White people and visible minorities see racism VERY differently.
A minority will talk about racism and refers to the systems that perpetuate the violence. A white person will lament sarcastically that, “I guess black people can’t be racist….” or qualify their level of culpability by stating, “I don’t see skin colour, I see everyone equally.”
Have you heard this statement before? This attempt to over-emphasize a perceived belief in equality does the opposite–it reveals privilege. Someone who carelessly says they don’t “see” colour chooses to ignore the obvious. Unless you’re literally blind, the very first thing you notice about someone is what you see–the colour of their skin. For a white male to purposefully overlook race, he disconnects himself further from people who don’t look like him, nor share his life story of inherited privileges.
Not acknowledging differences demonstrates a narrow worldview; that your story is the common experience held by all others. It’s ignorance at best, and being complicit with systemic racism at worst.
Welcome to Part 4 of my series on racism and the church. This post might make you uncomfortable, but I hope you read until the end. This is my attempt to open the conversation on racism in the contemporary church in hopes of catalyzing more reconciliation, restoration, and redemption. In this post, we focus on YOU, and the racism you divulge, exude, or support. This is a confrontation to racist in us all.
You may believe you’re far removed from the evils of racism, but here’s one key in this conversation to remember: you may be a product of privileges based on racist ideology whether you know it or not. What you do from there is your call.
Racism is vast and polarizing spectrum. On one side, proud racists who revel in their white privilege, and long for a pure white nation. On the opposite side, those working hard to upturn systems that perpetuate racism. The majority of people, however, are somewhere in the middle, going about their daily routines largely unconcerned about how race affects them. This post is devoted to this group of people, and specifically white people.
Why single out white people?
First, some necessary context on the basic form of racism. Racism is violence perpetuated by those in power. In North America, white people have inherited power because the systems were designed to do so. The system(s) in Canada and the United States were built to favour white people. Examples from the past include the state stripping identity, land, culture, from indigenous peoples. By “systems” I mean the foundations in our society ranging from: legislation, law making, laws, policies, policing, courts, and ordinances. Think about who creates or executes these foundations: federal, provincial, state, congress, or local politicians; bureaucrats and policy makers; lawyers, prosecutors, judges; police, prison guards, etc. Historically, and presently, these positions have been filled overwhelmingly by white men. As a result, their work has explicitly or implicitly perpetuated a system created, maintained, and executed to benefit white people.
Current examples include the state stripping citizenship and identity through incarceration and the “war on drugs”. Each had monumental impact and were designed to carefully shape a country and benefit whites. Conversely, this system has been designed to oppress those who are not.
It’s worth making a distinction. Racism includes the benefits of a designed system. You don’t have to be a racist in order to benefit from a system predicated on racist policies. This is North America’s current state. Why can’t we change? That’s not so easy, it assumes, in the least, that everyone agrees what racism is about. It also means righting an unequal system means someone stands to lose inherited privileges. White people stand to lose the benefits from the system. That’s a change that comes with many misconceptions and challenges.
Misconceptions About Racism: Time to Get Over it
Many people often remark that the problems of the past are not problems for today. Talk to someone who has little connection to indigenous history or people. The oft cited reply to government reparations is, “it’s not my problem,” or “can’t they just get over it?” or “why am I being blamed for something that happened hundreds of years ago?” These arguments don’t work for two reasons. Firstly, the last federally run residential school in Canada closed in 1996! Secondly, white people aren’t being blamed for creating the current systemic problem. The question is: what are you doing today, as a white person, to right the systemic wrongs? You could become part of the solution for change. Are you in the majority who will remain neutral and do nothing?Or heaven forbid, will you choose to stand in the way?
Misconceptions About Racism: Reverse Racism
In Part 3 of this series on racism and the church, I told a story about a young pastor who tried to legitimize the often used argument by white people to justify racism: “reverse racism“. He believed he was targeted due to the colour of his skin. He’s right. However, he’s wrong when it comes to reverse racism.
I’ll need the sociologists to weigh in, however, as I’ve noted above, racism must have elements of prejudice and power. (The POWER component is crucial.) I call this “systemic racism”. Systemic racism therefore cannot be perpetuated by minorities. The reason is historical. We can’t go back in time and have a bunch of, say, South African tribes become world power, colonize the world, stroll into Europe, capture millions of white people, ship them off to the New World, enslave them on farms, generate massive generational equity, and create laws and systems to perpetuate the system of power! We can’t redevelop treaties that systemically annihilated aboriginal culture so they do the same but for white European settlers. We can’t recreate laws that were designed so blacks and coloured people were second class citizens. If that situation existed, someone could claim reverse racism. But the story of colonization only has one winner.
