A study came out recently saying that millennials (a category that I apparently fit into) consider ourselves the “post-racial” generation. By and large, young adults think they are the ones who have moved past racism.
Except, that’s not true. Racism is alive and well.
Here at Sojourners I’m privileged to be a part of enlightening conversations about diversity, racism, sexism, and a whole host of other injustices. This makes it all the more frustrating when I try and continue those conversations outside the Sojourners community, and I’m met with resistance. Most of my friends are extremely uncomfortable discussing race. And not just because it’s a taboo subject; this is D.C., after all, and politics are always fair game in friendly discussion. Instead, I’ve found that my friends are so unsettled by the subject that they either try and change it, or they tell me it’s not about race, it’s about income inequality. Those arguments, which I follow up with “where do you think the income inequality came from?,” are still met with resistance, and arguments that if we could just bring people out of poverty, the racial disparities would vanish.
Except they wouldn’t. When police shoot down an 18-year old black teen in St Louis; when toxic power plants and incinerators are placed near communities of color; when Asian Americans are still a socially acceptable butt of racial jokes; when our nation’s capital continues to use a racial slur for its football team name; racism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. When Americans spew vitriol at immigrant children whose parents just want them to survive and thrive, we cannot call ourselves post-racial. When we continue to depend on people of color to bring our attention to racially motivated homicides, we need to do better.
I can almost see the defenses of all my white friends going up as they read this. And not just white friends; people of color are not universally just towards people of other ethnicities, because racism is ingeniously flexible. Black American football fans can dismiss the Native-American voices that complain about the Washington Redsk*ns. Asian Americans can act based on fear of black neighbors; and of course, women of every ethnicity are subject to sexism. And we are all taught various prejudices early in life, so acting with grace toward all our fellow humans needs to be a lifelong intention. This is because we are all human; we’re created in the image of God, but we’re also sinners, and we all fail in small or large ways to see the image of God in everyone else.
When we do talk about race, I see one major problem happening pretty often: we talk about it with people of our own race. White people talk about how black people all need to start acting like upright citizens if they want white people to stop fearing them; black people talk about how white people are missing this or that point. We all need to start talking — and listening — to each other, and since mainstream media and society are dominated by the privileged white folks, I think that we’re probably the ones who need to get better at listening. Furthermore, people of color have been having these conversations much more often than white people — trying to make it a national conversation. What they need is for everyone else to get on board.
Sometimes, the problem is that, for those who are white/privileged, we’re all so uncomfortable that we don’t want to talk at all. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Which really is self-preservation, because we’re afraid of being called racist. I’ve been called a racist (as I think most white people have), and it hurts. It hurts a lot. But in a world where black Americans have to accept the possibility that they’ll be gunned down by police or by vigilantes, where Native Americans are expected to live in poverty with little political power, where everyone loves Mexican food, but looks down on Mexican Americans – in this not-so-civil America – the feelings of the white person who gets called a racist really aren’t the point. It’s the feelings, and the safety, and the dignity of our brothers and sisters of color that need safeguarding, not my pride.
So I’ll keep talking about race, even if I put my foot in my mouth, and I’ll try and be humble. And I’ll try to share the stories of people of color and the injustices they face, even if it makes for uncomfortable silences. I hope you will too. Micah 6:8 tells us the Lord requires us to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. It’s up to all of us, but especially those of us with privilege who don’t take up racial justice as our cause, to seek justice. And we’ll have to keep mercy in the front of our minds, and walk with humility, really listening to the people who are frustrated because they’ve been ignored for so long. There’s a lot to fix, both in our daily interactions with one another, and with our unjust laws. But those of us with the privilege need to get over our discomfort and join the conversation.
Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate for Sojourners.
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