Racism and Perspective



From the outset, this post is primarily written to white people, and how racism applies to the specific white superiority complex towards black people. This doesn’t mean that black people can’t also be racist. But let’s be honest…in our American culture, white people tend to have the corner on this one.

(Eds. note: Also, although racism is, fundamentally, a problem of the heart (as Janelle will point out), it is also a structural reality. Fighting against our individual tendencies towards racism does NOT mean we ignore the structural problems. That’s why the popular response of “but [X group] can be racist too!” is so tiresome; not because it’s wrong, but because it is both a red herring and deeply misunderstands the structural and systematic discrimination that has only flowed one way in our nation’s history.)

On Friday, I wrote a personal testimony about my own journey of self-discovery, where I realized that I was more racist than I originally thought. Today I want to follow up with this premise: we can’t solve our cultural problem of racism without first inspecting our own racial biases. I can say with a strong amount of certainty that everyone on the face of the planet has racial bias. You see it in who we relate to more often, who we tend to live with in our neighborhoods, who we tend to marry, and so on.

It’s so imbedded in our culture that I didn’t even realize I struggled with racism. I didn’t realize white privilege was still an issue because I was so imbedded in it that I was oblivious to it, almost like a fish that doesn’t know it’s wet. A fish can swim in the ocean and argue with the birds flying above him about whether he is wet, when they see it so clearly, and it makes him look ridiculous. I believe this happens ALL THE TIME (metaphorically, of course; I have no way of knowing the patterns of debate amongst fish and birds). Simply from a historical perspective, is it so hard to believe that a generation only removed from lynching black people by two generations still have heavily ingrained in our society? I believe it is foolish to believe otherwise. My own grandmother lived during that time. She lived when black people stepped off the sidewalk so she could walk by them while they stood respectfully to the side. She lived when she drank out of a different water fountain, when she went to segregated schools, and so on and so forth. Yes, we have made significant strides since then. And my grandmother opposed all those things, to the point of refusing to let black people step aside for her. But inherent in her upbringing was the idea that black people were inferior. Is it so hard to believe that her grandchildren’s generation still has those ideas, however remote it sounds to us?

So here lies the problem: we can try as hard as we want to convince people we aren’t racist and that we don’t believe our own race is superior to another, when we are so obviously wet it makes us sound ridiculous. And it makes it impossible for us to move forward in these types of discussions, because the birds are going to never take us seriously unless we admit that we are wet. For example, and stay with me here, but we have to take the issue of the Confederate flag head on. I know this is an inflammatory issue right now, but for good reason. On one side, you have people saying that it’s only a symbol of Southern pride (for goodness sake, know your history people! IT WAS ONLY A BATTLE FLAG SO IT CAN’T BE RACIST) And on the other side, you have people saying that it’s obviously racist (THEY FLEW THE FLAG TO SHOW THAT THEY WANTED TO BE ABLE TO SECEDE…TO OWN SLAVES! WHY ELSE DID THE KKK USE IT TO SYMBOLIZE OPPRESSION AND RACISM!?) Now, to me the answer is obvious. Let’s just take the argument of the history of the flag out of the discussion. Where does that leave us? With what it presently means. And you end up looking silly when you try to defend what it means today. To an entire culture of people, it represents hatred and racism. Keep trying to insist that you fly the Confederate flag because you love sweet tea and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but at least be prepared to hear birds laugh. And even if we disagree, why would we still defend it when it is extremely hurtful to our black brothers and sisters? Because we are wet and don’t even know it. And our culture can’t move forward when a host of southerners still fly the flag from their trucks and tattoo it on their arms.

So the premise remains: we have to search out where our own prejudice and bias lies. And we have to listen humbly to the ones who can see it much better than we can. This requires honesty and a willingness to admit we were wrong, and have been for a long time. It requires willingness to not fly a flag we “love” if it means it will serve our neighbor. It requires not making racial jokes, even if we think they are funny. The list goes on…

This is love. And it’s the type of radical love that Jesus perfectly exemplified. Ultimately, he’s the one we want to emulate, is he not? His message was an inclusive one, for the rich and the poor, the Jew and the Gentile, with no distinction. He laid aside his heavenly throne to be encased in flesh; so the least we can do is lay aside our own preconceived ideas about what constitutes racism and what doesn’t, and listen to an entire culture that was treated despicably. Perhaps they know a bit more about this than we do. Perhaps their perspective is better. Perhaps we should spend less time arguing about whether we are wet, and spend more time asking what it’s like to fly.

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