"I am not racist, but . . ." (Part 1 in a series on empathy)
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
No one wants to be known as a racist. That word is a bit of scarlet letter nowadays, so it is understandable to hear folks say things like, "I am not racist, but . . ."
What comes afterward has made me think. What is actually being said? Let's unpack it. What comes after this phrase is usually some behavior, idea, or element of culture that is widely shared in the Black community but not quite universal. The speaker is saying, I am not against all Black people (presumably the definition of a racist). I have nothing against the skin tone per se. I just have an issue with _____________ (which usually ends up being a real or perceived dominant cultural element of the Black community). These dominant cultural elements could include priorities on a whole range of issues including family, food, politics, relationships, communication style, or social justice issues. For example, "I am not racist but . . .so many are unpatriotic, they have become so entitled, they are always making excuses for black on black crime, they vote for people who kill babies, or they make everything about race."
What is really going on here? Something clicked for me when I reversed the statement and applied it to my ethnic group (White, Mennonite of German/Swiss descent). The statement sounds very different when directed toward my culture. If you are from my culture, try to listen to the following list as an exercise. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Just to clarify, these are not quotes, but they are hyperbolic statements I wrote to give you a chuckle perhaps and also to simulate what it might feel like when someone says, "I am not racist, but. . .I have issues with your culture."
I don't dislike White Mennonites like Lowell, but . . .
I just don't understand why they don't say what they feel, but then they tell others later.
I just don't understand why they think (enter good Mennonite businessman name) is successful when it is obvious that he is just running his dad's business, and he pays everyone minimum wage without health insurance.
I don't understand why they insist on selling dangerous food products like raw milk. It's like they are trying to make people sick while making an easy buck on the side.
I don't understand why they don't just stop farming because farming is such a dangerous occupation in the country. Its as if they want to kill people in all those accidents.
I just don't understand why they hoard all their money under their mattress like there is going to be an apocalypse. Is the 401K really more important then their cousins' college tuition?
I just can't figure out why they only stay in the Midwest. Its such a boring place with nothing to do and nothing to see. Its so dark and creepy there at night.
I don't understand why they don't enjoy their religion. They go three times a week, but no one looks like they are having a good time. They walk in with long faces, then walk out looking even sadder.
I just don't like the whole concept of nuclear family -- its like they don't even care about any of their relatives. They call them "extended" family like as if they are second class.
I just don't know why they ignore David's example of dancing in the Psalms. How can you be a Christian and not dance like David danced?
I just don't understand why he doesn't go back to school and get a college degree and a real job, like teaching at the University. He is a pretty smart guy, but he keeps milking cows. What a waste of talent? He must be lazy.
They want to see data about everything as if numbers on a page would prove that Black people's life is hard. Is 400 years of poverty not enough? Why don't they just drive into my neighborhood and look around?
How did that make you feel? If you were like me, you had an urge to explain. Oh wait a minute, you just don't understand me very well. You are jumping to conclusions about your perception of my behavior.
My point is this.
If you say, you have nothing against me, but you just want me to change my culture (feelings, beliefs, behaviors, family relations, concept of family, church, and government), are you really accepting me?
If someone per chance does break from the norm and fully buys into your culture of course, you would accept them after you got to know them. You are not racist, if racist means that you look down on all black people. The thing is for most of us, we can't change all of our culture any more than we can change the color of our skin. Culture is generally just as hard to change as the color of skin, so we often sort of lump the two together.
Also, in American history, culture and race have been merged through practices such as segregation, red lining, criminal justice policies, and voting rights to name a few. Some Black folk have spent their lifetime changing their culture only to find themselves still profiled by someone who doesn't know them. This process is understandably exhausting.
So, if you say you have no problem with the color of someone's skin, you just have an issue with their culture, you are basically saying you don't accept them. Asking someone to change cultures is not a very useful strategy, if relationship is what you want.
Let me close by remembering a racial/cultural conflict in the first century. Paul uses the same approach as this blog post of challenging insiders to think about when they are outsiders. The good news is that the Spiritual solution still applies some 1900 years later!
11 Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. 14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. 17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. (Ephesians 2:11-19)
It might surprise you, but contrary to the cartoon above, I think we really need to listen to what comes after the phrase, "I am not racist, but. . . " It will be key to understanding how to heal, but that is a topic for another blog. In the mean time maybe try this version. "I am not racist, but . . . I have trouble understanding . . . about the Black community. Can you help me understand?"