Racism is a human problem
By the Rev. Drew Martin
Editor’s note: The following is the sixth narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s new South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. The Advocate will select as many as 10 narratives to be published in the Advocate, one a month for 10 months. See guidelines, here.
I am not racist; this was a basic assumption I had always operated with.
My parents taught me that racism was an ugly part of our past; but that now there was a consensus among all right-minded people that racism was wrong. For me, racism conjured up images of the Ku Klux Klan and people I am very different from.
I was born in 1979. Naturally, in my childhood and adolescence, having a warped sense of history and time, I imagined the Civil Rights Movement to be a part of our ancient past. I later received a liberal arts education, which expanded my horizons in many ways. Still, when the subject turned to racism, I never thought such a conversation applied to me.
As the years pass, though, I have begun to recognize, in myself and others, the extraordinary capacity to cultivate a positive self-worth by protecting ourselves from any negative self-awareness by simply defining undesirable terms in such a way that they don’t apply to us. As long as our operative definition “racist” is safely narrow, we can shield ourselves from our own racism. If I define a racist as someone in a hate group, then I am clearly not a racist. We subconsciously practice “justification by definition” as a defense mechanism. We may live our whole lives with such delusions unless something jars us enough to make us question this matrix.
I had an easy time of this because I had never disliked anyone or been mean on the basis of skin color. Moreover, as a football player, I always had a lot of black teammates. In fact, when I was in junior high, I was the only white kid that started. My parents teased that it was easy to spot me on the field.
In college, a disagreement erupted when a neighboring community refused the KKK the right to have a parade on the grounds that they are a hate group. One of their leaders wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper trying to justify their positions from Scripture. My zeal for the honor of God was aroused, and I wrote a letter contradicting his shoddy interpretation. I didn’t need proof I wasn’t racist, but if I had needed it, this would have provided it.
However, when I was in seminary a good friend of mine invited me to come to a Martin Luther King rally. I was in the middle of an intensive class, and the fact that everything shut down for the holiday was just a great opportunity to get caught up on reading as far as I was concerned. I had not even considered going to the rally. Without thinking, I declined.
I’ll never forget the disappointment in his eyes. I realized he had probably worked up the courage to ask me—in the same way we work up courage to invite non-Christians to church. I had let him down.
It wasn’t that I was opposed to the rally or to Martin Luther King Day. I was just wrapped up in my own little world. Too busy to think. This was the first time I realized it isn’t good enough to just be passively non-racist. Christ calls us to actively work against racism, to put ourselves in positions to see things from the perspective of other races and to champion the cause of justice.
A few years later I was running a Bible teaching ministry in my hometown, Spartanburg. Historically, most of the students had been black; most of the financial supporters had been white. The fact that we had a lot of black kids from inner-city neighborhoods was a selling point for our fundraising efforts. I had never given this a second thought.
One day I had the chance to talk with the pastor of one of the largest local black churches. I proudly showed him our nice new shiny brochure that I had worked so hard on. He took one look at the pictures of our all-white staff teaching black students and said, “To me this looks like the white people are going to save the black people.” Wow—how could I have been so obtuse?
But the real watershed in my journey came when I fulfilled my “black studies” requirement for the ordination process. The seminal book “Before the Mayflower,” which should be required reading for all Americans, became a touchstone for me. Suddenly I realized assumptions I had taken for granted needed to be questioned. I learned that racism is not simply an issue for those still living in the past or actively involved in a hate group. Racism is a human problem.
We all have a deeply seated existential insecurity. Thus we are always trying to define ourselves as better than anyone who is different from us. Skin color and the cultural differences associated with it provide an easily available option. Coming through that class was like waking up and realizing I never knew I was asleep because I had never been awake before.
I also began to see that the Civil Rights Movement is actually very recent history. Of course, the past few years have demonstrated that in many ways it is still going on. I now realize that the legacy of slavery is still very much with us. As William Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I am now convinced that thinking in simple-minded binary categories, as in “some people are racist and some people aren’t,” is part of the propaganda that undergirds our construction of narrow definitions. It is far more accurate and helpful to think of racism as a continuum that the entire human race is on somewhere. Instead of asking ourselves, “Am I racist,” we need to be asking, “In what ways am I racist?” What lies do I tell myself that prop up the myth of my objectivity? What do I believe that is actually propaganda?
It is helpful to note that even the KKK does not think of themselves as racist. They think of themselves as right. We may be on the opposite end of the racism continuum from them, but the essential point is that the difference between us and them is one of degree, not category.
For most of us racism doesn’t present itself as overt hatred or even as unfair bias. It masquerades as truth, and its most common form is about assumptions, thought processes and subconscious givens that we’ve never even considered. Through His grace may God give us the experiences, relationships, life challenges and whatever else is necessary to cause us to question this. May He strip away all propaganda. May we come to view all members of the human race as He does.
Martin, a 36-year-old white male, pastors Lebanon UMC, Eastover.