The following remarks are taken from a sermon I preached at West Philadelphia Mennonite Church on May 18, 2008.
Racism as a Power
In my experience when the issue of racism comes up, most whites feel either guilt or anger or both. Often they are angry because they feel like someone is trying to make them feel guilty. As white people we often feel we are being held accountable for something we didn’t do.
However, I want us to think about racism in broader, more systemic terms. I want us to think of it in terms of what Paul calls “principalities and powers” and in terms that Walter Wink talks about racism in his book, The Powers that Be. While racism is sometimes expressed in overt acts, the power of racism itself is a force in our society that is bigger than any one person or group. It is a force that distorts our sense of who we are and creates barriers between people of different racial and ethnic groups. In this sense it’s not so much that we have racism, but rather that racism has us. In order to resist racism , we first must recognize it’s power over us.
For those of who are white, racism is a force that often puts us in positions of power that we do not seek with privileges we did not ask for. It’s a power that grants those of us who are white a more exalted status as a group, while causing us to resist being seen as a group. One thing a white person doesn’t like to hear from people of color is that he or she is a “typical white person,” because we see ourselves as distinct individuals not as a group. At the same time racism excludes, distorts, makes sick, impoverishes and oppresses those who are not white. It is a power that causes people of different races to choose to live in different neighborhoods, worship at different churches, socialize in different places, and generally relate to people of their own group. Racism is a power that permeates the economic system, the political system, and the educational system. It is a power that is often joined with the powers of Classism and Sexism, which together can have a devastating effect on our sense of identity and our ability to live in community with others.
So when we talk about racism the issue is not about guilt, but rather about recognizing racism’s power over us , and then seeking ways to act responsibly against that power. We need to resist racism’s impact just like a recovering alcoholic has to resist the pull of the drug. Like an alcoholic we must admit that our lives have been shaped and influenced by racism and work diligently to unleash ourselves from the pull of that power. And like the alcoholic we can’t resist alone. To try to go it alone is to play back into racism’s power. We need a group and need to act as a group. In short we need to be in conversation with each other.
One of the first things we as whites must come to grips with is what is known as white privilege. The tricky thing with privilege is that it is largely invisible to those of us who are white, but glaringly obvious to those who are not. White privilege operates in subtle and devious ways. When I get on an elevator, women don’t back away in fear. When I walk into a grocery store, clerks don’t suspect me of shoplifting. When I drive through a predominantly black neighborhood, I don’t have to fear being stopped for being in the wrong place. These are “privileges” I enjoy that people of color can’t assume. Just because of the color of my skin, my children are more likely to own their own homes, go to a good school, get a better job, and earn a better a salary when they get that job.. These are privileges they enjoy simply because they are white. And as I said they didn’t ask for them, but they are there.
And unconsciously these privileges can slip over into the way we as whites interact with people of color. A year ago this past winter, I joined a class of the Alternative Seminary on the topic bridging the gap of race and class. We met for eight Tuesdays nights from January to March in a small Methodist church in North Philadelphia. The purpose of the course was to explore the forces that divide whites and people of color from each other and to think together about ways we could work more effectively across racial lines. The group consisted of somewhere between 15-20 people and was evenly divided between whites and African Americans. There were two Puerto Rican men who came the first two nights but did not continue. About 2/3 of the group were women and there were no African American men (although we did have some African American men come in as speakers). The group was facilitated by two women, one white and one black.
Now I went into that class thinking I had a pretty good handle on what racism was and how to communicate across differences. I had good relationships with my co-workers of color. I had even taught courses on the stuff. So I thought I was in pretty good shape when came to racism and I assumed the others in the group would see that and accept with open arms on that basis. But I was in for a big surprise because over that two month period I was confronted with the ways I talked and carried myself that unwittingly conveyed a sense of superiority and privilege to the people of color in the group. And because I was on their turf, they had no qualms in letting me know how arrogant I came across. It wasn’t I made any racist statements, I was just being my normal white self. To the other folks in the group I was conveying that I was a person of privilege.
Tobin Miller Shearer in the book, Set Free, says that white privilege tends to express itself in many different ways, one of which is a need to always be in control. In that group I wanted to be right, even if I was wrong. I wanted to be heard, even I needed to listen. I wanted my points to count, even if they were not pertinent. At the time I didn’t know why, but later I figured it out: as a white person, I was used to having my opinion count. I was used to being listened to and respected; that was my privilege as a white person. As painful as it was, that experience was invaluable for me because it forced me to see myself as others saw me. It forced me to see myself from a different perspective.
Paul’s Change in Perspective
And you see in Acts 9 that’s what happened to Paul; he went through a dramatic change of perspective. Luke tells us that Paul was “breathing out murderous threats” as he traveled on the road leading into the Syrian city of Damascus. He was on a mission to find, capture and imprison as many followers of Jesus as he could possibly round up.
