Changing How the Church Sees Racism by Lois Kieffaber

I’d  like to try a little exercise.  I’m going to read off some derogatory names for some groups of people and ask you to stick up a hand if you’ve heard these terms before and know what group they are referring to.  I’ll tell you right off that my hand would be up for every one of them, since I did not include any terms I didn’t know myself.  Here we go. [Pause after each to let people raise hands and look around at others]

Chink …..Dago…..Kraut ….. Spic …… Gook….. Jap ….. Wetback ….. Hun …..Sven …..Pollack ….. Coon ….. Kike …. Paki ……Jungle Bunny ….. Hunkie ….. Mick ….. Injun …..Tar Baby ….. …..Cracker….. Trailer Trash ….. Hillbilly ….. Tonk

“Tonk” is a term used for illegal Mexican immigrants.  It is the sound that is made when the illegals are hit over the head with the large flashlights/batons that the US border patrolmen carry.

Spic came from Spigotty which is a shortened form of “no-speeka-de-English.

Thank you – you have just acknowledged that you, just like me, have been racially acculturated by the dominant culture of white supremacy.  

How many of you were taught these words by your parents as part of your education?  (Pause for community response]   So — many of you are just like me – I did not learn them from my parents, just as I did not learn swear words or “dirty” words from my parents.  Growing up, I never would have identified my parents as racist, and I would have been punished had I used certain words at home.   And this is another evidence that we have been conditioned by our society.  Like fish are not aware of the water they live in, we are not truly aware of the culture we live in – it isn’t noticeable to us because it is so, well, normal.  

It’s always good to define our terms, so here in church when we talk about racism, what do we mean?  Well, we could look at two definitions of racism.  The first we could call the Dictionary Definition –a person is a racist if they have a personal prejudice about another group of people that are not like them in several physical attributes.  That’s how most people use that word.

But this is a very narrow, thin definition, and maybe not the best definition.  Another possibility is the Sociological Definition and its harder to nail down because you can’t see it, it’s not tangible.  This racism is systemic – it is the way racism has structured our society.  It is not natural, it is constructed by us.  And with this definition, we can see more –it’s broader.  We are all participating in a racialized system.

Here’s an illustration – I am having coffee with my African-American friend (because of course I am not a racist) and I pick up my McDonald’s cup and I say “Here’s how I think about the problem of racism.   See this cup?  I can see my side of the cup, but I can’t see your side – and vice versa.  So if I can tell you what my side of the cup looks like, and you can tell me what your side looks like and that way we can understand each other.  But my friend smiles and says “Well, it’s not quite like that.  True, you don’t know anything about my side of the cup, but I already know all about your side of the cup. I have been living on your side of the cup all my life.”

What does our side of the cup look like?  Our white churches, white schools, white neighborhoods, white book clubs, white sports, (oh, yes plenty of African Americans play in professional athletics, but they are playing in OUR cultural game – so much OURS that when one of them wants to do something to represent his own culture, we are outraged by it and the story takes on national proportions, it’s front page news, people get fired.)  We have white furniture stores and white grocery stores.  Wait a minute –almost everything in the grocery store is just normal food. . . . Whereas the food of other cultures are in the “ethnic foods” section — they may get about half of one side of an aisle.  White supremacy is so dominant – and we can’t see it because there is nothing cultural about a grocery store – it’s just a normal grocery store.  In a school where children from other cultures were asked to tell the class about their foods and their games and their clothes, one white child went home and said, “I wish I had a culture.”  Our culture is not conscious, and when it is not conscious, it can be imposed on others.

Now we can and do work on overcoming the first type of racism, the person-to-person one – and we may even participate in group-to-group learning about prejudices of individuals. We can participate in a joint choir, exchange pastors with a black church, have potlucks and dinner parties, and live in mixed neighborhoods.    But the second type of racism that is embedded in our policies and institutions -–THAT is a very complex problem.  Take education for example – white schools are overfunded, black schools are underfunded.  In our justice system, we have mass incarceration of black people.  White teens get notoriously lower sentences for similar crimes.  A white teen comes from a good family, they can afford a lawyer, we don’t want to ruin his life an after all “boys will be boys” and they will grow up some day.  Let’s give him community service.  But the black teen is incarcerated because he is probably a gang member and he comes from a poor, single-parent family, and what else can you expect from kids living in that part of town?   We’d be afraid to go there at night. (Incidentally, research shows that majority black neighborhoods do NOT have more crime than white neighborhoods, but we don’t really believe it)

We see no problem with living in segregated neighborhoods.  In fact, most white people living in mixed neighborhoods move out as soon as they can afford to. (This is known as “white flight”.  That is why we all have great respect for Kent and LaVerne – because they deliberately chose to locate their business in a poor, even dangerous, neighborhood, the very opposite of “white flight”. )

A very interesting experiment was done in the 1940’s – the Clark “doll experiment”.  Black children were taken individually into a room and shown two dolls, one black and one white.  They were asked which doll was the good doll and which one was the bad one.  Which one was pretty, which was ugly.  Overwhelmingly the black children said the white doll was the good one, the pretty one.  Then they were asked “which one looks like you?”.  They all picked the black doll   They have just identified the ugly bad doll with themselves.  They clearly understood the racial hierarchy:  “white is right, pure, best, good, beaufiful.”  They have internalized the dominant racist ideology.  When I read things like this, I can’t in good faith deny that the term “white supremacy” fits our society.

