(Published in Wheaton College‘s school newspaper, The Record, during the Spring 2012 semester)
This Fall, the Forum Wall served as a venue for incredibly varied attitudes about the issue of race. Posters, letters, drawings, and a vast array of comments responded to student-led initiatives which attempted to promote racial harmony and reconciliation. The culmination of this discussion was the phrase: “This is Nigger talk.” Those four words were explicitly, and anonymously, scribbled on a letter posted on Wheaton College’s own forum wall. While most members of our community do not espouse the overt racism embodied in this phrase, we still tend to avoid engaging in thoughtful, constructive conversations about racism and prejudice. This aversion to race conversations may be a result of the way the conversation is initially presented. I would like to challenge us to go further and examine the way the race conversation is being received and interpreted.
Conversations which attempt to foster a process of racial reconciliation can become deeply personal. Most initiatives that highlight race are intended to raise awareness of and concern for race-based norms and hierarchies in the world, but are often interpreted as personal accusations of racism and attempts to elicit guilt. In other words, we tend to hear a “Racism exists in the world” message, and interpret it as a “You are Racist” message.
Conversations that examine race in the world can encourage us to consider the way our own prejudices have been formed. This can be difficult because it is generally a hard thing to admit our flaws. Yet, in most instances when we are informed of a personal shortcoming, we admit we are not perfect and attempt to correct our flaws. In contrast, Jay Smooth, a popular radio host, argues that when talking about racism and prejudice we create an “all or nothing, good person/bad person, binary” in which we either are or are not racist.
Smooth says this binary causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to tonsils. We either have them or we don’t. So, if we have had our prejudice “removed,” we never need to consider our actions regarding race. Smooth states that this mindset presses us to refute allegations of subconscious prejudice by saying: “But no, my prejudice was removed in 2005, I went to see that movie Crash, so it’s all good.”
Unfortunately, prejudices do not work in that “once removed, always removed” way. We are “daily bombarded by mass media and social stimuli, as well as subconscious mental processes, that cause us to build up traces of prejudice everyday,” which Smooth describes as “plaque building up on our teeth.” According to the binary, any suggestion that we have been less than perfect implies that we are racist; this is a false dichotomy. Consequently, we become resistant to any suggestion that we are flawed in our view of race, in fear of receiving that dreaded label. This belief that we must be perfect in order to be good, becomes an obstacle to being as good as we can be.
Smooth argues that we must shift from the mindset that being a good person is a fixed immutable characteristic, such as “not racist,” and shift towards the premise that being good is something we practice by addressing our imperfections. Followers of Christ refer to this as the process of sanctification, in which cleansing from sin is a process, not a moment. Analogously, we improve society by addressing its imperfections.
Think of being good in the same way that you think of being a clean person. We do not assume that because we are clean people then we do not need to brush our teeth. Smooth relates becoming indignant to race conversations with responding to the statement that you have something stuck in your teeth by saying: “What do you mean, I have something stuck in my teeth!? I am a clean person!” Instead of taking it as an indictment of our goodness, we must shift towards taking it as an act of kindness and Love when someone tells us we, or the world, have something “racist” stuck in our teeth.
I was still hurt, disturbed, and discouraged by some of the words I read on the Forum Wall. Transforming the way we think and talk about race with one another is essential to moving forward in addressing broader systemic racial disparities in areas of income, median net worth, educational attainment, infant mortality rate, incarceration, capital punishment, and more. At Wheaton College these disparities are apparent in the makeup of the student body, faculty, and staff, which are not representative of the general population, let alone the racial and ethnic diversity of the Body of Christ.
As members of this community, we chose to uphold a mission to “help build the church and improve society worldwide.” We know that racist attitudes, whether tacit, overt, or subconscious, exist in the world, even at Wheaton College. It is incumbent upon us to address these imperfections in order to fulfill the mission to improve society worldwide. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Will you be silent, or will you join the conversation?