I believe that most white churchgoers are not generally outright racists, but there are enough that are unashamedly so…and want to let it be known. As such, they become a caricature of the white Christian for people of color.
At the same time, I am convinced that there are blind spots for many white Christians which we tend to dismiss, but which imply a racist spirit to those who have been victimized by racial hatred.
One of our barriers to understanding one another is that we have different definitions of racism. I want to suggest the following analysis as a discussion expander. I do not assert that this is entirely accurate, but it is my attempt to help white Christians who tend to think that racism is primarily a thing of the past look differently at the issues.
So please bear with me as I unfold these perceptions, however inadequately this explanation may be. This is focused on whites and their racial behavior and perceptions. In writing this I do not imply that there are no hints of racism among black Christians. The focus of this analysis, however, is upon how whites interact with issues of race.
I begin by asserting that not everything that is labeled racism is, in reality, actual racism. (This post is addressing personal racial issues, not systemic racism, which I request to be left for another post.)
I break down negative racial behavior from whites Christians in layers: the deeper you go in the layers, the more blatant the racial offense. I do not believe that all of these layers constitute actual racism. The inner two do, I believe. But the outer two layers are generally innocent errors, so to speak (not intentional and not sinful). And yet, some might incorrectly misinterpret the speech or attitude to be hatred or racism. That’s why I believe it is important to distinguish these layers of racial perception and behavior.
Here are the layers I suggest, outer to inner:
1) RACIAL IGNORANCE.
This person loves all people in general but has not had much experience or communication with blacks (or whatever minority involved). I came to Florida from a community in Colorado with only 2 black families over a period of 28 years that I lived there. So when I moved to a community in which 30% of our community was black, I had a lot of learning to do. I read books on black culture, had many conversations, meals, and coffee with black leaders and friends, visited black churches, took in Africa-American museums, etc. to learn more about the culture.
Sometimes racial ignorance leads one to say or do things that can be inaccurately interpreted to be hatred or disdain.
2) RACIAL INSENSITIVITY.
Here is the person who cares about racial relations but doesn’t think before speaking. I could tell you a story about a big goof I made once trying to ease an embarrassing situation but ended up saying something that came out racist. That meaning was the furthest from my mind. I had no idea how it came across. My wife heard it and immediately felt horrible and later explained what I had said. I. Totally. Missed. It.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get a chance to take back such goofs or explain what we really meant–which in my situation wouldn’t have been believed anyway because it sounded so racist.
3) RACIAL INDIFFERENCE.
This person doesn’t blatantly hate blacks (or fill in the race). But he has no interest in trying to understand why blacks are sensitive to racism, thinking that those days are long past and that blacks are simply whining and should get over it.
Truth is…the attitude that says “I don’t care about your perceptions or past or present hurts” comes across as disdain for or devaluing of the person of color. Certainly, it communicates “I don’t care”–because, frankly, the person does not care about the person’s perceived hurts. To me, this attitude can be labeled “racist.”
4) RACIAL DISDAIN.
This person does not like blacks because they are black. He views them as inferior and a threat to the white race.
Many in white churches fall into the outer two layers (ignorance and insensitivity). Fewer, I suspect, are in layer 3 (indifference)…though even just 5% or 10% in a church can be hurtful to a black visitor or member. (Even innocent goofs by those in the first two layers can be hurtful to people of color because they have experienced more insensitive comments, snubs, subtle and put-downs (subtle and not so subtle) than we whites could ever imagine. And this doesn’t include their experiences of outright hatred and abuse that many whites assume don’t exist.
Many evangelical and RM churches do not have many layer 4’s…but I have known more than a handful both in my FL community and in central Ohio where I have lived previously.
With that assessment, I have found it vital to listen to my black friends to understand their perspective and tell their stories and narrate their history of the injustices they have perceived.
I do believe that white Christians need to do more than simply say that we hate racism. We must also mourn over what blacks have gone through. And we must seek to build layers of trust and understanding. That begins with listening to understand. It doesn’t require us to agree with everything we hear. But we can care and express that we care. This won’t solve the racial tensions for our nation. But it can be a step toward that for individuals. And I believe we will find our lives enriched in doing so.
Beyond that, I believe it will honor our Father.
Now…what am I missing?