Race: A Primer from a Slow Learning White Guy
This morning I joined about a hundred other joyful and indignant folks on the Colorado State Capital Building's steps to challenge voters to remove an antiquated and hurtful caveat for slavery from our state's constitution.
When I got home, I flipped open a local news source in my browser. The first article that came up described the marginalization black teachers and students feel in the Denver Public School system.
Race talk is everywhere right now. It's in the air we breathe -- and righteously so.
We've seen the riots. We've been confronted by acts of racially-motivated police brutality. We've watched as #BlackLivesMatters shifted the discourse of this presidential election. We've heard the names: Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and too many more.
If you have ears or eyes, I'm praying you're awake to America's reality: people are suffering and we've got some deep work to do to heal our racial divides, inequities, and injustices.
"The problem of the color line," said W.E.B Du Bois, "is the problem of the twentieth century."
Well, it's the problem of our century too. But despite its longstanding presence in American culture, many of us -- particularly white folks like me -- remain ignorant about the nature of race and racism. We don't really know what it is or how it functions, and our ignorance keeps us out of conversations and out of movements for change. Since we don't fully get it, we don't fully support our brothers and sisters of color in their struggle.
In a year when 280 people of color have been killed by police so far (perhaps more; there were 56 killings where race is unknown), staying out of the game isn't an option.
This blog is a long shot from comprehensive or definitive. I'm sure I'll have more to add soon enough -- and likely things to correct. I'm on the journey alongside you. I still have a lot to learn. I'm still getting a lot of things wrong. But I'm convinced that we all have to step up, ask questions, become learners, and speak out for justice. That's what I'm trying to do here. We can't wait until we've figured everything out perfectly to start saying something.
This is a primer -- an injection of fuel to get your engines firing. But the whole point of firing up an engine is to generate movement.
So my friend, catch fire and move!
1. Race is what's called a "social construct."
If you're new to this, we're going to dive straight into an idea that might blow you're hair back.
Race is not a biological fact. Nor does it function in the same way or for the same purposes as ethnicity or nationality. The idea of race developed during the colonial period as a way for white people to negotiate their identity in a new place away from their home of origin. This is a pretty complex and historically involved idea to summarize, but it's a crucial point.
When Europeans first showed up in North America, they used other terminology to describe themselves in distinction to the Indigenous peoples they met or the slaves they brought along. Christian vs. savage was a common dichotomy, and newcomers typically referred to themselves as "English" or "free." Around 1680, however, the terminology started to shift. A new self-identifying word starts showing up on documents around that moment: white.
Settlers needed a way to justify the power dynamics their practices of colonizing and enslavement set up which, on the face of things, seemed at odds with the Enlightenment values of freedom and liberty many embraced. Their innovation was to propose a hierarchy of human-ness. White Christians stood at the top. Blacks were chained to the bottom.
The colonists used "race" as a means to justify the violence and oppression they were perpetrating against other groups of people. Jennifer Harvey drives that point home: "'White' literally came into existence as a racial identity through the construction of the same systems built to enact and sustain systemic violence against and complete subjugation of the darker skinned."
By extension, it's important to note that being racially "white" doesn't have the same connotations as being racially "black" or "brown." Just think how different our reactions would be if we saw a black woman holding a sign that says "Black is Beautiful" versus a white man with a sign that says "White is Beautiful." The two simply aren't parallel, as Harvey helped me see
Personally, it's become very important to realize that part of the way I organize my own identity--that is, thinking about myself as "white"--has been shaped by oppressors. God did not make me white. I was born with a certain pigment, sure, but what that pigment means and the label we put on it as a society was conjured up by people determined to control and abuse other human beings. That's what is meant by the term "social production" or "socially produced."
In this sense, the call to die to self and come alive to Christ takes on new meaning. I've been deeply challenged by this question the past few years: what does it mean to die to my whiteness as I seek to come alive in Christ?
Because as James Baldwin said, "As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you."
Chew on that.
2. Understanding racism and its four layers.
What do you think of when you hear the word racism? If you're like most mainstream Americans, images of Jim Crow era segregation, hate crimes, and people saying the n-word probably pop to mind. That's not far off from what I would have said a few years ago.
First let's get clear about what racism is. Simply put, racism is the combination of racial prejudices with power. In formula form, it would look something like this:
Racial Prejudice + Power = Racism
Phrasing racism this way helps clear up some of the ideas about "reverse racism" we often come across.
Now, how does racism get expressed? My paradigms were thrown wide open when a PICO trainer named Deth Im gave a presentation on race. He explained that racism shows up in four different ways, or layers, that correspond to different scales of human society.
