Hello, My Name Is. . . Racist

  1128 views

“Recently I asked my husband the simple question, ‘Did you empty the dishwasher yet?’ My intention was to find out if my favorite coffee cup was clean. Bruce, however, felt as if  I were monitoring him. Regardless of my intent, the impact was that he felt nagged. The way I meant it, and the way he heard it, were miles apart.”

Debby Irving, Waking Up White (Cambridge: Elephant Room Press, 2014, p. 159)

This story resonates with me, one, because it is a familiar scenario in my home, and two, because it speaks to so much more than a familial relationship. Irving shares this story in her book, Waking Up White, which is about how she has grown in her understanding of race and how it plays out in our communities. She relates the story to illustrate how even with our best intentions, we can still hurt people.

“Racist” is a loaded term. When most of us hear the term “racist,” we often think of white-hooded bigots, harassing behaviors, and the days of Jim Crow laws in the United States. But racism is so much more. Racism is bigger than bigots, more pervasive than one-time events, and is alive and thriving in our present reality.

Racism lives in the power dynamics at play in our relationships. Racism is built into the systems in which we operate. And racist behaviors are frequently unintentional.

Race is a biological myth. There is no such thing as race when looking at our genetics (to learn more, check out this article from Newsweek Magazine). But race is also a cultural reality, and as a social construct, race impacts our relationships, lives, and structures. When I say that I am a racist, I am acknowledging that I am a sinner, saved by grace alone. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day One, Q & A 5). I am also acknowledging that I have power, power granted me merely by the position into which I was born.

As someone who is half white, who has been enculturated as white in many ways, and who is often perceived as white, I have power that I leverage every day, whether I realize it or not. Power that I did not earn. While “God sets us free from the dominion and slavery of sin...daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of saints, giving us continual cause to humble ourselves before God...”(Canons of Dort, Fifth Point, Articles 1 and 2). 

As people who seek to follow Jesus, we cannot ignore the racial realities in our relationships and communities. Our sinful human nature means that we want to have easy answers, quick fixes, and boxes that we can put things in to keep things nice and tidy. But that’s not how God intends for us to live. As difficult as it can be, God calls us to live in the complexities. God asks us to take seriously the hurt that our actions or thoughts or words have caused, not just cling to the fact that we meant no harm. God asks us to examine our sinfulness, to own it, and to repent. Not one time, but over and over again.

With all of our good intentions, we have an immense capability to mess things up. And we will continue to practice racist behaviors if we aren’t intentional about learning, growing, and being stretched by God so that we might reflect God’s image more clearly. That is what the spiritual disciplines are all about—being stretched to become more Christ-like.

When seeking to be reconcilers, we make all kind of mistakes: we will try to speak for other people, we will take charge rather than letting the people who are vulnerable take the lead, and we will try to dictate reconciliation on our own terms. We will want to deflect and place the responsibility on others. And we will struggle to hear the truth—that our good intentions sometimes cause harm, that we are imperfect even when we mean the best, and that we are still called to try again. With intentionality, by the grace of God, we can still be used to reflect the God who created us, saved us, and empowers us for every good work.

What are some disciplines that you practice to grow in your understanding of racial dynamics and seek transformation in yourself and your community?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Read the book Waking Up White by Debby Irving and talk about it with a small group of people that you can be vulnerable with, and who will hold you accountable in following through on the changes you want to see in yourself.
  • Seek places where you can grow under the leadership of a person of color, whether that is a pastor, mentor or someone else who you can learn from.
  • Journal about your thoughts about race and ethnicity for a week. Note your experiences, interactions, thoughts, and reactions. Think about your intentions and the impact of your actions, and note the differences. Generate a list of things you want to do differently.
  • Instead of giving something up for Lent, try taking up practices that will challenge you to see the greater picture of what God is doing. Author Debby Irving issues this 21-Day Challenge, or you can try this recommendation for Lent from Kate Kooyman.  
Posted in:
  • Racial Reconciliation
  • Blog
Image Credit

Let's Discuss…

We love your comments! Thanks for your help upholding the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.