And then he had this incredible vision of Jesus speaking to him out of the sky. He immediately went blind, and heard a voice saying to him “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Now there are two things to note about this event. First of all, the people who were with Paul saw no light, saw no Jesus, and only heard a rumbling sound. So this was an intensely personal experience for Paul. Second, as far as we know Paul had never had any personal contact with Jesus before his death. So when Jesus accused Paul of persecuting him, Jesus was identifying himself with his followers; he was in essence saying that by seeking to imprison his followers, Paul was persecuting him. Up to this point Paul had seen himself as a hero and a servant of God’s people; all of a sudden he saw himself as a killer and an enemy of God’s people
Paul was directed by Jesus to go into the city and wait. After three days a man named Ananias came and prayed over him. With that prayer Paul’s blindness was removed, he was baptized, and he began an entirely new way of life. He dedicated himself telling folks about the life and message of this Jesus, and he suffered and eventually died for that purpose. What happened to Paul on the Damascus road was a dramatic change of perspective that turned him completely around from being a hunter to one of the hunted, from being a persecutor to one of the persecuted, from being an oppressor to one of the oppressed.
The Easter Experience
He had what Paulo Freire called an “Easter experience.” Paulo Freire was Brazilian educator who dedicated himself to using education as a means of helping poor and oppressed people gain the means to overcome their oppression and work for their liberation. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has inspired a whole generation of students, teachers, community organizers, and anti-poverty advocates. Freire was also a dedicated Christian. In a letter to a theology student he wrote that if non-oppressed people want to work in solidarity with oppressed persons for their liberation, they had to go through what he called an “Easter experience”. By that he meant was that those who are privileged need to go through a spiritual transformation that releases them from their attachment to power and enables them to see and experience the world from the vantage point of the oppressed. I believe that is what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road. That’s what happened to me in the Alternative Seminary course. I want to suggest that is what needs to happen to those of us who are white and privileged, if we are to truly stand by those who are limited and sometimes crushed by the injustice of racism.
I want to suggest that the gospel’s call to those of us who are white is to seek ways to let go of our control and privilege and undergo a spiritual transformation leading to a perspective change. It not just about whether we commit overt acts of discrimination, or whether we behave respectfully toward people of other races. No primarily it is about whether or not we are willing to recognize the advantages that our culture has afforded those of us who are white. And it’s about our willing to relinquish those privileges for the sake of justice and reconciliation.
Using Our Experience as a Window
Now when I bring this up, some white folks will say, “Wait a minute I’ve been a victim of discrimination, I’ve been despised because of my gender or my social class or my accent or even my white skin.” If that is the case then I say “good – hang onto that awareness.” Because as painful as those experiences have been, they have given you a window into what people of color experience nearly every day of their lives simply because they have a skin color other than white.
When I was in that group there were many times when I felt like I was being disregarded and ignored simply because I was white. And it ticked me off. There were times I wasn’t sure if people didn’t like what I said because they were simply dumb statement or if it was because I was this big talkative white guy. I’d go home all angry and confused, and then it dawned on me: this is what a lot of African American people, and Hispanic people, and Asian people and Native American people and immigrants go through every day. And it was like a window into their experience. And it helped me see things from another perspective. Every day people of color are reminded that they need to work a little bit harder and be a little bit smarter just to get to the same place white folks get. And if they do get a good job or a promotion, they have to deal with the question of whether they got it on their merits or because of some quota or affirmative action policy. Everyday people of color have to wonder if they are being heard or respected or ignored simply because of their skin color. Everyday when they pick up the newspaper or watch a news program they are reminded that their schools are underfunded, the courts sentence them to harsher and longer penalties, that they are not likely to get the same pay for the same job as a white person, and that the systems of this society routinely slight them. Everyday that is their reality.
Those of us who are white know these things too, but we don’t experience them, and we can forget them and ignore them and even rationalize them away. But we don’t have to live with them. But if we can get a window, we can remind ourselves to think and act and see the world from the side of the oppressed rather than from our normal place as the privileged.
Paul’s “Easter experience” on the Damascus Road happened in a dramatic fashion. But for many of us, and I know that at least for me, the Easter Experience transformation has taken and is taking a lifetime. Nonetheless I see my situation as a white person in Paul’s story. Like Paul, at times I feel like I am blind to things that are going on right around me. Like Paul, I am confused and overwhelmed by the fact that I thought I was doing the right thing and the helpful thing, only to discover it was just the opposite. Like Paul just when I think I am beginning to understand, I realize how far I have to go. Like Paul, I realize I need an Ananias, someone not afraid to come along side of me, and pray with me and talk with me, and help me see what I am blind to see. Like Paul I realize I need people who are willing to engage me in a sacred conversation about this force called Racism that so often messes me up and gets in the way of constructive and meaningful relationships with people who are different than me.
And so I us to explore ways that we who are white & black or Filipino & Native American & Vietnamese or whatever race or ethnicity can engage in conversation about this force that divides and distorts us. And not only talk but then we act on what we learn.