This first layer takes the form of internalized beliefs. It's racism that penetrates our psychology, our identity, sense of wellbeing, and self-worth. For white folks, this has to do with things like prejudice and implicit bias (which we'll unpack soon). For People of Color, intrapersonal racism happens when they become convinced by society's messages that they really are inferior, or a criminal, or no good. It leads to things like lost dignity and humanity. The sociologist Robert Brenneman has done some groundbreaking work to show how internalized experiences of shame are leading causes behind gang formation and the prevalence of violence in poor, racially-segregated communities.
Racism that happens between individuals -- interpersonal racism -- is what most of us most readily associate with the topic. These person-to-person actions that fall on a spectrum from 'micro-agressions' to hate crimes. An example of a micro-aggression could be a white woman who clutches her purse as the black guy walks by, something he notices and that reminds him that people only see him as a criminal. Other instances could be touching a black woman's hair without her asking or questions posed to Asian Americans like "Where are you from really?"You might think these shouldn't count as full blown racism, but they play a powerful role in the internalization of racism described above.
When groups or organizations have a culture of prejudice or act together in a racist manner (often to explicitly or consciously), this layer of racism is at play. It shows up in raw forms like a lynch mob to the much more subtle, even subconscious, practices of a company who doesn't employ any people of color because they "just don't fit the culture.” Even churches that for some reason just don't have any members who are people of color (much less in leadership) are participating in racist group behavior — intentionally or not.
Large scale social systems like the real estate, education, criminal justice, food, transportation, and finance are structured through policies. When these policies are designed — either actively or passively — to drive advantage toward one group and disadvantage toward another, we are encountering structural racism. We’ll dig a little deeper into this topic in the next section.
A final, more theological point should be made before we move on. Racism, from a Christian perspective, is sin. But modern Christianity struggles to comprehend sin as anything other than an individual’s wrong thoughts or actions. That individualistic perspective on sin is a recent phenomenon that wouldn’t make any sense to the more traditional, communal cultures that wrote the bible. Nehemiah exhibits an understanding of collective sin when, in his prayer in Chapter 1, he offers corporate repentance for Israel’s sin. Paul, on the other hand, clearly has a notion of systemic sin in Romans when he describes it as a power that transcends any individual.
I hope this idea sticks. If we’re to engage with the complex and various realities of racism, Christians will need to broaden our theology of sin.
3. The invisible workings of implicit bias and structural racism.
An Aspen Institute report defined structural racism as "a system in which public politics, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.”
Let’s try to clear up the jargon with an example.
In 2011 the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. These disparities didn't just happen. And they're not the simplistic effect of individual hard work. This gap represents the downstream impact of multiple, interconnected forms of structural racism. These systemic forces include financial institution decisions to deny business loans and mortgages over the course of decades to minorities, the development of the highway system that almost without variation bulldozed and divided minority neighborhoods, the disinvestment and underfunding of schools in inner-city neighborhoods, discriminatory hiring practices, a lack of bank access for minority-majority neighborhoods and influx of predatory pay-day lenders, and the over policing and stigmatizing of people of color that's led to mass incarceration and felony records that create barriers to employment.
Here's a handy flowchart to help us see how all this works.
How can these social systems continue to be racist when we no longer use racially discriminatory language in our policies or even in many of our private conversations?
Part of it has to do with myths about the cause of poverty. I’ve written about that here and here, and tried to offer different interpretations here and here in a series on homelessness that began here.
A second culprit is implicit bias.
I highly recommend spending 17 minutes of your life to watch this video from the brilliant john a. powell who is the guru on these topics (it may not play for you in this blog, just click through).
In his book Racing to Justice, powell calls on cutting edge research in the area of unconscious behavior to unpack the idea of implicit biases. He explains:
"Because we have conscious control over -- or, indeed, access to -- only a small part of the processes going on in our brains, many of our thoughts and feelings, even during waking hours, occur without our express command or permission....Although most of us are completely unaware of their influence on our subconscious, these biases affect how we perceive, interpret and understand one another....Because of these attitudes -- unrecognizable on the conscious level but powerful at the unconscious level -- influence choices and decisions, individual and institutional discrimination can and does occur even in the absence of blatant prejudice, ill will, or animus....These biases are formed as social and physical structures lead us to create mental associations that become embedded in our unconscious and affect how we process the world."
We have mental models for just about everything. They are what allow us to do things like open a door without having to consciously think through the physics of a door every time we approach one. Implicit biases are a type of mental model gone wrong. It's something we inherit as people swimming through a broken world. And they're something we have to accept if we're going to get about the business of building the beloved community.