Even "birds of a feather flock together." Isn't that how God made us? Far as I know, there was only one race and one common language until God invented these problems for us during the "Tower Incident."

Community Builder

Are you saying that race is biological, and a curse from God? Race is a social construct, not a biological reality. And diversity is most certainly not a curse. Have your read Genesis 11? There is nothing about ethnic or racial differences in that text.

Participant

I quite agree Shannon that race is biologically not real.  I've thought that all my adult life, if not a bit longer.   But unlike you, I don't think I'm racist.  Never have been and am not now.  No, no, no, that doesn't mean I don't consider myself quite sinful, inclined to hate God and my neighbor as you say, but I'm also not a terrorist, a mysogenist, a burglar, a robber, a drug dealer, or a number of other words, all of which denote rather specific ways of acting out one's sinful state.  I have plenty ways I act out my sinful state but acting as a racist or terrorist or drug dealer are not among them.

My question to you is, why do you think you are -- call yourself -- a rscist?  I'm not trying to be personal (maybe that is in fact a specific way your fallen nature expresses itself?), but I gather from your article that perhaps you call yourself a racist merely because you are half white (as you say), or merely because you were raised in a culture you apparently equate with white, as you say (I have a bit of a hard time understanding that), or merely because in our society at large you conclude, again as you say, that whites, statistically speaking,  have some kind of power advantage over non-whites.  But none of these latter "reasons" are cause for you to be designated a racist, nor is your inherent sinful nature.

Unless, of course, the meaning of the word itself, "racism," is changed.  But that would be cheating, I submit, in a dictionary definition-strategy kind of way.  

I understand the inclination, in a good Calvinist kind of way, to be up front about our sinfulness, but I think it does no good, and does do harm, when we so expand the definitional meaning of a word until it covers anything and everything (like the word "Smurf" in that cartoon with the little blue people).

Now I do believe racism exists and that some people are in fact racist, just as terrorism/terrorists exist or murderous assassination/murderous assassins exists, but it wouldn't do good to call everyone a terrorist or an assassin either.  If we call everyone all these specific "ways of sinning," the meaning of the words are lost and we no longer distinguish between sinfulness generally, and specific ways we might, or might not, act out our sinfulness.  And that is not helpful either -- at all.  Among others things calling everything and everyone "smurf," or "racist," results in losing the idea of the specific thing, as well as the ability to deal with it (how would you deal with the problem of "smurfyness" after all, because you don't know what the problem actually is).

I hear often that "we aren't willing to have honest conversations about race and racism."  It would seem that you are.  I am too.  Let's have a conversation. :-)

Community Builder

Hi, Doug.

Racism is made manifest in four ways--two on the individual level and two on the systemic level. On the individual level, there is internalized racism, which are prejudicial beliefs about oneself or others. Internalized racism is often expressed as interpersonal racism, when a person leverages their power, covertly or overtly, knowingly or unknowingly, in relationship with others because of perceived race. On the systemic level, there is institutional racism, which are policies and practices within an institution that discriminate with racialized outcomes. More broadly, there is structural racism that plays out across society, via institutions, resulting in racial disparities.

Here are some examples:

When I was a little girl, I believed that girls with blonde hair, blue, eyes, and white skin were prettier than girls with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. That was internalized racism.

When I was introduced to someone recently, who was black, I started asking her questions about her family. Not long into the conversation I realized that I had offended her somehow. In looking back on the conversation later I realized that the questions that I had asked her were revealing my assumption that she had her children out of wedlock and that they may have had multiple fathers. That microagression on my part was interpersonal racism.

When I was on a hiring team a number of years ago, I felt pretty strongly that we needed to hire someone who understood the culture where I worked, which was mostly white people. As we looked at and discussed applications, the need to "fit in" the culture was the forefront of my mind. When we had narrowed down who to interview, I realized that all of the candidates that we selected were white graduates of the local Christian college with last names from the same ethnic background. I had perceived "in group" status as a qualifier for the position. That was institutional racism.

