I almost typed “I’m probably racist” but using “probably” felt like a crutch: a qualifier to give me an escape route in the conversation. “Probably” gives me or someone else an opportunity to interject and say “no, probably not”.
But I am racist. I’m certain of it.
Like everyone else on the planet, I’m certain I carry around a whole suitcase full of suppositions, evaluations, attitudes, and prejudices about other people. I’m aware of some of the items in my luggage but I am keenly aware that there are items in that case that have yet to be discovered.
I’m sexist, too, and ageist, as well as all sorts of other -ists that I don’t have words for.
I make decisions every single day about people, either consciously or unconsciously, and it would be vain to claim that I make all of those decisions fairly, evaluating each and every person that crosses my path with a pure, unfiltered heart and mind, judging each according to their own acts and deeds and not making a supposition about anyone based on my previous encounters with someone who shared their particular characteristic.
Like everyone else I formed my world view from the times and environment I was raised in. I was born as the war in Vietnam was escalating and had my views of Southeast Asians influenced heavily by television and movies that were produced in that era. My childhood friends and I didn’t play “cops vs robbers” – we played “GI vs Charlie”, and used all the derogatory terms we picked up from media and adults: “gook”, “slant-eye”, “chink”, “zipper-head”. I’m not sure what that last term means but I remember it being used.
When I was 10 years old I had a book with the title “The Official Polish Jokebook” by Larry Wilde. If I flipped it over the other side had another 100 pages or so of jokes in “The Official Italian Jokebook”. My parents knew I had it and may have even purchased it for me, knowing that I loved jokes. It surprises me now because my parents were wonderful, open and loving people, but in the 1970s this sort of material was commonplace. My views of people of Polish and Italian heritage were heavily influenced by what I see now as a very inappropriate jokebook. I could likely come up with all sorts of similar jokes about any number of other ethnicities or cultures that would have been perfectly acceptable for me to tell back in the 1970s.
Prior to joining the military in my early twenties, my worldview of black people largely came from television, movies and pop culture. I grew up on Archie Bunker, the Jefferson’s, the miniseries “Roots” and in a culture that thought a white Captain Kirk kissing a black Lieutenant Uhura was scandalous. It boggles my mind to think that it was only a year before this kiss that the Supreme Court ruled interracial marriage legal. Interracial marriage only became legal a year before I was born? That floors me, but I can easily recall many directly or indirectly discriminatory beliefs and practices against black, or African-American, people circulating in the world I lived in. I have a tough time believing today that it was perfectly acceptable to call Brazil nuts “nigger toes”, but that was a pretty commonplace term in the 1970s.
Am I racist because I held beliefs and used terminology in my youth that are unacceptable today? If I ran for public office I’m sure somebody could recall a time when I said something terrible about a person of color, a person of another gender or a person from another culture and use that to make a case against me. I have held racist beliefs and made racist comments in the past and may even unintentionally do the same today.
I may still be racist, sexist, or ageist, or any of the other -ists, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to accept this or, worse, defend my right to be.
My heart and soul call me to learn, grow and change. My heart and soul call me to look upon each and every individual I encounter and see them as a child of God, as beloved, as capable, as valued and as worthy. My heart and soul call me to remove any suppositions, assumptions, and prejudices that stand in the way of seeing anyone as anything less than miraculous. My heart and soul call me to examine my language and views and to adjust them.
The barrier to this is fear. At the core of racism, sexism or any other prejudice is fear. Fear that somehow this other person threatens our existence. Fear that they will take something of ours. Fear that if they are successful that somehow we will not be. Fear that if they obtain the same rights and freedoms we enjoy that we will have less or some societal fabric will be irreversibly torn. Fear that God Himself has determined that we alone are special and if these “others” are elevated we will lose our place.
But God did not give us a spirit of fear. He calls us to love.
It’s fearful work to peel back layers of anger, hate, and resentment. It’s fearful work to confront that the vocabulary of our youth is hurtful or mean. It’s fearful work to acknowledge that our parents, our church, our neighborhoods, and our culture either consciously or unconsciously fostered a view that an entire other race, gender or population deserved less. It’s fearful work to recognize we were wrong and to seek to make amends.
It’s cliché to say it, but the answer to fear is love.
The answer to fear is being humble.
The answer to fear is assurance.
The answer to fear is belonging.
The answer to fear is hope.
The answer to fear is trust.
The answer to fear is opening our arms and welcoming.
The answer to fear is working for justice. For peace. For understanding.
It is uncomfortable to confront our own prejudice. It is uncomfortable to stand up to intolerance, bigotry, and racism but my heart tells me that it is far more uncomfortable still to live under a rock of regret, knowing that I had it in my power to lift myself and another.
“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” – Saint John of the Cross