I want to share my story about why I came to care about racism. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t have any special qualifications. A lot of white people don’t see racism and like to debate whether or not something was racist. They may have a similar background to me, so I hope this will be insightful on how and why my perspective has changed. None of the answers I suggest here are a comprehensive solution. They are each just one step.
When I was a kid, I thought racism was over.
I hope no adults were trying to teach me this, but it was often implied. Martin Luther King Jr. solved racism and that everyone was equal now. Racism stories were always set in the past. From a kid’s perspective, the far distant past. Nothing in those stories seemed similar to life today.
Along with this false knowledge, I was poorly prepared to see or understand racism in my life.
The first problem was the definition of racism. I knew three examples: Slavery is racist. Segregation is racist. Saying racial slurs is racist. End of list. This was a very pleasant definition, because it meant that I could never be racist.
The main tool I was given for dealing with racism was colorblindness. Don’t notice race. Don’t talk about race. Focus on common ground.
While I grew up in my very nice, small Wyoming town, I believed in a post-racial world. I was unable to see any racism around me. The first thing that helped open my eyes was relocating.
I went to college in Texas, and I saw something new. Almost every student and teacher was white, but everyone who served me food was black, and everyone who cleaned up after me was Latino.
I had a conflict. Colorblindness told me I shouldn’t see it. But my definition of racism said it was segregation. I knew that no one was forcing others into those jobs or forbidding them from attending school. Yet, equal opportunity could not yield such color-coded results. I knew something was unfair, but I was too uncomfortable to ask about it.
My next challenge came from an inability to speak up. When I heard people say racist things, I didn’t argue. The words would be too subtle, maybe I misunderstood, or maybe I was being too sensitive. If someone said, “It makes me so mad seeing Spanish on all the billboards in town.” I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t have a conversation about it.
When my campus ministry tried to teach me about racial reconciliation, I resisted. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship often has separate campus chapters for black, Latino, Asian, Native, or International students. I thought that was horrible. Segregation! It seemed wrong to use labels. My old color-blindness training from childhood kicked in. .Isn’t it better to pretend that everyone is the same, and have everyone get along?
When our new staff had “a heart for Latino students,” I subtlykept trying to hide it. I was in charge of the club webpage, and I couldn’t bear to advertise that we’d started a Latino Bible Study. The only way I could justify the existence of such a thing was to say that it was a Bible study “in Spanish and English.”
But then our all-white Christian Club started to have Latino students involved. In fact, that year our chapter grew more diverse across several ethnicities. The simplest explanation from my staff worker that I could half-way understand was this:
Some Latino students would actually like to hang out with other Latino students, someone who understood their culture, family dynamics, and way of approaching faith. They’re surrounded by white culture all day long; having some time away can be nice. White people have a problem that when we invite a minority person to a group, we don’t invite them to bring their culture along. We just expect them to join white culture. We think white culture is “normal.”
This was both confusing and enlightening. There’s a white culture? There’s a white way of doing things? I had always thought the way I did things was normal. Other races have “culture.” Culture means dressing up in special outfits, eating strange food, speaking a different language. Again, my education had failed me. I could not look at my own culture from an outside view.
Still, this ministry encouraged me to displace myself and my heart, and within a year of that insight, I was leading a Bible study for international students. It was a good first step for me.
Next, I moved to Rhode Island. It was a good time to think about culture, because New England and Texas have many differences. Plus, we were losing college for career culture. A lot of changes challenged what I saw as normal. We joined a multi-ethnic church and got a taste of black culture. (This church did not have a vision for verbally educating us about racial issues, but I deeply appreciate them for including us and giving us opportunities for cross-cultural interaction.)
I worked for a few years as a substitute teacher in a low socio-economic school district. It had a large minority population. I’d never realized how lucky I’d been to have the education I did with advanced classes, enthusiastic teachers, and after school clubs.
Teachers at this school were burned out, frustrated, and spent their lunch breaks complaining about the students and the parents. Many of the students were rude, noisy, and talked back over every detail. They weren’t excited about school or planning for college. No one attending this school could have anything like an “equal opportunity” compared to what I had.
I joined InterVarsity again, this time as staff. It was the only place in my life where people talked about race, rather than viewing it as a hopeless and taboo subject. I was challenged, like when a black InterVarsity staff ask us, “Have you ever been inside a black person’s house?” I hadn’t. It wasn’t intentional. But it was a blind spot in my life.
On campus, I tried to seek out minority students for the first time. The chapter there was already diverse and had some good intentions about including all people. What helped the most wasto bring minority students into leadership positions. They couldreach other minority students better than I could, and could help change the culture of the whole group. A church body looks different when all ethnicities are a part of it. Not just in a photograph, but it worship, in conversation, and revelation. The white church is missing something when it stands alone.
We studied diversity in scripture, and I began to appreciate other cultures by design. Why should everyone be the same? Differences are wonderful, beautiful, and a source of strength. A team where everyone has the same background and perspective is limited. A diverse team sees beyond the status quo. This broke apart another bad piece of my education, the idea that everything can be earned by “merit” or good test scores.
This helped interpret another piece of racism from my youth, the objection to affirmative action. Three of my high school friends had made a humorous video listing their grievances with affirmative action. Although their logic made sense to me at the time, I was confused about their passion for the subject, considering that all three were accepted at their first choice universities. Now, I saw greater merit in a college that was trying to correct its monochrome history. Affirmative action didn’t hurt any of my friends. Instead, I hope it helped them, that they were later grateful to study alongside students from other races and cultures, and that diversity enriched their college experience.
During those years, I read Living in Color. It was difficult to read in some ways, because it brought up a people group whose oppression I had long ignored: American Indians. The author, Randy Woodley is a Keetowah Cherokee. His book was the first time I read about the “Kill the Indian, Save the Child” policy by which native children were stolen from their parents to be raised in boarding schools or with white families. The people in power saw no value in Indian culture. The goal of colonization was to replace it. In my education, the wounds of this and many other assaults on native people are glossed over. I was told it was far in the past. Indians should get over it. Move on. Become normal.
Today, Native people in my home state endure the same stereotyping as minorities in the larger American public sphere. Lazy. Addicted to drugs. Hopeless. And past violence against them was washed away by saying, “Indians massacred people too!” My friend who works in retail in Montana is skeptical that black people are treated differently in stores. Yet she admits, “When someone comes in from the Reservation, the staff keep an eye on them.”
What did I learn? What challenged me?
• Racism is more than segregation, slavery and slurs
• Colorblindness hinders rather than helps
• It’s good to have space for people of color to celebrate their culture
• It’s good to displace yourself to learn about other’s culture
• Diversity is a strength
• White culture isn’t “normal” or standard
I still didn’t have a good definition for racism, or a good understanding of how it was still influencing my country. All this gave me some preparation for Fall 2014, when Ferguson brought racism back into the national spotlight. Stay tuned for Racism 102: Systemic Racism.
Final thought: Being unaware of racism is a privilege many people don’t have. If white people want, we can ignore racism, and it will probably have no impact on our lives. But many other people are hurt by racism every day. They don’t have the option to ignore it or go on an entertaining journey of “discovering” racism like I did.