When my grandfather returned from serving with the US Army overseas, he was offered the GI Bill and used it to purchase a home for his family. His wealth accumulated over the years, so that when my father, an immigrant, married my mother and started his own business, he was able to receive a loan from my grandfather, which banks would not give him, to get started. My father accumulated wealth through his successful business, and was able to pay for my undergraduate degree so that I could graduate without any loans. That accumulated wealth was contributed to by a program that my grandfather (being white) was able to leverage and that black veterans, because of their race, could not. That was structural racism. 

This is why I consider myself racist. It was something I was both born into and something I practice. While I have control over my intent, my intent and the impact of my behaviors do not necessarily correlate. One person I heard put it this way: racism isn't the shark in the water, but is the water we swim in. It's pervasive.  

Participant

Shannon.  Thanks for the response.  Who knows, maybe you are racist. :-)  But let's take the examples one at a time and explore them.

First, your childhood impression of what made for pretty.  I was at coffee this morning and talked to the 20-ish young woman that usually serves me.  She is white, a Christian, working while going to school, not Dutch, not CRC.  We discussed my question to her: "are you racist?"  Setting aside for a moment her general response, we also discussed perceptions of physical attractiveness, using your example as a springboard.  With a bit of a laugh she said she generally considered darker skin people to be more attractive than lighter skinned people, all other things being equal.

I didn't tell her this but understood, because, frankly, I perceive (as pretty) likewise.  I also prefer darker hair to blonde hair, and brown eyes to blue.  And I really think freckles are unattractive (sorry to any offended by that).  My friend's explanation for her darker skinned preference was "I just do, just like my favorite color is red."  My favorite color is blue, not red like my friend's, although I think small cars are best looking in red.

So here's the question.  Are you sure your sense, when a child, that lighter skin is prettier is evidence of racism?  And then this question.  What do you make of my and my young friend's contrary sense of physical attractiveness?  Might that be evidence that we are not racist?

I'm not intending to ignore your other 3 points, and will respond in other posts.  But I want to stop here in this post so we can have a more focused conversation.

Community Builder

Hi, again.

I suspect if you talk with lots of white women you would hear similar things, but that is unrelated to racism. The phenomena that my example was pointing to is widely documented. Here is one article about it: http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/

I have been reading, thinking and writing about these issues for a long time, so yes, I am certain it is racism. There are some books that you could read to learn more, like Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland or Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter McNeil.

Participant

Shannon: You point to a CNN article that suggests there is a statistical preference in the population for lighter skin pigmentation.  While that article may be informative in some respects, it only purports to address a broad statistical reality, not a person-by-person, or individual, reality.  One of the critical questions in our conversation  is: "are we all, each of us, racist?"  You seem to me to say "yes" to that question, while I would answer "no.  Your link to the CNN articles addresses a broad statistical question but not the question I'm asking about here.

To recall, I asked, "What do you make of my and my young friend's contrary sense of physical attractiveness?  Might that be evidence that we are not racist?"

What is your answer to these two questions?  If your answer is, "I suspect if you talk with lots of white women you would hear similar things, but that is unrelated to racism," as you say in your most recent response post, I'm not understanding your answer.  You cite your childhood perception that people with light hair and blue eyes are more attractive as not only "related to racism" but as affirmative evidence of your individual racism.  So I've presented two white people (me and my 20-ish female friend at the coffee shop) who both perceive that those with darker skin and brown eyes (me as to the eyes at least) are more attractive, all other things being equal.  If your childhood perception was "related to racism" and evidence of it, then our perception must be related in some way as well, not?

While I thank you for the reference to books on racism (and I saw that 2010 Anderson Cooper/CNN segment back when it first came out), I don't perceive myself lacking information about racism, nor lacking in time thinking about racism.  I may have more experience with the the questions than you might think, but I may have formulated different conclusions than you have.  Indeed, it seems clear to me that I have, which is why I'm wanting to have a conversation about it.

Community Builder

Hi, Doug.

