Keeping Hope Alive
An interview with Clay Rivers, founder and editorial director of Our Human Family
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash
I first got to know Clay Rivers through Twitter (which we both joined in 2010) and then through his 2012 memoir “Walking Tall”, in which he introduces himself as “Short. Black. Christian. And gay.” (Everyone, at a minimum, should read the unforgettable Chapter One of that memoir using the Kindle “Look Inside” feature right now or as soon as they finish reading this interview).
Rivers’ 2015 essay “How I Talk to White People About Racism” was published in the New York Times’ feature “A Conversation About Race.” Along the way, he and I have collaborated creatively and on a couple of projects (as well as being a talented writer and editor, he is also a former art director for Walt Disney World Resort Design and The Disney University, The Disney Stores, Disney Imagineering, and Disney Consumer Products.)
Since 2019, Rivers has launched and served as Editor-in-Chief of Our Human Family (OHF), an online magazine about achieving equality with the mission of “fostering meaning conversations that broad perspectives and offer hope.” OHF also publishes a special annual print magazine. Their first book, Fieldnotes on Allyship: Achieving Equality Together, will be released October 13.
Q&A with Clay Rivers
How’s your hope level right now?
Right now my hope is on the rebound. I’m not going to say that what we as a nation are experiencing is unprecedented. It’s not. Racism, xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia are rooted in our past. Just look at our history. What is unprecedented is the level of boldness with which these beliefs are instigated, if not rewarded in some circles. The good thing is that the covers have been pulled off and everyone can now see how destructive these practices they are. And they’re speaking out to affect positive change now more than ever.
Momentarily, I find my hope on the ropes, and that’s a normal reaction. These issues change lives and not for the better. So to process what’s happening, feeling the gravity of their impact is only human, but my hope always snaps back. It has to. Without it, I might as well throw in the towel. I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist. Since I stand all of forty-eight inches tall, I’ve had a little experience with immutable challenges—and racism is certainly mutable. The optimist in me hopes for the best, while the realist in me assesses the situation—which includes asking, “What’s really going on here? What’s the lesson?”—and then I plot and plan my next move. Hope is grossly underestimated. And not without cause. A lot of the problems we’re dealing with right now seem almost designed to suck the hope from us. There’s a tendency to think of hope as this naivety about the reality of the ways of the world. Not so. Hope sees the world as it is, knows that it can be better, and strives to make situations better.
As a self-described “short, black, Christian and gay” man, what troubles you most about the state of society today?
The unbridled selfishness as evidenced by the skyrocketing numbers of people who have died needlessly due to COVID-19, the tribalistic othering of our Black, Indigenous, and Citizens of Color, anti-Black racism, record unemployment, impending increased homelessness—these tragedies are all inextricably intertwined and stem from one problem: an abiding lack of empathy.
Empathy is the capacity that allows us to step outside ourselves, our own wants and needs, and enables us to mentally and emotionally process how someone else might be experiencing the world. Empathy pulls the lever that makes it possible for folks to intercede on the behalf of others. Folks who run foodbanks? That’s empathy. Folks making masks? That’s empathy. Folks volunteering at homeless shelters? That’s empathy.
But Richard, the state of society today isn’t troubling to me because of the combination of my particular height, race, faith, sexual orientation, and gender. These matters affect people from all walks of life. These ills should trouble everyone.
With all the discussion of “systemic racism” this year, why do you think some whites are so resistant to even acknowledging the problem?
How much time do you have? [Laughs.] This one isn’t as complicated as you might think, but there are several components to my answer. The main reason some white people are resistant to acknowledging racism is this: They don’t want to. These folks get to feel good about themselves because there’s another group over there—translation: Black people—they get to feel better than. For them, racism works. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
A simpler label for that world view is white supremacy. And white supremacy says that “white” will trump . . . oops, let me fix that . . . white will out-rank, out-class, out-earn out-learn, basically live its best life easier and better than any other skin color. In short, white reigns supreme. And for that supremacy to exist, something that’s not white must exist to be considered less than, to be made a footstool of. In America, the object of white supremacy’s derision is Blackness, made manifest in anti-Black racism. The practices of white supremacy and anti-Black racism are two sides of the same coin of the American realm.
Which brings me to the next reason some white people are resistant to acknowledging systemic racism. Who wants to admit that the many of the benefits they’ve received have come at great cost to others? Think about it. To acknowledge the horrors perpetrated against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color throughout this nation’s history at the hands of white people requires that white folks assume a modicum of responsibility and see us as human. Doing so most certainly ignites a sense of shame and guilt on the part of white people, and a rejection of any responsibility for any of this, with responses like, “Well, I never owned slaves.”
But there’s a missing piece of the puzzle.
What white people aren’t willing to realize is that they don’t have to own slaves for unequal treatment to continue to exist. Racism exists beyond white robes, hoods, flaming crosses, and lynchings. Americans aren’t taught to see the big picture about most things. And white Americans can’t see the systems that benefit them at the expense of others. In this country, white is the default setting for what’s normative. From better schools, better jobs, freedom to move about without being policed, better loans, treatment under the law, you name it—there are certain benefits reserved for white people (and those accepted as white) that Black people and People of Color rarely if ever know. These benefits don’t have to be asked for, they’re simply doled out. And this perpetuates the system.
Yes, it’s a lot for white people to process, but it’s not impossible. It’s no picnic to be on the receiving end of racism either. And that makes this work all the more urgent. What people don’t realize is that racism hurts everyone; not only the people it seeks to marginalize, but the perpetrators and society as well. There are plenty of people in America who have abandoned their racist ways of thinking and acting—successfully. It’s simply a matter of choosing to do so. And the results lead to a fuller, richer, more integrated life.
