Marietta College tree prompts ‘courageous conversations’
Which lives don’t matter?
It’s a jarring, some might say impertinent, question but after a digital storm of social media posts shared Sunday evening and Monday morning directed emotional responses toward Marietta College it’s one that may be timely to reframe the discussion and reapproach the proverbial table.
The college’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion sponsored one of the decorated Christmas trees in East Muskingum Park in Marietta this season.
And the decorations of the college-sponsored tree were made in partnership with that office and MJ Ebenhack, a member of the Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith Council and wife of MC Petroleum Professor Ben Ebenhack; Mabry O’Donnell, a retired Marietta College professor; an international student and local children.
Ebenhack said she first saw the opportunity to sponsor a tree as a way to remind those with hearts focusing on a Christmas spirit of the continued push for social justice and equity called for in the Black Lives Matter movement that resurged this year following the death of George Floyd.
“I’ve been involved in a couple of book studies (including) ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi … with his argument that we’re called to be more than just non-racist, we’re called to be antiracist, and I’m currently in another study at our church that is looking at the church’s complicity in racism.”
In Kendi’s book, he calls on readers to be more than not racist, but to actively work against all forms of racism both explicit and subtle.
“That’s the problem with being ‘not racist?'” Kendi wrote. “It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’ It is ‘antiracist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One believes either problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist … There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.'”
But Ebenhack lost sleep Sunday evening after hearing how the tree was selectively framed and shared on social media.
Ornaments on that tree were the subject of ire online as the week began when portions of the inscriptions were shared on social media more than 100 times in less than 24 hours.
The phrases “white lives matter, male lives matter, straight lives matter, able-bodied lives matter, and rich lives matter,” are a part of those inscriptions.
But they are not the only ones adorning the tree’s wooden ornaments.
Also included are the inscriptions:
¯ Female lives matter.
¯ LGBQT+ lives matter.
¯ Urban lives matter.
¯ Rural lives matter.
¯ Old lives matter.
¯ Young lives matter.
¯ Asian lives matter.
¯ Native-American lives matter.
¯ Brown lives matter.
¯ Black lives matter.
¯ Latinx lives matter (Latinx is the gender-neutral term used to identify ethnicities of Hispanic and/or Latin-American descent while also acknowledging indigenous and slave populations that have seen a mixture of ancestry following conquests of European nations).
¯ Blue lives matter.
¯ Disabled lives matter.
¯ Poor lives matter.
“We didn’t use that phrase ‘all lives matter,'” explained Ebenhack. “We said all are precious in God’s sight with the prayer at the bottom ‘may each be precious in our sight.'”
The phrase “All Lives Matter” has been repeatedly used this year to silence the specific focus on the marginalized section of the U.S. population with greater melanin in their skin, including in chants by white supremacist hate groups.
Instead, Ebenhack explained, the focus was to use the Christmas spirit, and inspiration from a children’s song which acknowledges difference individually.
That song’s first verse goes:
“Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world; Red, brown, yellow, Black and white, They are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world”
No specific religious view was named on an ornament, but the acknowledgment of the predominately Christian theology is present, Ebenhack said, in the use of the Christmas tree.
“We thought that the message of Jesus is love for everyone, he loved everyone,” said Ebenhack. “Surely as we celebrate his birth, we can encourage people to love everyone.”
Monica Jones, a Black woman who has served at the college as chief diversity officer and an associate dean of students for less than a year, said her hope moving forward is that the tree starts more conversations.
“I hope that regardless of who you are, you can look at that tree and see a part of your identity,” said Jones. “And then more importantly with that same energy, we see ourselves, to see somebody else. We really need to start looking for the traits in ourselves that we’ll respect in other people.”
Even including the statement “blue lives matter” which was another response to the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of police force and compliance this year, was an explicit decision.
“Which I thought would have been controversial because of the true sense that ‘blue’ is not actually a life but an occupation,” said Jones. “The tree should be a place to start a conversation … If you’re getting an emotional response from the tree, take the time to ask yourself why are these emotions being brought forward?”
Jones said the tree and the discourse surrounding it are an opportunity for both the Mid-Ohio Valley and for the community of Marietta College students, alumni and staff.
“The question becomes can we actually represent 2020?” she said. “Can identities be recognized for their unique contributions of who we are?”
The pushback from alumni who identify either as allies or are persons of color, was also discussion Jones welcomes.
“We can’t undo all of the past injustices, I can acknowledge that they happened,” she said, hoping her words reach past students of color. “The invitation is for those who feel that they had a more difficult time … is to reach out to the office. Let me know your stories. Share with me how you were able, in spite of all of that, to graduate and contribute. There are current students of color who need to know that they can do it. That could be a motivating force.”
And as an institution of higher education, she said, she hopes to continue to foster conversations on diversity, inclusion and equity both on and off-campus.
“Courageous conversations are difficult dialogues, but if we are to become the nation that we say we are, we must begin locally,” said Jones. “We won’t change the world until we change our own community. The work is local.”