Are You a Racist?

August 23, 2010

Dr. Laura’s n-word rant has had some positive effects: It got me thinking about racism again. In particular, her apology — and her radio guest questioning the apology — made me wonder why people are so quick to deny racism.

This video explores the question of denial. Mind you, I think most people are sincere in their denials — they truly believe that they have given no cause for offense. But racism is not so much about offense as it is about power. And when you are unaware of your own power and the affect that it has on others… well, that’s a blind spot called white privilege.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

I have two recommendations for removing that blind spot:

  1. Pray. Give God permission to show you your own heart.
  2. Read Black Like Me. Get it from your library, or order it from Amazon.

Related posts: Dear Dr. Laura: Why you can’t use the n-word

I’ve transcribed this video for people who prefer to read.

“Are You a Racist?” transcript

“Are you a racist?” …See, as soon as I ask, “Are you a racist?” I can pretty much guarantee what your answer is. It’s, “No, no, of course not,” because, you know, a racist is one of these [Ku Klux Klansmen]. And if you take that down the road all the way, then a racist is one of these [Adolf Hitler], and I’m definitely not that [Hitler] or that [KKK]. “So, I’m not a racist.”

Now, there’s a funny word in that question, “Are you a racist?” and it’s the smallest word, “a”. Are you a racist? Let’s remove that and see what happens. Are you… racist? Now it’s an adjective, not a noun. How about, “Do you carry any racism in you?”

This is blog one another where we rethink faith and rethink culture. And by rethink culture, I mean we look at ourselves, specifically, opening ourselves up to the Spirit of God to work in us and through us.

White Privilege

Now if you’re watching this video, you’re almost certainly a person of privilege, and what I mean is somebody who’s had a good education, is pretty well off, you have a computer or some other gadget that you’re watching this on, and you’ve had a pretty good life, and blah blah blah. And chances are pretty good you’re either white, or half-white like I am. White privilege. Eww, that’s a nasty word. What does that mean? It means that we have, we carry power, but we’re not aware of it. White privilege is a blind spot, a huge blind spot where you are unaware of the power that you wield, and how that feels to people who do not have that power, who do not share those same privileges.

A year ago, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, and there was a lot of press about her quote,

I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.

And whoa, this got white males upset. [Photo of Rush Limbaugh] “Racist! She’s a racist!”

Usually, the quote is chopped off. What she said was that

I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

What is that life? Well, white male, you and I have no idea. We don’t know. We have this thing called white privilege.

Black Like Me

So while Sonia Sotomayor was being nominated for the Supreme Court, my son’s summer reading just happened to be a book called Black Like Me. I remember hearing about this book when I was a kid, about a writer who makes himself black to see what life is like. So, I read the book. It’s a short book. It was gripping. My gosh, pick up a copy. Get it from the library, buy yourself a copy from Amazon, from the link I have, but read it. It will open your eyes, and then maybe, you can understand how someone can say that a Latina woman would see things differently, and maybe reach some different conclusions about power and privilege than a white male.

Actions to Take

So what do we do?

  • If you’re brave, I invite you to open your heart up to God, and say, “Spirit of God, search me, and show me what’s inside. And then help me.”
  • Get Black Like Me — I really highly recommend it — and read it.

And please share your comments below, your reactions to the question: Not, “Are you a racist,” but, “Have you discovered racism inside of you?” …Maybe that’s a better question.

Photo credits:
Ku Klux Klan by Arete13 (license)
Adolf Hitler from Wikipedia (license)

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

19 responses to Are You a Racist?

  1. Alright, so I know that I am racist. Horribly and intensely racist, all the way to my core. I know this because I am TERRIFIED of offending black people and have to make a conscious decision to “act natural” so the anxiety that I feel when I am around black people does not show through and end up offending them! Even my efforts to not be racist are racist.
    I don’t think anyone escapes racism. It’s a product of the differences among us all. Inevitably each of us is going to run into a person or group of people that varies from the group of people we grew up amongst or the group we aligned with and we’re bound to form an opinion of them, positive or negative, from our own ingrained frame of reference. That opinion gets generalized to the whole group because of our small sample size and then you have racism. Some experiences I’ve had have helped make my “blind spot” of white privilege a little smaller, but I’m not sure it’s possible to ever stop being racist, because to get rid of that blind spot, you have to admit that there are differences among us. You have to admit there is a power differential between you and another person, that you’re somehow over another person. I hate racism, and I will continue trying to rid myself of it, but I think I’ll be a lot more successful in addressing my racism if I focus on trying to become more aware of it and work on keeping it in check rather than trying to eliminate it all together, because that just turns into denial over time.

