Here I offer a brief overview of what I believe are some of the basics that can assist white folks, me being one of them, in coming to a fuller understanding of racism and how it has infected the church and society. While none of us will ever arrive at a full understanding of this important and urgent matter, there are experiences, relationships, books, movies, seminars, classes, and other things from which I have learned over time.
Listen. This is the first step. We may have something to offer to the conversation, but consider that as white people we do not understand what it is like to experience widespread discrimination based on the color of our skin that significantly affects our lives in negative ways. Our society has been shaped by race, and the form it has taken privileges those who fit the category of “white.” This is why we often here the term, “white privilege,” mentioned in discussions of race and racism. This term does not mean that every white person has suffered less or had an easier life than every person of color. It means that being considered “white” affords people certain privileges or rights that they would not otherwise possess.
Race is a social construct. A social construct “concerns the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on” something or someone by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with that something or someone. These ideas are “created, institutionalized, and made into tradition by humans” for various reasons.[i]
In the United States, and elsewhere, the concept of race was created to justify and institutionalize the dehumanization and subjugation of people who were not of European descent with light-colored skin. Think about it. Nobody’s skin is truly white or black – just various shades of pink, peach, tan, and brown. Racial categories were made up by light-skinned Europeans in order to obtain free labor, land, and wealth.
Despite race being a created concept rooted in falsehood, the consequences of its creation are widespread. This is why it cannot be ignored. Racial categories and their implications are embedded in the roots of our country’s institutions, shaping everything from our economy to our justice system down to our neighborhoods and churches. Racism is still alive and well in all of these, which is why our society is often labeled, “white supremacist.” Groups like the KKK come to mind when we hear this term, but more broadly it means that the people, practices, and traditions considered to be “white” are the norm and viewed as superior – or supreme.
On a more personal and individual level, in discussions of racism, people will often say that they are color-blind, usually meaning that they do not judge people by the color of their skin. But the truth is that color-blindness is a myth. Even if we strive to love everyone equally, regardless of their skin color, we all see the color of peoples’ skin and attach meaning to it, whether we want to or not. This truth is a result of implicit bias, which is “the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group.”[ii]
I have been in a serious relationship with a black woman, graduated from a three-year seminary as the only white person in my cohort, and had many black friends while in the military who were like older brothers to me, yet there are times when I still find myself making negative judgments about people based upon their skin color. It is often very subtle, but it is there. We must become more aware of our thoughts, inner life, and bodily reactions when crossing paths with and relating to people of color. We do not want to push these thoughts and sensations away, but allow ourselves to experience them and process them in constructive ways.
Finally, be aware that intentions are not the final word when it comes to what is considered racist. Perceptions matter just as much, and often more, as to whether or not something is racist. Educate yourself. Read and listen to people of color talk about race and their experiences. Solidarity is the key. Finding ways to be in solidarity with people of color is how we will find a way forward. Be open and willing to be led by these communities, and discover how your gifts can be a contribution to resisting and overcoming racism in our churches, neighborhoods and beyond.
Ben Walter grew up in Selinsgrove, PA. After high school he joined the Army infantry for three years and was stationed in Washington and Korea. He received a M.Div. from Biblical Theological Seminary in 2011. His interests include theology, social justice, and politics. Ben served as a volunteer youth worker at Selinsgrove Church of the Nazarene for 8yrs before becoming one of the pastors at Ripple in Allentown, PA in 2011.