Several years ago I wrote a post titled A Deep Sin where I describe the plague of overt racism that continues to infect white evangelicals. Today I wish to confront the sin of internal and unexamined racist beliefs. This is not a critique of ideological racism. I would hope that I do not need to do that.
There are numerous examples I can supply. Some I should not use because of issues of confidentiality as a member of the clergy. Other examples are not as clear as one that built up during my time working in a factory where I listened to my immediate supervisor.
Pam (not her real name) was upset, to say the least. Her daughter worked on another line in the plant and was having trouble. Mama Bear was out for blood. When asked what was going on, she replied, “There’s this black girl that is causing a problem for Tammy. She is pulling bundles.” (emphasis was hers) When a coworker pulls bundles in a clothing factory, that person is taking pieces of clothes that are often smaller and easier to handle. If a factory pay-scale is based on numbers of bundles processed, then it means faster work and more money. If the pay is based on hours worked, then it is a matter of more quickly fulfilling a daily quota. A person who practices that is a jerk. There is no way he or she could be anything else.
The problem continued for a few weeks. Each time my supervisor complained about it, she said, “This black girl…” The question a person could ask is simply this, “Why do you emphasize her race?” Literally everyone knows a person who pulls bundles is a jerk. If a union steward or boss is notified, the problem should be quickly resolved. The shop steward takes as dim a view of the problem as anyone else. The task of representing the person is merely one where the violation is explained.
Given the considerations just mentioned, why emphasize the race of the miscreant? Why mention her skin color at all? Is her being black somehow making the situation worse? Is it because a black person has even less cause to be a jerk than anyone else? What about the very personable white male in our own department that does the exact same thing? Does his personality let him get away with it? (This went on at the time) Of course not. Even my supervisor would have to admit when confronted that the skin color of the other woman (not girl) had nothing to do with it. She grew up making the distinction as though it was a necessary description of the person. And that distinction really matters to many white people in our country.
I could not help but notice the response when during another discussion I made the point that no black people were in our department with our higher paying jobs. The same person defensively said, “We are not racist!” It is true that one had to pass a test to get into out department. On paper, that was the only requirement. The company was obliged to give the test to anyone who bid on the job. The only reason given for a person passing the test and losing the seniority advantage was that worker was on a final disciplinary notice. It was how I got moved into the department. The woman who would have gotten it based on passing the test and seniority was under such an action. I have no idea who that person was. I was called by Human Resources to tell me I had the job. The other information came later. There was an appearance of bias because the people in our department were all white. There was actual bias that was evident in the way these people talked about people of other races or ethnicities (including the latinx people who worked in our sister plants in Texas).
The distinction that mattered mentioned earlier was as built in our personalities as our given names. It was there. And it could be changed if we knew it was not a necessary part of who we were. This is the issue. A person need only examine his or her own thinking to see where the bias is involved. It is not easy. It requires honesty.
Truth is hard to find when we do not want to find it. People usually avoid this kind of self-examination for this reason. We often lie to ourselves that it is more important to protect ourselves than to express any sentiment that would leave one open to criticism. In attempting to hold onto this type of identity, we lose all prospect for integrity.
Advent is meant to be a time of preparation. Evangelicals, charismatics, and mainline Christians do not use it that way. A cultural bias is involved that believes the only sin of the season is “missing the true meaning of Christmas,” what ever that is. The irony is that we attempt to make a holiday “meaningful” with elaborate decorations and family gatherings. We attempt to make the meaning by insulating. Times of preparation on the church calendar are meant to get our hearts and minds in order to celebrate light overcoming darkness and resurrection overcoming death. Christians are tasked with dealing with the darkness in our own persons. And that includes the darkness that allows us to be biased, to tolerate structures in our communities that promote prejudices, and to set up barriers against the promotion of light.
We defend ourselves when we sit in darkness. We prefer it all too often. “We are not racist!” We shout. “People are just too sensitive.” We whine. “We are the ones who are truly picked on.” We say. They are all lies. The worst lie is, “We don’t owe anybody anything.” We owe ourselves the truth. We owe other people grace and mercy. And we owe discernment with love to the world. The light is uncomfortable. Yet, it heals.