supported a racist political candidate. I replied with a clever “clap back”—a witty, sometimes stinging, rebuke meant to shame complicity with injustice and end further attempts to justify it—about his white privilege.
Upon hitting enter I felt that my remark was too hurtful, especially since I knew my friend saw himself as my ally. He genuinely, though in my opinion naively, questioned my approach. So I clapped back. I deleted my comment within seconds of typing it, but he had already seen it and responded that my comment hurt him. I followed up with a private message in which I voiced my frustration with his comment and we both apologized to each other.
It was not a good moment for me. I had almost alienated an ally. I knew I was right, but there are times when insisting on being right can be so wrong. My clap back moment was like many others that, while correct, lacked purpose and vision. As a supporter of the New Civil Rights Movement, I can’t neglect either of those virtues.
The New Civil Rights Movement (NCRM) includes activists on local and national levels. We are motivated by concerns for equal protection under the law for people marginalized due to their race, class, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender. We are introducing new language and ideas to large populations of people through protest and social media. Our efforts have not gone unnoticed in the American consciousness. #Blacklivesmatter, LGBTQ equality, Transgender rights, and Occupy, to name a few, have all taken turns owning the NCRM label. And each has been criticized for NOT adequately mimicking the “old’ Civil Rights Movement enough.
Some have launched spiritual criticisms for lack of religious organization, music, and discipline. Apparently, those critics have not heard of Janelle Monae, D’Angelo, or Kendrick Lamar—who’s song “Alright” repeats the lyric “If God’s got us, then we gon’ be alright.” They have not been witnesses to local organizing around food justice that engage spiritual practices like mindfulness, healing, and other forms of community building. While I have seen more than a little spiritual good come from the NCRM—activism and scholarship that brings marginalized voices to the center of communal life—I also grow concerned about an emerging clap back cultural norm, which shames potential allies and threatens to alienate people who are sympathetic to our cause.
#BlackLivesMatter, as a leading organization in the NCRM, supports intersectional interests that place black lives at the center of its campaign against racism, homophobia, and patriarchy. Wannabe allies have heeded this invitation by launching “safety pin” campaigns, joining anti-racism teams, and tweeting their concern for black lives. In the event that those wannabe allies misspeak, misrepresent, or simply propose something embarrassing, someone always seems ready to clap back and publicly show them how wrong they are.
If you have a Facebook page or are active on Twitter, you have likely seen clap back culture in action. The last election cycle was rife with quick, witty, or biting responses to individuals who mansplained, allowed their white privilege to show, questioned the utility of a protest, or scoffed at the concept of boycotting. Too often, sitting behind our computer screens tempts us to win an argument rather than win an ally. We say and post things that we would hesitate to communicate face-to-face. We can become impulsive and vengeful and lose sight of the greater goal. It takes discipline to hold on to our purpose and vision, discipline sometimes lacking in our clap back culture.
This is why I want to propose that instead of clapping back to potential allies, we attempt to “clap in.” I think #Blacklivesmatter calls us to consider very carefully how we respond to others on social media, and beyond.
Clapping in was called coalition building in the late 1960s. In Chicago, for example, Latinx and white southern migrants joined together in the first Rainbow Coalition under the leadership of the Black Panther Party to protest police brutality, stop gentrification, and alleviate poverty. They organized around common problems using black power methodology and ideology to strengthen their local communities. I am convinced that it took a great deal of discipline to engage in such a project. And I think that #BlackLivesMatter has great potential as a nationwide decentralized organization founded by three black queer women, but I believe it will take even greater spiritual discipline.
Theologians have traditionally identified spiritual disciplines as inner practices of the soul like meditation, prayer, and fasting. But disciplines can include outer and corporate practices too, the fruits of which are all results of mindful engagement. What liberation theologians call solidarity could be practiced as a spiritual discipline from the margins of society. James Cone, the father of Black Theology described solidarity as simply being Christian:
“To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people! It is to be expected that many white people will ask: “How can I, a white man become black? My skin is white and there is nothing I can do.” Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”
I see in these words an example of clapping in, or inviting privileged people to move beyond charity to solidarity— ministry with rather than ministry to.
Black lives matter too much to alienate people who want to align with our cause. While clapping back against people in powerful positions can be prophetic, I’ve given up clapping back against those with whom I am otherwise unacquainted. I’ve decided instead to clap in potential allies. And I’ve committed to refrain from responding to an offensive or trolling post until I can answer the following question: Am I willing to build a relationship with this person?
If not, I refrain from replying. If so, I send them an invitation to a conversation.
Are you in?