As conversations about race, racism, and racial justice heat up, you may be wondering what you can do to engage your congregation and your community in addressing racism. Where should you begin? March for Black Lives Matter? Write letters to the editor? Support people of color in your midst? While all of these are important actions, I suggest a more basic, yet vital, step to take. Begin by defining terms.
When asked the question, “Are you racist?” most people I know would answer “No.” That answer makes sense if you understand racism to be conscious of hatefulness toward a person of a different race. Instead, that’s a more apt definition of prejudice, not racism. Yet so many conversations on race and racism get stopped right there: “But I’m not a racist!”
Just as you wouldn’t conduct a Bible study without distinguishing between the Gospels and the Letters of Paul, or between the Old and New Testaments, so having a conversation on race and racism without using agreed-upon terms would be equally frustrating and fruitless.
Racism is not so much about the particular actions of a prejudiced individual or group—even though that is one of Merriam-Webster’s current dictionary definitions—as it is about how prejudice is built into a society’s very systems and structures. Especially when those systems and structures deliver vastly different results for White people and Black people or other people of color. In that case, every White person I know, including me, is racist. Not because you or I consciously chose to be, but because of the systems we are born into.
The Important of Addressing Racism
While I can’t speak to systems in other countries, US society is built on a series of interlocking systems of wealth, education, housing, criminal justice, and media that inherently extend the privilege to White people while at the same time disadvantaging non-White people. Check out this video for a quick introduction to these five interlocking systems.
Racism isn’t the only term that needs a deeper explanation. The idea of race itself requires exploration. Ancestry.com and 23andMe aside, genetically speaking there are very few differences between the so-called races of humanity. When it comes to differentiating between peoples, even the Bible does not speak of race; rather it speaks of tribes and nations. In a word, the race isn’t real. That doesn’t mean White people can or should be color-blind. Because while racial distinctions aren’t real, racism is. Even if you can’t see it or haven’t experienced it.
Last week, I interviewed Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, author of Race, Law, and American Society for the launch of the Uncomfortable Conversations series. A civil rights attorney and professor of constitutional law, she was very knowledgeable and articulate. We spoke about these very terms. My takeaways from our hour together included the value of listening to each other, learning from each other, and using a shared vocabulary. These values make possible a new and positive shared future where everyone has a fair shot at a good life.
Understanding and transforming a society built on systemic racism won’t be easy. Or comfortable. But it will bring us that much closer to Jesus’ big dream: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”