In my first post, I spoke of the need to prioritize being in community over being right, and described our need to distinguish between intent and impact. As promised, here are three types of comments I hear fairly frequently, and that many people point to as impediments to the work of reconciliation. I am sure there are many more, but these three are very common. I anticipate that some of you will read these, and say “…but when I said that, I meant (fill in the blank).” To that I respond, look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others, as you read the challenges and impact of statements that you may have made.
#1 – I don’t see color/I am colorblind. There’s only one race, the human race. We are all created equal.
I believe that the people who profess this idea believe that racial differences do not and should not matter. They choose to treat all people equally without regard to race, ethnicity, or skin color. They believe in a world in which the “content of one’s character” is the most important deciding factor in how they will form relationships with others. Their intentions are good, and this is their way of saying that they are not racist.
The most obvious challenge to the colorblind paradigm is that it is inaccurate. If the colorblind person were to meet me, s/he could accurately predict that my family’s origins were in East Asia, and certainly not from Sweden or Norway. We do in fact see racial differences, and acknowledging those differences does not necessarily imply that those differences should lead to inequality. In fact, scientific research has demonstrated that even very young children can distinguish between people of different races. More importantly, those differences may have significant influence on how we experience the world around us.
One impact of the colorblind paradigm is that it is often heard as “race doesn’t exist, so racism doesn’t exist.” If I don’t see color, then I cannot discriminate on the basis of color. No one else can either. Therefore, your experience of discrimination is your problem. This can also be heard as “you are making it up.”
In my own experience, people have yelled racial epithets at me, threatened my physical safety, and told me that they wish I had died in the Hiroshima bombing (although I am not Japanese). When I, as a person of color, share with you that my experience of the world leads me to believe that we are not colorblind, I am not calling you a racist. I am asking you to understand that your good intentions to know me as an individual and not reduce me to my race are not enough. My experience of racism is not necessarily about you, but our relationship with one anotherhas to be about us.
#2 – Racism is about power. Whites hold all the power in our society, therefore only Whites can be racist. All Whites benefit from White privilege, and need to repent.
I believe that the people who argue that only Whites can be racist want to understand racism as something that goes deeper than bias or prejudice, and want to teach others about the insidious nature of institutional or structural racism. The concept of White privilege, or “unearned advantage” associated with Whiteness is also meant to highlight that even if a White person is not explicitly or intentional racist, s/he will benefit from a racist system. People who make these claims about Whites, many of whom are White themselves, have the good intention of trying to understand racism in a more complex way; they are trying to examine the elements of the iceberg that are hidden beneath the surface of the water. You can read Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 piece to get an introduction to the concept, and read othercritiques (warning – profanity) of the concept.
These statements oversimplify the complexity of White identity and experience. I have taught poor, White, first-generation college students who have to work multiple jobs to pay their fees and stay in school, who do not feel that they benefit from unearned advantages as compared to their upper-middle class or affluent non-White classmates and professors. Similarly, racism can exist in many different societies and social contexts, where power may be held by non-Whites. As children, my parents lived under the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, witnessed the destruction of Korean historical and cultural artifacts, and could only speak, read, and write Japanese in school. For many Koreans of my parents’ generation, the major racial antipathy of their lives was with the Japanese. And yet, when they immigrated to the United States, they found solidarity with Japanese Americans in the context of anti-Asian racism here.
The notion that only Whites can be racist and that all Whites benefit from White privilege is often heard as “you are White, therefore you are a racist.” It reduces the complexity of identity to a single factor, and seems to suggest that Whiteness itself is a barrier to reconciliation. It can also be heard as “I know everything there is to know about racism, and you are ignorant. What you say/think/believe doesn’t matter.”
My family is multi-racial, and I have lived most of my life in predominantly White communities, including communities with high levels of White poverty. I have seen White friends who were hungry to learn more about equity and inclusion withdraw from important and meaningful dialogue about race because they felt silenced and ridiculed when they had questions about White privilege. Our good intentions to teach others about the complexity of racism and unearned advantage are not enough to ensure that learning will actually occur. Building community needs to take precedence over being right.
#3 – Just ignore him/her. S/he is just a knee-jerk liberal/conservative and doesn’t have all the facts. Statistics show that (I am right) and s/he is misguided/ignorant/naïve/intolerant/brainwashed or worse, racist/playing the race card.
Hmm, hard to show what the good intentions are here. Usually the “just ignore him/her” comment is meant as a way of showing solidarity, and that the speaker does not agree with the hurtful comments from the other person. These comments intend to demonstrate the “rightness” or certainty of one perspective in contrast to the “wrongness” of the other perspective.
Our Baptismal Covenant calls us to something better than this. How will we ever love our neighbors as ourselves, and respect the dignity of every human being if our first reaction is to ignore one another and call each other names? Again I believe that being in community always needs to be more important than being right. These statements privilege being right and undermine community and reconciliation.
In our flawed human desire to be right about contentious issues like racism, we end the conversation before it ever begins. On the one hand, colorblind folks seem to deny the experience of racism that people of color experience in the United States on a daily basis, simply because they have not seen it. On the other hand, anti-racism activists seem to imply that there is only ONE way to understand race and racism, and if you are not on board, you are a racist. While we might claim that we want to learn from one another’s experience, in fact, we mostly want to be on what we believe is the “right side” of this issue.
In my experience, there is no such thing as an easy or comfortable experience when exploring how race and racism impact our communities. We ask awkward questions, we make mistakes, and we react with anger, accusation, or defensiveness instead of love. We seem to be much less willing to forgive one another in conversations about race than we would be about any other topic. I have seen Christians telling atheists that faith is belief in that which can remain unseen, who then say that racism doesn’t exist because they have not seen it. I have seen anti-racism advocates preach about radical inclusion and welcome, who then dismiss anyone who does not immediately understand a concept like White privilege. I have seen faithful, compassionate, loving Christians who talk about building the kingdom of God, but who behave as though the kingdom should only include people who think exactly like them.
So I return to Philippians.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Philippians 2: 1-4
Will you take the journey toward reconciliation, listen deeply to others, and choose to love before you judge? Will you be courageous enough to be vulnerable, and prioritize community over being right?
I will, with God’s help.
A Way Forward: Reflections, Resources & Stories Concerning Ferguson, Racial Justice & Reconciliation
Social Justice and Advocacy Engagement:
Episcopal Public Policy Network
Lesson Plans That Work