My entire racism series can be read below. (post updated October, 2019).
- PART 1: #CHANGETHESTORY – The Problem of Racism in the Church
- PART 2: A Conversation on Racism #CHANGETHESTORY
- PART 3: YOUR RACIST CHURCH – Multi-Ethnic and White Evangelical Churches
- PART 4: RACISM AND YOU – Reverse Racism, All Lives Matter, Just Get Over It
- PART 5: RACISM: The Light is Winning
As a whole, White people and visible minorities see racism differently.
A minority will talk about racism from personal experience that includes descriptors of a SYSTEM that perpetuates 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 before? Over-emphasizing the value of equality actually 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 ignorant because it cannot see how complicit the view is with systemic racism and white supremacy.
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 racism that affects us all.
You may believe you’re far removed from the evils of racism. Culturally we’re led to believe that only individual acts define who is “a racist”. But that ignores the thesis of this post: you are the product of privileges/advantages rooted in racist ideology. Whether you have done overtly racist acts doesn’t matter when you (we) are benefactors of racist ideology that benefits some at the expense of black and brown skin.
What you do with this information from here, of course, is your call.
Racism is a vast and polarizing dichotomy. On one side, those individual racists who revel in their white supremacy and long for a pure white nation. On the opposite side, those working hard to upturn systems that perpetuate racism. It’s racist vs. antiracist and there’s nothing much in between. (EDIT Fall 2019. Read Ibram Kendi’s book, “How to be an antiracist.” for more.) Where do you exist on this spectrum?
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 by White folks for White folks. 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.
Examples include stealing land, stripping identity, killing culture, and outright genocide of indigenous peoples. 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.
In my definition, 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. It’s a form of racialized prejudice. He was targeted by the colour of his skin. Can White people experience violence from minorities based on their skin colour alone? Yes. Does it ‘count’ as “reverse racism”? To say “yes” is false equivocating. He at any point could extricate himself from that situation, perhaps move, but if not, have the weight of every institution on his side. In that moment and place he was victimized because of his race (and what that Whiteness represented). But whole of the system was never against him.
Of course, this brings up the idea that racist prejudice simply absolves people of color from racist acts. Kendi’s book makes a simple distinction: either racist or antiracist. Those Indigenous folks were committing a racist act. I wouldn’t say they had any form of power, nor did they think themselves as superior, but they certainly were not antiracists. So although power dynamics may escape you, people of color can still be “racists”, albeit in a different manner because they lack institutional power behind their acts.
Misconceptions About Racism: False Equivalency
The #blacklivesmatter movement following the aftermath of Charlottesville (2017) quickly found itself pitted against a competing campaign #alllivesmatter (a veiled attempt to say #whitelivesmatter). The two movements are not the same. Black Lives exists to protest systemic issues black people, in particular men, face on a daily basis. White people do not share this experience: there is no equivalent experience.
Changing growing narratives of righting systemic privileges to suit existing power structures seems innocent enough, but ultimately is nefarious.
The now infamous words of the Trump post-Charlottesville where he mentioned “both sides were at fault.” The severe problem? There is no antithesis to systemic racism. It is decidedly black and white–for or against racism. Many different groups from everywhere were certainly violent in Charlottesville, but only one came with the worldview whiteness is superior. Both sides at fault means white people can only see the issue of violence; they cannot (or will not) acknowledge the system that perpetuates that violence. BLM caused concern among whites that black lives may one day matter more than white lives. So 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 based on their whiteness 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.
Misconceptions About Racism: Fragility
That’s the more nefarious side. There’s a softer side of racism as well, that anybody who isn’t working towards being an antiracist participates in. The claims White people make because they don’t like the discomfort of being complicit with systemic racism. When the light shines to expose privilege, white people deflect. When honest critique emerges from white church leaders, guilt ridden parishioners don’t even want to hear it, replying with a desperate, “please stop”, “enough of this”, which is to say, “we get, but don’t want to do anything about it.” Forgive me for letting some emotion speak here, but it’s tiresome to hear how ‘tired’ white people are about hearing about their role in privileges that are now eroding.
Challenges to Privilege
Power permits something minorities cannot do–it enables the option to change narratives to suit your own. The #takeaknee is a 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 on white people 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-nazis, 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 do no participate in shaping policy and law (you are vicariously through your vote, however), but are unequivocal benefactors of systems. 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. To add, people of color, however, are also shaping policy and are benefactors of the same systems, albeit to a lesser degree. Not being at the top doesn’t absolve us from the work of being antiracist.
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.