Illustrating “Racial Insensitivity” in Black and Tan
Doug Wilson and I have been at this exchange for about two weeks now. Much has been said and much more could be discussed. But, alas, we have to bring things to an end at some point. For my part, this post will be my last comment on Black and Tan. I’m guessing Wilson will want to reply to the substance of this post, then perhaps we’ll end with some form of a summary comment.
Since the publication of Southern Slavery as It Was and Black and Tan, many readers have charged Wilson with either “racism” or being “racially insensitive.” Most would regard those charges as serious. I do, too. We live in a day where it’s no longer socially acceptable to be a racist or racially insensitive. It was perfectly fine—even expected—for certain persons to be racist and racially-motivated during the period we’ve been discussing (the 1800s). But much has changed, including the hearts of many people and the social standards by which we live with one another. Because of those changes and to protect those advances, we now also live at a time when such charges need to be proven, or at least an effort to do so ought to be made.
In this post, I want to lay out a few thoughts about Black and Tan and what I regard to be its racial insensitivity. I think I owe this to Wilson and to any reader who read my allusion to these issues in my very first post. I need to be accountable for the words I speak and I find this medium a sometimes effective place for receiving admonishment and accountability. So we begin….
What Is “Racial Insensitivity”?
Some commenters have suggested that the charge of “racial insensitivity” is little more than being overly sensitive. They’ve equated racial insensitivity with hurt feelings, implying or stating that the person with hurt feelings simply needs to “grow up” and be “adult” about such things. While I’m sure some people do need to grow up, please forgive me for saying that such counter-responses are themselves immature and have sometimes been evidence of the insensitivity in question.
It seems to me that discussions of this sort require definitions, lest we descend in a spiral of allegations, dismissals, and counter-allegations. Such definitions are notoriously difficult. Is “racial insensitivity” one of those things, like beauty, that’s forever imprisoned in the eyes of the beholder? Or can different eyes see it and all know it when they do? Or is it the opposite of beauty—can we define it but not know it when we see it? We need a working proposal?
We all have some sense of what we mean by “racial,” even though that term itself introduces ambiguity. For our purposes, let’s just assume a “man on the street” definition of “race.” The trickier term is “insensitive.” A Webster’s Dictionary definition for “insensitive” is “not responsive or susceptible” or “lacking feeling or tact.” Some synonyms include: compassionless, hard- or cold-hearted, heartless, inhumane, pachydermatous (my favorite!), pitiless, remorseless, and ruthless. Antonyms include: charitable, compassionate, humane, kindhearted, sympathetic, tender, warm, and warm-hearted.
At the level of word meaning, “racial insensitivity” involves being unresponsive or lacking in feeling or tact toward people of different races or issues associated with race. I would suggest it’s a certain inability or unwillingness to sense and lovingly consider the concerns, feelings, and perspectives of others across racial lines.
Who Gets to Decide What Is “Racially Insensitive”?
Of course, offering a definition only gets us started. We need to also offer some thoughts about how we know racial insensitivity has occurred. In a world where charges are made and denied, who gets the final say-so?
Here’s where being dismissive of other people’s feelings—not to mention their statements, perspectives, cultures and the like—actually becomes a big deal. Insensitivity is fraught with feeling, and usually the lead indicator that something insensitive has happened will be one emotion or another. The emotion could be bitterness, like the wife whose dinner lies cold waiting on a husband who for the thousandth time has broken his promise to be home for dinner. Or, it could be deep sadness, like the man told his wife has been unfaithful. A thousand examples could be imagined. But you get the point. Insensitivity provokes feeling, and if we’re dismissive of that feeling or insensitive toward it we’ll only compound the problems we have across racial lines.
So, who gets to decide? I don’t know if they get the final word, but the person so hurt should at least have the first word. And the person doing the hurting should really stop and listen for what they missed. That listening turns out to be crucial because the nature of insensitivity is that it fails to sense something. When we’re insensitive we have a blind spot, at least. At worst, we’re knowingly and intentionally trying to cut and hurt. In either case, we’ll never properly fix the hurt or help the hurting feel differently or address our own heart issues (out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, right?) if we continue tone-deaf to that leading indicator—the other person’s feelings.
How Does Racial Insensitivity Affect Us?
Bulls in china shops really do cause a lot of damage. Scripture warns us repeatedly about the deadly destruction of our tongues. So, it should be obvious that such insensitivity affects us deeply. The effects range from hurt feelings, to broken relationships, discord among brothers, hardened hearts, mistrust, and significant sins against each other.
