Politics and Love

What I Didn’t Understand About Racism

This post is about how I became aware of cultural and structural racism and how I changed my life because of it.

Ignorance is…Ignorance

When I was growing up, I learned about the Civil War and about the abolition of slavery. At the time, I thought that racism was a thing of the past.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon in an all-white neighborhood, and I attended an all-white church. Of course, at the time, I thought this was all normal. And I never thought it could be because of any type of lingering racism.

After all, we had abolished slavery. There were no laws enforcing things like separate drinking fountains and separate schools. I never considered that racism could persist in other ways that were just as insidious and harmful.

Weird Things Start Happening

As I got older, I heard people say troubling things.

Although I attended public schools for a lot of my education, I also attended several private, Christian schools.

One of the schools I attended was all white except for several biracial students. I heard one of the leaders of the school (a white male) say that interracial marriages were wrong because the kids looked weird. The man then proceeded to describe the kinky curly hair and, according to him, other African-American features that looked weird.

This kind of statement was not an anomaly. Growing up, at various times, I have heard “good, Christian” people say that immigrants (specifically Mexican) are lazy. (By the way—I have NEVER met a lazy immigrant in my life, but I have met a lot of lazy white people).

I have also heard “good, Christian” people joke that black people are useless or that their daughters had better never date a black man.

If you have grown up in a predominantly white environment, you have likely heard these things, too. This type of thing is, tragically, pretty common in “good, white, Christian” environments.

These things always troubled me when I heard them. I thought to myself, Wait a minute. I thought racism was in the past, but these sound an awful lot like racist comments.

What is Racism?

I take racism to be the belief that informs us when we assume that people are completely inferior (or inferior in some way) because of their race. Racism also informs the desire to keep races separate.

Growing up, when I heard ideas like this, I started to worry that perhaps racism was not a thing of the past after all.

I Find Out More Bad Stuff

The older I got, the more I discovered about racism, and the more I felt troubled.

For instance, I discovered that Oregon, my beautiful home state that I still love, orginated as a white utopia and explicitly worked to keep out African-Americans. You can read more about this here.

Luckily, my family taught me that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. That is why I felt so troubled by these things.

I began thinking about all of the things I had heard white people say about African-Americans and other minorities growing up.

And I realized that there was a subtle and insidious kind of segregation that still exists.

It is not a segregation that operates by explicit laws. Rather, it operates by white people acting passive-aggressively, openly hostile, or otherwise inhospitably to minorities trying to enter white spaces.

And it also operates from ignorance. White people generally do not understand how difficult, frightening, and even terrifying it can be to be a mintority in a nation of predominantly white people. Or how terrifying it can be to live as a minority in a nation of white people who, historically, have enslaved, lynched, interned[1], segregated, and decimated people of other races and ethnic groups.

Magical Thinking

Most of us know these atrocities are a part of our history. But we somehow believe that, magically, there are no lingering negative effects from these events, some of which happened only fifty to sixty years ago.

Love is Stronger Than Hateful Violence

Love is stronger when it denounces the hateful violence of racism.

My Suspicions Deepen

I realized increasingly that racism and segregation are not a thing of the past. They are alive and well among us.

The Christian college I attended was a wonderful college that challenged me to think deeply about these issues of racism.

My Christian college was, again, almost all white. We did have a small group of African-American students, One of the first things I noticed was that in the cafeteria, they sat at a table all together by themselves.

This troubled me. I thought, Why doesn’t anyone go and join them or invite them to join us?

I thought many times of going and sitting with them and trying to make friends, and I am sad to say that I was shy and afraid.

As I reflect on this experience now, I realize that if I, as a white student (attending a predominantly white college), felt this way, I can only imagine how they must have felt.

I Become Aware

I am so grateful that my professors and folks in campus groups constantly worked to raise our consciousness about racial and other justice issues. It was from folks like this that I first started learning about structural injustice.

Structural injustice occurs when institutions and various other power groups organize society in a way that certain groups of people (usually certain racial or ethnic groups) suffer signicant disadvantage. Societes can operate this way specifically because of racist motives. But they aso often do so because of ignorance and apathy.

Examples of Structural Injustice

For instance, societies can operate so that employers are less likely to hire minorities or pay them equally, even if they are equally qualified. (W.E.B. Dubois’ book The Souls of Black Folks is an excellent book to read for gaining an understanding of the origin of these issues in the United States.)

Or, societies can operate so that law enforcement agencies police, arrest, and imprison minorities at a much higher rate. (See Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? for a discussion of these issues.)

And societies can operate in such a way that the largest share of tax money goes to fund white schools. This means that students in these schools receive better education and job market preparation. (Please read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities for an in-depth analysis of this problem.)

Societies can also operate in such a way that cities put garbage dumps primarily in low-income, minority neighborhoods because folks there do not have the money and political power to protest. As a result of this, people in such neighborhoods suffer water, ground, and air pollution. These contaminants lead to higher rates of illnesses like asthma and cancer. (Again, read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities for a discussion of these issues.)

