I’ve had plenty of conversations about race over the last year since Michael Brown was killed. In almost all of them, white people became defensive. I recognize this defensiveness in others, because I feel defensive too.
Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist; neither do I. Yet, I’m white and I live in America, so if I’m honest, I have to admit I am a racist.
Oh sure, I’m not a Confederate flag-waving, Klan robe-wearing kind of racist. That’s not the point.
I didn’t originate segregation or racial prejudice. That’s also not the point.
I’m white and I live in America. That’s the point.
I didn’t create racism, but I was born into a culture of systemic racism.
That means I was born into a complex web of present and past laws, policies, behaviors, opinions, and norms—both written and unwritten—which determine what skin color means and does not mean.
I was taught these things by innumerable social interactions, media representations, and societal customs. I could no sooner avoid all these influences than I could avoid society’s messages about gender, sexuality and class.
No matter how much I unlearn these things, there is always more for me to unlearn. I hate to admit it, but I am a racist.
And if you are white in America so are you.
I know it’s hard to accept the idea you are a racist; I didn’t come to this conclusion easily. Racial inequality exists, however, and all of us who are white Americans benefit from it.
Since we are beneficiaries of racism, we have to admit that we are responsible for it.
Confessing one’s own complicity in a racist society, however, is a difficult task.
Why is it so hard?
“Black people think in terms of Black people,” African American journalist John Metta writes. “We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot…Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
“White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals…[Whites] have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it…What they are affected by are attacks on their own character…White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.”
I think Metta is correct. “White-ness” is the norm in our culture; therefore those of us who are white do not have to identify with all white people. We acknowledge racism exists, but we believe it is always some other white person somewhere else who is racist.
We choose not to see our collective responsibility for a system that allows us to avoid racial profiling, to avoid racial barriers to accumulating capital and power, and to avoid dealing with otherness by self-segregation.
As a defense mechanism against the charge of racism, white people change the subject. When the subject of racism has come up in conversation, instead of admitting racism is real and acknowledging my part in it, I have become defensive and adamantly declared that I’m not a racist. In an instant, I’ve made the conversation all about me.
It’s not surprising that white people center ourselves in any discussion about race. After all, one of the chief benefits of being white in America is that the system is designed so white people can believe everything is all about them.
All Christian ethics must begin with compassion (literally “suffering with”). Jesus Christ “suffered with” humanity and calls us to do the same with one another.
A discussion about racism that keeps the focus on an individual white person’s feelings rather than on the oppression of black people is not a compassionate discussion about racism—it’s a white person being defensive.
If white people want to have a conversation about race, we need to shut the hell up and listen for a change. If we wish to be compassionate, we must listen to the pain of people who live with racism every day.
If we who are white Americans cannot acknowledge our own racism and refuse to acknowledge the very real pain of African Americans, then there is really no point to having the conversation at all.
Chase Peeples is pastor of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ along with a bunch of other things including a father, a husband and a friend.