In the context of race relations, both inside and outside the church, we’ve paid a tremendously high cost for our racial insensitivity. We continue, by and large, to worship the same Savior in different churches. We continue to suspect and mistrust one another. We continue to make the same cross-cultural gaffes and we continue to avoid seeking forgiveness and understanding for those gaffes. Some continue to hate. Some continue to pretend ignorance of deep hurts, and some others just want to “get past it all.” Many continue to cry out, “How long?” but they’re addressing the racial other, not the Lord. There are the costs in missed opportunities for friendship, worship, mission and partnership. The stakes are really quite high and the effects are difficult to number and assess. This is why willful ignorance ranks among the most significant contaminates in cross-cultural or inter-ethnic relationships.
What Ought to Be Done When Racial Insensitivity Occurs?
We should apply the Bible. We should go to our brothers and show them their faults. If he hears us (there’s that listening thing again), then we have won our brother over. If he will not hear us, we should take two or three witnesses with us who can establish every fact of the matter. And if we’re in the same church, we may just get to the point of having to tell the entire church. It seems the Master’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 apply pretty specifically to the personal offense of racial insensitivity.
Or, perhaps we would be wise to consider Titus 3:10. We should warn the divisive person once. We should warn them a second time. And if the behavior isn’t repented of after the second warning, we should have nothing to do with them. We regard them as brothers, but we can’t have meaningful fellowship with someone who continues to wound and sin without acknowledgement of the hurt they’ve caused.
All of this suggests to us that charges of “racial insensitivity” ought not be made lightly and they ought not be treated lightly. The fellowship and witness of our Lord’s church is at stake. Which brings us to our key question for this post.
Is Black and Tan Racially Insensitive?
Before we answer that question, let me remind us of a couple things stated in earlier posts. Wilson makes it clear repeatedly that he abominates and disavows racism, racial vainglory and white supremacy. He does not write anywhere in the book that one race is superior to another. Instead, he offers a rather sound biblical anthropology that emphasizes our common descent from Adam, our close cousinage biologically, and our common need for the Savior because of our common problem of sin. I think it’s important to hear him at these points and to take him at his word about these things even as (especially as) we take issue with his words at other places.
I am not here leveling a charge of “racism” against Wilson. But I do want to enter a charge of “racial insensitivity.” In my mind, racism is related to racial insensitivity the way criminal cases are related to civil cases. The former (racism, criminal cases) require higher levels of proof to substantiate. The latter require a lower threshold, some indication that damages have occurred, even sometimes when a person has been acquitted in a criminal case. Think O.J. Simpson’s criminal acquittal for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and his subsequent civil conviction in a suit brought by her family.
With that in mind, I want to quote a series of things from Black and Tan and offer very brief explanations for why I think they’re racially insensitive or what I think Wilson fails to sense in these comments. Some of these illustrations will be more minor and some more serious. The point is to demonstrate something of the range of statements that might leave an honest reader offended and hurt by such remarks.
A Benign Slavery Ended Wrongly
“It was the contention of this booklet [Slavery as It Was] that the way in which slavery ended has had ongoing deleterious consequences for modern Christians in our current culture wars, and that slavery was far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists” (p. 14).
This, the central premise of the book, fails to sense how horrific an experience slavery was for African Americans. It fails to take into account, that though removed from chattel slavery by 150 years, African Americans consider the 350 year slave experience foundational to their condition here and we regard the 100 years or so of Jim Crow segregation a modified continuance of systematic oppression based on race. This quote fails to recognize that the abolitionists are the heroes to African Americans, not the villains. To repeat this premise throughout the book without ever showing consideration for how African Americans view that history or hear these words is an instance of racial insensitivity, in my opinion.
Labels Like “Paleo-Confederate”
“I’m a paleo-Confederate” (p. 15).
Wilson works hard to distinguish himself from “neo-Confederates” and to define what he means by “paleo-Confederate.” But “Confederate” hits the black ear with cuffed hands and leaves the listener shell shocked and momentarily disoriented. I don’t want to argue that Wilson shouldn’t use this label for himself. But I think if he continues to do so, he should offer a definition without the wordplay and “snark” of Black and Tan. The label “Confederate” has a lot of negative connotations. Wilson appears insensitive to the fact that for African Americans “Confederate” connotes white subjugation of Blacks and conjures nightmares related to lynchings, segregation, cross burnings, and the like. Rightly or wrongly, to embrace the label is to embrace the connotations. A lot of those associations, which Wilson seems to understand (p. 15), have to do with racism and racist attitudes. It then becomes insensitive to take on the label without plainly, tactfully, and sympathetically defining and distinguishing what is meant or not meant for those you don’t want to offend. As it is, that label and its proud use feels like a giant defiant finger in the eye.
The Inferiority of Black Culture
“Both Northerners and Southerners were misled by the obvious inferiority of black culture at that time, which had nothing to do with whether blacks bore the image of God in man, and everything to do with whether the gospel had yet had an opportunity to do its work within black culture” (p.18).