It sounds like no matter what I say, you will continue to argue the same points. I do not have the same amount of free time that you do to have conversations online. If you are genuinely interested in learning, I suggest that you read a book or have conversations with people that you are in relationship with in your community. As a pastor, I have found online comment sections to be an unhelpful place for such conversations between people who don't know each other. 

Participant

Shannon.  OK.  I wasn't so "interested in learning," except that any exchange can result in learning, as I was interested in having a meaningful conversation.  And I'm not arguing the same points that you have responded to, only reiterating when you decline to respond to mine.

This theme of "we are all racists, individually and collectively," seems to be a popular meme these days in the denominational apparatus.  There is a recent Banner article on "white guilt," plus a Banner editorial on the same subject, and now your article here on the Network.

I've always thought the Network was intended to be a place for conversations among CRC members, even those who hadn't personally met.  I've also often heard the message that "we aren't willing to have an honest conversation about race."  Given all of that, I thought this would be a good time and place to have such a conversation, publicly (as your article is public), and that the conversation could be beneficial to the body (those that read Network articles and posts at least).

In terms of free time, I have a pretty full-time day job, practicing law, and doing quite a bit beyond that (right now, building an addition onto a rental I own, getting a bathroom fixed in another rental, working with a surveyor and the county to get a lot line adjustment on property needed to do the addition, taking care of a neighborhood park, and more).  I say this to indicate I see this conversation as needed, not something I engage in because I need to pass the time.  To be more blunt, you may be mistaken when you suggest you work a lot as a pastor, that I don't in my job, and so I have time to do this while you don't.  I'm making the time because I believe this is important.  Apparently, you don't think so and that is of course your prerogative.

Thanks for this.  Just want to let you know your citation links to a Newsweek article, not Time Magazine. 

Community Builder

Thanks, Alison. I will fix that!

Participant

When I first read this article, I immediately ordered Debby Irving's book (Waking Up White).  It arrived two days ago and I'm about half way through it.  It is illuminating in a way, but perhaps in a way different than one might first think.

So far, there is next to nothing that Irving "uncovers" as to the real history in the US that I haven't already long known to be the real history.  Apparently, she was sheltered from the truth (she says so) and I was not.

What struck me about Irving's story is how incredibly different her life was from mine.  Her father was a Boston investment lawyer whose law school education had been paid by the GI Bill.  Her family had a really, really nice house, multiple cars and televisions, an abundance of material things generally, a summer vacation place in Maine, and more.  Her family is what I would call old New England upper, or at least middle-upper class.  She went to college of course, and, like Shannon, her bill for that was paid for, although by family, not by the GI Bill.  Indeed, to say that Irving's family "drank downstream" from government and non-government laws and policies is quite true.

But I, started contrast here's my life (I'm white too), which is representative of the lives in the NW Iowa community I grew up in. Irving was born in 1960, BTW.  I was born in 1954.

My family's first house, that I remember reasonably well, had no indoor toilet.  It was two rooms, a small move-on house plunked on the yard of my grandparents' farm.  It didn't even have real running water for that matter.  Cold water could be hand pumped from a cistern, but to get it hot, my mom had to put in on the stove.  

Our next house was one one that was torn down after we moved off.  About the same as the first house, although at least there was regular running water.  The third house was the "mansion" (as a six year old of my experience would see it).  No, still no indoor toilet (who cared) but it was roomy (in my eyes at least) and on a farm where a creek (even if muddy) ran through the pasture, a quarter mile from the house.  We could fish for bullheads in the muddy water.  This was indeed heaven.

Ok, there were negative aspects to the house.  A full one third was not habitable (even the walls were fallen in).  There was no heat upstairs, which is not a small discomfort for kids who slept upstairs during NW Iowa winters on 20 below nights.  Mom put "flannels" on the beds in place of sheets, and we learned to start the night in a tight ball, speeding out very gradually, and to share body heat.

We didn't actually get to fish much, but sometime.  From age 6 onward, I probably worked 40 or more hours a week, but only during the school year.  In the summer, we worked much more.  Don't misunderstand, I didn't resent the work.  It was just "life."  And the dividends that part of life would eventually pay were great.

