That’s no small task either. It’s a lifelong journey that takes more than feigned interest and the reading of a handful of books. The work to see racism, understand its reaches, and work to dismantle systems of oppression, comes at a cost most are unwilling to take. But you’re here because something has clicked where you’ve determined you must respond. The murder of George Floyd has become a symbol to both nations exposing the violence of systemic racism. As momentum grows for justice, it’s up to each person to respond in significant ways. That includes personal work, but also joining forces with the community. We’ll learn in this series that racism is more than a ‘me’ problem, it is an invisible force ‘we’ all participate in.
Before you proceed a word of warning. Some of the content here assumes you’re ready for a challenge. Many people new to anti-racist work are confronted by their privilege. It’s in fact traumatic to hear the realities of systemic racism. The response is often, “please stop,” because the work can get tiring. Sometimes what you’ve been hearing and what you will read will illicit disagreement. “That’s not true,” is often a response I hear, which exposes how deeply ingrained our culture has formed us into racist thinking.
With that said, let’s pull back the layers and begin. In the spirit of James 1:19, approach this series in a posture of listening and learning. Walk away changed with at least one action and shift in your imagination of what a just neighborhood, city, and nation can look like.
Language and terms will helps us forward so let’s start there.
Racism is not merely a “feeling” someone has about a different race. Rather, the layers extend much, much deeper. A simple way to define racism is to think of it as prejudice + power = racism. I first heard this explanation from author/pastor Dr. Brenda Slater McNeil (not if she’s the source). Prejudice is holding an opinion about about someone without reason or actual experience. Power in this case is institutional power culture affords a particular group. In our countries that would be white people. Since there are those who go to great lengths to decry notions of systemic racism, we should note the dictionary doesn’t have the addition of “power”. Rather, it speaks to racism being the notion of having “superiority” over another race. That unfortunately only goes halfway.
“Definitions of racism no longer focus on the intention of the actor but rather the impact of the action. Any act, committed by a person who is afforded racial dominance by a society, which then contributes to the further domination of one race over another, is racist. ” writes sociologist Dr. Monetta Bailey.
Racism moves beyond the boundaries of individual actions and into the underlying systems that make our culture and country what it is today. Racism isn’t in the air you breathe, it is the air your breathe. That doesn’t mean you made the air, but you are a participant in society and therefore must consider in what ways you benefit from systemic discrimination based on race. (There are other ‘systems’ of power out there that discriminate but we’re only focussing on race.) What is systemic mean? Let’s go back to our definition.
Prejudice + power = racism. “Power” is the privilege afforded by society to one dominant group through policy making and cultural narratives. For example, “reverse racism” doesn’t exists because in North America there are effectively no public policies that subjugate white people. Anybody can certainly be prejudiced and bigoted, but the superiority power enables is the crucial factor.
Conversely, there is an endless history of racist policies that have, and still, subjugate and denigrate Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. In fact, the fabric of both nations is built upon the violent imagination of white European colonists. Doctrine of Discovery, slavery, genocide, residential schools, segregation, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, suffrage, mass incarceration, war on drugs, etc. I can go on, but if you’re not familiar with these critical events stop here and do some reading.
Each of these racist policies are monuments that ensured white supremacy for centuries, of which, remnants and structures still actively exist. Many are out in the open. Colonialism still extends its ancient arms through the Indian Act in Canada for example. But it’s what you cannot see that reigns supreme. Underneath the surface, operating just out of sight, are the tentacles of white supremacy that continue to ensure Black and brown discrimination for white privilege. You did not create any of these (most likely), but in every aspect of North American life there are ways you benefit from racist policies.
What are some racist policies in your region?
Let’s come closer to current events by first re-visiting why I wrote this series in the first place. It’s been three years since the violence in Charlottesville, VA. White supremacists, emboldened by the 45th President, took to the streets to display white power solidarity. The pictures were nothing new, albeit disturbing, yet their proliferation across the news was. Furious white men with tiki torches parading across campus was reminiscient of KKK rallies only seen in pictures, now walking in plain sight for the world to see.
Charlottesville displayed how racist ideologies were unashamed, unabashed, and triumphant to expose themselves to the general public.
Since the infamous August of 2017, your life probably hasn’t changed much. You may have joined the collective disbelief and outrage, perhaps your church went so far as to make a public statement on racism. But over the past three years has there been a carefully orchestrated dismantling of systems? Repairing of broken relationships? A tireless pursuit of justice? The answer is most likely not. The day-to-day routine likely had little change. Which is privilege, if you can carry on with life without much more than a parting thought to racism in your midst.
For me, it was different.
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor
Like Charlottesville before, and the Floyd protests for justice now, I can feel my own fear. In the back of my mind I’m being reminded: if neo-nazis and white supremacists over there were bold enough to display abject evil, violence, and hatred, what’s preventing the same ideology from rearing itself here? The evil of racism is lurking all around and it’s coming for me.
