I’ve been reading a ton lately. I knew our country had racist roots, so much so that we say things like, “Well, that was in the past and people didn’t understand then.” I think people always understood that if you owned a slave and had sex with her, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. But if we’re saying that people didn’t understand it was wrong to force someone else to have sex, no wonder we still have such a long way to go, on both race and gender violence.
Here we go, ready?
It’s wrong to force someone else to have sex with you.
It’s wrong to own another person.
It’s wrong to own another person and force them to have sex with you.
So let’s assume that you’re still reading and haven’t shrugged me off for stating the obvious.
Racism is on the rise in the United States.* Hate crimes have increased. Teachers report more incidents of racist behavior. We’re not getting better. We’re going the wrong way. Or at the very best and most optimistic, what was previously hidden in the dark has crawled out into the light for a look around.
Here’s what I have to say, since a friend recently reminded me that I have a voice and **** well better use it.
We can’t make other people not racist. That’s a subset of “We can’t make other people anything.” We have no power to change other people’s hearts, attitudes, or morality.
However. This is a big “however.”
We can challenge people. We can confront them. We can refuse to accept racism as a given. We can speak up.
We can change laws. We can cause laws to be passed and enforced that identify, prohibit, and punish violence based on race, including by law enforcement. We can help establish better laws in our own country.
We can appeal to people’s consciences. We can speak to those who may be quiet, or passive, or uncertain, or still comfortable, and do our best to wake them up.
We can–and I believe this is the most important thing and the step we’re most tempted to skip–search our own souls and examine our attitudes and behavior to and see what still might dwell in us. “Search me, O Lord…”
The more I read, the more I grasp that we must stop acting as if racism is an all-or-nothing proposition. It isn’t. That’s like saying manipulation or verbal criticism is an all-or-nothing proposition. Have you ever manipulated anyone? Are you a Manipulator? Have you ever hurt someone with your words? Are you a Verbal Abuser? Remember that for both of these, the reality lies not primarily in what you think you’ve done or what you’ve experienced from your end, but how you’ve impacted the other person and what they’ve experienced. Manipulation is in in eye of the beholder.**
Yes, I have manipulated people before. I know I have. I’m not proud of it, but I’m honest enough to recognize it and believe God has grace for me. Does that make me a manipulator? We mean something much worse, much more severe and categorical, when we say that someone “is a manipulator,” or even “that person is manipulative.” We mean that we’ve identified a life pattern and you cannot trust that person not to attempt to manipulate you.
I am not a racist. I’m guessing you’re not, either. I have not given myself over to racist actions and attitudes, any more than I have given myself over to manipulative actions and attitudes. But just like I sometimes commit manipulative acts, sometimes I do racist things. Sometimes I say racist things.
It does not help us in our most crucial step to consider racism as an either-or, all-or-nothing category. The woman in Central Park who threatened to call the police and lie to them that a black man was threatening her when she was the one breaking the rules and he was confronting her, afterward declared, “I am not racist!”
What the what?
She believes herself not racist because she understands the term as either-or. If she “did a racism” in this situation, she must be racist.
She will not own that she DID a racism—she could not possibly have DONE a racism, because that means that she IS racist. And to her thinking, that would be an always and forever proposition. We see this a lot, often about whether someone has racist bones in their bodies. Rather than, say, “I did something that was racist and I commit to educating myself to better understand why what I did was so harmful and to make better choices in the future.” Owning harm, working to change, and, I might add, offering amends of some sort to Christian Cooper. Rather than acknowledging, e.g., that we all live in a white supremacist society & takes a lot of work to fight the messages we have all internalized. “Racist” here is something that you ARE or ARE NOT, and if you ARE, you are BAD in an unchangeable way. (Some people are racist, don’t get me wrong. And that is bad. But it’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.)”Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, shared from Twitter
“It’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.” We “do racisms” all the time. I do. We judge others by the color of their skin and by their culture. We stereotype. We assume negatives. We fail to question or confront stereotypes. We believe news about someone because of how we categorize them. And those are just our personal actions.
We live in a country that has some unjust laws and enforces other laws unjustly, based on race. Bryan Stevenson makes this point about our legal system’s treatment of black minors in his TED talk. If you haven’t seen or read Just Mercy, please watch and read it. We don’t want to believe we live in a country with systemic racism. We would–I would–so much prefer to believe that there are a few bad eggs, a few Klansmen and neo-Nazi White Supremacists causing these problems and if we could just put them away, we’d go back to our fair, just, and equitable society. But that isn’t true. We have many states that have stopped using the death penalty because it’s been proven that we have enforced it in a race-biased manner.