When I was 12, we moved a true mansion on to the farm and tore down the prior one.  This house was apparently insulated (old mansion was not) and warm air actually came through the vents upstairs on winter nights.  Wow!  A new stage of heaven

Work was still a lot, but again who cared.  It wasn't any different for anyone else on my school bus route.  Indeed, lots of the boys got on the bus with some manure on their pants.  You get up at 5.30 in the morning to milk cows (who produce a lot of sloshing manure), and then just before the bus comes, you run out of the barn, gobble down some eggs and pancakes and hop on the bus.  No time to change clothes.  Besides, who cared.  One less thing to do in life, which was busy enough.

Well, I did start caring once I got to high school.  Thankfully, the same mansion that had heat upstairs had a shower in the basement (not enclosed but fine).  On some mornings, I was able to shower (quickly!) and now I always changed clothes before school.  But work was certainly no less.  I couldn't play HS basketball because practice was during milking time and I and my brother were the only milkers.  Basketball was for the "town kids" -- sorry.  But I did play baseball and summer fast pitch softball, all of which was scheduled with milking (and other chores) schedules in mind.  As far as I was concern, life was really great (well, minus some other aspects of it).

So I went to college, Dordt actually, but not in anyway like Irving went to college, or even the author of this article.  No one in my family had gone to college.  They were all farmers.  No one had benefited from the GI Bill.  My grandparents on both sides had immigrated from Holland, and neither of my parents had gotten any wealth from theirs.  Nor did I from mine.  College, if I wanted to do that rather foreign thing, was mine to figure out and do (in every sense of that word).  My first year, I paid tuition, room and board by milking cows for a near-by large dairy.  Started 2.00 pm on Friday. Got up 2.30 AM Saturday morning, the repeat for Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon.  By the time that long weekend was over, I had nearly 40 hours put in.  At $1.50 an hour, that was a ton of money (I thought).  During Christmas break I could and did put in 80 - 90 hour weeks, still at $1.50/hour, none at overtime rate -- ag work was exempted from those rules).   It paid what I needed paid. But I hated it, passionately.  It messed with my days and nights, badly.

One early college summer, I worked night shift at a Campbell Soup plant, cleaning up the facility after the day shifts killed chickens and turkeys, cooked them, deboned them, and diced the meat.  Hated that too, but irrelevant -- again, it paid the bills.

My last 2 plus a bit years of college, I ran my own insurance office.  Got licensed and sold life, disability and health insurance.  Boy, that was a learning curve, but no, there was no $ or even other support from family.  What I did or didn't do was mine to figure out and do.

Then to law school, in Oregon.  Fortunately, the federal government had not yet so badly driven up college and graduate school prices by injecting massive funding into higher education (by providing large grants and loans), so the price of law school, even a well known private one, was within reach.  My wife's teaching job paid $9000 a year, tuition was $3000, and we were really good at skimping on expenses.  Plus, during my first year, I worked side jobs for area farmers, and then starting my second year, I clerked 40+ hours a week.  Poor pay but a lot of experience.  Sure, busy, but life was still good, better than it ever had been I thought.

After law school, I hung out my shingle, practiced with a small group of attorneys.  We weren't a firm but we shared expenses.  A good model, looking back.  I made $5000 my first year.  No, not disappointing.  I was ecstatic it was a positive number and not negative.  A solo practice of law was a small business start up after all.  Most of those failed and I didn't -- yet at least.  Besides, my wife still was a teacher and we could live on her modest salary, even if very modestly.  And that was fine.  Life was still very good.

That startup year was about 37 years ago.  I'm still practicing law, in my solo practice with a small group (members having changed over the years; remember, business startups fail a lot).  In the course of those 37 years, I have represented clients of all characteristics, whether by color, gender, orientation, religion, culture, political persuasion, for other background/status.  Frankly, life is still pretty good, my wife has been teaching again (after years off because we raised four children).  And I've had opportunity to help people and good causes that might not otherwise have gotten help.

