Recent events surrounding the beating and subsequent murder of an African American transgendered woman, Duanna Johnson, has forced me to revisit my copy of William R. Jones’ Is God a White Racist?
After being arrested for prostitution in Memphis earlier this year, Duanna Johnson was verbally and physically assaulted by two Memphis police officers, both of which were caught on video. The main culprit, Bridges McRae, can be seen bashing Johnson several times in the head with a gloved, metal handcuff covered closed fist while another officer held Johnson down by the shoulders.
Johnson later reported that McRae was “trying to get [her] to come over to where he was” but got violently angry when she didn’t respond to the names “faggot” and “he-she,” which he called her by. After being released, Johnson sued the department for violating her civil rights. Bridges McRae was indicted and as a result, fired from the police department. As if this story isn’t unfortunate enough, just last week Johnson’s body was found shot to death on a street in Memphis by an unknown assailant. Her murder is under investigation.
The beating and murder of Johnson, and the seemingly silence surrounding her death by both black and gay communities, is troubling at best. It is particularly disheartening in light of the recent galvanizing of both groups during and after the recent presidential election. As I read Johnson’s story, I was immediately overwhelmed with many questions. For instance, where are the black and brown folk who have been standing for “Change” for the last several months? Where are the gays and lesbians who have been raising hell about Proposition 8? Where are the feminists, mujeristas, and womanists? And, where are all the others who believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect? And most importantly, why was Johnson denied the right to advocacy and justice? And perhaps even more to the point, where the hell is the outrage on her behalf?
Johnson embodied multiple identity thresholds. She was black and transgendered. Unfortunately, news reports describe her as somewhat monstrous. As opposed to emphasizing her humanity, some reports chose to foreground the grotesque instead, more specifically the both/and of her identity. This is evidenced in the language deployed. For instance news reports stressed Johnson’s size in relation to her attacker and said that Johnson and McRae were “in a scuffle” as opposed to reporting that Johnson was violently attacked. Additionally, they said things like McRae had to “do what he had to do to defend himself” (italics mine) and that Johnson had a “long history of prostitution arrests,” thus both sexualizing and criminalizing Johnson-the victim of assault.
I’ve said this many times before and I will say it again, language signifies. To be sure, Johnson was interpreted as a monster, not a human being-in both life and in death. So again, I ask the question asked to Black Theologians in 1997 by religious scholar William R. Jones in his seminal text, Is God a White Racist? Jones argued, if God is omnipotent and God is God of the oppressed and, if black people designate the most oppressed peoples, then God must be a white racist. In light of this question, I ask a similar question: Is God a racist misogynist? If God is concerned with our existential day to day reality, which I believe God is, is God unconcerned with the perennial suffering of raced and gendered subjects? Why would one have to live a life with such a great degree of turmoil-a life under the sexist, racist microscopic gaze of others? Why did Johnson have to live in such a body-a body “marked” my myriad superimposed meanings about race, gender, sexuality and class?
Regrettably, I don’t have any answers today. I only have questions. Johnson was not a monster. Nor was she exotic, wanton, immoral or pathological. Instead, she was a human being-one who was denied the dignity, respect and justice that all humans should get, especially when victimized. However, unfortunately, cultural ideas about Johnson repainted her as a “non-victim”-as one who, in some way, deserved to be violated. Again, is God a racist misogynist?