When I Talk About Race I Feel Like a Phony: The Problem of Being White & Talking About Racism

When I Talk About Race I Feel Like a Phony: The Problem of Being White & Talking About Racism July 2, 2015

race.001Many black leaders have been bitterly disappointed that President Obama has not shown more leadership in the arena of race. They might have a point. It’s not as though he hasn’t had the opportunity. From Travon Martin, to Ferguson, to Charleston, the opportunity for a President to actually do something with regard to the issue of race has not been this auspicious since JFK.

I must admit I am no better. I am white, educated, and male. I am mostly blind to my own affluence, and privilege. I live in the suburbs of Kansas City, a city that is still largely segregated along racial & socio-economic lines. I am a pastor in an era when the church is also largely segregated along racial lines. I feel like I need to do or say something, but I have a huge problem:

When I talk about race, I feel like a phony.

Fifty years after civil rights legislation we are back to burning black churches in the South. White cops are shooting, beating, and killing unarmed black men and women. Why is this still happening? What is my responsibility in terms of response?

I fear that most white Christians struggle to find anything to say that doesn’t sound glib or insincere or outright racist. It’s like we think that by refusing to talk about race, we are proving that race doesn’t factor in for us. It’s the contemporary version of the “I have several friends who are black,” and it isn’t any more effective. Plus, the disavowal of racism is perhaps the least effective way to combat it, if for no other reason that it is patently not true. Most of us are racist in one way or another.

Maybe the acknowledgement of our own complicit racism is a better place to start? The acknowledgement of white privilege should be the basis on which we open our mouths to speak.

There’s a great interview about race in The New York Times today. It’s with philosopher John Caputo, but don’t let that scare you off. Caputo actually lets his hair down in this interview and he is very nearly comprehensible. He says that the problem for all of us is that we are unaware of how prejudiced we are. “White” is the water we swim in, so we are blind to our own racial prejudices:

“White is not “neutral.” … as if white is not a color or is closest to the purity of the sun, and everything else is “colored.” Purification is a name for terror and deportation, and “white” is a thick, dense, potent cultural signifier that is closely linked to rationalism and colonialism. What is not white is not rational. So white is philosophically relevant and needs to be philosophically critiqued — it affects what we mean by “reason” — and “we” white philosophers cannot ignore it.”

How do we get white people to speak on race a bit more? Caputo’s answer is good:

“More often than not I do not analyze race explicitly unless I am asked to; it’s only then I find there are new things for me to say. I guess that means that one solution is to do what you’re doing now — ask us! Interrupt us. Stop us and ask, “To what extent is everything you just said a function of being white?” There’s a fair chance we never asked ourselves that question. And get the courses that do raise this question into the curriculum.”

Caputo also had a few pointed words for Evangelicals:

In the gospel Jesus announces his ministry by saying he has come to proclaim good news to the poor and imprisoned and the year of the Jubilee, which meant massive economic redistribution every 50th year! Can you imagine the Christian right voting for that? The great scandal of the United States is that it has produced an anti-gospel, the extremes of appalling wealth and poverty. But instead of playing the prophetic role of Amos denouncing the American Jeroboam, instead of working to close that gap, the policies of the right wing are exacerbating it.

That has been felt in a particularly cruel way among black men and women and children, where poverty is the most entrenched and life is the most desperate. The popularity of such cruel ideas, their success in the ballot box, is terrifying to me. The trigger-happy practices of the police, not all police, but too many police, on the streets of black America should alert everyone to how profoundly adrift American democracy has become — attacking the poor as freeloaders and criminals, a distorted and grotesque ideological exaggeration of freedom over equality. The scandal is that the Christian right has too often been complicit with a politics of greed and hatred of the other.

To be sure, younger evangelicals are becoming critical of their elders on this point, and I am trying to reach them in my own work… The secular left, on the other hand, won’t touch religion with a stick and abandons the ground of religion to the right. So both the left and the right have a hand around the throat of prophetic religion.”

Any thoughts?

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