So Irving says I'm "white," and thereby I am "privileged."  She and this article would suggest that my race (which at the same time is said to not be real as an actual concept, except by perception) has created advantage for me that has given me a good life, at the expense of others (non-whites) and so I should feel guilty, regard myself as indebted, recognize I have unfairly "drunk downstream" from the unfair advantages of my white parents, but that I'm just "not seeing it" --because I am "white" of course.

For all those who read, or might read, Irving's book, should would also read JD Vance's book, Hillbilly Elegy,  a book that, since I read it, has become a bit known, perhaps because of the election of Donald Trump.

Early Dutch Reformed generations in NW Iowa were not the "white people" Irving broadbrushes.  Early on in her book, anticipating the objections, she argues that even though some readers might think that the injustices she is about to reveal stem from class, they really do stem from color.  JD Vance's book demonstrates that class disadvantage is color blind.  His Appalachian heritage resulted in a very white multigenerational mass that has become known as "white trash," or more recently, part of the "basket of deplorables."  While American culture of late says we should sympathize with the part of the poverty class that is not-white, we are allowed to, and should, regard the white poverty class as pathetic, as deserving of our scorn and disparagement, as hicks, as trailer trash, as white trash, as redncks, and as "deplorables."

At a point in his book, Vance describes how he was explaining to someone not from his culture what his culture, and his early life was like.  And then at a point in that conversation, he remarks, it dawned on him that his description matched that of how someone else might have described inner big city black ghettos.  Some song really, just a different verse.

This is the core of my disagreement with recent CRCNA memes that proclaim "we are all racist" (if we are white) and "we all have drunk downstream, and so have unjustly benefited" from a "systemic injustice" rooted in "white privilege."  

The problem with the meme is that it just isn't true.  Well OK, it may be true for some (like Irving), but it is not true for so many others (like JD Vance's community, nor the communities I have lived in -- nor me and so many I grew up with).

So what, some may say?  So what if Irving's (and the repeated denominational meme) is not true, or not so true?  So a lot, would be my answer.  To the extent any person or cultural group does well, they will do so because they, and each of them, accept the fact that their own decisions, in the points in time right in front of them, will be the dominant factors as to the outcome of their lives (and I'm not talking about financial outcomes, or even mostly about financial outcomes).  Incessant and often factually inaccurate ranting about how the privilege of "whites" are the cause for the lesser wellbeing "non-whites" won't help "non-whites" but hurt them, because they will learn from the repeated message that they themselves were not and are not in charge of their lives and still cannot be.

Thank God (I mean this literally) no one told me I was from a disadvantaged class, that this lady named Irving from Boston and others like her had innumerable advantages over me, and because of that "systemic injustices," I was doomed, unless of course I could find some outside hero, someone who had power I did not and could not have because of my "systemic disadvantage."  Thank God no one told me that.  I might have listened and believed.

So may be Irving should feel "white guilt" because her life "drank downstream" from "white ptivilege."  And who knows, the same may be the case for many CRCers, maybe especially in certain geographical areas of the country.  But even if true to that extent, it is still a broad brush caricature, and one that, I would submit, does far more harm than good.

Community Builder

Thanks for your response, Doug. It is good to read some of your story. While we draw different conclusions, like you, I also read Hillbilly Elegy, and I really appreciated Vance's perspective. I think we both seek to give God all the glory in what we do and say. Blessings on you as you seek to do that, Brother.

Participant

And blessings to you as well Shannon. I have no doubt as to the orientation of your heart, even where we might disagree.  To me, that tension is in a way an essential characteristic of the church.  I'm glad we are both in CRC.

And if ever you want that public, "honest conversation about racism," you know where to find me. :-)

Admin

I was deeply challenged by the book Waking Up White. There are so many things you don't know that you don't know. I appreciate the spirit of vulnerability that it took to share this post and I hope to follow in your lead. Thank you for sharing the specific practice ideas!

© 2014 Christian Reformed Church in North America. All rights reserved.
For website questions or corrections, use the feedback tab at right or contact us.