Upgrading to Racism 2.0: Lessons from Christian Perspectives on Sin

Butterfly

It’s been some time since I have posted something on my blog.  To be honest, I have been stalled in the middle of my series on Race and the Craft Brewing Industry; Part 2 has been in progress for some time and I haven’t wanted to break the continuity by blogging about something else.

Things, of course, change.

Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about the nature of public debates about race and racism, inspired by the headlines on Treyvon Martin and Paula Dean, incidents and apologies from professional athletes like Riley Cooper and Jeremy Clements, and most recently discussions I have been involved in surrounding an article from NPR News about the lack of diversity in craft beer and a response from Rod Dreher in the American Conservative.  In each of these cases and in many, many others, I have noticed  increasingly adamant and sometimes quite hostile responses to the recognition of racist language, ideas, and acts.  In fact the recognition of racism is clearly being experienced as a serious accusation, an indictment of character–one that many believe is being leveled too often by unscrupulous liberals and minorities playing the infamous “race card.”

Sadly, in each of the cases I mentioned above, sorely needed discussions about complex racial politics in America were completely ignored in favor of useless debates about whether or not an individual should be called a racist or not.  These debates are often heated, contentious and serve to completely nullify the potentially positive effects of having difficult discussions about race that simply do not fall into black and white camps.

I believe the only way to get out of this escalating pattern of recognition and backlash and move toward productive discussion and debate is to upgrade our understanding of racism–Racism 2.0 if you will.  As I began spending more and more time thinking through what a more productive understanding of racism would look like, a somewhat unlikely parallel presented itself in Christian perspectives on sin.  This was unexpected because I do not personally identify as Christian and my understanding of Christian doctrine is limited to what I have experienced in the churches I attended in my youth (Southern Baptist and then a non-denominational Evangelical congregation), those I have periodically attended in adulthood (Presbyterian and Episcopalian), and theological conversations with Christian friends and Religious Studies colleagues in academia.  I am speaking, only,  from what I know and have observed and I warmly invite anyone with other perspectives to share those.

 

Racism Defined

I’ll begin with as much precision as possible.  My definition of racism is twofold.  One part is taken from the dictionary. The other is grounded in cultural theory.  Racism is:

  1. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
  2. The unwillingness to acknowledge that contemporary understandings of race serve to significantly structure social, political, and economic life such that members of certain races experience systemic advantages or disadvantages in everyday life.

You will notice that neither of these definitions includes anything about maliciousness, intention, or questionable character.  They do not gesture toward severity, whether or not someone “got hurt,” or whether such sentiments are made public or privately held.  Neither dictates who can or cannot do racist things, think racist thoughts, or speak racist words.

These, I think, are vitally important things to remember.

 

Sin is not Always a Matter of Scale or Intention: Neither is Racism

I have listened to countess sermons that revolve, at least in part, around discussions of sin.  Many of those that were the most influential, I recall, were those that challenged members of the congregation to examine their own ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.  Many of these sermons held a mirror up, allowing folks of all persuasions to recognize sin in their own lives.  The sermons were not about murder or adultery or heroin use.  They were about small everyday acts, about turning your back on people in need out of fear, about failing to stand up for your principles in a bind, about white lies and short cuts.  These sermons acknowledged that most people can keep themselves away from “big sin,” but that it is the small, largely intentional or well-intended sin that can aggregate and lead an individual, a family, a community down a dark path.

Similarly, it seems that most people can keep themselves away from “big racism,” from overt acts of violence and discrimination.  They can manage not to lynch anyone, beat anyone, or burn crosses on people’s yards.  However, everyday acts that are based on essentialist notions of race are ingrained in our most banal habits and these are far more insidious.   The fact is that the effects of “little racism” are real and profound–they are evident in yawning wage gaps for people of color, patterns of bias in hiring hiring and promotion, differential lending practices by banks, longer prison sentences and more frequent convictions for people of color who commit the same crimes that whites do, and any number of other well-documented instances of systemic inequality.

I don’t believe that church going Christians and others enjoy having their thoughts or actions characterized as sinful, but there is a willingness on the part of most to own their sin when it is recognized and use it as a springboard to get better.  To be shown you have committed a sin, is not to be deemed an awful human or to be likened to those committing the worst atrocities.  It is to be shown you have done or said or thought something that within particular theological parameters counts as sin AND (more importantly) have been given an opportunity, an invitation to improve.