  2. Jon, I’m curious about the statement you made about most of your readers being people of privilege, probably white. I’m curious because I wonder if you, as a “half-white” person, find it easier or more difficult to develop relationships with other people who are not privileged, or less privileged. Part of the problem with being in the privileged class is that we can spend most of our lives surrounded by people who look like us, and we never realize that the world looks different for other people. Whites who want to overcome their racism really have to work hard to be intentional about finding and developing those relationships.
    At my church we have a program called “Breakfast Club” (actually, we’re going to change that name to “Common Ground” next month). The program pairs people of two different ethnicities who commit to have a meal together once a month. Each month they receive a list of questions to help them explore issues of race, culture, stereotypes, traditions, and faith. It’s really a great program. I’ve tried getting other churches in my area interested in it, but so far, not much response.

  3. Great post Jon, as usual. In addition to Black Like Me I highly recommend two other resources:
    1) The Color of Fear — I’m not sure if this c.1994 video is still available for purchase or download anywhere, but if you can get a copy, you really should. It takes Black Like Me to a whole new level. You can read about it on IMDB.
    2) Black. White. — this FX network miniseries from 2006 is a modern-day re-imagining of Black Like Me which follows the lives of two families — a black family made up of Dad, Mom, and Son, and a white family made up of Dad, Mom, and Daughter. Both families undergo complex studio-quality (read: hours each day) make-up so they can appear to be the opposite ethnicity. They then go about daily lives interacting with culture, then come home to debrief with one another. Sometimes they go out into public together, i.e. the black man *without* make-up takes the white man *with* make-up to appear black, to a “black area of town” and then also to a “white area of town” to experience the cultural context. It is fascinating drama. Available on iTunes here (includes a free episode of casting sessions)

  4. This one was a doozy. I must limit my response to exclude any discussion of Justice Sotomayor. Another time, perhaps… 😉
    Your entire post is about racism and the lingering possibility of oneself being racist, yet you never hazard a definition. The word has become so ubiquitous and overused as to render its meaning watered down and obscured. The overuse of a word does not diminish the reality, but it does confuse it. In short, what constitutes racism? Nobody knows anymore, but that does not stop others from throwing around the charge at whatever and whomever they do not like.
    I am aware of the cultural notion of what you call “white privilege,” meaning that whites have an inherent advantage over other races in this country. I reject this notion. Not that I naively believe that such is an impossibility, but I reject said notion on its underlying premise that all perceived inequalities between races arise due primarily to a racist sense of entitlement. It turns into a blame game.
    I am a perfectionist, and as such, I often put too much stock in my perception of others’ opinions of myself. If I allow myself to linger too long on the question, “Am I racist?” I inevitably come to the conclusion, “I might be.” Then I will drive myself nuts–wringing my hands nervously, looking over my shoulder, double- and triple-checking my words and actions in my mind before they pass into the realm of the actual. So regarding your ending question “Am I racist?” the question in itself unintentionally implies that the person asking himself/herself is perpetually in danger of being racist (read: “guilty until proven innocent”).
    Ironically, part of the remedy for racist tendencies is contemplation of one’s soul, which has nothing to do with skin color; the question “Am I racist” is not big enough.

  5. Leah, thanks for your honesty. Racism is not — oh, this comes across as a bad pun — black and white. People are complicated, and we are shades of gray. The steps I offer (prayer, and a book) are just a starting point. Ultimately, a relationship of trust has to be developed with at least one individual. But the opportunities for interaction are few here, since San Jose has so few black people.
    But I encourage you to read the book, if you haven’t done so before.

  6. Melanie,
    One of my top traits in Strengthsfinder is “inclusion”: I have a tendency to go to the person on the fringes, to make sure they feel included. I don’t know if it’s a result of growing up as a foreigner in Japan, then moving to the United States and continuing to feel like a foreigner, but there it is. At work (where I am a programmer among educated elites), I build relationships with the janitor, the mailroom guy, the facilities guy.
    Even so, I was recently surprised by racist thoughts. Most of the people at work are Indian. There is a certain resentment among white programmers about all the outsourcing to India that’s taken place, costing us our jobs. I had to pray my way through those thoughts, until they left.
    I love your Breakfast Club / Common Ground thing! As long as people are abstractions, we can fear them. Building relationship like that, bringing together both honesty and respect, sounds like a great antidote to fear.

