Everybody's a Little Bit Racist: Why Being Called Racist Is Not The Issue
Oh Tony Jones. We remember him, right? He of the “why
aren’t women participating in my discussions?!” fame. He’s back. This time, it’s to announce that
he’s “tired of being called racist.” And, apparently, we can expect a future
article in which he talks about how he’s tired of being called “misogynist”
(bonus bingo points if he comments about how much he loves the womenfolk).
Sigh. But this post is not about Tony. This post is about me.
I’m afraid I have a confession to make: I’m racist.
I know, I know, for those of you who have known me for years, this is probably a bit of a shock. I mean, I have friends of all different races! I spent time on Twitter this morning calling out the South Dakota government for its racist treatment of Native Americans! Surely I, of all people, could win awards declaring me Least Racist of All the White People?
I may not march about in a KKK robe or call people of color slurs, but if that’s the sole marker for “racism,” then the definition of racism is sorely lacking. I am white. I grew up in America. Because of that, I am racist and I benefit from racist structures.
Back during the turn of the Chinese New Year, the Chinese ministry team at my former workplace hosted a luncheon of food and celebrations for us. It was a fun time, and I ended up seated next to one of the younger Chinese staff. During the meal, I turned to him and asked him when it’s appropriate to eat the fortune cookie. He pointed out that fortune cookies aren't even really Chinese and he had no idea what the custom would even be, as he was raised in America.
That was a pretty racist thing for me to do.
I grew up in a very white city in a very white state. As much as I am socially aware and knowledgeable about the struggles of people of color in America, I still find myself running into my own racist thinking and racist ideas, which I then have to recalibrate.
I am a white person living in a system where white people and white opinions are often privileged as more legitimate over the opinions of people of color.
I can rest assured that if I go missing, as a single white woman in a rich suburb of Chicago, the police will not be asking my parents if I was into drugs or involved with gangs – at least not right away. My disappearance might even be a national story.
I can walk safely in any number of places and not have to worry about being seen as a shoplifter or thief when I go into a store.
I can also safely position my Baptist, Midwestern, White, Evangelical upbringing as the “normal,” “neutral” theology without most of academia even so much as batting an eye. Meanwhile, my brothers and sisters of color who support liberation theology have a continued fight to even be seen as orthodox, much less “normal.”
This is what racism is: it is the slurs, the outright proclamations, AND it is the subtle, micro-aggressive, “white-as-normative objective reasoning” that people don’t even necessarily notice unless it’s pointed out to them. And you know how it’s pointed out to them?
“Hey, that’s kind of racist.”
There’s a lot more to be said about the reception and inclusion of people of color within the modern post-evangelical/evangelical/”Incarnational” spheres, but this needs to be the baseline starting point: if you are a white person, you are going to do and say things that are racist. It is a fact of existence. And you are not the arbiter of whether or not something you did was racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist) – the people from those marginalized groups on that privilege are. This feels bad, I know. It's supposed to.
This understanding of one's own privilege is the baseline for communicating about race, sexuality, gender, and everything surrounding marginalization. Your privilege will give you blind spots. And you don’t get to determine the lengths of that privilege.
Calling something racist doesn’t halt discussion. Being unwilling and unable to accept it does.