But context is important. The pastor’s experience was definitely violence and wrong. He was targeted by the colour of his skin. I’d call this “situational racism” (to be pedantic). Anybody can derive enough evil to believe their race is superior to another. Can white people experience violence from minorities based on their skin colour alone? Yes. Does it ‘count’ as “reverse racism”? No. This is an example of false equivocating.
Misconceptions About Racism: False Equivalency and Fragility
False equivocating happens a lot. Let’s look at a very recent examples out of both the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the aftermath from Charlottesville. False equivocating is hearing #blacklivesmatters, and creating a competing campaign #alllivesmatter, which was really a veiled attempt to say #whitelivesmatter. To reduce this issue to its barebones elements, the two movements are not the same. BLM exists to protest the systemic issues black people, in particular men, face on a daily basis. White people do not share this experience; there is no equivalent experience. What they may experience, however, is the potential of a more equitable system that stands to challenge inherited privilege.
Changing growing narratives of righting systemic privileges to suit existing power structures seems innocent enough, but it becomes nefarious too.
Another example is the now infamous words of the President, post-Charlottesville, where he mentioned “both sides were at fault.” The severe problem? There is no antithesis to systemic racism, no two-sides to the argument. It is decidedly black and white–for or against racism. Many different groups from everywhere were certainly violent in Charlottesville, but only one came to fight to preserve power based on whiteness. BLM generated concern by whites that black lives would matter more than white. When Charlottesville protestors clashed, the white supremacists were there to demonstrate not merely that it’s OK to be white, but that the monuments and history that’s contributed to white dominated society needed to stay so their privilege could stay too.
Benefiting from a system designed for a particular group in itself doesn’t make you a racist. However, the strategic confrontation of righting these systemic wrongs is tool of white supremacy. Overt displays of violence and calls for white nationhood like we’ve seen publicly in Charlottesville, and likely in every single North American city (including Canada), exist and are wrong. “It’s OK to be white“, “respect the flag”, “proud of my white heritage” are softer veiled and calculated attempts by white supremacists groups to normalize racism as well.
Challenges to Privilege
Power permits something minorities cannot do–it enables the option to change narratives to suit your own. The #takeaknee is an benign (comparatively) example. When more NFL players started taking a knee to uniformly protest systemic violence against blacks, white people re-wrote the narrative to make the protest about disrespecting the flag. Alarmed white people assumed Black Lives Matter really meant, “black lives matter more than white lives”, so they created #alllivesmatter. When a broken system is challenged, the story changes to suit the power structures. Are you seeing how this works?
Privilege and power removes you from systemic oppression. Often you can’t see it because it was never your story (i.e. those who “don’t see skin colour”). What you notice instead is the here and now. We see the crime blacks commit here and now, and not the system that perpetuates black poverty. We see the drunk Indian on the street, not the stripping of her cultural identity. And then we see challenges to white privilege, and assume it’s an attack whiteness rather than privilege. It’s the uncomfortable truth where someone’s identity in the face of racism is revealed: the solution to right systemic wrongs will challenge inherited privilege.
We face again the evils of white supremacy, neo-nazies, and every form of systemic racism in our networks, city, country. But it is changing.
“The traditional power and privilege reserved for white men is gradually eroding, and being replaced by more genuine participation and inclusion of historically marginalized peoples.” – Brenda McDougall, for the Globe & Mail.
This is good. However, I’ve often seen white people stymied from action because of shame. “Look at all the bad things white people have done!” a kind of thinking that doesn’t generate useful response. I’ve also seen a sense of fear inform response, usually in a in the safety of false dichotomies (equivocating). But fear isn’t a suitable place to learn from. After all, it’s ok to be white. But society isn’t telling any white person it’s not OK to be white. And that’s the thing, society (the systems) is built against minorities. If you’re not white you don’t fit in, you are looked upon and treated differently. This is the story we’re trying to tell.
Today, the majority of whites are not participants in shaping policy and law (you are vicariously through your vote, however), but you do unequivocally benefit from the systems of the land. For this reason, white people are both in charge of addressing, leading, and ending systemic racism and violence; and are complicit with systemic racism by directly inheriting its power.
How you respond to the systems of racism will be your measure and legacy to the world in your world. Part 5 of this series will look into what appropriate actions we can do moving forward to fix the wrong of racism.