“All men exhibit the image of God equally, but all cultures are not equal. As we look at all the tribes of men, we see some that have landed a man on the moon, and some that have not yet worked out the concept of the wheel. We have some with one whole row in the supermarket dedicated to shampoo, while in another tribe hair is washed with cow urine” (p. 33).
Now, I need to hasten to add context to these words before I explain why I think they’re racially and culturally insensitive. In both places, Wilson denies that the relative superiority/inferiority of cultures has anything to do with race or racial differences. He attributes differences to the effect of the gospel in cultures. Some have received the gospel and been aided and changed by it, while others have not. He argues that racists make the misstep of attributing the “obvious differences” to race, but he does not. That’s important context. Leaving these quotes to stand alone would misrepresent his actual argument.
But what of his actual argument? I find it offensive on at least three grounds. First, he binds the gospel up with spurious assessments of cultures. He means to adorn the gospel (I get that) but as a Christian I think he effectively tarnishes the gospel by associating it with claims and perspectives the biblical writers nowhere make. There’s an implicit civilizationism here that needs to be detangled and questioned for the sake of the Good News.
Second, Wilson writes about the “obvious inferiority of black culture” with seemingly no understanding or acknowledgement of how the Southern culture he’s defending actually actively guaranteed black underdevelopment! With one broad stroke he lumps all of “black culture” (as if there’s only one) into one bag and deems it inferior to (I presume) “White culture” improved by the gospel. He does that while failing to mention that the supposedly gospel-enlightened white culture has its boot on the necks of people in the “inferior” black culture. His comments fail to sense this incongruity and it fails to acknowledge that a black culture of both resistance to inhumanity and promotion of everyone’s humanity—whites included—was well under way. One might argue that a culture of such tolerance, patience, and humanity is superior to one lacking those traits, no matter it’s economic and technological state.
Third, these comments fail to be sensitive to the fact that this very notion of cultural superiority has led to imperialistic abuses in the name of “civilization” all over the world. It was one justification for European colonization and a host of resultant crimes against others. It was justification, as Wilson notes (p. 34), for the racist attitude and actions of others.
These comments are racially and culturally insensitive to a host of things. In fact, shortly after the last quote, Wilson reveals an indifference that probably contributed to the tone and insensitivity of Black and Tan. “For those who do not want to listen to the argument, I have nothing more to say. For some, the mere denial of egalitarianism is enough to brand one as a racist forever, and since I am interested in taunting egalitarianism every chance I get, I have little hope of gaining there favor” (p. 34). Wilson seems to be digging in. I suspect that attitude, while aimed at his detractors at the time, creates a blind spot for Wilson when it comes to perceiving how his words wound others not in his immediate view. In stoning himself against those who call him “racist,” he may in fact have made himself insensitive to a ton of other people as well.
Little Black Sambo
In a more autobiographical section of the book, Wilson recalls a high school town meeting to discuss racial harmony. He was a student on that panel and recalls that, “One of my co-panelists was aggrieved over the book Little Black Sambo. But Sambo was not an African American; he was from the subcontinent. And besides, as I recall saying that evening, I had nothing but the highest respect for Sambo. If anyone asked me to turn tigers into butter for my pancakes, I confess that I would be entirely nonplussed” (p. 24).
Honestly, I staggered over the racial insensitivity in these comments. Not only that, I couldn’t fathom how these comments served any real purpose in understanding one another. I suppose most readers will know that Sambo came to be a very hurtful racial trope and image. It’s a racial slur and Sambo iconography, like the “Mammy” figures once so prevalent, exaggerate and transmogrify racial features so much that many African Americans still have deep visceral reactions to them. They’ve been such a potent tool of hatred, oppression and misrepresentation that I simply can’t fathom why Wilson would (a) miss his co-panelists grief over the book and the racial insensitivity associated with it and (b) trivialize the entire matter with comments about butter for pancakes. If you want to know what racial insensitivity looks like, it looks like this anecdote. With all Wilson’s learning and reflection on these issues, it’s difficult for me not to think this anecdote isn’t an example of that racial insensitivity born of willful ignorance.
More Skilled at Confessing the Supposed Sins of Black People
“None of us is clean in himself. So do whites need to seek and receive forgiveness for their treatment of the black man? Absolutely. But blacks also need the cleansing blood of Christ—some of it for treatment of fellow blacks, some for responding to white hatred with hatred, some of it for taking mistreatment of a great-grandfather as a license for crime, and so on. We are, all of us, sinners. And it is not fitting for a sinner to look sideways at someone else and say, ‘Well, I’m less of a sinner than you’” (pp. 29-30).