  7. Keith, wow, thanks for sharing those two resources. They both look really interesting!

  8. Matthew, you might be interested in a video/discussion series called “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” put out by California Newsreel. (I’ll include a link with my signature.) It might help clarify your understanding of “white privilege.” I don’t think the underlying premise of white privilege has to do with entitlement so much as a freedom to not have to think about race, and an unawareness that other people must. Here is a link to a classic article by Peggy McIntosh on the subject:

  9. Matthew,
    “A doozy”? That’s good, right? 😉
    Check out Melanie’s response below. I don’t feel I need to define racism, anymore than I need to define pornography. I am aware that “political correctness” has made whites feel that race is being used as a weapon. I think what we need to recognize is that even when it is used as a weapon, it is a reaction to something else… and we may be ignorant of what that something else is. Melanie’s summary of white privilege is much better and more accurate than my off-the-cuff remarks.
    And you go back to my original question, which I state is not a good one. We all carry complex shades of sin. As you say, the contemplation of one’s soul is the beginning of the way out, which echoes my first challenge. I also encourage you to read the book. Oh, and I’m really curious about the resources Keith shared above.

  10. Melanie, thanks for defining white privilege better. I really didn’t offer a definition, just a stab in the dark at something gnawing at me. Your explanation makes a lot of sense.
    That article is quite short. …Hey everyone, let’s check this out.

  11. Following is the text of my YouTube comment:
    “I read and enjoyed “Black Like Me” thirty years ago. Some inner reflection and critical thought on your part might be in order, because the very notion of “white power/privilege” is ::: gasp ::: racist in its inception. Why, because it CENTERS on race. With sweeping generalities race is reflexively imputed for things like wealth, power, intelligence, etc., which are attributed as race-related, to the ignorance of all the weightier factors.
    A just weight and a just measure? Think about it.”
    @geomonicdotorg Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I directed my remarks towards whites because a) they are the largest audience, and b) remain remarkably unaware of how power/privilege affects others. Racism is not confined to any race. But by accident of history, whites enjoy a disproportionate amount of power and privilege. My intent is to shake things up a bit, to stir other-awareness and self-awareness, all as a part of God-awareness.
    Will you share your comment on my blog as well?
    I certainly like the idea of shaking things up, even more than a bit, but I am ever cautious about how that is done, as sometimes a sweeping generality will convict people who absolutely do not need convicting. And that, to me, is never a good thing.
    You continued with the sweeping generality in your comment, when you wrote that “whites…remain remarkably unaware of how power/privilege affects others”
    …to which I ask, “Which whites?” It is the blanket observation/condemnation of an entire ethnic division that is, clearly, completely, and unequivocally, racist.
    You made a good distinction when you removed “a” from the question, turning the noun into an adjective. Here is one for you, in that same vein:
    “…whites enjoy a disproportionate amount of power and privilege.”
    OR… you could say, in a less subjective way that contains no circular reasoning or conclusory premise:
    “Whites, as a group, when compared to other ethnic groups, exercise, on average, proportionately more power and privilege.”
    “Proportionately more” merely states a statistical fact, without regard to the [many and varied] underlying causal factors, MANY of which have NOTHING to do with racism, and SOME of which could certainly be attributed to racism, both individual or systemic. The word ‘disproportionate’ is as circularly conclusive and subjective as the blanket (therefore racist) ‘whites’. It is that very mindset that got us where we are in the first place. In other words, you have encased a (quite sweeping) verdict into your argument as a governing premise. The word “disproportionate”, as applied to an entire race, no less, dispenses with any and all invitations to critical thought that could examine and attempt to accurately describe and distinguish each and all of the underlying causes (of that proportionate disparity that you see as “disproportionate”).
    God is no respecter of persons. Racism is an incorrect principle, an evil with no special exceptions or exemptions. There is no such thing as counter-racism. The principle is equally obnoxious regardless who adopts and (mis)applies it. If you attempt to swing the racist pendulum back, with equal force in the opposite direction from whence it came, you make yourself One With The Racists, feasting on all that they dined on…and, unwittingly, continuing the Cycle of Racism.
    There are many wonderful, and explicable, reasons why we do not strike back, but offer instead the other cheek. One of those reasons is that IT ENDS THE CYCLE, with only one Assailant, doubly convicted in reality, and one NON-ASSAILANT, doubly proved NOT TO BE ONE.
    And even with critical thinking and analyses, take great care who you call wheat, and who you call a tare, and remember the admonition that none of them were to be uprooted, and that for the sake of the wheat, until the final harvest when all are uprooted.