One simple way to undermine implicit biases is to simply make them conscious before entering an activity where they might come into play. For example, interviewers who are asked to read aloud a short paragraph that reminds them of the power of implicit biases before starting the interview are much more likely to judge interviewees fairly.
4. It's time to own up to the white racial hierarchy and white privilege.
If you're white, our society's unstated values and systems have put you on top of the racial hierarchy whether you want to be there or not. It's got nothing to do with your personal views or actions. It's simply the result of living in a society with a long history of racism.
The way I'm viewed when I walk around a department store verses racial minorities; the looks I get when wearing a hoody verses the looks Trayvon Martin got; the disposition of police officers toward me verses a black man at a traffic stop (I've got a blog on this in the works). These are all functions of privilege
Not every person treats me differently than a black or brown man my age. But on average our experiences are radically different. I'm safer, richer, healthier, and given more respect and higher evaluations. None of that has anything to do with my personal merits. It's a function of culture: the culture that's become described as America's white racial hierarchy. That hierarchy privileges me over people of color.
Now, it's important to differentiate among privileges. The goal is not always to "un-privilege" the privileged. For example, the right to vote is a "privilege" that shouldn't be revoked; it should be expanded. But today voting rights have declined significantly among people of color, returning some communities to pre-civil rights movement conditions. In many states, the incarcerated and folks with a felony on their record are permanently barred from voting. They are functionally excluded from participation in our democracy.
That's a privilege that doesn't need to be taken away. It needs to be universalized.
Other privileges -- such as cultural (or what I might call 'epistemological') superiority, hiring preferability, and other unjust power differentials -- do need to be revoked.
Many of us react against this news because we want credit for the hard work that's led to our accomplishments. Accepting the that these achievements are just the result of some kind of deterministic, racist society doesn't sit well. To clarify, I do not believe all of life is determined by social forces, laws of nature, or even the will of God. Balanced sociologists will tell you that there's an "agent side" and a "structural side" to almost everything. And balanced theologians see a role for both providence and free will.
Let me be clear: Hard work does matter. But it matters in context.
Think of your life as a rocket ship in outer space. How fast your ship is flying is determined by several factors. One of those is hard work: how much your engines are blasting. But there's other variables that contribute to velocity: How much does your ship weigh? Is your ship pressed against the moon or chained to an astroid? How fast was your ship already moving when you turned on the engines? Was your crew offered astronaut training? Are there crises on board that are preventing your crew from focusing on forward motion? Did someone give you free fuel, was it way overpriced, stolen?
Hopefully you can make the connections from that analogy yourself.
No one has helped me understand white privilege better than Christena Cleveland. I’ll leave you with a few links to her best blogs on the topic:
- Privilege Says
- Listening Well As a Person of Privilege: The Complete Series
- Tools for Talking about Privilege
5. Dealing with race asks us to hold multiple stories in tension and learn from history.
One person's experience of being black, white or brown cannot define what it means to be their race. Nor can the white story explain what it's like to be black, the black story can’t explain what it's to be Latino, or the Latino story can’t explain what it's like to be Asian. The experience of one’s race or ethnicity doesn’t fall into a neat spectrum from lightest to darkest. It’s a multidimensional, highly nuanced thing with differences down to each person.
We have to be willing to sit in the tension of that complexity. To not leap to simple categories or labels or one size fits all explanations and solutions. And most of all, we have to guard against making our own story the story that explains all others.
For two great resources on honoring people’s diverse stories, I suggest picking up the books The Power of Stories and Pre-Post-Racial America.
Holding the multiple, often paradoxical stories of the present together grows easier when we become students of history.
Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson tells about a conversation he had with a German. She mentioned to him how they could never have the death penalty in their country. When he asked why, she simply responded, “Well, with our history…”
Stevenson posed the hypothetical question: can you imagine what it would be like if Germany still used the death penalty and a highly disproportionate percentage of those who were killed were Jews? The world would be outraged.
And yet, despite America’s history of oppression, those who are most regularly sentence to death in this country are Blacks, Native Americans, and other people of color.
It is our failure to look directly into the pain of our history and allow that past to reshape our present which keeps us locked in cycles of injustice, Stevenson insists. You can watch his entire TED talk below. And here's a well-done recent article on the history behind how Portland became the whitest city in America (lots of features here that are similar for all American cities).
I'll conclude with this great quote from Sandhya Rani Jha's book Pre-Post-Racial America.
