Racism is a difficult issue to broach. It is often an uncomfortable topic, for people of all colors. Yet we are all human beings, with negligible amounts of genetic variation.
We are crafted in God’s image with skin colors that range on a broad spectrum of hues. Our differences make us unique and color the world with a variety of beauty.
So, what exactly is the root of our discomfort?
I’m not fully certain of the answer. Even as I type these words—I type, I delete.
Will using the word we in reference to the white majority cause offense? Will it create a sense of “us” versus “them” and invalidate the very message I am trying to convey?
While researching and reviewing reader comments about various publications surrounding the topic of racism, my fears of speaking into the subject were assured.
Afraid to misspeak
In a review of Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, one reader posted: “This incredibly rich, well-researched book disturbed me deeply during the weeks it took me to read and process. As it should have and continues to, it lays bare the dark myths and delusions that condition us all to accept and collude with institutional racism in the United States today.”
Another reader commented, “Hated this book! I mean I REALLY hated this book. Writer was a racist and it was more of a how-to on how to become a racist.”
The emotionally charged sensitivity surrounding racism places everyone involved in a position demanding strength, courage, and bravery.
For me, I am fearful of saying the wrong words and offending my peers. I am anxious about coming off as ill-informed and lacking in empathy. I am concerned about the stigmas surrounding my skin color discounting what I have to say.
Does race exist?
Before we go deeper, what exactly is race?
According to Richard S. Cooper, M.D., Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, “Race is a thoroughly contentious topic, as one might expect of an idea that intrudes on the everyday life of so many people. The modern concept of race grew out of the experience of Europeans in naming and organizing the populations encountered in the rapid expansion of their empires.”
Cooper points to racial classifications as a means by which humans might be categorized. Today, race has taken on varying definitions. The combination of factors that fit in both social and biologic settings has resulted in “a tool that fits equally well in the hands of demagogues who want to justify genocide and eugenics and of health scientists who want to improve surveillance for disease.”
Cooper continues: “Few other concepts used in the conduct of ordinary science are the subject of a passionate debate about whether they actually exist.”
Corners of cowardice and defensiveness
We vehemently dispute taxes, religious freedom, and other civil liberties.
Why then are we so afraid to discuss race?
The right to live equally, as American citizens, liberated from the confines of the color of our skin, brings many of us to a place of cowardice. It intimidates us into silence. And it pushes us into an uncomfortable corner of defensiveness. Some white Americans even doubt that white supremacy and white privilege exist.
I’m white, but does that really allow me luxuries not granted to others in similar situations simply because of the tone of their skin?
After researching, listening, and diligent prayer, I firmly believe the answer is: yes, it does.
In his book, Whiteness of a Different Color, Matthew Frye Jacobson cites the essay response of a sixteen-year-old black student in 1944 to the topic: “What to do with Hitler after the War.” The student submitted a single sentence: “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”
How could our country of democracy and freedom house such atrocities in the cracks and crevices of our history?
And, what’s worse, these same atrocities continue today, masked by the foundations of our political structure, belittling and suffocating the advancement of American people who are not marked by a certain shade of skin.
Is a “negative peace” enough?
DiAngelo further explains this foundational presence: “Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. It is not limited to a single act or person. Nor does it move back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between white people and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized in ideology.”
Despite these poignant truths, I am guilty of sitting back in silence.
The profound words of Martin Luther King, Jr. convict me: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
I am the white moderate.
I am guilty of naivety and ignorance.
I am guilty of desiring peace—a negative peace.
I am guilty of shying away from digging deeper in hopes that these events must be one-off occurrences, implemented by the abhorrent errors of a singular human, rather than the ideology that backs the foundation of my country.
But this is not about me, my guilt, or the blame I must work through in the continued suppression and mistreatment of others of different colors.
This is about forward progress and a willingness to trade what is comfortable for what is just.
Choose to be antiracist
In an interview with Brené Brown, Ibram X. Kendi says: “The heartbeat, historically, of racism has been denial. . . . the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgment, is the willingness to be vulnerable, is the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, is to be willing to diagnose ourselves and our policies and our countries.” Kendi ends with this radical statement: “To be antiracist is to admit when we are being racist.”
He positions the idea of “not being racist” as null, an impossibility in our political and social systems.
How then do we move forward and seek antiracism?
How can we fight the pervasive and paralyzing idea that our current situation will never change—that the way things are, are simply the way they are going to be?
DiAngelo offers a few helpful focus points that might aid in our pursuit of antiracism:
- Decrease defensive responses.
- Practice vulnerability.
- Choose to be curious and humble.
- Seek growth and a wider perspective.
- Build authentic relationships and trust.
We must choose this better way.
Step into each other’s shoes
We must also not be silent.
We must not sit back and allow a comfortable negative peace to prevent the uncomfortable uprooting of the injustices that so heavily weigh on our country and its people.
Lay aside your defenses and consider this: How would you feel if you were profiled by a police officer? How would you feel if you were called a racial slur?
A white friend, married to a black husband, recently shared her fears on social media. She spoke to fears I had never previously considered: “I worry about my husband every single night when he takes our dog for a walk. I hate the nights when it’s raining or cold and he wears a hoodie. He won’t let me walk the dog at night because he cares about my safety. He is the friendliest, most personable man . . . he can make friends with anyone. But. I still worry. Every single night.”
Perhaps we ought to authentically consider how we might feel in these instances. We ought to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and walk around, truly evaluating the depths of our country’s inadequacies and the places in which we need reconciliation and healing—where we need reform.
One way we might do this is simply through relationships. Dr. Marcus Goodloe, a professor at Dallas Baptist University, suggests: “Building relationships should be your first and foremost step. Hosting a dinner or inviting someone to sit with you over a cup of coffee is a way forward. Ask: tell me your story, your dreams, hopes, and fears.”
Seek the golden rule
Love, relationship-building, and taking time to sit with our peers are all lessons the Bible specifically points to as imperative to the Christian walk (Mark 12:30–31; 1 Peter 4:8-9).
Paul speaks into the topic with clarity: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26–28).
Matthew 7 offers the simplest and yet most profound directive in pertinence to this topic: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (v. 12).
Put yourself in a pair of different-colored shoes and then consider what actions you would seek in a given situation.
Meditate on the emotions surrounding our present happenings.
Prayerfully contemplate how we might remedy the debilitating ailments that plague our society, our political structures, and our neighborhoods and communities.
What would you wish to have done unto you?