On Race and Love and Trying to Understand
I’m no expert on racial reconciliation. It’s a thorny, painful topic. I don’t wade into it lightly or, frankly, with a lot of confidence. It’s too easy to say something hurtful or dumb, and it’s hard to say something insightful and profound. But with all the news surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and with all of our country’s old racial scabs being picked at again I have been reflecting again on something I have been thinking about for a long time.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Surely part of loving in this way is trying to understand what another person wants us to understand. I may not understand perfectly and I may not agree, but if I love you I should try to know what it is you wish I could know.
When it comes to racial reconciliation—and here I’m thinking primarily of blacks and whites—there are certain things I think each group wishes the other would understand. Rather than venturing to suggest what blacks wish whites understood, let me simply speak from my own fallible perception and offer one thing I think many whites want blacks to know and one thing I think many white people should try to understand in an effort to love their minority neighbors as themselves.
In my experience, whites want blacks to understand that they are not racists. Granted, even the term “racist” is subject to interpretation. This is part of the problem. In seminary there was a class offered once a year on race and ministry. The professor (a white man) took great pains to define racism as prejudice plus power. His definition was always controversial. By his definition a minority person could not be racist—even if he thought his race was inherently superior to others—because he did not have power, while almost all whites are racist because they are in a position of power and inevitably hold to certain stereotypes about nonwhites.
Debating his definition is not the point of this post, except to note that I’ve known very few whites who understand racism that way. White people, myself included, tend to think of racism as explicit animus toward certain people based on the color of their skin, or more simply, as a belief in the superiority of one race over another. Our picture of racism is the tragic black and white videos of KKK rallies or segregated schools or separate pools and drinking fountains. Whites think of racism hating someone or looking down on someone because they do not share the same race or ethnicity.
You may think this is too narrow a definition, but I believe it is the way most whites think of racism. It is a serious sin, and we want to steer clear of it with all our might. Growing up in Michigan, I can’t think of anything so explicitly communicated to me in my whole education experience as the vileness of in-your-face racism. I grew up in the public school schools in Grand Rapids, not exactly the hotbed of progressivism. And still, I was taught—frequently, consistently, and earnestly—from an early age that Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero and that the civil rights movement was heroic. It seemed like we watched Eyes on the Prize and Glory every year in high school. We were taught in school, and I was taught at home and in church, that blacks and whites were equal and we should not discriminate based on skin color, even if my school was almost entirely white.
None of this means whites like me couldn’t be racist, but it means for most whites my generation or younger that we understand racism to be a serious evil. You can hardly call anyone anything worse than a racist. That’s why I believe most whites want others to understand first and foremost that they are not racist. They do not hate nonwhites. They do not think other peoples are inferior. Most whites in this country detest blatant discrimination and are appalled by racial violence. And (as you can tell by my previous sentence) most whites assume that virtually every other white person feels the same way.
On the other hand, in my experience, most whites do not understand that racism still exists. At the very least, prejudice is not as uncommon as we might think. I can’t remember ever talking to a minority in this country who hasn’t had some experience of insensitivity, unfair treatment, discrimination, or outright racism. Because much progress has been made in the last 50 years, many whites assume that racism is over and done with. Such a view is naïve.
Just as importantly, whites are usually blind to all the ways we assume our culture is normal, neutral culture. White folks will sometimes joke, “Why do they need BET? You don’t see any station called White Entertainment Television.” Besides using a pejorative sounding “they,” such sentiment overlooks the facts that for virtually all of American history what has been considered mainstream culture has been the culture dominated and controlled by white people. This doesn’t make it all bad or all racist (though some was). But it means we don’t have a clue as to what it is like to live as a minority.
This is true in the church too. White Christians are just beginning to realize what a price African American brothers and sisters pay to be a part of “our” evangelicalism. We can think, “Gee, no one is keeping you out. You are perfectly welcome here. We don’t have anything against black people.” And yet, we are completely blind to the ways songs or illustrations or habits or expectations or dress or demeanor can feel very strange to others and require a tremendous amount of effort for nonwhites to overcome.
In a nutshell, it is my contention that blacks and whites approach the subject of race from completely different perspectives (duh). In general, I think when whites hear of another race story in the news their first inclination is, “Why do we have to see everything through the prism of race. Can’t we move on and just see each other as people? Isn’t that what Martin Luther King Jr. was calling for?” By the same token, I wonder if blacks have the opposite inclination: “We have not moved on as far as people think. Race almost always has something to do with it.” I’m not pretending to sort out these different perspectives. But acknowledging these perspectives—if indeed they are accurate—can be a first step in turning down the temperature on these sorts of conversations.
The prospect of fruitful discussion about race is also hampered by the politically-charged nature of such discussions. Take the Trayvon Martin case for example. Sides quickly form—with high walls and heavy artillery—because both sides have sweeping narratives which feel affirmed by impressionistic and anecdotal evidence. Many whites think we are a largely color-blind society. They may broadly affirm that some discrimination here and there may negatively affect blacks, but white are more apt to see an unhealthy pathology and victimology in the black community. They are incredulous when African American leaders like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton take a slight offense on random crime and turn it into another example of systemic oppression and racism. Conservative outlets like Fox News and talk radio provide public support for this understanding of the world.
By contrast, many blacks (and left-leaning whites for that matter) would understand the problems in African American communities to be a product, not only of personal choices, but just as importantly, a product of past injustices, governmental neglect, and systemic unfairness in our society. They see racial profiling as a major problem and the legal system as rigged against them. Blacks acknowledge that whites pay lip service to racial harmony, but can be suspicious of such platitudes. Liberal outlets like the mainstream media and academia provide public support for this understanding of the world. One of the reasons the Trayvon Martin case is so explosive is because both sides find evidence to confirm their own narrative.
Obviously, I have simplified and generalized. Others may respond to this post and show where my analysis is all wrong. I am open to correction. But again, the point here is not to solve these entrenched differences. The point of this post is to recognize them. The model of discourse we see on television is impatient, defensive, and rude. As Christians we need to be patient, understanding, and kind. Instead of going on the attack, we can ask genuine questions. Instead of bristling when our narrative is summarily dismissed, we can carefully explain our way of seeing things. And when we are wrong, we won’t be afraid to say so.
In conclusion, let me suggest two simple things white Christians can do that would be huge steps in the right direction toward racial harmony. One, we can understand that we don’t understand what it is like to be black and then try our best to see what we don’t understand. Let’s admit we are clueless about a lot of stuff. Two, we could chillax on the racial front and just be normal friends with the minorities we know. Talk about stuff you like. Talk about your kids. Talk about the Bible. Talk about the gospel. Of course, be open to talking about the sticky racial issues, even though you might be uncomfortable or might see new sins. But don’t make friends with blacks so you can say “my black friend says” or because you want to know “how black people think” or because you are passionate about social justice. Just make friends because you are friendly. Don’t go looking for a social laboratory. Go out and meet someone you don’t know. Take it easy, be yourself, and see what happens.