Well, you might say, that was last century, what about now?  The experiment was repeated in 2016 and the results were the same. 

Many black people have given up on talking to white people about race.  White people do NOT want to talk about race.  They use MANY ways to shut down the conversation.  “I’m colorblind”  “I don’t see color”. Simply not true.  They say “ I have black friends”. ” I marched in the 60’s” “I heard MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Washington Monument”– some of you have heard me say that.  “My parent taught me not to be racist”  If we can tell ourselves that we are not racist, then we don’t have to engage the true situation. 

And we have one clever way to shut down conversation – it’s called scapegoating. Putting the blame on someone else and casting them out from among us along with our own sins.  Here’s how it works: We polarize racism – either you are racist or you are not racist.  They are widely separated, and down at that end is the worst ignorant bigoted racist you know.  Bad, bad racist.  We are certainly not like that.  We are good people, so we cannot be racist.  We ignore this whole spectrum in between which represents varying degrees of racism, including us.  But the “bad racist” is so bad, we cannot allow ourselves to be put in the same class as him.  With that binary configuration, we must be “not racist.”  And if someone asks us to recognize that we are, even though we can’t help it, we insist that we are NOT racist, and that ends the conversation.   This is the meaning of “white fragility” – we refuse to talk about racism,  we are offended, so we shut down the conversation.  We say things like

“How can you say I’m racist? You don’t even know me.”   

“It’s racist to generalize about people based on race.”

“It’s focusing on race that divides us.”

And my all-time favorite “It’s white men that are the most discriminated against”

So we go to meetings in our workplace to find out what we do that made someone think we are racist.  IF we can find someone who dares to tell us.  And when they do, we say “That isn’t what I meant”.  “You took that the wrong way.”  “Let me tell you why you are wrong, wrong, wrong in your assessment of me.”  That is to say, we take over the conversation, we storm out of the room, or – worst of all, we cry.  Yes, ladies, we cry.  We are so hurt, so guilty, so arrogant.  Ah, see how that works?  Now the conversation is about me.  My friends rush to comfort me – we hate to see someone cry.  They try to tell the speaker how unfair they were to judge me, a nice white person.  Do you see what is happening here?  I got upset because someone told me what was racist about my behavior IN A MEETING CALLED TO TELL ME ABOUT MY RACIAL BEHAVIOR.  And suddenly I am the focus of everyone’s concern and the the black person speaking to us is forgotten about and left sitting there all alone.  I have successfully made the meeting all about me and my feelings,  because my feelings are the important ones, not hers.  It’s the classic “splinter in your eye, log in my own eye”  Now who was it that talked about that?  Oh, yes, it was Jesus, whose servant I claim to be.  Is he here wiping away my tears?  No, he is out there eating and drinking with the dregs of society, those prostitutes, sick people, those TAX collectors — and maybe now we begin to notice the entanglement of the church with white supremacy – how we have created a “white Jesus.”   

The very radical early Christian church lasted about through the first 5 chapters of Acts.  Then in Chapter 6, racism rears its ugly head.  The Greek widows and orphans are not getting their fair share of the food distribution. 

How do you become white in America?  It’s called assimilation.  All ethnic groups arriving from elsewhere were discriminated against if they were not northern European.  Those racial slurs we all recognize – those people spoke their own language and lived in their own communities. THEN they became upwardly mobile as they learned the language and the customs of their new country.  They tried to lose their accents.  They learned how to dress, they emphasized education, and now they check “white” as their race on surveys.  The Irish had a particularly hard time when they came to America.  So did every other cultural minority until they were assimilated.  And could now look down on the latest group of immigrants from , say, Japan. 

But then, minorities started hanging onto their own culture.  We have gone to a salad bowl analogy rather than a melting pot.  What is that all about?  They had better learn English or go back home.

So what are we to do?  We should continue to find ways to interact with those of other ethnicities.  But we need to realize that the real problem is the systemic racism built into our culture and that we are advantaged by it.  Be curious about the structures and institutions that preserve white supremacy.  There are already groups working to dismantle this culture – find them and join one.  And don’t start your own group – we whites like to do that, because we can do it better and we can continue to make the important decisions. Join a group whose leadership is black and take your marching orders from them.  Harden your heart so you don’t collapse in hurt and self-pity when someone tries to tell you what is racist about your behavior.  Use your white privilege for good. 

And let us be more serious about following our leader, Jesus.  He was not upwardly mobile, he did not use his race to elevate his status; instead he went down, down, down to serve the lowest, the least, the lost, and  the losers.  He took grace and truth with him. We can also live lives of grace and be true to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us as we continue to be open, to learn, and to  grow into our true selves.  

This message was given by Lois Kieffaber at Spokane Friends Church on  Sunday, October 20, 2019.

These thoughts are shaped by events at National Older Adult Camp in North Carolina, sponsored by our sister Peace Church, The Chuch of the Brethren, which I attended last month in order to see all my siblings at the same time (AND . .  without any kids!)  Two of the five major addresses were given by black pastors.  More recently I also picked up a book called White Fragility, which was highly recommended by Charlene Cox when we were deciding what book we wanted to read together this summer.  I found that wherever I opened it up and started reading, I almost couldn’t put it down again.  So that’s why this topic has been on my mind.

Resources:  Dennis Webb, Robin Robin diAngelo

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