"Sometimes people say, 'Black people need to get over it; slavery was hundreds of years ago.' My mother recently said on this subject, 'Yes, but a man being arrested in the South for no reason and being beaten to death by a crowd on the Florida border solely for being Black wasn't hundreds of years ago; it was sixty. The last lynching wasn't hundreds of years ago; it was in the late 1960s. People not being allowed to vote wasn't hundreds of years ago; it was fifty years ago. A Black young man being shot or wearing a hoodie, or playing rap music in his car, or for standing on a corner a week before his high school graduation, wasn't hundreds of years ago; it was three years and two years and one year ago."
6. A little context for the violence of and against the police.
More than anything else today, when we think about race and racism, we're confronted by conflicts between the police and the black community.
First, what is actually happening? I strongly recommend this brief article from the Urban Institute filled with links and data: What We Do and Don't Know About Race and Policing.
This article is one in a very well articulated six part series that shares current social scientific research -- and personal researcher reflections -- on race and policing.
Here's a few pieces of data worth highlighting
- As already stated, 280 people have been killed so far this year. August 30 is day 242 of 2016.
- 155 of those are Black (my gut is tight writing that number...when I started thinking about this post almost a month ago, that number was 128).
- For blacks and whites in similar situations in New York City, the disparity in experiences included being pushed to the ground (18 percent more likely if black), having a weapon pointed at them (24 percent more likely), and having pepper spray or a baton used on them (25 percent more likely).
But the police are only one portion of a much larger structural web: the criminal justice system. This system includes laws and policies, jails and prisons, courts and parole offices, public defendants and bail bondsmen, and a host of other institutions and actors with whom many Americans never interface.
I don't have space to build the whole argument here, but what's happened through our criminal justice system amounts to a terrifying all out assault on the black community.
Joshua Dubois, former spiritual advisor to President Obama, wrote a riveting piece in Newsweek a couple of years ago in which he summarized the current situation:
"There are more African-Americans in the corrections system today—in prison or on probation or parole—than there were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote because of a criminal record than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, giving blacks the right to vote. In the three decades since the war on drugs began, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, giving our country the highest incarceration rate in the world—higher than Russia, China, and other regimes we consider repressive. A significant majority of black men in some urban areas are labeled felons for life; in and around Chicago, when you include prisoners, that number approaches 80 percent."
Michell Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerations in an Age of Colorblindness blew the lids of the criminal justice system. Dubois calls her the Harriet Beecher Stowe of this generation. Read her book.
So if you want to think about reforming the police, think about them in context of reforming the systems they're apart of. And if you want to think about stopping violence against the police, think about the violence being done against people of color and ask if there are ways to help them escape such a defensive posture.
Dr. King, speaking to Gross Point High School in March of 1968, didn't excuse acts of violence committed by oppressed peoples. But he did put their actions into context with words that still carry a painfully relevant ring:
"But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."
7. Are we seeking racial reconciliation or racial justice?
When we put a qualifier on our engagement with the “race problem,” we dictate the terms and goals of our involvement. Collaborating with others for change works best when we don’t approach the table with an inflexible agenda. That’s why I suggest just talking about "race” at the beginning in order to remain open and listening.
Theologically speaking, however, reconciliation follows atonement.
Two people cannot have a restored relationship if one is still beating up the other. The same thing goes with people groups. Repentance and reparations (prerequisites of justice) proceed reconciliation.
And it’s wrong to expect forgiveness before anything has been done to make up for the harm someone has been caused. I learned that in Conflict Mediation 101, guys.
Folks are in different places on the goals of race work. We need to be ok with that and learn to work with one another across divides.
Let me wrap up with this bomb shell from the master theologian Willie Jennings:
“The concept of reconciliation is not irretrievable, but I am convinced that before we theologians can interpret the depths of the divine action of reconciliation we must first articulate the profound deformities of Christian intimacy and identity in modernity. Until we do, all theological discussions of reconciliation will be exactly what they tend to be: (a) ideological tools for facilitating negotiations of power; or (b) socially exhausted idealist claims masquerading as serious theological accounts. In truth, it is not at all clear that most Christians are ready to imagine reconciliation.”
― Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination
8. Listen. Believe. Follow.
The simplest, most profound, and probably most difficult advice I’ve heard.
Fuller Seminary invites a major theologian and some supporting speakers to a conference each spring. In 2015, Walter Bruggemann was the main event, but he was upstaged by the Rev. Ben McBride and Christena Cleveland. These two black leaders spoke with authority and urgency in the wake of the Baltimore riots.
Toward the end of the conference, Fuller’s president earnestly asked Cleveland what steps to should take as a leader who wants foster a more just, equitable, and inclusive organization and community. Her response was simple but raw: Listen. Believe. And follow.
Really try to hear what the marginalized and powerless people in your midst are saying. Start, if needed, by creating space for them to speak their truth. Don’t interrupt. Work until you genuinely understand what they’re saying.