Do you talk differently to white people about racism today than you did in 2015 (when your essay appeared in The New York Times)? If so, what has changed?
Yes, definitely. At the time I wrote that essay, President Obama’s second term was wrapping up and a lot of people—at least the majority of my white friends, conservatives, moderates, and liberals—assumed America had made it to the other side and the country was easing into a post-racial era, so the subject of race relations was no longer taboo, and several of those friends brought the subject up to me. But back then, if you were to ask Black Americans if they felt America had put aside its racial animus, I guarantee you an overwhelming majority would issue a full-throated “no” after a good ten minutes of laughter.
Just look at the news, the climate in the country has changed dramatically. As I said earlier, anti-Black racism is being fomented out in the open, instead of behind closed doors as in the past. I speak more and write more about racism today. And I encourage others to do the same.
I’m sure you’re wondering, what about white supremacists? What about them? I’m not trying to reach them and they have no interest in what I have to say. So why waste my time—and theirs—trying to get them to change their ways? I focus my energy on people who want to move toward and more egalitarian world, who know change is possible, and are interesting in finding out how to leave the lie of racism behind.
Do you know or interact with any anti-gay Christians? If so, how do you talk to them?
Yes. I know a few anti-gay Christians. I’ve even had communion with them. And I talk to them the same way I talk to everyone else: with care and respect and I entreat them to do the same. I’ve been blessed to have been raised in a Christian family and home. I have the honor of having clergy, their spouses, and families as my closest friends. I have been blessed with friends who strive to live out Christ’s teachings. And those people, those Christians are welcoming and accepting of LGBTQ people. But there are so many people who haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Christian home or have years of studying scripture or have been damaged by the church. A number of them are LGBTQ. If an LGBTQ person is making the effort to visit a church, especially given most denominations’ active (and passive) unwelcoming of LGBTQ people, that LGBTQ person is knowingly risking ostracism as their search for Jesus is their first priority. But many others decline invitations to the Lord’s table because of the church’s reputation in its treatment of LGBTQ people. In short, they have no use for the church. It’s a sad state of affairs when the very people who are charged with spreading the good news of Christ cannot be emissaries of his unconditional love as he commands? My message to anti-gay Christians is the same one Christ has called all who would follow him to obey: Love one another.
From the early success of Mayor Pete's long-shot candidacy to the nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as Biden's running mate, do you think this political season is making a difference in terms of equality, changing people’s perspectives and giving young people hope?
I think that in matters of equality, America’s dominant culture is slo-o-o-ow to grant others a seat at the table. When I was a kid, the idea that anyone could aspire to be whatever they wanted to be was peddled far and wide, but the reality was much different. The phrase “white privilege” didn't exist, but Black people from sea to shining sea knew that there were certain things, we simply couldn’t do without reprisal or worse. That people of various and mixed ethnicities, sexual orientations, and religions have been seen as viable presidential candidates, it speaks volumes about both how much people’s perspectives have changed and the progress that’s been made. Candidates that more accurately reflect the make-up of America is important. Representation matters. But the country still has a long way to go in terms of acknowledging Black, Indigenous, and People of Color based on their character and not penalizing them because of the color of their skin.
Beyond the pandemic and the economy, what issues are most important to you in the upcoming election?
Racial equality. Racial equality. And racial equality. That issue permeates everything. Without racial equality, issues such as state-sanctioned terrorism, denial of economic opportunity, legal attacks, workplace discrimination, healthcare disparities, police brutality, for-profit prisons, and voter suppression are allowed to flourish.
What are you hoping to achieve with Our Human Family and what has the reaction been so far?
I think everyone can agree that racism is alive and well and living not only in this country’s metropolitan areas but in its suburban and rural areas as well. Discussions about racial equality can be tricky, and when people of different ethnicities try to have those conversations, unless both parties begin the conversation by speaking to one another with respect and care, and practicing active listening, both are bound to say the wrong thing and the conversation will fall apart. With one person feeling attacked, and the other marginalized.
OHF’s mission is to foster those conversations by exposing our readers to stories they might miss otherwise. Our writers are ethnically diverse and come from all walks of life; they’re from all over the world, of different sexual orientations, and have various faiths, and even some with no particular faith. They were vetted not only for their writing prowess and clarity of voice but for their willingness and ability to share the truth of their own direct experience with racism and equality.
By sharing our writers’ stories, readers come to realize that while our lived experiences can differ vastly, they take place in the shared context of humanity. Hopefully, we’re providing answers that will lead to better understanding and the ability to fully embrace our human family. What does that mean? Our readers get to see that people are more alike than we are unalike.
The reception has been warm. We’re not a huge publication, we don’t crank out forty stories a week. And that’s intentional. Our stories dig deep emotionally and are thought-provoking. Frankly, given the subject matter, we focus on publishing high-quality stories that stay with readers rather than churning out pop pieces that are easily forgotten. Our readers are a passionate lot and appreciate our approach.
As of April 2020, Our Human Family was designated a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. We’re expanding our mission by advocating for racial equality and inclusion in America by creating and offering workshops, panel discussion groups, targeting key educational programs for sponsorship, hosting guest speaker events, and much more that will help us achieve racial equality and inclusion for everyone.
We invite readers to support the critical work and word of Our Human Family at the forefront of the national conversation on better race relations and widespread equality in America.
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