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Be nice. Play nice. Nice people. Nice time. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Nice clothes. Nice company. How about, “where’s a nice pencil I can use to stab my eye out?”
I LOATHE NICENESS.
“Pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory” is how Oxford Languages defines nice, which seems like a pretty nice summary. Nice is the “c minus” of the adjective world and unless it’s being used to describe the weather or a painless experience at the doctor’s office, I think it should be put in a nice deep grave along with such gag-worthy words like “things”, “stuff”, “literally”, and “new normal” (looking at you, coronavirus reporters).
I like to think Jesus cringed at niceness too. I mean, he did say “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” to John in the book of Revelation. Lukewarm is a fabulous adjective and a much better way of saying nice, if you ask me. In fact to my knowledge, the quality of “being nice” is affirmed nowhere in the Bible.
I was confronted with the topic of niceness this past week at a West Michigan Black Lives Matter event. As irony would have it, the woman who loathes niceness, found herself standing next to a large clan of folks wearing t-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Be a nice human”, “Choose to be nice”, or simply “Be nice”. This irrationally irritated me so much that I have been reflecting on it all week.
“Beth, what is the big deal? Why do you have any issue with people wearing non-offensive slogans on their clothes? Isn’t it enough that this crew of white people took time out of their nice sunny day to stand in solidarity?” And certainly, I do not want to diminish this choice. This could have very well been the first time these people took a stand and this could be so far out of their comfort zone that they’d need a compass to get back home. Choices like this ARE important.
I am going to assert a perhaps unpopular opinion that prioritizing niceness as a positive human attribute has perpetuated white supremacy and racism into the 21st century of today. Let me explain.
Think about the way white niceness tends to look. It is polite. It is seen but not heard. Niceness squeaks out “don’t worry about it” instead of cussing when a stranger bashes their grocery cart into your Achilles heel. Niceness instructs saying “no” when your wife asks, “do these jeans make my butt look big?” Niceness values comfort at all costs. Niceness is a lie.
Cultural niceness sweeps little dust bunnies of uncomfortable topics under the bed as if this makes everything clean, but then wonders why we are still sneezing.
I wonder if well-meaning white people were less nice and more assertive, risk taking, passionate, and gasp, even mean when appropriate, if oppressed people would want us as allies, instead of desiring to spit us out in all of our lukewarm tepidness. Maybe being nice isn’t all that nice after all. Maybe nice is actually dangerous and deadly to marginalized people.
This brings me to the core reason I hate the word “nice”. I am deathly afraid of the niceness in me. I am a typical midwestern white woman. The value of niceness is fed to us little girls as frequently as fried cheese curds and tuna casserole. Niceness is our birthright. It is our expectation of ourselves and others. It is our disease. We are trained from an early age to keep quiet, be polite and suck it up when someone says something mean or even abusive.
How many times have I clung to my niceness, when I have heard someone make a racist joke or comment? How many times have I seen a person of color be pulled over by three squad cars, but kept driving instead of stopping to make sure everything was going ok, because “it’s not nice to stare”? How many times have I witnessed a store cashier ask for an ID on a cash transaction of a minority mother with her children, because she looks like someone who commits fraud?
And then there’s this million-dollar question. What if someone confronts me about my own racism, but instead of receiving it as the gift of self-discovery it is, I respond defensively because it doesn’t feel polite? You know, because I am too nice to be a racist.
I know a lot of nice people. I bet most of you reading this are nice people. Heck, I am a nice person writing this piece on niceness. But when is it time to “put an end to childish ways” as Paul instructs and trade niceness for virtues that actually are named in the Bible? Fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Attributes like boldness, honesty, wisdom, compassion, discernment, justice-seeking and even anger. Spiritual gifts like speaking prophetically about the direness of our current situation while pointing towards our eternal hope. Or, teaching your white friends about white fragility. Or offering radical hospitality that protects black and brown bodies even over our own?
Instead of prioritizing niceness, what is possible if we err on the side of risk-taking over keeping still and silent? I don’t know what the end result looks like, but I can assure you It would change me. It would change you. It would change all of us.
Friends, let us not settle for lukewarmth. Let’s turn up the heat. Let us burn so hot that our words, our actions and our bodies bless the holy lips of the One who created us.