More than once, I have been humbled by being called racist. My first reaction, however, was not humility. My first reaction was to feel offended and misunderstood. Surely my accuser didn’t know me or my motives or my history. Surely, they were using the term “racist” too broadly – sloppy, really. A more precise definition would be more strategic for The Struggle (You’re welcome!), and would provide the added benefit of keeping me on the right side of history.
Open any dictionary and count the words with multiple definitions. Open any dictionary from a hundred years ago, and see how the definitions have evolved. Language evolves as our intersubjective awareness evolves, as we humans work continuously to comprehend anew our common condition.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander speaks of “a profound misunderstanding regarding how racial oppression actually works. . . [based upon the] widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems . . . The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structures of society . . . now referred to as structural racism. . . [a sort of cage that] locks a racially distinct group into a subordinate political, social, and economic position . . . [Members of this group] are not merely disadvantaged, in the sense that they are competing on an unequal playing field . . . rather, the system itself is structured to lock them into a subordinate position.” (2010) For a quick tour of the components of structural racism in the U.S., turn to this short video, which summarizes The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein: www.segregatedbydesign.com
As a white person, structural racism protects me. I know only one person by name, a white person, who has contracted COVID-19. (They recovered.) In contrast, Friend of Color Vanessa Julye relates in the August 2020 Friends Journal, “People I knew were getting infected . . . all of them People of Color. . . As the virus progressed, more people became sick; several friends and relatives died.”
Fifteen years ago, if FEMA had followed its own disaster plan, federal and state officials would have begun evacuating New Orleans three days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. Instead, while criminally sub-standard levies feigned to protect vulnerable, low-lying neighborhoods, whose residents were 80% African American, officials stalled more than two days before acting. Structural racism places Black bodies in harm’s way and protects White bodies like mine.
Who knows the definition of racism best? The people who continuously feel its impacts directly or those who are always at liberty to turn their attention away from it?
When I was a young child, my mother admired me for being tall, so I have always thought of myself as tall. And although I do understand now that she was prone to wishful thinking, and that, by objective measure, I am 5’ 4”, it is still almost impossible for me to admit that I am short. Similarly, when People of Color have pointed out to me that something I have said or done had racist implications, it felt like I was hallucinating.
Assume for a moment that “only son” is used as a metaphor in the Bible for a character’s dearest dream for the future. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God pulls a bait-and-switch on poor Abraham. He tests Abraham’s loyalty by asking him to murder his only son. Abraham gets himself all set to do the dirty deed, and then . . . God relents, well-pleased with Abraham’s loyalty. The true challenge to Abraham wasn’t to actually kill his son, but to be willing.
We may not actually need to abandon our dearest ideas about the meaning of our own lives in the big scheme of things, but we should be willing. One of the things I like best about Friends is that we generally enjoy being surprised by the truth. At our best, we don’t really care how many people are thinking this way or that way; instead, we care about which ideas are fresh and meaningful and helpful. We’ve got some vexing predicaments in front of us. Let’s do all we can to welcome in new definitions, new ideas, and new solutions. ~~~
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