Then believe what they say. Don’t minimize it. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t reinterpret it in a way that fits your own experience. Believe them.
Finally, be moved by their voice. Follow their lead. Heed their advice. Trust their solutions. Bite the bullet, accept the costs, and make the changes they say are needed. You can work with them in this process, but, as Paul advised in Philippians 2, humble yourself and give their needs priority.
It's time for people of privilege to chose solidarity with the marginalized before taking another step — it needs to come before discussion, problem solving, relationship building or anything else.
Solidarity isn’t easy. Far far from it. It's the sort of thing that leads to a cross. Yet even filled with all pain and sacrifice, it is something supremely good and beautiful.
Brazilian educator, activist, and philosopher Paulo Freire's insights into the nature of solidarity haunt and challenge me to this day:
"Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture....The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor -- when he stops making pious, sentimental and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love."
To get practical, here are six ways to be a better white ally from Courtney Ariel at Sojourners:
- Listen more; talk less.
- For one out of every three opinions/insights shared by a person of color in your life, try to resist the need to respond with a better or different insight about something that you read or listened to as it relates to their shared opinion.
- Being an ally is different than simply wanting not be racist (thank you for that, by the way). Being an ally requires you to educate yourself about systemic racism in this country. Use your voice and influence to direct the folks that walk alongside you in real life (or follow you on the internet), toward the voice of someone that is living a marginalized/disenfranchised experience.
- Please try not to, “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” your way into being an ally when atrocities like the events in Charleston, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va., happen. People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world.
- Ask when you don’t know — but do the work first. This is nuanced.
- And finally, stop talking about colorblindness. It’s not a thing.
Bonus: We have to name our historical, familial, and personal shame, acknowledge them, and begin to do the deep work of transformation, restoration — and reparation. Yes, reparations.
9. So, now what do we do?
If you're heart is stirred and you're looking for onramps into action, in no particular order here are some options for moving deeper and taking action.
Shalom comes to communities that place the worship of God at their center. We need the power of God for transformation -- more than government reform or anything else. Three essential prayers can ground us:
- The light of Christ to illuminate those parts of ourselves and our world to which we've been blind.
- Repentance for those of us whose lifestyles, thoughts, and identities are shaped by racism.
- Intercession for change and for our suffering neighbors.
I've linked to a few great books already, and there are several more relevant suggestions on my book recommendations page. Here are a couple more recent titles well worth opening:
- America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis
- Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, by Drew Hart
There's also some great bloggers out there you should check out who bring race, politics, and Christian reflection together:
I wish I knew of more Latino/a, Asian and other writers, but unfortunately I'm not aware of anyone to share (ergo the blog title: I'm a slow learner). If you have a suggestion, please add it in the comments section and I'll edit this blog to include it.
Finally, I've gathered some great free publications together that provide cutting edge research on race, poverty, inequality and other related issues. Be sure to take a look.
Listen and Seek Relationships
If you have friends of a different race, do you talk about these things? Do you ask hard questions, not expecting them to speak for everyone, but to honestly share their own story? If you're friends all look like you, are you seeking diverse relationships?
An important part of my journey right now is spending one night each week at a free coffee shop in Denver that's an open place for the homeless. I spend most of my time trying to strike up conversations, listen to them, and learn from their stories.
My parents are about to start volunteering as mentors at their local juvenile detention center, where they will also build relationships and learn from the youth.
Have you ever been to a church service at a congregation that's predominantly of another race?
The are so many opportunities.
Become an Advocate
Reform movements are working at every level: from our homes and churches, to our places of work, to local, state and national government. What's happening in your area? What most imflames your passions? Where could your gifts most be used?
If you're a person of privilege, how can you use your privilege to stand up for the rights of others? To speak up when those around you voice their prejudices?
Posting on facebook and writing blogs like this one are all good and well, but God formed our bodies for a reason. Physical presence speaks love louder than pixels. It is a powerful thing when white hands old a sign that says #BlackLivesMatter. It jars people when a white body enters the streets to join a protest and stand in solidarity.
Four national organization's with local affiliates are:
- Black Lives Matter
- SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice): an organization focused on educating and involving white people in the struggle for racial justice
- PICO: faith-based community organizers who are involved in advocacy for a variety of racial justice issues
- CCDA (Christian Community Development Association): with many partners in cities across the nation doing work in marginalized communities, they are increasingly involved in advocacy work
Finally, though we didn't focus on it here, immigration reform is closely tied to issues of racism. Consider connecting with organizations like the Evangelical Immigration Table advocating for justice in our immigration system.