What are we to make of last week’s mass shooting at a Charleston church, in which a young white man took the lives of nine African Americans? Many have called the shooting an act of domestic terrorism, a hate crime, and even “white supremacist terrorism.” Reportedly the shooter even hoped to “start a race war.”
Though easy to condemn, it’s difficult to absorb, much less confront, such racism. But what about the subtler forms of racism we encounter in those around us . . . and even ourselves?
In recent months, I have seen more and more people with fair skin like mine joining protests, lamenting systemic injustice, and condemning acts of racism around the country. Although I’m glad to see such growing zeal for racial equality, I’m struck by how much we focus on the racism out there, as if we ourselves remain innocent.
Implicit racism is even in hearts God is changing
As a Christian, my faith tradition doesn’t let me assume immunity to whole categories of sin.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” wrote the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23.
Isaiah the prophet gives worse news in Isaiah 64:6: “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart . . . [E]ven in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
I am living proof of this truth.
Despite my best efforts and noblest aspirations, I become a very selfish commuter when running late. I have misused money, overeaten, taken office supplies, envied others’ romantic success, told and believed lies, used and cursed others, and dishonored my parents. And those are the more mundane examples.
Compared to God’s law, my own standards are far more inconsistent and skewed to favor me, but I haven’t met those either. Given such consistent moral failing in all other parts of my life, why would I ever believe that I’m immune to race-based discrimination and misjudgment?
For the past year, I’ve been earnestly seeking to understand and repent for racism, learn more about systemic injustice, and listen to others’ experiences and perspectives — especially those of African Americans. But just recently, I was reminded anew of how deeply ingrained prejudice and racism is . . . even in a heart I believe God is changing.
At a private event I attended for a largely white group, I noticed an African American man I didn’t recognize getting food. Though it pains me deeply to admit, my first thought was to question his presence, since our group was only using part of the restaurant. Was he a patron who’d missed our event sign?
Then I had a second thought: there were many in the group I didn’t know; perhaps he was someone I hadn’t yet met. Thankfully I acted on that assumption and introduced myself — he proved to be the guest of a friend.
As Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan wrote earlier this year, “Even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking. Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have — from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive.”
Only diverse relationships unveil our blind spots
When I first began to recognize my own racism, I felt deep shame.
This sin seemed so awful I didn’t want to admit it to anyone. Worse yet was the thought of confessing it to my African American friends. How could they ever accept me, much less forgive me?
But as I began to acknowledge my sin and blind spots, I didn’t find the rejection and shunning I had feared, but instead gained closer, more honest relationships. I am still very new to this journey. With courage comes greater boldness in some conversations, and probably greater offense. Yet through those precious relationships, more and more lies I’ve believed about other people become exposed and stripped away.
Several months ago, a fellow Christian asked me, “Wouldn’t my Bible reading convict me if I had a problem with racism?” The question implied a belief that we’re the best judges of our own sin.
But blind spots — which often fuel racism — are invisible to the blinded one. It takes the challenge of others’ input to realize how much we distort or can’t see. Even then, people publicly accused of racism often deny that they’re guilty of prejudice.
If those in your circle of relationships mostly look like you, who in your life could even be accountable for telling you that they sensed some racism in a remark, assumption, or interaction? People who look like you probably share the same blind spots — and therefore probably would not pick up on implicit racism.
Even if you do have more diverse relationships, could you receive a suggestion of racism without attacking or dismissing the speaker? As Professor Robin DiAngelo recently noted, white people almost never respond well to feedback about racism, regardless of who provides it.
The Bible leaves us no room to proclaim innocence
As the nation collectively mourns the most recent wicked assault, I would plea with all of us, but especially my fellow white Christians, to consider and repent for our racism.
So long as we deny this sin, we continue to hurt our brothers and sisters, grieve the Holy Spirit, and miss knowing the parts of God he reveals in those whose equal humanity we deny.
I do not believe we can see real change until more of us take responsibility for our own racism. The Bible does not give us room to proclaim innocence.
Perhaps it starts with a prayer along these lines: “Father, where I am guilty of racism, expose it, and help me be willing to confront and confess my sin. Bring forth the healing in our midst that you intend for your kingdom, so that we might see and experience more of who you truly are.”
You could also use the prayer of St. Francis or the Book of Common Prayer’s prayers for social justice or times of conflict. If we start by taking the necessary steps to acknowledge the evil in our hearts, we can begin to confront the problem of racism from the inside out.
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