When protests started in Little Rock, marchers blocked traffic on the main artery through the city, Interstate 630. Jamming up this strip of road was a particularly potent act because I-630 quite literally divides our city racially and economically. Fifty years ago, construction of I-630 cut straight through a thriving African American business district, dissecting established African American neighborhoods, and catalyzed white flight to the west of the city.
Despite my knowledge of this well-documented history, my primary response was relief. I felt relieved because I knew these protests would not, most likely, disrupt my life (I live on the west side of the city). After all, life-as-I-knew-it had already been disrupted by the pandemic. Deep in my gut, I balked at the possibility of more inconvenience, more loss of the ability to curate the details of my life.
The twin crises currently shaking my fragile, and in many ways illusory, sense of control bring into focus what should have always been understood together: systemic racism and commodification fueled by white desire. Like a kind of diptych—a perverse icon—these two images expose the sickness lodged right at the foundation of the kind life into which I was initiated and that I continue to live without even thinking about it.
I want to look away and go back to normal, but Jesus invites me to become his disciple by fixing my gaze on the source of the sickness of racism.I want to look away and go back to normal, but Jesus invites me to become his disciple by fixing my gaze on the source of the sickness of racism. Click To Tweet
As I turn to face the image, I am learning to reckon with the reality that my complicity in perpetuating both a racialized social order as well as a racialized Christianity is located beneath the realm of my personal feelings, biases, and prejudices. It runs deeper than my best intentions and thoughts.
Racism festers right at the bottom of my most instinctive desires. Here in the well of my desire is a life formed by consumerism.*
Desiring Bad Fruit
By consumerism I mean an entire built environment characterized and sustained by habits that reduce persons and places to their use-value and reduce human interaction to transaction.
Consumerism has shaped me to desire the fruits of a racialized society. This is the insidious thing: it’s not that I desire to harbor bigoted feelings toward non-white people—it’s that I desire the kind of good life that has been and is made possible for my consumption by a socio-economic system stratified along racial lines that privilege white people.It's not that I desire to harbor bigoted feelings toward non-white people-it’s that I desire the kind of good life that has been made possible by a socio-economic system stratified along racial lines that privilege white people. Click To Tweet
The fruits I have in mind are those that make life easy for me, easy to construct a bespoke identity for myself, just as I want it, and satisfy the cravings and needs that attend to making real this fantasy of self. The fantasy is a white fantasy, funded by the images I have absorbed from advertisers who are experts at sustaining my desire by training me to live to consume, yet always coming up just short of satisfying desire or fulfilling the fantasy of white, middle-class autonomy.
It is easy for me to drive across town on I-630 and go to Target. It is easy for me to get a loan for a home where it is easy for me to access the bike trails, where I can breathe easy because I can recover relatively easily from a job loss or a major illness, because I had all the opportunities and family structures that allowed me to position myself socio-economically to live this kind of life.
Racism is sustained and reproduced within my desire for this ease, tugging at me with an inertia stronger than words and intentions. My desire—and this is crucial—is integral to sustaining and reproducing the systems and structures that devalue and dehumanize black life.
Put differently, I-630 as both a physical thing and psychological symbol is an artifact of a world, hundreds of years in the making, that draws forth my distorted desire for ease. And now that world is sustained, in part, by all the concrete ways I act on my desire, including but not limited to the reasons I traverse that physical space.
Consumeristic desire persists because it lives in me like a shadowy instinct, driving my choices—where I eat, where I shop, what I buy, where I live, who cuts my hair, where my kids attend school, where and how my family recreates, how and why I use the interstate—in a myriad of subtle-yet-pervasive ways.
Repentance for me must involve reckoning with how the intimate connection between consumerism and racism shows up in my daily, desire-driven habits and practices.
There is a real loss here in the disruption of life-as-I-know-it and real disorientation that comes from that loss. Grief and lament is an appropriate response to the experience of this loss. Yet, I must make myself present to how this loss, like an accidental fast, exposes how deeply life-as-I-live-it is shaped by the dehumanizing forces of consumption.
My discomfort must translate into grief and lament, which must then transform in focus from the loss itself to the shadows exposed through loss. I must learn to grieve and lament how deeply I have been shaped to relate to the world and to other persons through the desire to control and consume. I must learn to grieve and lament all the small ways my desire for ease perpetuates systems that reduce all of life to commodity-and-exchange and oppress non-white bodies in particular.I must learn to grieve and lament all the small ways my desire for ease perpetuates systems that reduce all of life to commodity-and-exchange and oppress non-white bodies in particular. Click To Tweet
This grief and lament is not an exercise in navel-gazing, trying harder as an individual to get better. Reaching for control over my desire is itself a dark reflex of consumerism.
Rather, grief and lament must become the new pathway for redirecting my desire toward the body of Jesus, where market desire is crucified and the body restored to divine communion, where the *I* that drives the pursuit of the white-fantasy of ease can be put to death, where Jesus’ body can shape a new way of life through sharing between persons who share life in him (Gal 2:19-20).
The Lie of Consumerist Desire
Grief and lament can begin to loosen the knot of a deadly lie at the heart of my desire for ease. It is a lie about what it means to be human and has two sides. One side of the lie is that my desire for personal ease is only about me and affects only me. The other side is that only others can be dehumanized and distorted when I reach for this desire.
In truth, consumerist desire fractures social bonds, the bonds that help me know myself truly in relation to others. Consumerist desire has never been neutral. It was birthed from the oppression of black bodies and continues to segregate white from non-white bodies. Deconstructing the lie can begin to unravel the individualism that comes as part of a theological package (salvation, ethics, and ecclesiology), which I have used to ignore or downplay the social and communal heart of life in Christ.
In truth, consumerist desire is killing me, too. Consumerist desire distorts and disfigures my own humanity even as it distorts and disfigures the humanity of others. Deconstructing this lie helps dispose of any illusion from the racism within me that I am in charge over fixing other people’s problems. In truth, I need to be saved.
*I am indebted to the work of Willie James Jennings for learning to see how consumerism is intertwined with white supremacy.