Have you ever felt the presence of racist evil in your bones and skin?
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You’ve likely heard the saying,
Racism hasn’t changed, it’s just being recorded.
It’s true. And one of those recordings became the symbol that catalyzed massive protests across the world, and riots across America. It’s not the first time I’ve seen racism on screen or in real life, but something about this moment is notable. George Floyd was murdered by 4 police officers. In the ensuing days, as protests mounted, countless more videos of police brutality on Black and brown skin emerged. The images are gut wrenching. But the sickness of racialized violence doesn’t end with policing. Police killings of Black and Indigenous bodies is ongoing and systemic. George Floyd’s murder is the symbol that triggered the pent up rage of unceasing and incessant denigration of Black and brown skin through one image. Once again, I could feel the weight of the boot on my own skin.
When you heard or saw the images of George Floyd panting for breath, which body did you most identify with? The white cops? The bystanders?
I balanced between the fear of Floyd, and the complicity of the Asian cop on scene. I won’t fully experience what Black and Indigenous bodies experience. I have to balance my own tension as a brown skinned multi-ethnic person who can sometimes pass as Asian. I have privilege others don’t that’s tied to my complexion. What about you? Have you ever thought about what your skin colour affords? If that’s a rare thought if you are the prime benefactor of systemic racism. Another term is called “white privilege”. It means the systems around us are designed by, and for, white folks primarily, whether explicitly or implicitly (accidentally or on purpose). Another way to put it is that white privilege doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to you, it’s just those bad things aren’t because of your skin colour. Or the converse, your “success” is one step closer than Black and brown skin on the same pathway.
What Will You Do?
Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020, was BlackoutTuesday where mostly white folks displayed their solidarity on social media by posting a black box. I thought it was an interesting gesture given it’s rare to see widespread activism on the topic of race. Where that energy goes from here is the true test.
There are still too many stories of Black and brown people dying at the hands of the Powers of racism. Yet we are consistently reminded white supremacy is still in charge. I get that sense every time someone I know tells me, “racism is not a thing” and “stop playing the victim game”. (You can imagine what I field through social media from people I don’t, it’s not pretty.) I have to wonder, if you haven’t changed your mind on the depth and insidious reaches racism has in our countries, how many more deaths do you need to be convinced? 10 more George Floyd’s? 100? 1000? 10,000?
Seriously, how many more deaths of Black and Indigenous people do you need before you trust the cries of injustice and are compelled to DO something about it?
Christians have a nasty habit of ending their journey before it gets started. “This is a spiritual matter”, and “why are you so divisive, we’re all one in Christ”. This is an example of how far white supremacy impacts our theology. White Christians, and some POCs too, adopt a posture that rejects the story of the neighbour. Yet to love your neighbour you need to believe their cries for injustice or God won’t even hear your prayers (Is. 58). Racism IS the division and there is NO UNITY without righting this wrong.
Often white Christians jump to the end where there is “no condemnation” and only “unity in the Spirit”, which if I’m honest is my shared hope too. But we’re not there yet. You don’t get to skip the work when it comes to righting the scales of injustice. Rather, you’ve been given a picture of what is to come, of kingdom on earth, and now have a task to GO and make it happen NOW. To do nothing is the sin of omission, discarding a kingdom pursuit to settle and keep things they way they’ve always been.
This is our watershed moment
Racism is here, alive and well. It’s in me and in you, which I hope to tease out some more. Racism isn’t reserved for the crazy neo-Nazi or lone wolf, rather it’s deeper, wider, and mostly invisible. Can you see it in moments? Hear it? Feel it? With the monumental response after George Floyd we’ve now crossed the threshold of ignorance. We can’t ignore what our eyes have seen. It’s time to do something to tip the scales of racism in the favour of, “accept one another, just as God accepts you.”
So what story will you chose to live out from here on? Who’s story will you chose to trust?
Three years ago I remarked how sad I was about the current state of the contemporary church and their approach to righting racial wrongs. I quoted two reasons:
- The very faith that raised me, evangelicalism, was the source of hateful ideologies that sought to diminish my humanity in favour of white nationalism. It also did little in terms of viable action to dismantle racism.
- White moderates feel (ironically) victimized by race conversations and grow indifferent to the need for formative action.
Three years later I have a lot more hope. There are people working diligently, tirelessly, to make the world in their world better. We are also witnessing a movement grow that includes a lot more people (white people) calling for systemic change.
“Love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. The peacemakers. Does that sound like you? Jesus says blessed are the meek, the merciful, the destitute. Do you bless these people? Are you one of these? If so, your Creator stands with you. Restoration of racism in our country and our world is a God sized task, and you play a role.
Will you stand in the face of evil? Will you reject your dismay. Will you live out the character of Jesus and bring about justice in your neighbourhood, city, and beyond?