I had no intention of writing this post, though in the days following the Charleston shooting, I thought a lot about what I would say here, were I to write a post about racism. But honestly, after this post back in April, I vowed to take a good, long hiatus from controversial issues here on the blog. As the be-all and end-all of controversial issues, I had no intention of writing about race in this space.
But then Harry changed my mind. Harry is the minister at First Baptist Church here in Lincoln. On Sunday my husband, the boys and I attended worship at First Baptist, and even though Harry didn’t give the sermon, he offered some brief thoughts about Charleston that changed everything for me.
In the face of such a horrifying tragedy, it’s easy to fall into hopelessness, Harry acknowledged. He urged us to resist that temptation, and instead, to use our unique, God-given gifts to do our one small part to beat back evil and further God’s kingdom here on earth.
So this is my one small part: the post I didn’t want to write. Here are some thoughts about racism and my role in it as a “nice, white person.”
Remember the story of Jesus’ conversation with the rich man in the Gospel of Mark? After the man turned away from Jesus, unable to relinquish his possessions, Jesus proclaimed to the disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” In fact, Jesus added, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:25).
The very first time I read that story, I thought to myself, “Whew! At least I’m not rich!”
It took a while for me to realize the truth, to see myself in Jesus’ statement. The fact is, I am rich. I am richer, far richer, than the majority of people on the face of this earth. When Jesus talks about the rich, is indeed talking about me.
That story about the rich man and my response to it illustrates how I’ve thought about racism and my role in it for most of my life.
When something like the Charleston massacre or the death of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin happens, my reaction has typically been one of sadness, empathy and compassion mixed with a feeling of exemption. When black commentators and bloggers and tweeters write about their frustration, anger and grief over these events, part of me feels exempt from the conversation and maybe even a little bit self-righteous.
“At least I’m not a racist,” I reassure myself.
When my black peers talk about the problem of rampant racism in America, I’m confident their comments don’t pertain to me. The problem of racism in America, I assure myself, has nothing to do with me, because even though I’m white, I’m nice. I’m not racist. That’s pretty much what I tell myself. And with that, I let myself off the hook.
Friends, I am wrong. This problem of racism in America has every bit as much to do with me.
A few days ago I was running my regular route, and I passed a young black man cycling in the opposite direction. I shouted out a greeting and smiled at him as he rode by. I made an effort to be friendly and kind, even though I was at death’s door, running in the stifling Nebraska heat.
This is an example of bias based on skin color.
A day later, I took my kids to the local fitness center to swim in the outdoor pool. While we were there, an elementary-age black girl (the only black person at the entire pool, I should add) approached the boys and asked if she could play with them. I was relieved when they said yes, and the whole time they splashed together in the pool, I was on guard. I didn’t read my book; I didn’t scan Instagram. I watched my boys to make sure they played fair with the black girl.
This is an example of bias based on skin color.
You might argue that in both cases I was just being kind. And that’s true, I was being kind. But the deeper, harder truth is that in both cases, I went out of my way to be kind just because the people with whom I was interacting were black. I treated them differently than I would have if they’d been white.
If I’d passed a young white man on a bike when I was running toward death’s door on a blisteringly hot Nebraska day, you can bet I wouldn’t have taken the extra energy and breath to smile and shout out a chipper greeting.
If my kids played with a young white boy at the pool, you can bet I’d have my nose in my book, grateful for the respite, instead of watching them like a hawk to be sure they included him in their games.
I treated the young black man on the bike and the little black girl at the pool differently because of the color of their skin. You may argue that that doesn’t count. You may think that because it’s bias leaning in a positive direction that it’s not bad bias. But I don’t know. Bias is bias. My interactions with the black cyclist and the black girl at the pool were based on skin color, friends. And I have to ask myself: how many steps is it from what I’m calling “positive bias” here, for lack of a better term, to negative bias? How many steps is it from that to full-on racism?
In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald explore the hidden biases we carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status and nationality. I haven’t read the book, but when I came across a mention of the test developed by the authors, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (it’s available online here), I was intrigued.
There are several versions of the IAT (age, weight, skin tone, sexuality, disability, race, etc.). I took the race test twice, and both times the results revealed that I have a “strong automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans.”
I was surprised and disturbed. Because I’m not a racist, right? Because I don’t judge people based on the color of their skin, right?
Wrong. I do, in fact, judge people based on the color of their skin. It doesn’t necessarily look ugly and terrible; sometimes my judgments are cloaked in “good intentions” – like my attitude toward the young man on the bike and the little girl at the pool. But more often, and in some ways even more disturbing, these snap judgments happen automatically, subconsciously, without my being aware of them.
I have a strong automatic preference for white people over black people. This is racism, friends. It’s ingrained in me.
I admit, I don’t quite know what to do about all this. How do you change a way of thinking that has been woven into your subconscious for almost 45 years? Is it even possible to change the way you think when it comes to these kinds of automatic, hidden biases?
I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I can take some small steps to broaden my world and the world of my children.
My neighborhood is white. My church is white. My kids’ schools are white. My friends are white. People, I have one black friend. One. And she is the first black friend I’ve had in all of my 44+ years.
I can change this. This is within my power to change. This does not need to be my status quo. Continuing to live my homogeneous life is a choice I make; it’s also something I can change. I can take small steps to broaden my world and the world of my children. I can take small steps to get to know, really know, people who look different than me.
This doesn’t mean I have to abandon my church. But I can visit a more diverse church from time to time and get to know some of the people there.
This doesn’t mean I need to find all new friends and all new activities and sell my house and move into a new neighborhood. But I can attend events and frequent places in town that attract a more diverse audience, and I can step out of my comfort zone and initiate conversation with someone who doesn’t look like me and who doesn’t come from the same background I do.
I can talk to my kids openly and honestly about Charleston and Eric Garner and pool parties gone wrong in Texas and the Implicit Association Test.
I can write about racism and where I see it in myself, even when that makes me nervous and uncomfortable and afraid of controversy.
True, some of these steps might feel a little awkward, a little forced, a little contrived. And they certainly seem small and inconsequential in the face of more than 200 years of institutionalized racism.
But like Harry said on Sunday, I may not be able to change the whole problem, but I can do my one small part to help beat back evil and further God’s kingdom here on earth. I can start with myself. I can work to understand and shift the biases that are ingrained in my own mind. And I can help to shift the paths toward bias that are being formed in the minds of my children as well.