My student, R, called me a racist! He let all the teachers on my floor know that he was sure that I, his English teacher, was a racist too. But Ms. B and Ms. G wouldn’t hear it. “He can’t be racist. Dye is Puerto Rican just like you are! Minorities can’t be racist against other minorities.” My colleagues were protecting me for a variety of reasons, but even I didn’t buy that defense then.
I knew that R was calling me a racist partly because it’s the Great Grenade, and R was very astute at setting off. And it works. It made me feel horrible; there are few who don’t feel particularly and personally targeted at the slightest hint of the word. But he wasn’t without validity. R was often an angry young man, but he didn’t just get furious for no reason at all. He may have been using the opportunity to strike at me and take the pressure off himself, but the charge was based on a perception from a very perceptive young man. It was a charge I considered the other day.
After seven years.
Yeah, it hurts to be called racist. I was panicking. Straight panicking. You’d think that he had called me a Klan member. Who sacrificed babies. It’s a step removed from being called a child molester.
Or, that’s how it felt. I realize now that such reactions are ultimately selfish and self-centered. Racism is ultimately not a personal defect but a societal one. Usually when white folks (such as myself) find ourselves defending our own asses from criticism of racism, we are doing so from a posture of narcissism. It’s ultimately self-centered to take such criticism as a personal fault (at least initially). Racism is an institutional reality that benefits many while denying justice to billions of others. It is based on a social construct that exists in reality, whether or not we are willing to acknowledge the reality of it. And whether or not white people are ready to acknowledge that we benefit from it, let alone how we benefit from it.
First, let’s acknowledge that race is a social construct based on the need to dehumanize entire people groups in order to fuel the fire of colonialism and empire. Wherever you see empires is where you see its most notorious elements. And chief among those is racism. Racism is, quite simply, a social construct – and so is the concept of race as commonly used. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, it used to be in the US that Southerners considered Northerners an inferior race. Not, of course, as a means of enslaving them as done for those from Africa, but as a means of dismissing critique against racism as an institution itself. The creating of this othering was a way to enshrine the colonial evil of slavery. More often in a post-colonial world, racism is used as a way of preserving a certain mode of capitalism and continuing the status quo.
My working definition is:
Racism is all that which oppresses, dehumanizes, and otherwise dismisses the underclass “race.”
So yes, as a white person, I benefit from racism – or let’s say that generally-speaking I’m not hurting from it. Directly, I’ll never, ever feel the effects of it. My neighbors that are getting kicked out of my neighborhood as its demographics are looking more and more like me? They are the objects of a racism that seeks to protect people who look like me. Other neighbors harassed by police, locked up, charged (falsely, often) with all matter of offense in order to be removed from the street – and then find themselves back but at the horrible mercy of a system that has already said it doesn’t want *their* kind.
What does racism look like in the typical, day-by-day?
- Illinois Senator Mark Kirk’s plan to arrest every member of the Gangster Disciples while not putting forth efforts for better schools, available jobs, childcare, medical care for the Black families who find themselves forced into the gang culture and economic plight? Racism.
- Chicago’s shuttering of 48 public schools in poor, majority-black neighborhoods in the city’s segregated West and South Sides, while the majority of White people sidie with the mayor in closing the schools – despite dire warnings and pleas from parents, students, community groups, and independent auditors about the effects of closing schools and the fact that many of the students are not even going to “better” (by the Board of Education’s standards) schools? Racism.
- Even when the head of the Chicago Public Schools, the person who pressed for and approved of the closings, is Black and several board members are Latino and Black? Still racism.
- When nineteen people were shot while in a Mother’s Day parade and the media and even town virtually ignore the on-going threat of the shooter still-at-large because it happened to black people in New Orleans? Yep, racism.
Now take a moment and imagine a Mother’s Day Parade in the suburbs of Denver, a neighborhood in Edina or a plaza in Austin where bullets rain down on civilians and even hit children. I can’t help but imagine the around-the-clock news coverage. And I can’t help but think it’s because most of America can identify with the fear of being bombarded with gunfire while just enjoying a parade in the middle of town. But America can’t identify with being at a parade in the “inner city” where “gang violence” erupts. The “oh my God, that could happen to me” factor isn’t present with a story about New Orleans or the Chicago southside.
But no matter where the incident occurred, the victims are still there. Victims like 10-year-old Ka’Nard Allen whose father was stabbed to death in October. Whose five-year-old cousin was shot to death at Ka’Nard’s birthday party last May (Ka’Nard was also shot in the neck that day). He was also grazed with a bullet in his cheek at the Mother’s Day parade. No matter what part of the country Ka’Nard is from, his story should linger in your heart.
- A prominent leader of the emerging church movement (a progressive thread of Evangelicals and Mainstream Protestants, mostly white) dismisses other traditions chosen by people of color by saying that his is better? As painful as it is to hear, that is racism.
