Defining Racism

My post the other day was a little… provocative. I was pleasantly surprised, the comments (on the post and in social media) were largely thoughtful. I agree with many: racism is more spectrum than category; flowcharts privilege the binary and the binary is bullshit; my focus on black-white race relations is also a binary; race relations is a problematic term anyway; and plus, it’s rude and polarizing to call someone racist.

This last one I agree with less. In the circles I run in–this is at least partly generational–“racist” isn’t an pejorative term. It doesn’t connote the KKK as much as the flaws we all have: “hey, that’s racist, please check yourself.” So I apologize to those who took “racist” as an insult. It’s not. It is bad to be racist, but it’s also honest to be racist. Again: only once you admit the problem can you begin solving it. So let’s roll back a couple steps and define “racist.” I’m going to use a story about white/black, because that’s my own experience.

When I was 19, I spent a semester at Howard University,  a Historically Black College in Washington DC. By “historically black,” I mean I was the only white person in my classes. Once, early in the semester, I was with a group of students. They were friendly, curious, wanting to know why I was there and how I liked it. We were just a group of kids unwinding after class. Then one girl standing next to me said, “Hey, you’ll fit in here. Just don’t date any of our men.”

My first instinct was to be offended (all the more so because I was crushing on a black boy in my Creative Writing class). Isn’t that racist?, I thought. In that moment, I could (A) dismiss her outright and maintain my self-righteousness (B) listen and learn.

Since I’m choosing the adventure, we get option (B). Let’s zoom out and look at the demographics of Howard: according to a 2009 survey of graduating students (two years after I left), the student population at HU is 27% male, and a whopping 73% female. (The numbers of entering students are a few percentage points closer to gender balance.) Now, let’s look at the population of incarcerated black men. In the U.S., 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated in their lives. In 2014,  even though blacks are only 13% of the U.S. population, they’re 40% of the prison population! There is a huge group of black men who could be in college and are instead in prison. This is a systemic issue.

Now that's messed up.

Now that’s messed up.

The student who called me out was not being racist; she was telling me to check myself. She was telling me to do my research. I don’t know the community. My presence does not mean I’m entitled to ignore the realities of race. Interracial dating is not “being colorblind,” it means being attuned to race in different ways. Educated black men are in short supply and walking onto campus and dating one within three months is a kind of hubris. Note: Not all interracial relationships are the same–it is very, very different for a black woman to date a white man than a white woman to date a black man. In fact, here’s one more gem of a statistic for you:

“Despite a doubling of the black-white  marriage rate since 1980, only about 1% of black women and 3% of black men are interracially married.”
Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, p.12

If you're curious, this is a good book for further reading.

If you’re curious, this is a good book for further reading.

So when someone calls you racist or accuses you of “white privilege,” you have a choice: to cut them off or to learn from the experience. In the last 7 years I’ve mulled over her comment, I’ve learned a lot.

Racism is “a system of disadvantage based on race”–and yes, I straight lifted that from a movie. To be “racist,” then, is to benefit from a system that disadvantages others based on race and to show no remorse for that system and to make no effort to change the inherent privilege that allows you greater opportunity.

Let’s be clear: I’m not condemning interracial dating or agreeing with the student who said this. I disagree with her fundamental claim (and I don’t want to hold her up as representative of all black communities; years later, a black friend said to me “What the fuck did she mean? You should date whoever you fall in love with”). This is a really, really nuanced issue and takes a lot more than one blog to understand.

But if you are white–if you are already by virtue of doing nothing in a position of privilege–“racist” is not a title you earn for doing something wrong; it’s a title you absorb when you fail to do something right.

Does that sting a little? It should. So should Michael Brown’s death. The task of being anti-racist in this moment, this week, is to sit with the sting and feel it. Not to numb it or pretend it doesn’t hurt but to look around the country and go, “this hurts.” If you are white, this is a hard thing to do. Do it anyway. I want you to read this quote from an interview with Chris Rock and let it sting. Let it soak in.

To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before…So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years….my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

I didn’t set out to write a blog about race and oppression. I wanted to write about Jesus and Hebrews 10:24-25 and church. But as it happens, Jesus spends a lot of time being concerned with oppression. In two Sundays, we will hear Isaiah’s words, which Jesus quotes at the beginning of his ministry, to explain to the world what is about to happen: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

This morning I woke up and saw some people imprisoned by racism. White people, black people, Latinos who we somehow never have time to talk about, Native Americans, Asian Americans, biracial kids always pushed one way or the other. This stings. It should sting. Dear Jesus, come down and release the prisoners.

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