  12. One more followup, since it strikes at the heart of what I think is a common fallacy of thought prevalent in the world today. That of “proportion”.
    Both ‘disproportionate’ and ‘proportionately more’ imply portions, which further implies finite divisions of some rigid, fixed, or otherwise limited quantity. But is that in any way accurate?
    Hypothetically: I have two rows of carrots in my garden, whereas you have twelve equivalent rows. You have ‘proportionately more’ than me, assuming we’re all tossing everything into a communal pie for fairness-judgment-and-possible-divvy consideration in the first place. Can I also say that you have a ‘disproportionate’ amount of carrots relative to mine? Compound that with the quality and amount of garden space that you have relative to mine. Your soil is not only proportionately larger in area, but also proportionately richer and more fertile than mine. It also happens to be in a region that is proportionately more conducive to growing carrots. Do you enjoy a ‘disproportionate’ share of area, fertility and climate?
    Acknowledgment of such things must happen WAY before we get to the question of our respective races, and how others with gardens around us perceive, receive, and interact with us in ways that might support or inhibit our successes (individual and collective). The merits of further questions can’t even be considered without first acknowledging all the factors that may CORRELATE with race, but are NOT CAUSAL by race.
    White Anglo-Europeans did ‘proportionately more’ exploration and colonization of other lands, relative to say, Africans, Asians, Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals, to name a few. Was it ‘disproportionately more’? Now here is an area where you CAN attribute historical racism, the effects of which linger to this day, since systematically, lands were seized, people were killed, enslaved, shut out, inhibited in their property possession, prosperity, successes, liberties, etc., and all on the basis of their race.
    You could say that this gave ‘whites’ an unfair head start/future advantage in many places on the Earth, and I would most definitely agree. To a degree. Why to a degree? Because there was ALWAYS an oligarchy of wealth, power, influence and privilege, among those whites, that MOST of those whites did NOT enjoy. It was (as it is even now) CLASSIST, not racist. Racism, I submit, is only part in parcel of a much worse, and very real, “disproportionate” share of something that is NOT accessible to everyone, regardless of race. But the non-critically thinking misapplication of race and charges of racism serves to provide cover for something much more evil, far more insidious.
    It’s so insidious that a black family living in a trailer court can look across at a white family living in that same court, with the same opportunities, same relative income, influence, power, living conditions, etc., and STILL buy into THE ILLUSION that the white family is somehow better off ON THE BASIS OF THEIR RACE!
    Again, if we give everything a just weight, and a just measure, with ZERO assumptions, no presumptions — just, in the words of Gandhi, “…document, coldly, rationally, exactly what is being done here…”, only then can we transcend the red herring cycle and get at the truth — a truth that will forever allude those who simplistically count how much everyone has, and categorizes them according to race, along with vague and nebulous statistics which are labeled ‘proportionate’ and ‘disproportionate’ (fair/unfair), as if that said everything you needed to know, with the only question left being “what do we do about it?”.

  13. Sorry — “elude”, not “allude”.

  14. Steven,
    Thanks for coming over from YouTube to repost and even extend your remarks. I’ve mulled them over, and I think I’m starting to get what you’re saying. A couple of things really struck me:
    – Ending the cycle (tied to turning the cheek). Does labeling something as “white privilege” actually continue the cycle of racism?
    – Distinguishing between correlation and causality. Which leads to the question, what are the real causes.