It was, I think obvious that Christena Cleveland was speaking of a broader systemic injustice of White, male, Western privilege in theological circles than pointing out a particular character flaw or demonizing another blogger:
We might say we want diverse people to participate in our group but we are often too enamored with our own culture (e.g., our version of the Gospel) to invite diverse people to influence it. Rather, than actively seeking input from diverse people, we require them to assimilate to and bow down to the dominant culture. This approach might work to attract people who look diverse (in terms of race/ethnicity, etc.) but it will repel people who offer culturally-diverse perspectives.
Non-majority members who attempt to exert diverse cultural influence are often ignored — or worse, silenced and shunned. How dare they try to change our little utopian culture? we ask ourselves. How dare they challenge our perfect version of the Gospel? HOW DARE THEY?
Taking umbrage at this charge, he actually set out to prove the point that Christena was making. Some of his followers made it even more appallingly clear. In response to Crystal Lewis’ post on Tony Jones’ reply, and particularly this insightful passage from Crystal Lewis:
When a member of a minority group says, “I feel marginalized by your comments,” the proper response is to 1.) Stop what you’re doing, 2.) Reflect on your behavior, and 3.) Consider the possibility that you may well have caused some offense.
one commenter replied:
Couldn’t disagree more. This attitude that if a person of a minority throws up a race flag that I should automatically take it seriously is hogwash and, frankly, racist. It demands special consideration of a comment for no other reason than the speaker’s color, that is racism.
This demonstrates little attempt to understand the actual critique. It’s the knee-jerk reaction of calling out the “race card” – this idea that any complaints by People of Color can’t be valid because it is based on color or race. It’s a bit absurd, but to persons of privilege, it’s hard to see just how ridiculous we can be.
It doesn’t help for us White people to deny and get offended by such allegations. Sen. Mark Kirk will get offended at Rep. Bobby Rush and demand an apology and Rush’s suggestions and critique will go unheeded. Tony Jones will be offended and say he’s tired of being called a racist (he wasn’t, but that was the title of his blogpost on it), but the systemic problems that Cristena Cleveland was trying to address – the silencing of People of Color in a progressive setting where a majority of Whites and Males tend to speak for and on behalf of POC and females and LGBTQi while ignoring what those people say.
Let’s recognize the criticisms for what they are – they are usually attempts to be heard above the din of a racist structuring of society that blinds out POC from White people’s perspectives. It’s not about us, fellow White people – and recognizing our blind spots isn’t about us, either.
Dianna Anderson helps to put this all into frame for us White people.
I am a white person living in a system where white people and white opinions are often privileged as more legitimate over the opinions of people of color.
I can rest assured that if I go missing, as a single white woman in a rich suburb of Chicago, the police will not be asking my parents if I was into drugs or involved with gangs – at least not right away. My disappearance might even be a national story.
I can walk safely in any number of places and not have to worry about being seen as a shoplifter or thief when I go into a store.
I can also safely position my Baptist, Midwestern, White, Evangelical upbringing as the “normal,” “neutral” theology without most of academia even so much as batting an eye. Meanwhile, my brothers and sisters of color who support liberation theology have a continued fight to even be seen as orthodox, much less “normal.”
This is what racism is: it is the slurs, the outright proclamations, AND it is the subtle, micro-aggressive, “white-as-normative objective reasoning” that people don’t even necessarily notice unless it’s pointed out to them. And you know how it’s pointed out to them?
“Hey, that’s kind of racist.”
There’s a lot more to be said about the reception and inclusion of people of color within the modern post-evangelical/evangelical/”Incarnational” spheres, but this needs to be the baseline starting point: if you are a white person, you are going to do and say things that are racist. It is a fact of existence. And you are not the arbiter of whether or not something you did was racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist) – the people from those marginalized groups on that privilege are. This feels bad, I know. It’s supposed to.
This understanding of one’s own privilege is the baseline for communicating about race, sexuality, gender, and everything surrounding marginalization. Your privilege will give you blind spots. And you don’t get to determine the lengths of that privilege.
When R called me a racist, he may have been using it as a ploy, as a distraction. But in all honesty there was a seed of truth in it. I think he recognized something in my actions that I wasn’t ready to recognize, something that promoted the racist system in post-colonial classroom education that treats students of color (and poor students in general) as second-class people, using stereotypes as a tool to that end. I now recognize it as a criticism of focusing my attention on the negative behaviors of a few students rather than seeing a whole classroom full of ready, positive, and contributing students.
I participated in and perpetuated the injustice of racism.
It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t necessarily ignorant. I just participated in something that furthered the destructive and greedy ends of racism.
And taking personal offense to the charge wasn’t and won’t help to erase the injustice.