After watching the over-militarization of the police in response to mostly peaceful protests by the folks in Ferguson; after seeing the murder of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis; after seeing video after video showing the police treat African American men with brutal force for the most mundane of matters; after all of this, what I wanted to make the title of this piece is, “All Whites are Racists.”
I didn’t though. I chickened out. I honestly get tired of people – especially the non-stop talking heads on TV – throwing out words such as “racist” with little thought or context. It’s a controversial word that carries a lot of power, but often very little substance or meaning. People yell racist when they have very little idea what it means. In the end, it detracts from the value of the word and even more importantly, from the possible change that could happen if we readily accept what it really means to be racist. Sadly, although it makes for good news television, using the name without any thought detracts from the substance of what should be a meaningful and possible transformative conversation.
I wanted to put this title out there to be provocative, but I changed my mind because I honestly want to be more serious than provocative so pardon my cowardice. I want to be listened to and not just heard.
But yes, I do think all whites are racist. So, let me explain.
Racism is embedded in our culture. It has been since this country was discovered. Yes, in the last 50 years some much-needed transformative steps have been taken, but much of these were taken to get us to a place where we are not murdering, raping, and oppressing people of color and specifically African Americans out in the open as a means of entertainment. And let us not forget, it took a generation of African American leaders who sacrificed their livelihoods, their families, their sanity in some cases, and even their lives to get us here! So, let’s try not to break our arms giving ourselves a pat on the back for where we are at this point in time.
Still, there has been progress.
But we still have a culture deeply embedded in racism. It goes beyond the fact that our criminal justice system imprisons African American men at a much faster rate than whites when they commit the same crimes. It goes beyond the fact that neighborhoods are still very much segregated as are the schools serving those communities, not to even mention our churches, the most segregated institution in our society. It goes beyond all of this because racism is so deeply embedded in our culture we rarely openly talk about it. It is as accepted as our beliefs that the world is round and the sky is blue. To use a fancy term, racism in our culture is hegemonic.
In a study of the colonization of a tribe called the Tswana in South Africa, Jean and John Comaroff discussed the process of colonization as being hegemonic. Hegemony, for the Comaroffs, is “habit-forming . . . For it is only by repetition that signs and practices cease to be perceived or remarked; that they are so habituated, so deeply inscribed in everyday routine, that they may no longer be seen as forms of control – or seen at all” (1991:23, 25). Colonization of the Southern Tswana was established through adopting the daily activities of life within the Tswana culture through a common exchange of ideas and practices with their colonizers.
It is my contention that white privilege and racism directed against people of color in US society has become hegemonic, something accepted so easily as to rarely be discussed, at least in any kind of deep or profound way or when there is some kind of horrific event such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Although hegemony is pervasive and unspoken, the Comaroffs assert that hegemony is also quite fragile. Once the colonized became conscious of the contradictions within their own subjugation to the colonizers, the hegemony was broken. When the silent hold of hegemony is spoken out, it loses its intensive grip on those held captive and instead becomes an ideology to be debated and changed by the various groups involved. My hope is that we can move racism from the unthinking reactionary yelling, and identify the hegemonic ways in which we participate and benefit from white privilege and perpetuate racist attitudes, behaviors and ideas. For when it comes to racism, whites are in captivity as much as are people in color, although we benefit from it at the same time.
I will discuss ways we can be saved from racism in my next post, but for now, it is enough to identify racism as hegemony. How is racism hegemonic? There are numerous ways of course, but I would point out not just the fact that churches are perhaps the most segregated of institutions in our society, but even more, there is a common belief – hell, it was taught in my doctoral classes in seminary – that to grow local churches numerically, you can only do so homogeneously. From an institutional standpoint, diverse, multi-cultural churches just are not financially sustainable.
This seems stunning when we look at how the church was birthed – on the day of Pentecost when the disciples of Jesus were so filled with the Holy Spirit they spoke in other languages! A Church birthed in diversity and justice is now ironically dying and becoming irrelevant through the homogeneous synchrotization between church and dominant culture.
However, the historical growth of the Body of Christ throughout the book of Acts – from the diaspora of the Church after Stephen’s martyrdom, to Philip witness to the African eunuch, to Paul planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, to Peter witness to Cornelius and his household of God-fearers, to the first church council in Jerusalem when the early leaders finally acknowledged that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus too – every expansion of the Church was accomplished through crossing the racial, ethnic, moral, social, economic, and political barriers of the day.
Somehow – and there are numerous sociological and historical reasons that are beyond the scope here – we have turned this biblical truth on its head. We now accept the false truth that to experience growth – numerical as well as spiritual – we must do so homogeneously. Rare it is do we have truly multi-cultural and multi-socioeconomic churches; diverse churches in make-up and leadership. And when I say multi-cultural churches I mean churches lived out in faith from multi-cultural perspectives. I have seen (and been a part of) too many churches where there are different races and ethnicities present, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a white church: white worship, white discipleship models, and white leadership.
Racism is hegemonic in the church – speaking very generally I know – in that as whites we tend to be discipled by other whites while any cross-racial relationships occur more in a missional context; “us” reaching out to “them.” From this framework, is there any wonder why racism is so endemic in the Church?
I will focus more on solutions in future posts, but with hegemony, remember, we merely need to raise this to the level of discussion – something I hope is done here, though likely not for the first time I admit. But let me posit this: what would happen if whites intentionally left their white churches and went to churches where they are in the minority and then intentionally submitted themselves under the cross-racial leadership of the leaders in those churches for their spiritual growth? What would happen if we took our large all-white churches and split them up and intentionally planted small groups within predominantly cross-racial neighborhoods and let them attend churches where they are the minority?
I know one thing as I write this – I do not have all the answers. Heck, I doubt I have even a few of the answers. But I know I live in a racist society, I am part of a racist Church, and I struggle with racist thoughts and feelings. I know I must be intentional if I am to be free from the binding sin of racism and this must first start with my recognition in the very silent, subtle ways in which racism has infected my life and the life of my Church and culture. Freedom starts with recognition.
More on this to come but I pray the hegemony of racism is broken, and that racism can be deeply discussed, not in an effort to score points or point fingers, but as a means to live into the power of the early church.