Everything Is Systemic


I never had much of an ‘aha moment’ when it comes to antiracism. In fact the closest I had was  my parents, preempting  any stigma toward black people, ensured I knew that skin color couldn’t make someone superior or inferior to others. Up to that point I couldn’t have imagined that anyone would consider the color of a human being as having any more meaning than the color of a pencil. Even as a 6 or 7 year old, racism seemed to defy logic. So I inherently accepted the words of my parents. What was an ‘aha’ for me was the realization that there were people for whom this was not obvious. In the world I had pieced together there had always been antiracists to challenge individual behaviors. But the ‘aha’ was that there were racists in the system as well.

Skip ahead with me 15 years. I’m sitting in an engineering classroom at Michigan State. My thermodynamics professor asked for a word - “any thing”. “The world”, a classmate called. The prof. drew a rough picture of the earth on the chalkboard, then circled it. “What enters our world from outside?” he asked. And, “What leaves our world to affect what’s outside?” He drew those as arrows coming into the circle and going out. Then he asked for a few more things, circled each, drew arrows in and out of each. “Each of these things (and all other things) are systems” - that was our first thermodynamics lesson.

When I was first told that Racism was a system, it should have been a no-brainer. Racism is a thing. Thus it is a system. A system of philosophies, thought patterns, and behaviors. Things go into racism (new thoughts, people, etc.), and things come out of racism (thoughts, behaviors, people, etc.) - so it’s a system in relationship with other systems. Easy concept for me to grasp. Or so it should have been.

Except... as an adult, the first presentation I heard on this began with, “all white people are racist”. The presenter, a white, middle-class, middle-aged man knew there were diverse definitions of racism. He knew his audience defined racism as a terrible personal evil - something none of us in that audience would want to find within ourselves. As I got to know him later I learned the presenter thought that by evoking a visceral response from us it would open our minds to a new way of defining racism.

He was wrong.

Only my fascination with seeing all things as systems kept me from shutting out the accusation from this person who suddenly appeared to be a smug hypocrite who painted every white person in the room except for him as hateful toward everyone of a different skin color. Although I quickly grasped the reality that racism is systemic, nevertheless I grasped it in spite of the presenter.

Years later I’ve stuck with the anti-racism conversation because I care how I relate to the people of color in my life. I’m still challenged by presentations and conversations like the antagonizing one I just recounted. And frankly, most of the antagonization comes from other white people who view themselves as “woke” or “well educated” on the topic. Racism as a system permeates our thinking regardless of skin color and creates animosity and injustice as a system. Viewing racism as a system recognizes it as a complex reality that will take effort to understand and work against.

By contrast, Ben Lepper’s article on Andragogy ministered deeply to my soul.

I’ll admit, I only paid attention out of morbid curiosity to find out what “andragogy” meant. I came at it looking for one more insult, but was refreshed to discover it was a  teaching system to correct a teacher-child approach to an adult learning model. Pedagogy (teaching children) honors an inherent power imbalance of an adult teaching a child. Andragogy honors the student as an adult with his or her own experiences. It uses those experiences as the foundations for new learning.

For instance, my anger after not getting into my dream college even though I met all the requirements  elicited diatribes from others on the evils of reverse racism and, conversely, on the evils of white privilege. That same year that school was sued for reverse racism based on affirmative action policies. The diatribes haven’t taught me anything. Andragogy could have helped me reflect how I felt about how  a system based on my skin color impacted my dreams. It could have helped me understand that people of color can have similar experiences repeatedly. Andragogy would ask me whether, if I had any experiences of compounding disappointments. Could I understand how a system that regularly interferes in the dreams of people of color could become disaffecting?

Andragogy focuses on the learner - draws a circle around him or her to see how they relate to racism. A learner is, you guessed it, a system. A system with arrows coming in and going out. Andragogy helps not because it’s just a better method, but because it honors the learner. I wonder if you’ve experienced any compounding disappointments as a lifelong learner? Are there things you’ve just given up trying to learn? I have friends who have given up trying to learn about racism. Ironically, the systems for teaching antiracism have failed them. Ironic because their experiences with the systems to end systemic injustice might be the very cause of their own experiences of systemic injustice. It’s ironic, but it’s also an opportunity. An opportunity to humble ourselves in a way that shows them we are not against them, even while we are against systemic racism that benefits them unfairly. A humility that admits we’re all in this system and it will take all of us if we seek to impact the system. In an age of dehumanizing / dishonoring each other it might be time to do the opposite even if it may seem uncomfortably different or undeserved.

So I’d like to end by asking if we could all recall someone who disagreed with us, but did it in a way which still preserved our dignity. I pray you’ve all had that experience from someone in the flesh - someone who became an arrow of humanity, dignity, and honor into the amazing learning system that is you. But if not from someone in the flesh, that experience is certainly available in Christ. Isn’t it, afterall, one of the amazing attributes of a relationship with Christ that He takes the sinful experiences that ought to dishonor us and somehow in His forgiveness transforms those into the experiences that teach us to live with greater honor? 

Though we haven’t earned it, may we dwell in the honor of Him forever.

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