Imagine a world where the recognition of racism isn’t greeted with knee-jerk defensiveness, with denial on the grounds that the act was not significant or intentional or  malicious enough to “count” as racist?  What if we could all own our racism, accept the discomfort that doing so inevitably causes, but then also accept the invitation to improve?  Imagine how much ground we might cover.  I believe this has to begin with understanding that racism is not an unfortunate exception; rather, it is the norm.

 

Sin is Not Exceptional: Neither is Racism

As I consider almost all of my experiences in Christian churches, I am struck by the number of times I have heard the phrase “I am a sinner,”  the admission uttered without shame or defeat or despair.  I have heard it spoken by ministers and priests, deacons and elders, regular parishioners and two-mass-a-year types.  Though sin is almost universally understood as a dark and dangerous element of humanity–one that threatens the very fabric of Christian well-being–it is also nearly universally accepted that it is omnipresent and that it does not have to define those who have it.  I learned that to sin, is not to be damned, is not to be evil, it is not to carry an inherent maliciousness in your heart; but rather, it is to be human.  The understanding and acknowledgment of sin in oneself–through reflection, confession, prayer, and repentance–is understood to be a necessary part of the process of self-improvement and a contribution to the betterment of the world we share.

We as a country who grapples with the residue of our complicated (and not very distant) history of slavery could benefit tremendously from a similar kind of acceptance of racism.  Though I don’t believe that racism is an essential part of human nature (as many believe sin is), I do believe it is a fundamental part of American socialization.  It is, to offer a metaphor, in the water.

We have unfortunately become a culture of stone casters when it comes to racism.  We see in others what is equally part of our own make-ups, but refuse to acknowledge this reality.  I make it a point to be vocal about claiming my own racism and understanding where it originates.  I am a 35 year old black woman, who is months from completing my forth college degree, a PhD from an elite public university.  I learned and habituated, as a part of obtaining my position of educational privilege, racist ideas about intelligence.   Up until not too long ago, I had a tendency to don what I called my “ghetto” voice in some very problematic attempts at humor.  “Ghetto” voice was an amalgamation of dialect and slang, hyperbole and ignorance, that was (though I did not really examine the fact while I was doing it) supposed to be understood as “blacker” than my normal speech.  It took me a long time to understand  that my “performances” were only funny because I was wielding my privilege to secure a position of intellectual superiority based on the assumption that blackness and ignorance were essentially synonymous (but that I had somehow overcome this condition).  I recognize now, that my “harmless jokes” had the unintended consequence of authorizing  this kind of thought, action, and speech for the largely white community around me.

Experiences like this and countless others have brought me to the point where I can shamelessly, undefeated, and without despair say, “I am a racist.”  I am not afraid to admit this.  I am not only a racist, but I have racist ideas about people of my own racial heritage.  I recognize this to be a consequence of being socialized in the United States.  And I know that only through the honest acknowledgment of racism in myself can I hope to improve and contribute to the betterment of the world we share.

 

A Life without Sin is an Ongoing Project: So is an Anti-Racist Life

The kind of recognition I just described was not a one time occurrence for me.  It was one part of a process that I have committed myself to…indefinitely.   Because I understand racism to be a part of the status quo, to evolve and change, fracture and multiply, I understand the project of anti-racism to be an ongoing one.

I have watched friends and loved ones attend church from week to week, and pray and read the Bible from day to day, in a constant state of vigilance.  None of these people have ever assumed that they have or are likely to achieve a totally sinless life.  But they accept that to commit to a Christian life, is to sign up to work at it everyday and they do so willingly with the understanding that the work is worth it…for themselves, for those around them, for their children and their children.

The assumption that a person either is or is not racist is, in my estimation, one of the the biggest barriers to making progress on race relations in the U.S.  There are, simply, too many people who either don’t acknowledge the need to adopt anti-racism as an ongoing life project; too many who acknowledge the need, but do not recognize that it requires constant work; and too many who decide that the work is not for them to do (i.e. the belief that people of color are the only ones who need to work on the problem of racism).