Reading this I was left wondering, Why is Wilson so expert at confessing Black people’s sins and so slight and general in confessing the sins of white people in a book partially about slavery? He’s certainly correct to say we all need forgiveness. But that’s not all he says. He goes on to identify a few instances of sin that Blacks need to be cleansed of. The net effect is that Black people come off looking like the bad guys in a book about slavery! Again, all of this without attending in any way to the causative factors of white oppression. Instead, he imagines some black people justifying their crime by referring to a great-grandfather’s mistreatment. The section reads like a chastisement of Black people. I don’t doubt that some people need chastisement. But the question is whether Wilson displays any sensitivity in making these comments. I don’t think so. He seems to conveniently forget that whites commit crimes against whites; whites claim Twinkies made them kill their parents; and whites have used the “mistreatment” of other whites as grounds for their mistreatment of blacks. Do we remember Emmet Till who supposedly offended a white woman, or Rosewood, or even Trayvon Martin whose offense was walking while Black*? Wilson’s comments here lack tact, compassion, and charity. They are, in a phrase, “racially insensitive.”
On Black Lives and the Implied Charge of Black Indifference to Abortion
Finally, I find it insensitive toward black life that Wilson and many commenters continually bring up black lives in abortion in this discussion but refuse to countenance the cost of black lives in the antebellum South. For instance, Wilson writes: “Who cannot lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way in which slavery was abolished? I am forced to say that, in many ways, the remedy which has been applied has resulted in problems that are every bit as bad as the original disease ever was. Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2005″ (p. 60).
I don’t get the sense from the overall tone of the book that Wilson was truly “forced” to write these things. One gets the sense that he took a kind of delight in saying them. And I can’t help but see the omissions and blind spots that make these comments insensitive. We’re frequently told of the over 600,000 lives lost in the Civil War but not once do I recall a mention of the 4-5 times that number of lives lost in the Middle Passage and Southern slavery up to the war. It strikes me as at least inconsistent and at worst opportunistic to emphasize one’s concern for black lives today while writing in a manner that suggests indifference to black lives then.
Moreover, many of these comments insinuate that Black people themselves are callously disinterested in Black life today. Case in point: This paragraph from Wilson’s initial post struck me as tremendously insensitive about men he does not know (at least he does not know me):
The blood of Jesus also makes it possible for the white liberal to repent of his exasperating and cloying insistence on a soft bigotry of low expectations, coupled with his destructive subsidies of all the wrong things in the black community. But the blood of Jesus makes it possible for the liberal to repent of Margaret Sanger’s war on black children in utero. In addition, it requires that he repent of celebrating, and giving awards to, those rap thugs who want to teach America’s next generation to think of black women as bitches and ho’s who are supposed to be beneath contempt. In the face of this demolition job being run on the black family by progressivism, with black children killed by the million, and black women publicly degraded by black men, and other black men standing by letting them, let’s get out there and rebuke the three remaining people who think that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. Way to keep the priorities straight.
Brothers, I don’t have a problem with you standing up for and protecting your people. I do have a problem with your failure to do so.
Ouch! Whoa! All this from a blog post and a tweet. I don’t know how “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or liberal support of “destructive subsidies of all the wrong things in the black community” came into all of this. But it sounds to me like so much racially-loaded and insensitive speak. I’ve never given awards to “rap thugs” and I don’t use the language Wilson felt free to use in description of black women. And I don’t regard myself as “standing by” while such treatment goes on or children are killed. Nor do I think any of Wilson imaginings in these paragraphs amount to my failure to stand up for and protect my people. They’re his imagination and racially insensitive ones at that.
To be frank, I think Wilson should retract statements made in Black and Tan and really should apologize for the comments made in his post, “With a Bit of Menthol.” These comments are well beyond the lines drawn for us by our Lord in His word.
There are other examples I thought to provide. But this has gone on far longer than I’d hoped or planned. I wish I could write these things more succinctly. On second thought, I wish I didn’t have to write these things at all. I wish racially insensitive comments were not a part of Black and Tan, or a part of any internet exchanges between brothers. But, such comments are and we have to try to charitably work through them. I pray this post has made even incremental progress to that end. Racial insensitivity (and racism) is real. The hurt it causes is real. The loss to the church and its witness is real. But real, too, is the power of the Holy Spirit, the hope of the gospel, and the indwelling of Christ which can lift us above these thins by actually resolving them and reconciling. May the Lord be pleased to grant us such victory with one another and not over one another.
* A couple of readers of this post found this reference to Trayvon Martin insensitive. I take their point and have offered an apology in the comments thread and separately in this post. I asked their counsel as to whether to leave the comment in the post or delete it. Those who replied suggested leaving it in the post with this kind of notation. Again, I offer a sincere apology for using a reference that would cause confusion, consternation, doubt, or anger for any reader. In an effort to argue for sensitivity in our communication about volatile issues, I certainly do not want to be insensitive in the process. May the Lord be gracious to us all.