Racism – alive and well

We like to say that we’ve advanced as a society and a culture. We’ve got great technology, we can fly to the moon and beyond, we can talk to the other side of the world instantaneously, we can even record six TV shows simultaneously. For Pete’s sake, women can wear pants, and we can even buy Kwanzaa and Hanukkah wrapping paper at Target. The reality is that we have a long way to go on many issues and racial equality is one of them. Society was actually more advanced about this 2,000 years ago than we are now.

Dr. Cain Hope Felder states, “One needs to keep in mind that, for the most part by modern standards of ethnicity, first-century Jews could be considered AFro-Asiatics. This is to say that Jesus, his family, his disciples and doubtless, most of the fellow Jews he encountered in his public ministry, were persons of color… Indeed many Jews of the first century lived in regions where Africans intermingled freely with other racial and ethnic types… suffice it to say that the ancients had no problem with Black people nor did the Greeks and Romans consider them to be inferior.”

How convenient that we’ve forgotten this. And it is clear that society has forgotten. We don’t have to search far to find the stories.

Overt racism – the KKK, white supremacist groups, hate crimes – are easy to identify, easy to condemn, and it’s easy to say “I’m not them! I’m not a racist.”

Then there are the more subtle forms of racism… we convince ourselves that we are “color blind” and believe we treat all people equally. But are we aware that we have white privilege and white power regardless of whether we ask for it or not? Are we aware that some of our ways of “helping” are condescending and feed into the societal illusion that people of color are inferior? Are we aware of our own prejudices, fears, and attitudes?

About 13-14 years ago I remember going to a workshop here in town about racism. I was shocked to learn that I was a recovering racist. I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a racist, but after talking about it, I realized that there are assumptions and stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in my psyche.

Think about it…we may do our best to treat all people equally, but what is our first gut reaction when we see things like this:

  • A group of young black boys
  • A couple who are of mixed races
  • A young black woman and two children
  • Four teenagers – white, black, Latino and Asian – which will you assume to have the highest grade point? Be the best at basketball? Or soccer? Or math? Or english? Which would you assume came from the poorest family?

Our reactions to these and many other stimuli clue us in to the racism ingrained in us. To start to change the world, we have to start by changing ourselves. There is hope.

Valerie Kaur, in Women, Spirituality & Transformative Leadership, talks about how stereotypes become “embedded inside of the social landscape” and we absorb them whether we are aware of it or not. These stereotypes, because they have become such a deeply ingrained part of us, may cause us to have physical and emotional reactions of fear in certain circumstances. However, Valerie tells us, “Our guilt can cancel out because it’s not the first moment over which we have responsibility. It’s the second moment. In this second moment we can decide whether we go unthinkingly with the way that our bodies have been programmed to see others… [or] we can choose to draw upon other voices, other faces, other stories, to undo what has been done to us.” (p. 129)

Here’s a great example. My friend, Joan (whose name has been changed) has lived in a racially diverse neighborhood for 35 years. She moved there with her first husband because they had a racially mixed marriage and there were four other mixed couple families on the block,so they thought it would be a good place to raise their kids. Which it was. However, over the years a number of homes have converted to rental properties and occasionally a gang moves into those homes and apartments. A few years ago a gang moved in with a dozen or so black men who would play basketball in the street – the street that she had to drive through to get to her house. When she would maneuver her car through them, they would glare at her and move out of her way very slowly. She was scared and took to rolling up her windows and making sure the doors were locked before she drove through them.

But that wasn’t how she wanted to feel or how she wanted to react. So, Joan made the conscious decision to change. Instead of rolling the windows up, she rolled them down and as they walked slowly out of the way of her car she would give a little wave or say thank you. Over the course of a few weeks many of them had stopped glaring at her and moved more quickly out of her way. Then within a few more days the rest followed suit… all except one. There was one older black man who looked so angry and hateful and he continued to glare at her much longer than the others, but she kept up what she was doing and eventually he stopped, too.

Joan also said hi to them or waved when they walked by her house. When she let go of her fear and started treating them like human beings, they responded in kind.

These sorts of examples are our hope, because they say that we do not have to be held hostage to our first reactions which are usually based in fear, or generalized stereotypes, or learned behaviors.  We have a choice about how we respond to our gut-level, knee-jerk reactions… and it is our SECOND response that is the important one. Will we respond in fear, suspicion and dislike or will we respond with love, compassion and at least an attempt at understanding?