Politics and Love

What I Didn’t Understand About Racism

I am white, and I am a Christian, and I believe white Christians, by and large, do not understand racism. I know I do not fully understand racism. We are a large part of the problem, and we must change.

Ignorance is…Ignorance

When I was growing up, I learned about the Civil War and about the abolition of slavery. I thought that racism was a thing of the past.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon in an all-white neighborhood. I attended an all-white church. I did not really think about it much at the time. I thought this was all normal. I never thought it could be because of any type of lingering racism.

After all, slavery was abolished. There were not any laws enforcing things like separate drinking fountains and separate schools.  It never occurred to me that racism could persist in other ways that were just as insidious and harmful.

Little Shelly

Weird Things Start Happening

As I got older, I started to hear people say things that bothered me.

Although I attended public schools for a lot of my education, I also attended several private, Christian schools.

At one of the schools I attended, which was all white except for several biracial students, I heard one of the leaders of the school (a white male) say that interracial marriages were wrong because the kids looked weird. The man then proceeded to describe the kinky curly hair and, according to him, other African-American features that made the children look weird.

This kind of statement was not an anomaly. Growing up, at various times, I have heard “good, Christian” people say that immigrants (specifically Mexican) are lazy (by the way—I have NEVER met a lazy immigrant in my life).

I have heard “good, Christian” people joke that black people are useless

I have heard “good, Christian” people tell their daughters they had better never date a black man.

White People and White Christians: If you have grown up in a predominantly white environment, you know you have heard these things, too. This type of thing is, tragically, pretty common in “good, white, Christian” environments.

These things always troubled me when I heard them. I thought to myself, Wait a minute. I thought racism was in the past, but these sound an awful lot like racist comments.

I take racism to be the belief that informs us when we single out an entire group of people based on their race or when we assume they are inferior because of their race.

I also take racism to be what informs the desire to keep races separate or what informs the belief that one race is better in some way than another or all the other races.

When I heard comments like the ones I have mentioned above growing up, I started to worry that perhaps racism was not a thing of the past after all.

Selfie #11

I Find Out More Bad Stuff

The older I got, the more I found out things about racism that troubled me.

For instance, I found out that Oregon, my beautiful home state that I still love, was founded as a white utopia and explicitly worked to keep out African-Americans. You can read more about this here.

I thought about how I had never known any African-American person growing up. I had never gone to church with one. I had never gone to school with one. This is the experience, I believe, of many people my age who grew up in Oregon. Luckily, my family taught me that everyone is equal in God’s eyes, and that is why I think these things began to trouble me so much.

I began thinking about all of the things I had heard white people say about African-Americans and other minorities growing up, and I began to realize that there was a subtle and insidious kind of segregation that still exists.

It is not a segregation that operates by explicit laws. Rather, it is a segregation that operates by white people being passive-aggressive, openly hostile, or otherwise inhospitable to minorities trying to enter white spaces.

It is also a segregation that operates from ignorance—the ignorance of white people who do not understand how difficult, frightening, and even terrifying it can be to be an African-American, Native American (or any other minority) in a nation of predominantly white people who, historically, have enslaved, lynched, interned[1], segregated, and decimated people of other races and ethnic groups.

Most of us know these atrocities are a part of our history, but we somehow believe that, magically, there are no lingering negative effects, attitudes, or consequences from these heinous actions, some of which happened only fifty to sixty years ago. This is the worst kind of naïve, magical thinking.

Love is Stronger Than Hateful Violence

Love is stronger, but only when it denounces the hateful violence of racism.

My Suspicions Deepen

I realized increasingly that racism and segregation are not a thing of the past. They are alive and well among us.

The Christian college I attended was a wonderful college that challenged me to think deeply about these issues of racism.

My Christian college was, again, almost all white. We did have a small group of African-American students, and one of the first things I noticed was that in the cafeteria, they sat at a table all together by themselves.

