This past month has raised a lot of issues for me regarding race. It was sparked by my attending a workshop during the Call to Action 2010 conference, entitled “The Power Dynamics of Racism.” The details are too impacting not to share.
The presenters were a black female and a white male, and behind each of them was a board with words taped to them. For the black female, the words were effects of racism that someone of color must carry with them at all times. For the white male, the words were the effects of privilege that someone who is white carries at all times. One by one, they discussed the terms and taped them to their bodies. The final effect was very eye-opening, even a month after with my reflection.
They told a story of a grocery store in a poor, mostly black, neighborhood that was used to getting produce that was in bad condition. The store owner was upset that the company could not provide them with better quality products. One day, he received a shipment with the freshest, highest quality produce he had ever been delivered. The workers began taking the items off the truck and into the store. The owner was excited that his customers could have healthier choices. Then, the driver got out of the truck and told them that he had made a mistake- this produce was to go to the other store (the one on the rich, white side of town). Someone is making these decisions! This cannot be a coincidence. Another good point made by the presenters was, “no one says we don’t have money for war, but there’s a Myth of Scarcity for social programs.” The war on the streets is discounted by funding for assistance and focused into the judicial and correctional systems, where, 3.5 black to 1 whites are held.
As it was a progressive Catholic conference, the presenters spoke of the Christian’s call to eradicate racism with love, time and effort.
Near the end of the presentation, I got up to give my testimony. I told them about a time earlier this year when one of my friends made a racist remark. She didn’t mean to be racist, but the comment was very offensive. As we were with a group of people, I wanted to wait until we were alone to address it with her. Time passed and I didn’t speak to her about it. A few weeks later, she said it again and one of my other friends heard the comment, and was very upset and offended. I felt very responsible for this occurrence. If I had told her, maybe she would have realized the racism behind it and that it is hurtful. This workshop reminded me of this, and also made me think about Jesus.
I spoke about how as a white, middle class female, I have been taught to wait until things are “appropriate.” To read social cues and respect boundaries. To function and go along with everything. These are good things, but not when they impact standing up against forms of oppression. Nowhere in the Bible did Jesus wait until things were appropriate to speak with someone about their wrongdoings. In each parable he gave analogies to show people why they should change their actions. I think this is why the parables don’t show Jesus listening, then turn to weeks later when he actually confronts them. People need to be held accountable, and if we wait until it’s “appropriate,” we are condoning the behavior as appropriate until we actually deal with it. I am not willing to believe that racism is appropriate for even one second.
There has also been notable discussion in school. We learned about Liberation Theology earlier this week, and listened to a speaker from the original movement decades ago, who described institutional racism as “white people oppressing black people.” Some people may not understand this, but I definitely do. People may not like it because they don’t think they are responsible for poverty. White people in this case are the majority that is deciding where our money is going, who gets jobs, who pays taxes, who has access to basic resources. Black people in this case are the oppressed; those living with access to less and do not have as much power as the wealthy. I also recognized that as a white person, I am responsible for this inequality as a privileged person because I have more (privileged) power than the oppressed to change it, and I am a participant in this system, whether I like it or not.
One of my classmates commented, “I don’t understand why he’s blaming white people for black people’s problems. Why don’t all the basketball players and rappers give back to their communities? Why isn’t it their fault?”
I firmly agree that those able should give time and money to help people living in poverty. But why are black people the only ones responsible for black people? How come rich white people cannot be held accountable for poor black people? And for anyone else in poverty? Are we not one world, one nation, one people? When we blame black people we make it a “black problem.” This isn’t a black problem, it’s everyone’s problem. You either deny there’s institutional racism and hold people accountable for helping one another, or admit there’s institutional racism and deal with it (whether that means people doing nothing because they don’t mind or people doing something because they do). It doesn’t make sense to say there is not institutional racism and neglect to hold people accountable for helping one another. Unless someone believes that no one should be looking out for anyone else. In that case I strongly doubt that that person would be a Christian.
In a class later that day, our professor showed us a quote that resonated with me. “If you are here to help me, you are wasting your time. If you are here because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us help one another.” All of our liberation is tied up together. We are united in Christ. We are victims of an institutional racism unless we take charge of our own liberation and stop waiting for it to be appropriate to care about people. Social justice is never going to be popular, because it changes everything. It takes away abundant comfort and gives back sustainability and interdependence. These latter things take work and compromise.
Reflecting on the 3.5 black to 1 white person in prison, one either has to believe that racism is institutional or that black people are naturally defective. I am unwilling to believe that any human being does not have potential, and is not capable of making a good life for themselves if the system in which they are living allows. A certain type of race isn’t lazy. A certain type of race is not better than any other. God made people and He does not make mistakes. Man made government and economic systems, and they are indeed faulty, causing a surplus available to some and poverty available to others. As these are our creation, we have the power to make something defective more effective for the welfare of God’s creation.