Learning About Racism in America

Willing

Today I want to begin by saying this is not a political discussion to incite debate. There are not two valid sides between which we are seeking middle ground. There are people willing to seek, recognize and address personal and institutional racism, and there are people not. I am going to go forward believing we all desire to be leaders toward inclusion and equality in our community. Will you join me?

Wager

My invitation, to each of you, is to make this same commitment; to be open and honest with ourselves about ourselves, to grow, and to move forward.

Except

When we start a conversation about race, we are constrained to question ourselves. We do not see ourselves as racist; in fact, we deplore racism. But what if, despite all our best intentions, we don’t realize that some of our ‘givens’, some of our core beliefs about people and the ways of the world and some of how we understand ourselves are tinged with racism that is so familiar it has eluded our awareness?

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The opportunities to speak or behave in ways that are racially insensitive are many. Does that make us bad people?  Or, are we good people, that, when these things are pointed out to us, rise at the chance to do the right thing?  How do we, as good people, come to recognize these things about ourselves and take corrective action?  What do we do when we blow it? 

 It is imperative for each of us to know who we are in this conversation toward racial awareness and equality, because that also tells us who we are not. 

Unfortunately, there is not an extensive education in American classrooms that examines racism throughout history. As a result, there are not nearly enough opportunities for all of us to learn how to bridge gaps in understanding, work through distrust and guilt toward achieving true equity and inclusion for all people. Today I want to acknowledge this process is probably going to feel awkward at times, but when have we learned anything new that didn’t cause us, at least initially, to feel awkward or self-conscious? And if we’ve learned anything in these conversations about anxiety, it is that being open, and facing what frightens us, and leaning in and listening in hopes of learning, leads to less anxiety, not more.

After realizing how often widespread racism is brutally expressing itself in our culture, we have moved into managing our own anxiety to free us up to be better people. If you are like me, a source of anxiety is our own history.

Today, I encourage you to listen when people of color talk about everyday racism and white privilege. It may be extremely uncomfortable, but do not become part of the problem. A productive solution comes through listening carefully from a place of non-judgment when people of color openly discuss the pain they have endured. God gave us two ears and I cannot remember regretting listening twice before I think about talking.

Discovering language acceptable 5 years ago that no longer is and figuring out the new language would be a good place to start your work. Today, I say again, none of us is racist, except when we are. Will you join me in a life long commitment to allowing our eyes to be opened and to do our work?

There are few-if-any consequences for white people who choose to ignore an oppressive and violent system from which they benefit every day. Today, I encourage you to listen when people of color talk about everyday racism and white privilege. It may be extremely uncomfortable. You may have to fight the urge to disagree or be defensive. 

Friends, as we deepen our understanding of equality, one of the first questions we find ourselves pondering is how we will respond when we encounter the language of inequality. “What will I do if…?” As we think through what might happen and how we would respond so that we are not green lighting racism, we might find ourselves feeling quite anxious.

We have been talking about how we might respond. Yesterday I ended by saying silence must not be our default option, and I do believe that. However, there are times, when silence must be our measured response; when we become aware that racism is occurring and realize we are in an unsafe situation to speak up, where confronting racism risks escalating the situation, when any response to the perpetrator is not safe. There are things to do in such a moment. There is a web site by the government of Australia, which lays out what to do in these situations.  Click here to view: Respond to Racism

A second response is a loud, aggressive, accusation, attempting to overwhelm an opposing argument. If you happen to be bigger and louder than the offender, you may have some luck with this approach. My experience is if someone pushes and I push back, the interaction becomes a wrestling match, an escalating power contest and the person I had hoped would change becomes even more deeply entrenched in defending and asserting their position. In that space between doing nothing and trying to conquer, there is a scale of responses that attempts to defend the humanity of the victim by calling forth the humanity of the aggressor. Which one to use depends on our relationship with the person.

 

We are either committed to move beyond inequality or we are not. We will either grow in our emotional health and improve our relationships or we will remain as we are. We may encounter friends who are not similarly committed. There will be times when we find ourselves with someone who says something inappropriate, and we will have the opportunity to speak, calmly, directly, carefully, with the hope that our friendship will prove strong enough that they will see a new way and lean forward into it. 

There will be a teacher/student, co-worker, neighbor, someone who you might not call friend, but have said something and you will not stand by and reinforce them with silence. You and I have seen what happens when accusation are thrown and yelling starts. I would again suggest treating this person as you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Speaking directly to them in a steady voice. I would suggest making an I statement. “I am embarrassed that somehow you thought I would find what you said to be acceptable.”

An I statement makes clear that all is not well without resorting to attack. If the person didn’t realize what they were saying was inappropriate, then you have gently called their word choice and they can recover in the moment. If the person goes on the defensive and attack is imminent, you can make a quick exit. Hopefully, upon later reflection, the person will be able to make a realization and begin the process of growth. Today I encourage you to work on making I statements.

We are continuing a conversation managing our anxiety around the work of addressing racism. One way in which we risk putting our foot in our mouth is beginning to speak when we have not done any work.

We absolutely loathe being made aware that our practices and habits and word choices may be racist. This conversation has embarrassing connotations we would very much like to be done with, slavery, colonialism, rape, genocide, segregation, disenfranchisement. Acknowledging institutional racism does not mean YOU are a bad person.

One of the first realizations that comes with learning about the history of racial oppression in America is understanding that many people of color have a hard time trusting white people. 

If you are tired of hearing people of color complain about white privilege, then imagine how exhausting and burdensome it is to directly contend with racism every day of your life. The last thing people of color need is to be told how they should deal with or talk about encountering racism.

It is okay to admit that you do not know how it feels to be racially profiled by police officers. It is ok to concede that you do not even notice the overabundance of advertisements elevating Eurocentric beauty standards.  It is ok to acknowledge you have no idea what it is like to be presumed unintelligent or inferior or face a considerably higher standard of acceptance — all because of the color of your skin. It is ok to be in a position of not knowing, it helps with humility and listening.

Today I invite you to stay in this difficult conversation as a learner. What we know from these conversations about anxiety, is being open, facing what frightens us, leaning in and listening in hopes of learning, leads to less anxiety, not more.

Friends, today will be the final conversation specifically directed to our anxiety around racism. You have most probably noticed that I have not rolled out clear definitions of racism. I have not expounded on the details of institutionalized racism such as red-lining or profiling. I am not hoping to offer the latest fresh word on steps we should take as a nation. Excellent work has been done by people far more qualified than me, for decades. My task as your pastor, my hope, is to address and hopefully remove some of the anxiety we feel around racism and open up in all of us a willingness that lasts a lifetime, to listen and watch for tinges of racism, in ourselves, in others, and an ongoing curiosity to explore how each of us and all of us together can be non-racist, anti-racist, as we strive to represent the kingdom of the God who loves all people. 

Lessons learned from scripture

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Man turning pages of Bible with light coming from pages.

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Having our lives radically changed and even threatened allows us to be engaged by scripture on a deeper level, particularly the stories around the birth of the Messiah. Our focus this year is paying attention to all of the details told to us in scripture in hope of seeing the whole picture and coming into a new understanding of what Christmas means.

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Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

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