This troubled me. I thought, Why doesn’t anyone go and join them or invite them to join us?

I thought many times of going and sitting with them and trying to make friends. I am sad to say that I was shy and afraid, and I did not know if it was the right thing to do or if I would be welcome.

As I reflect on this experience now, I realize that if I, as a white student (surrounded by white people), felt this way, I can only imagine how they must have felt.

I can only imagine how they must have feared that they would not be welcomed. That they might be openly scorned. That they might be verbally or physically assaulted.

How could they not think this? This is how we have treated black people at almost every period of our history.

I Get Woke

I am so grateful that my professors and folks in campus groups constantly worked to raise our consciousness about racial and other justice issues. It was from folks like this that I first started learning about structural injustice.

Structural injustice occurs when institutions and various other power groups organize society in a way that puts certain groups of people (usually certain racial or ethnic groups) at a significant disadvantage. This may be specifically from racist motives, but it can also occur because of ignorance and apathy.

For instance, societies can be arranged so that African-Americans (and other minorities) are less likely to be hired than white people or are less likely to be payed equally, even if they are equally, or even more, qualified. (W.E.B. Dubois’ book The Souls of Black Folks is an excellent book to read for gaining an understanding of the origin of these issues in the United States.)

Societies can be arranged so that law enforcement agencies tend to police, arrest, and imprison minorities at a much higher rate. (See Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? for a discussion of these issues.)

Societies can be arranged so that the largest share of tax money goes to fund white schools, which means that students in these schools are better-educated and better-prepared for the job market. (Please read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities for an in-depth analysis of this problem.)

Societies can be arranged so that garbage dumps are put primarily in low-income minority neighborhoods because folks there do not have the money and political power to protest. As a result of this, their water, ground, and air is polluted, and they suffer serious illnesses like asthma and cancer at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the population. (Again, read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities for a discussion of these issues.)

As I learned about issues like this, I felt like I was waking up from some kind of slumber. I realized that I, and most white people, lived in a world that was arranged to our advantage and that we were profiting from our power and status.

This not only troubled me morally, it troubled my spiritually. I am a Christian, and I know that God calls us to love everyone, to work for justice, and to labor, especially, on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised.

If this was so, I wondered, why aren’t more Christians speaking out about these issues?

Love is Stronger Than Idiocy

Love is stronger, but only when it denounces idiotic rhetoric, such as rhetoric that objectifies and demeans minorities. 

I am Increasingly Troubled

I majored in secondary English education in college, and after I graduated, I intended to teach in an  inner-city school. This was a way, I thought, I could work to combat the structural injustice and racism I had been learning about.

Instead, I ended up teaching at private, Christian schools. I am not sorry I did this. The schools I worked in were wonderful schools. I met some of the finest people I have ever met in these schools, many of whom were extremely loving and would give anyone the shirt off their back.

But, unfortunately, I still heard heard troubling things in these environments sometimes.

I have heard folks in them argue that European culture is superior to all other cultures.

I have heard them suggest that Mexicans are taking over United States without recognizing any irony in a white person (whose ancestors took over the United Sates and decimated most of the Native American population and put the rest on reservations) saying this.

I have heard them dismiss entire neighborhoods as bad, and they were speaking about neighborhoods with a strong minority, specifically African-American, population.

This is My Problem

I can speak about this problem because it was my problem, too. And it is still my problem to some degree. I did not make the comments I mentioned above, and I was deeply troubled by them, but I am sad to say that at this time in my life, I knew very few people who were not like me. I had few friends that were not Christian or were not white.

Increasingly, this bothered me. I felt like I could not work for justice, love, and the kingdom of God if I did not actually know most of the people in the world.

Over the years, I have worked to change this. My husband and I moved to a diverse neighborhood.  Some of my neighbors are white, but my neighbors are also Mexican immigrants, African-Americans, and Muslim.