Let me say this again, because it’s a big deal: we have enforced our worst legal consequences, taking people’s lives, in a racist manner. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of laws, but it’s also one of the most horrifying, because there is no rectifying taking a person’s life.
I want to dig in to this. We have a responsibility to change the injustice in our country. If it doesn’t touch us directly so we look the other way or “tsk” at it but do nothing, we are doing racism. Passive racism is still racism. Looking away from evil is still evil.
These protests and demonstrations throughout our country and throughout the world, they are an attempt to make people pay attention, to convict us that we have gone along with racism, actively or passively, and that is why it still exists. It still exists because it’s in us. Not just the Klansman or the woman in Central Park. Us.
It’s wrong for people to own other people and force them to have sex.
It’s also wrong to kill people who can’t defend themselves and then excuse the people who did the killing. And if we “tsk” or turn the other way, we are allowing that systemic, racist injustice to continue. If we decide it doesn’t hurt us directly so it’s not our problem, we’re passively giving it permission to thrive in our country…because it still thrives in us. That’s how we got here.
If you find yourself arguing in your head–or shouting at your screen–then I’d ask you to read. Read how black people are experiencing our laws and our law enforcement. Read our history, recent and older, and not the sterilized, we-had-the-best-intentions version. Consider why every black parent has to have “the talk” with their children to explain how they must behave with police–and I don’t mean “obeying the law”–to try to keep from getting killed. If you truly believe that the problem is black people refusing to obey the law or media that overreport violence, I ask you to research more. You may have to consider other sources. We have violence committed against people of color every day, most of which goes unreported. When Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Rayshard Brooks gets national attention, you can assume that this, too, is the tip of the iceberg.*** When a black man jogging is chased down by white men in trucks with guns and murdered, do these men go to prison or do they not even get arrested until public outcry makes it happen–months later? That isn’t how our laws and our system should work. But we have a systemic problem.
If we are Jesus followers, we have a clear commandment: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If you were screaming that laws were being enforced unjustly and lethally against you and those who look like you, would you have others listen and respond and join in your outcry? I would. If I were on the direct receiving end of this, I would want others to speak up with me, not tell me what I’m doing wrong when I know we’re getting killed for no reason. When we’re being shot to death while sleeping in our beds, and the official report states, “no cause of death,” I would want others to join me in shaking heaven and earth to make this stop. Loving our neighbor as ourselves requires this.
But even more, as a Jesus follower I have to stop pretending this is a problem black people have for which I might offer some help. If there are bullies at school, the problem isn’t that a few kids are getting targeted and it’s really those abused kids who have a problem to solve but I might decide to lend a hand, maybe speak up and say “bullying is wrong.” The problem is with the bullies. Right? Yes, I want to support the kids who are being bullied, AND it’s a school problem, a systemic problem, not just a problem for the kids who get picked on.
But now the bullies are part of my circle at school. I’m not a bully. Of course not. But sure, sometimes when they shake kids up and steal their money I get treated to ice cream from the cafeteria. Once I got a new backpack and I didn’t ask where it came from, because that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, right? I didn’t punch anyone.
It’s tempting to tell myself that I’m innocent, I’m not doing the bullying, I would never do that, and therefore it’s not my problem.
“I’m not racist. I don’t hate black people. I don’t own slaves or call them names or wear a white hood. It’s not my problem.”
On every level, it is my problem. I need to recognize that it is. It’s my problem because my people, the ones who look like me, are doing the bullying. It’s my problem because I’m benefiting from the bullying–and historically, have benefited inordinately from it. It’s my problem because I follow Jesus who commands me to identify with those who are abused and bullied, who suffer injustice and persecution. It’s my problem because I, too, carry these racist attitudes and do quiet little acts of racism, usually passive, that help sustain this systemic injustice.
We can’t make other people change but we can change ourselves.
I need to help change this because it’s my problem.
*Though to many this statement, too, seems patently obvious, it’s hotly debated, including how to obtain compelling evidence either way. Statistics of reported and prosecuted crimes are themselves a matter of scrutiny and debate. I’m more inclined to believe those suffering racism who report their experience.
**Yes, there are severely unhealthy, narcissistic, and boundary-violating people who would accuse you of manipulation or verbal abuse for trying to set a boundary or speaking truth they don’t want to hear. “Eye of the beholder” works for a measure until you’re dealing with someone, well, abusive and manipulative.
***If you have an explanation why each of these cases was justified–including Breonna Taylor shot in her bed when she had been sleeping–I literally beg you to look at more sources to understand what really happened.