Waking Up

As I learned about issues like this, I felt like I was waking up from some kind of slumber. I realized that I, and most white people, lived in a world that we arranged, consciously or unconsciously, to our advantage. We profited because of our majority status.

This not only troubled me morally, it troubled my spiritually. I am a Christian, and I know that God calls us to love everyone, to work for justice, and to labor, especially, on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised.

If this was so, I wondered, why aren’t more Christians speaking out about these issues?

Love is Stronger Than Idiocy

Love is stronger when it denounces rhetoric that objectifies and demeans minorities. 

Increasingly Troubled

As I have grown older, I have spent a lot of time in a variety of Christian organizations, and I am glad I have. I have gained so much spiritual guidance and met some of the best people I have ever known in these environments. Many of the organizations are directly involved in working to overcome structural injustice, as well as working for justice and peace for every person.

But in some of these environments, I have still heard heard troubling things sometimes.

For instance, I have heard folks in them argue that European culture is superior to all other cultures.

I have heard them suggest that Mexicans are taking over United States. They have said such things without recognizing any irony in a white person (whose ancestors took over the United States and decimated most of the Native American population) saying this.

And I have heard them dismiss entire neighborhoods as bad. And they were speaking about neighborhoods with a strong Latino or African-American population. (Like my neighborhood.)

This is My Problem

I can speak about this problem because it was my problem, too. And it is still my problem to some degree. Although I did not make the comments I mentioned above, and I was deeply troubled by them, there was a time in my life in which I knew very few people who were not like me.

I had few friends that were not Christian or who were not white.

Increasingly, this bothered me. I felt like I could not work for justice, love, and the kingdom of God if I did not actually know most of the people in the world.

Over the years, I have worked to change this. My husband and I moved to a diverse neighborhood. Some of my neighbors are white, but my neighbors are also Mexican immigrants, African-Americans, and Muslim.

I attended a spiritual community that met in the heart of Lexington and was connected to people and groups working with refugees, with the homeless, with the undocumented.

Certainly, I still have a long way to go. But over the years, I am so grateful I have had the chance to become friends with and live among folks from various minority groups. I deeply desire to work for the end of racism and all other kinds of discrimination in the world.

There is Still a Problem

As I got older and heard people saying racist (and other discriminatory) things, I spoke out, but I do not think I spoke out enough. I wish I would have spoken out more.

When I reflect on why I did not speak out, it was for a lot of reasons. It was because I was not confident in my own opinion. The foks saying these things were such”good”, Christian people, and I had problems believing or accepting that Christians could, indeed, hold racist views.

I wish I had had more confidence in my beliefs. And I wish I had realized that Christians are imperfect and human like anyone else. They can believe wrong things and be ignorant. I know I have been ignorant.

President Trump rose to power propelled largely by the same racist ideas I have heard my whole life.

I have heard many “good”, white, Christian people promote such ideas. And, tragically, I have seen Christians remain silent, for the most part, in the face of this racism. There are probably different reasons for this silence, but we have to change. We are a large part of the problem.

This is because we do not understand the privilege we have, and we do not read books by people who challenge our views. In addition, frequently, we do not have friends who challenge our views, and we do not understand structural injustice because we do not experience it.

Because of this, we elect a president who runs a campaign promoting hate and racism.

We are silent when white supremacists spread their hateful rhetoric en masse in public places and the president supports white supremacy.

Love is Stronger Than Fascism

Love is stronger when it denounces hateful ideologies like fascism.

Silence makes us complicit. It is time for us to wake up and change.

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media.

I also recommend my friend Joseph Trullinger’s post “White Fragility is Softminded and Hardhearted”. 

Also, you might find these posts helpful:

How I Realized You Can Like People From Other Races and Still Be Racist

About Oppression, White Privilege, Racism and Justice: Why Oppression Harm All of Us

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Footnotes

[1] Many people do not know that during World War II, we confiscated the homes and property of thousands of Japanese-Americans and sent them to live in internment camps because we were afraid of them. None of these citizens ever posed any actual threat to us. Most of them never recovered any of their property or belongings that were stolen from them. You can read more about this here.

6 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Understand About Racism”

  1. I think the reason you don’t understand racism is because it doesn’t make any sense! The fact that people think that they are superior to someone based on the colour of their skin is just the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. People with insecurities will find any reason to find themselves superior to someone else and this is one of those bizarre, unfortunate and downright stupid reasons. Much change and education is needed still!

    1. I’m there with you, Misfit! Racism is one of the most perplexing things in the world to me. Unfortunately, I think that it is often easy for white people (and I am speaking as one) to accept because we have never really experienced people hating and dehumanizing us because of the color of our skin. I think this makes us less able to recognize when we are doing it to other people. We don’t think to ourselves, “I am treating people badly because of the color of their skin”–we tend to tell ourselves other stories about what we are doing like, “I am keeping myself safe” or “I am protecting my job” or something else.

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