I attend a spiritual community that meets in the heart of Lexington, and we are connected to people and groups working with refugees, with the homeless, with the undocumented.

A lot of my friends in my church community live in diverse neighborhoods that would often be considered one of those “bad neighborhoods”. They do this because they want to love their neighbors as themselves, and they believe the whole world is their neighbor. We are not a perfect community, but we are trying to understand.

I still have a long way to go, but over the years, I have been so blessed to become friends with and live among folks from various minority groups. I deeply desire to work for the end of racism and all other kinds of discrimination in the world, and I believe I can only do it by listening to the people most affected by these issues.

There is Still a Problem

As I got older and heard people saying racist (and other discriminatory) things, I spoke out, but I do not think I spoke out enough. I wish I would have spoken out more.

When I reflect on why I did not speak out, it was for a lot of reasons. It was because I was not confident in my own opinion. It was because I was afraid I was wrong in my judgments. It was because these were such good, Christian people, and I had problems believing or accepting that Christians could, indeed, hold racist views.

I wish I had had more confidence in my beliefs. I wish I had trusted myself. I wish I would have realized that Christians are imperfect and human like anyone else. They can believe wrong things. They can believe racist things. They can be ignorant. I know I have been ignorant.

President Trump rose to power, and the ideas that propelled his popularity were, by and large, the same racist ideas I have heard my whole life. They are the ideas I have heard many good, white, Christian people promote.

I have seen Christians remain silent, for the most part, in the face of this racism. I have too often remained silent. There are probably different reasons for this silence, but we have to change. We are a large part of the problem.

We do not understand the privilege we have.

We do not read books by people who challenge our views.

We do not have friends who challenge our views.

We do not understand structural injustice because we do not experience it.

For the most part, we never have to experience what it means to live as a minority person in a nation whose history is filled with violence against minority people.

Because of this, we elect a president who runs a campaign infected by hate and racism. We are silent when white supremacists spread their hateful vile en masse in public places. We are silent when the president supports white supremacy. We ignore or are unaware of the trauma and despair this causes our African-American, Mexican, and Muslim brothers and sisters.

Love is Stronger Than Fascism

Love is stronger, but only when it denounces hateful ideologies like fascism.

We are complicit. We must change. We CAN change.

Postscript: If you would like to read more about such issues, I highly recommend my friend Joseph Trullinger’s post “White Fragility is Softminded and Hardhearted”.  You can find that post here at his blog Between Two Untruths, which I also highly recommend.

http://www.twountruths.com/2017/08/13/white-fragility-is-softminded-and-hardhearted/

If you suspect that you or someone you know might struggle a little bit or a lot with racism, you might find this post helpful:

How I Realized You Can Like People From Other Races and Still Be Racist

 

[1] Many people do not know that during World War II, we confiscated the homes and property of thousands of Japanese-Americans and sent them to live in internment camps because we were afraid of them. None of these citizens ever posed any actual threat to us. Most of them never recovered any of their property or belongings that were stolen from them. You can read more about this here.

[2] I am so grateful that the headmasters/principals at the schools I worked at were wonderful people who cared deeply about justice issues. Many thanks to them.

4 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Understand About Racism”

  1. I think the reason you don’t understand racism is because it doesn’t make any sense! The fact that people think that they are superior to someone based on the colour of their skin is just the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. People with insecurities will find any reason to find themselves superior to someone else and this is one of those bizarre, unfortunate and downright stupid reasons. Much change and education is needed still!

    1. I’m there with you, Misfit! Racism is one of the most perplexing things in the world to me. Unfortunately, I think that it is often easy for white people (and I am speaking as one) to accept because we have never really experienced people hating and dehumanizing us because of the color of our skin. I think this makes us less able to recognize when we are doing it to other people. We don’t think to ourselves, “I am treating people badly because of the color of their skin”–we tend to tell ourselves other stories about what we are doing like, “I am keeping myself safe” or “I am protecting my job” or something else.

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