My Deliverance from Racial Obliviousness

This is a plea to my fellow white Jesus-lovers to wake up and listen.

In our well-intentioned ignorance, we are hurting people. Let me share the story of how I abandoned my belief that I should be color-blind when it comes to race, came to understand that racial inequalities are real in America, and became convicted that race is something I need to look in the eye before the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow can ever be alleviated. Jesus people should be at the vanguard of racial repentance and healing.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, Why We Must Talk About Race, in which I wrestled with the real phenomenon of white privilege.

I am back on this topic because I recently read an interview with two people from the entertainment industry whose work I enjoy. In part of the interview, they discussed a movie they’d made in the 1980s that contained a character who would be controversial today because he’s a humorous Asian stereotype. The interviewees explained that their use of an Asian stereotype couldn’t be racist because they grew up in an all-white environment where they were completely sheltered from racism and the civil rights movement.

In other words, they were arguing that because they had no contact with people of color as they were growing up, they couldn’t possibly be racist. And because they couldn’t be racist, they shouldn’t be criticized for using racial stereotypes as humor.

This is kind of the flip-side of the argument where someone says, “I can’t be racist. I have black friends!”

But growing up oblivious to racial inequalities does not exempt a privilege-holder from responsibility. Even though I may be oblivious to racism, racial inequalities, and even racial differences, I may still be complicit in (i.e., benefitting from) the inequitable system itself. As a follower of Jesus, the Rabbi who taught that the first shall be last, I find that position of silent complicity intolerable.

The point at this historical juncture in the struggle for equality in America isn’t so much whether individuals harbor racist feelings, it’s about persons’ and institutions’ level of complicity in the inequitable social structures that developed before I was born in a society that was explicitly based on racial hierarchies. In other words, I may not be racist. But I still harm people of color, even if I’m not aware of it, by the fact that in most American social structures, my whiteness and maleness are benefits that other people don’t enjoy. I am speaking again here about white privilege.

So while I may not individually and consciously oppress people of color, I can be complicit in a system that works in favor of white males. If I fail to challenge this system while benefitting from it, I am guilty of perpetuating it. Because only white males like me have the social capital to change system. But to create meaningful change we who are insiders must listen to the voices of outsiders because otherwise we can’t see what’s going on. It’s like how I need someone else to tell me I’ve got spaghetti sauce on my beard because I can’t see it for myself.

It is only those who are harmed by a system who can articulate exactly how and why they are being harmed. That’s why I’m reading James H. Cone and others who can speak to and about the system using the vocabulary of biblical theology. A starting point might be this very recent post from Kyle Howard, An Urgent Plea to My White Brothers in Christ. Among other things, Kyle pleas:

I think both black and white Christians have generally done a poor job discussing the real issue at hand. Some blacks are assuming upon their white brothers prejudice rather than ignorance and have ungraciously categorized a whole ethnic group (whites) as being against them rather than needing insight. Many whites are ignorant because they have not sought understanding. They have not sought to understand their black brothers deeply but yet claim to love them. The African American historical experience is plagued by whites claiming to love their their black brothers but not actively seeking to understand them (See King’s letter from Birmingham jail). When blacks hear from their white brothers, “we care” but then don’t see any apparent attempt at understanding them, they see hypocrisy and potential Gospel witness is lost.

I confess to having been ignorant in spite of growing up in the Nashville area and interacting with people of color almost every day.

Growing up, I was acutely aware of racial prejudice. But I thought it was confined to the past and a handful of anachronistic bigots. The civil rights narrative I learned at school led me to believe the civil rights battle had been won. And what I gathered from my Sunday school teachers was that we should be “color-blind” and treat everyone equally.

As I am wont to do, I took this guidance to the extreme. As a kid, I made it a point never to mention race or skin color under any circumstance. I remember an episode my freshman year of high school where one student asked me to physically describe one of my friends because she was supposed to meet him for a project. This friend of mine was a young black man. I described his height, his hair color, and what I thought he was wearing. The girl I was talking to then asked me point blank, “Is he black?” I sheepishly nodded my head. I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded B-word because it would betray my theological belief at the time that Christians should be wholly color-blind.

I realize this anecdote was gelastic, but I think it’s illustrative of many white Christians’ approach to race. I believed that good people “didn’t see race,” and that the only people who made race an issue were whacko white supremacists or exploitative black liberals who made a name for themselves by stirring up racial animosity and keeping racism alive for political benefit. That’s the narrative I heard from the media I was exposed to and, in my youth, I believed it in all sincerity and purity of heart.

What changed? At age 30, I began working in the same office with a very outspoken African-American Christian lady who had no qualms about discussing racial differences. She was the church secretary, I was the college minister. I love her so much for how she opened my eyes.

It was shocking, really, to hear her talk frankly to me about how the black and white members of the congregation had some differing beliefs and political views. Her vocabulary was far from color-blind. Although among the white Christians who raised me, racial talk was taboo, it was a topic about which she was highly conversant.

I vividly recall one afternoon. We were walking and talking down a hallway when I jokingly described a group of teenage boys I used to take to church in Tennessee as “ghetto kids.” Now understand that these kids I was talking about were white boys from the projects. And they referred to themselves as “ghetto kids.” But Melanie (not her real name) the secretary was instantly offended. To her ears, “ghetto” was a disparaging synonym for “black.” I had no clue. It would never have occurred to me that I, the most blind of the color-blind, could possibly say something racially offensive. But that’s what I did. And thus began my education.

So I repent of believing that Christians should adopt a wholly color-blind point of view. Indeed, we Christ-lovers are all brothers and sisters. And we all carry equal value in the eyes of God.

The problem is that if you “don’t see race,” then you also can’t see racial inequality and injustice when it’s right in front of you. The effect of the color-blind point of view is to perpetuate the status quo. And if the status quo is corrupt, then the color-blind point of view is a tool for perpetuating corruption. Christian color-blindness might be the best friend white privilege has.

White friends, the internet is full of Melanies who eagerly wait to lovingly tell you why and how they feel oppressed by the way things work in America. May we seek them out and give them the hearing they deserve. I won’t be cheesy and say “knowing is half the battle,” but humble awareness really is the first step in letting the Holy Spirit work through us to banish the malicious spirit of racism from American culture once and for all.

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