Moreover, as I learned as a teenager attending youth group meetings, being attentive to sin in yourself and in others and committing to work on it daily can make one highly unpopular, isolated.  It is, in short, a risky venture.  I learned that I might take some abuse and have to weather the storms of ridicule and rejection as a result of sticking to the doctrines that were intended to structure my budding Christian life.  As a teenager, I wasn’t willing to put in this work and my behavior reflected this…loudly.  I don’t think that living as an anti-racist is much different–it can be  profoundly alienating to be the one who has to call out friends on telling inappropriate jokes or using terms that (while “not meant to be mean”) are harmful, dis-empowering, and/or reinforce dangerous stereotypes.

I am reminded, 20 years later, of a boy who called me to tell me that his parents would not let him go to a dance with me because they discovered I was black (a detail it did not occur to him to share) on the way to pick me up from my house.  I still remember the hurt and confusion I felt, wearing an outfit I’d just bought for the event.  I told my own parents that I just didn’t feel like going anymore.  His explanation, “they aren’t racist or anything, but they just don’t want people to say bad things about me” is common enough and  I have never been angry at him or his parents about this incident.  Even at that age I understood how strongly the instinct to protect our children can be.  However, I now understand that making the decision to “protect” our children in this way is also making the decision to accept the truth of the bad things people say.  It was, in this case, to act in agreement with the assumption that his being romantically linked to me (even as a teenager) is a character flaw for someone like him, a danger to his reputation simply because of the color of my skin.  I don’t believe these decisions were easy for his parents.  Nor do I think they are bad people just because I think they made the wrong ones.  I don’t believe decisions to live as an anti-racist are easy.  If they were, we might be much further along in achieving social justice.

 

Ignoring Sin Does Not Make it Go Away: “Colorbindness” is Equally as Ineffective for Eradicating Racism

Finally, Christian perspectives on sin offer an interesting way to think through what I believe to be a particularly problematic stance taken by a lot of very well meaning individuals.  I have heard dozens of people proudly announce their colorblindedness–the fact that they “don’t see color” and “accept people as just people” with out even thinking about race.  For a long time I was happy to hear such a statement. Now, I believe I will tell them to think harder.  Colorblindness, is becoming the #1 excuse to abdicate the personal responsibility to think about, deal with, and work to eliminate racism.

The parallel I have extended for the duration of this blog is instructive in this final aspect as well.  The Christian spaces I have navigated and observed seem to accept that sin is real, has real consequences, and cannot simply be ignored.  If we choose to focus on the good in people, the bad does not simply go away.  It may be personally satisfying, but it is not collectively productive.  And sadly, the notion that a nation which such a fraught history of racial injustice, might spontaneously adopt colorblindness from coast to coast thereby eliminating the need to grapple with racial politics, is little more than a beautiful fantasy and too often a justification for outright laziness.

 

Racism 2.0

If you have reached this part of my blog post and concluded that I am offering  Christianity as the solution to racism, you have missed the point entirely.  I have tried to show that a particular theological perspective on a large, complicated, dark and dangerous force can act as a productive model for a 21st-century understanding of racism that I believe will allow us as a society to more productively work on the problem.  We are, at this current historical moment, stuck in a highly unproductive loop that is leading to nothing but escalating polarization.

Racism 2.0 is an understanding that racism is not defined by scale, effect, or intention.  It does not matter if acts of racism are not overt and spectacular, if no one was harmed or took offense, if an individual doing racism “didn’t mean it that way.”  Racism 2.0 is understanding that racism is not rare or exceptional but a product of the time and place in which we live.  It is accepting that we are all not only capable of racism, but prone to think and act and speak in racist ways without knowing we are doing so.  Racism 2.0 is being willing to own our racism when it is recognized and understanding that this ownership has to be the first step in getting beyond it personally and collectively.  Finally Racism 2.0 is committing to anti-racism as ongoing project, to put effort into recognizing and resolving racism in all parts of our lives with the understanding that if we pay it forward all of us with reap the benefits of a more just world.

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I recognize that this is nothing short of a paradigm shift on racism.  An abandonment of a culture of accusation and the embracing of a culture of problem solving .  I recognize that this perspective will be unpopular with many.  But I also know that some of you will find promise in what I have shared here and I hope that some of you will feel inspired to join me in developing and learning within this space I am calling Racism 2.0.  If this describes you, please contact me and share your ideas.  I’d love to develop some sort of collaborative project with people who also believe that to beat racism we have to do a better job of understanding our relationship to it.