This post is NOT about the trial or the verdicts of recent volatile cases, but about an issue that these debacles have brought up: racial profiling. While I am not an expert on race relations or sociology, I am a white man who is married to a black woman, and we tend to take issues concerning race relations personally. For that reason, I’ve asked my wife to co-author this post with me. We do understand that this is a volatile issue and want to be sensitive, but race needs to be talked about.
We still live in a racist nation. Skin color and ethnic background play a huge role in personal identity and separating ourselves from others who are different. Just take a quick look at some Twitter posts or the comments section under news articles about the past Zimmerman verdict (and the events of today) and you will see an overwhelming number of hateful remarks towards people with different ethnicities. There is racism on both sides—it’s not a one-way street.
We have experienced American racism ourselves. While visiting family in Salt Lake City, Utah (a predominantly white area), we went out to the mall. We drew stares and odd looks from people while walking in public holding hands. It was palpable. At one point, we passed another mixed race couple (a black man and white woman). We made eye contact and there was a nod of greeting and a look that passed between us of understanding, of solidarity, as if to say, “We understand.”
While the Bible calls us to live in harmony and that, in Christ Jesus, all old ethnic markers don’t matter, we have yet to really live as though there is no longer Jew or Gentile, Black or White, Latino or Asian. We hold to our ethnic identity more than we do our spiritual identity.
And so we’ll hit our theme: Racial Profiling
Profiling is a normal part of how the human brain works to process and interpret information. This is not just about race but is true in other areas of life. When we see something or someone our brain compares it to past examples or experiences and then classifies that new thing or person based on what is already up in the old noodle. OF COURSE, we are more than the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the way we smell or the way sound. But we are sensory people and someone’s experience of me is going to be based on their senses and the memories connected to those senses.
Is it right to judge someone in this way? No, it is not. But it’s a trait common to humanity. Seeing someone in skinny jeans messy hair carries associations in my head. The same with seeing someone in a coat and tie. People have made an issue out of Zimmerman profiling Martin because of his skin color and clothing. Even if subconscious, I think Zimmerman would have seen Martin and made certain associations based on appearance. Hear me out—don’t think that profiling is a valid excuse for treating people poorly, but it helps us understand that we’re all in the same boat.
A real-life example: listen to black comedians imitate white people. They frequently use a nasal tone when impersonating whites. Do all whites sound like that? No, we don’t, but there are mental associations based on sensory memory. The problem is when we allow sensory memory to influence how well or how poorly we treat others. Then we’re judging the book by its cover and never really opening the book to see what it has to say.
It’s hard because it’s normal, but racism will never die as long as we are permitting our senses to dictate who and what a person is like before actually experiencing what a person is like.
FACT: Simply because of the shade of my skin in some situations I am considered a less valuable / trustworthy customer, colleague, group member, participant, professional, driver…. I am treated differently. I look different so I am labeled as “other than,” and frequently for people of color that label silently morphs into “less than.” This less worthy mentality allows us to value people differently.
I am reminded of the recent deluge of racist tweets over The Hunger Games movie. A fan of the books admitted that they were less sad about a character’s death and did not want to see the movie once they learned that a beloved character did not, in fact, have blond hair and blue eyes, but had “dark-brown” skin (she was a person of color).
And so, after all these years, we are still here. A person’s value, and the value of his life, is determined by the amount brownness in their skin. What is really shocking is that, although fans had gotten to know her as and love her as a character, those feelings quickly turned to disgust when her skin tone was changed on them. If people can turn on a beloved fictional character at the drop of a hat I wonder about how horribly people with this mindset could treat someone that they do not know or care about? That doesn’t even take into account hair, dress, manner of speaking, gait, etc….
Sure, all of us project an image, but that image should never prevent us from being treated without decency, common courtesy, and (dare I even say it)…respect. The question for us as Christians should not be, “What are others projecting?” but “Who are we reflecting?” Is Jesus seen in how we treat others? A person’s clothing, skin, smell, or other appearance should not matter to me as much as faith that we share.
Back to Chris:
Unfortunately, we live in a world where we look at appearances and make judgments long before we get to know people. It’s part of how we’re wired. Even my wife buys into it (without realizing it). She tells me I need to shave before church events because the clean-shaven look projects a different image than a scruffy pastor!
IN DEALING WITH OURSELVES: On a practical level, then, we do project an image—an idea—of ourselves to people long before people actually get to know us. I’m not saying that you should care about what other people think, but I do believe that we ought to think about what we want to say about ourselves through sensory experiences. What does my dress communicate about me? How about my scent? What about shaving or being scruffy? It is not important to who I AM, but these things do interact with other people’s sensory memory.
IN DEALING WITH OTHERS: On a practical level, keep in mind that what you see with people is not necessarily what you get. We are complex human beings, far more complicated than a rash judgment can accommodate. Life is not so simple.
The country is fighting racism that goes a long way back. Things probably won’t change until Jesus comes back. But we can all do our part to make it a better place.
Don’t settle for cookie-cutter answers and snap judgments.
What do you think? Please feel free to engage in debate from either side. I do ask that you keep it civil and polite no matter how heated you may feel…
Chris Linzey is husband to Tené, father to the three most beautiful children in the world, a Navy Chaplain, and a movie enthusiast. Chris loves people and has a deep desire to help them live lives of faith where the Bible is more than mere words on a page, but the way we live every day. His undergrad and Master’s studies were in Biblical Studies, and he focused on the New Testament (his mentor was a Gospel of Mark scholar). He received an additional Master's degree, Master of Divinity (MDiv), in Pastoral Preaching.