  15. Jon, firstly, I appreciate the spirit in which you’re approaching all of this.
    My response to your questions, taking the second one first, the answer of which naturally leads into the first:
    – Distinguishing between correlation and causality. Which leads to the question, what are the real causes.
    I assume you mean causes of greater privilege, in which case we first need to include privileged Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, etc., to identify the many causes that are universal (without respect to race) before we can get to any apparent disparities between races, and their possible causes.
    Imagine something that looks like an audio mixer board in front of you, with a row of many sliders. Each slider represents a thing that cam be identified as being causal of greater privilege (e.g., inherited money, better educated and more nurturing parents, a positive environment more conducive to growth, etc.,). “Systemic Racism” (e.g., preference given to someone solely on the basis of their race) can be added to this board as a single slider — but it is one of many sliders, just like in the real world.
    Now the fun part begins, as a subjective exercise that everyone can (and should) do for themselves, as a personal thought experiment. You won’t necessarily be identifying the causes, so much as developing a more critical thought process about your own perceptions.
    For example, anyone can immediately slam the “Racism” causal slider up to 100% if they wanted. However, 100% is all anyone has to play with, which means that all the other sliders MUST remain slammed at zero. That is logically impossible, so the trick is now to “get real”, and start digging deep, and really identifying all causes, to the best of your ability. Which leads to your first question:
    “Does labeling something as “white privilege” actually continue the cycle of racism?”
    There is no question in my mind but that it does, given, as I stated before, that it is a blanket condemnation, without a single regard for or acknowledgment of other causal factors.
    The statement itself is circular in its logic (i.e., the premise that there is a privilege, one that is based on whiteness, or race, to the exclusion of all other causes). It is not just privilege, one for which racism MIGHT play a part. It is, simply, “white privilege”, and only on the basis of the most simplistic statistical odds. Furthermore, there is no mention, or even such thing, as “black privilege”, since that can conveniently be dismissed as caused by something else (something not identified as possibly universal, and not race-related at all).
    The original and varied definitions of racism all centered around the pernicious belief that there are, in essence, fundamental differences between races that make one naturally superior in to another race in one or more ways.
    Nazi Germany with its Aryan beliefs, and WWII Japan and its Bushido code (which made the Chinese forever inferior in their minds), are only two examples of actual bona fide racism.
    It was not until much later that the definition of “racism” was watered down to mean whatever a lexicographer wanted it to mean, like “hatred on the basis of race”, “preference given or denied according to race” or other equally subjective, far less identifiable nonsense, as it was further couched in terminology that implied that it was somehow not a universal principle, but was generally special as applied to one race (usually whites), to the exclusion of those of other races (whose possible complicity need not be dealt with, as it could be passed off as little more than justifiable anger — at another race, and/or those therefrom –), and therefore somehow not racism.
    What makes the above racist in its inception is the blanket generalization of a single race (and therefore each individual of that race, whether or not they are truly privileged!). It continues the cycle of racism because there are simply too many people — privileged individuals of all races, all colors — who know better, and who CAN for themselves identify all those factors that you might have failed to give space as a slider. The reality will march on and continue with or without our awareness. And since racism does exist, you will effectively continue the cycle by not identifying and giving weight to its real causes, manifestations, and defining characteristics, attacking the consciences of thousands who are innocent, and should never be attacked, while giving a pass, and possibly a dependency crutch that is based on a lie, to someone who might otherwise have been empowered, set free by the actual truth — whatever that is.

  16. > One of my top traits in Strengthsfinder is “inclusion”: I have a tendency to go to the person on the fringes, to make sure they feel included. I don’t know if it’s a result of growing up as a foreigner in Japan, then moving to the United States and continuing to feel like a foreigner, but there it is. At work (where I am a programmer among educated elites), I build relationships with the janitor, the mailroom guy, the facilities guy.
    Jon, I saw this today, four months later. I think of evangelical protestantism as “exclusionary”, so finding one who is inclusionary is interesting. (Actually you are the second, Bill Hybels is the first to express inclusion) I would look at “white privilege” as defining one who is white who grew up in comfort (but not necessarily extravagance, but not poverty) in a benign setting, like a suburb of a large city, or a nice neighborhood in a small city.
    Half a century ago, society was much more structured, and different immigrant groups filled different occupations. But all the ethnic groups had a strong ethic and family culture. Nowadays, society levels are more defined by family structure (or lack thereof), mental illness and drug addiction. Much is made of 40 percent of the jail population coming from one race. But 80 to 90 percent of the jail population comes from bad family structure, drugs or mental illness, or all of the above. Quoting the jail population by race is as accurate as saying 40 percent of all inmates drove Toyotas.

  17. White people get defensive when you talk about racism.
    Did your hackles just rise? Look again, I didn’t say “all white people” did I?
    This is important:
    When somebody says, “white people blah blah blah,” it does not mean all white people, all the time.
    If you sincerely think you are an exception, then great, they’re not talking about you.
    Do not jump in and change the subject to you, when nobody was talking about you in the first place.
    If somebody is complaining about racist white people, and you interrupt to argue about it, what can readers possibly conclude, but that you are announcing your membership in just that group and volunteering to be their spokesman. This is probably the opposite of what you want. Let it go. Not everything is about you.

  18. Mike, I think evangelicalism tends to exalt certain gifts and personality types over others. If that’s true, just by realizing that, we can begin to bring some balance.
    “But 80 to 90 percent of the jail population comes from bad family structure, drugs or mental illness, or all of the above. Quoting the jail population by race is as accurate as saying 40 percent of all inmates drove Toyotas.” Really? There’s a strong correlation. Doesn’t that suggest that the root problems you describe are somehow systemic problems for black males?

  19. I’m afraid your point is lost. Are you talking to me, or responding to someone else?