Racism and the Fear of the Other

Woops! It surfaced again. Most of the country was shocked to hear the news of an interracial couple being kicked out of the all White, Freewill Baptist Church in Pikeville Kentucky last week. Sure, we were a bit surprised but after all, it is “rural Kentucky” and wasn’t the word “Baptist” used? Easily dismissed as a anomaly, we store the occurrence in the “you know you’re a redneck when” file of our brain and move on but please…Not so fast…

What about October 2009 when a Justice of the Peace in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana refused to marry an interracial couple. He said, it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long. “I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” announced the JP. And who could forget the UCLA student racist rant about Asians in the library phoning tsunami victims in Japan that went viral. In fact, YouTube is the new window into racism in America, you can pull up current racist examples against any minority group. (Right now I’m reminiscing about Native American caricatures and tomahawk chops but I’ll save that discussion for another day). With racism seething just below the surface it should be no wonder when socially sanctioned Jim Crow type acts of violence arise. Remember James Bird Jr.?

Think with me for a moment about the church. Why does Jim Crow type racism still continue to occur in churches? And do we, who identify ourselves as those in new expressions following Jesus, believe we are incapable of similar actions? Do we believe the same roots of racism are absent from our souls?  It’s easy to dismiss overt racism among Christians, (a practice that has been socially acceptable in America from the time of the first Pilgrims until the late 1960s).  These reprehensible racist incidents may belie a deeper problem that is more difficult to identify in ourselves, but let me try.

I must first admit, racism, even the Jim Crow systemic type, is complex. Sometimes it is about color, sometimes it’s about stereotypes, other times it involves religious beliefs. Various ideologies, politics and things as simple learned behaviors contribute to create a whole mix of racist possibilities. The root that I would like to examine is the one fostered by all of these attitudes, namely, fear of “the other.”

Fear of those different than us is universal. There has been no society or nation who has not participated in the excesses this fear garners. Of course, dominant cultures/races/ethnicities in a particular nation tend to practice the excesses the most, simply because they have the power to do so. Although religion can play a specific role in racist travesties, for the most part, religions simply reflect the culture in which they find themselves. So what I’m asking is, that we who are followers of Jesus learn to “get ahead” of this thing. So what do we do?

The regular stuff of course, like recognizing it’s not just the Baptist rednecks in rural Kentucky, (their honesty in some weird way, is refreshing). We need to recognize that racist attitudes have been fostered in us all, especially among the dominant American population stemming from a structurally racist agenda.

Regardless of whether it was during Native American genocide, African American slavery, past anti-Asian or current anti-Latino immigration periods, imperialism directed at Filipinos or Hawaiians, Japanese internment, the Communist/Socialist scares, Islamaphobia, anti-women’s rights eras (most of history) or other White, male power movements meant to normalize the homogeneity of that group, it resides in the dominant cultural honestly—meaning no one had to work to hard to foster it as a part of the culture. Racism is ubiquitous and we are all prone to racist thoughts, or even supporting systemic racism at some level, at any time.

Secondly, rather than fear the other, we should embrace our fears of the other and embrace the other. Diversity should be celebrated. The actions of the Pikeville Kentucky church were taken, in their logic, “to create unity.” In this case, it meant the all White congregation, would sacrifice the feelings of the interracial couple to create unity among the majority. That’s a strange recipe for unity but it is basically the same logic that keeps so many of us avoiding diversity instead of celebrating it. This model especially keeps the dominant White culture in America from knowing and appreciating the subaltern. It is no different among Christians.

As North American Christians we have learned to settle in at our comfort level, which simply reflects the dominant American culture. But Jesus calls us to the “deep end.” Out there—way out there—is where we really test our faith. We need to develop new paradigms and test them in unfamiliar contexts and build new relationships that we would not have imagined in years prior. We must consider the thoughts from people different than us, from people who love Jesus as much as us (or those who don’t love him at all) but just look different and maybe express that love in ways we find unfamiliar and even un-nerving. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake, as long as you are making them from your authentic self.

As a Professor of Faith and Culture I run into the model of unity based on comfort and fear almost daily, and I find it not just in students. Modern views of diversity really suck. They focus on the happiness of the majority. This is the blind leading the blind. Celebrating diversity is one of the most natural reflections of the Creator and the creation we can know.  If diversity in creation is not understood and appreciated by those in the modern world, then perhaps it is not difficult to see why diversity would be of any value when considering “the other” in humanity. There is a definite connection between how we revere and treat diversity in human and non-human creation. We should understand the value of diversity God has placed in everything.

I’ll be blogging around on this and other subjects in the future and I invite you to join me in honest, authentic, dialogue. And, most importantly, I hope you will engage with your heart as well as your mind. We can all learn a lot from such exchanges.


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