How Should White People Think about Racism?

It is difficult for white people like myself to have conversations about racism, for a number of reasons. Here are a few I can think of:

  1. Because we think of racism primarily in terms of conscious, intentional patterns of thinking and deliberate actions and typically do not consider the possibility that it might far often manifest itself in unconscious assumptions. For this reason, we believe it’s a problem that some extremists may need to deal with, but certainly not us.
  2. Because we live a culture that is hypersensitive on racial issues, which has led to allegations of racism around every corner by professional race-baiters, and we do not want to give any legitimacy to that industry.
  3. Because our culture’s hypersensitivity leads us to think that we have to walk on eggshells when it comes to this topic for fear of saying the wrong thing. It is easier simply to avoid it altogether.
  4. Because the concept of systemic injustice is often vague and abstract to us, given that we live in a majority white culture and lack the experience that makes it a concrete reality.
  5. Because we are sinners who recoil from being confronted with our own sin.

Some of the above points express valid concerns while others reveal holes in our thinking that need to be filled. An unfortunate string of viral videos capturing footage of police officers shooting black men in what appear to be indefensible ways has opened my eyes afresh to the fact that racial injustice continues to permeate our society and must be addressed.

I realize that police officers have difficult jobs, and that racial tensions accompanied by attacks on police officers in recent days only serves to set them further on edge. I do not assume that the police officers in the videos I have seen ever formulated a conscious intention to kill black men simply because they were black. In other words, I don’t see clear evidence of overt racism in any of these scenarios.

But racism does not have to be overt in order to be present. As Malcolm Gladwell observes in his book Blink, hidden assumptions about race feed into our snap decisions (even Gladwell’s own decisions, as he confesses, and he is half black himself!). Police officers bear the unfortunate burden of making snap decisions that can often result in life or death. This is an extraordinary weight on their shoulders.

And because they carry such an extraordinary weight, they must receive the best possible training in tactics of de-escalation to help ensure that lethal force is kept to minimal use. The system, as it now exists in a number of police departments, is unjust, and it needs reform.

But if this applies to some (certainly not all!) police departments, how much might it apply to white people more broadly speaking? I’m thankful I don’t have to make snap decisions that result in life or death very often (if ever), but could there be hidden assumptions that lead me to say and do things that manifest my own participation in an unjust system? This is where I need gracious brothers and sisters in Christ of other ethnicities to speak honestly with me. And I must be willing to repent where I see fault.

But of course, that sword cuts both ways. A true racial conversation assumes that all sides have faults, all sides must humble themselves, and all sides must be open to listening to the others. People of all ethnicities need the gospel of Christ, which frees us to own up to our tribalistic sins by assuring us that our sins do not determine our identities; Christ does. Freed by his gospel, we can listen with openness to our family members from other tribes who have eyes to see what we can’t. May the church be the place where fruitful conversation happens, leading to repentance and reconciliation, as a testimony to the power of the gospel.

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