Once upon a time, white people were racist. And they did some very bad things to people who weren’t white, including black people. For a long time, the white people forced black people to be slaves. And then later, when the black people were free, the racist white people wouldn’t allow them to stay at the same hotels, go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, or eat at the same restaurants. Some of the white people were really, really racist. They actually hurt, and sometimes even killed, black people. But then a man named Martin Luther King had a dream. And he took a walk to Washington, D.C., and told the whole country about his dream. And white people’s hearts were softened. They realized that it was wrong to be racist, so they stopped. So now there are no more racist white people.
If many Americans were to tell a bedtime story about racism in our country, that’s what it would sound like. Racism existed for a long time among a lot of people and then suddenly it did not exist anymore. The Civil Rights Movement was profoundly successful in teaching average white Americans that racism is evil. That lesson, however, had less to do with the rhetorical genius of leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and more to do with mass media’s coverage of the movement.
The disturbing images coming out of the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s forever disrupted the notion that racism was a benign and socially justifiable institution. The term “racist” instead conjured up images of Alabama governor George Wallace physically blocking two African American students from registering at the University of Alabama; the faces of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the three young Freedom Summer workers who were executed in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and photos of peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs and water hoses. And perhaps the most gut-wrenching photo of all, the image of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s unrecognizable face. To be considered racist became associated with being capable of committing such atrocities. Quite obviously, few people wanted to be seen that way.
Nowadays, being called racist – or even having one’s actions deemed such – seems to evoke a visceral response among white Americans that approaches the depth of black Americans who are called the n-word. Indeed, the term “racist” has become so despised that perhaps we should truncate it similarly: the r-word.
I suspect that when white people hear “You’re a racist,” what they really hear is the message: “You’re an evil, ignorant, oppressive white supremacist, the sort of person who would re-enslave black people and commit genocide against the remaining Native Americans and Jews if you had the chance.” For many white people, the internally perceived message immediately raises their defenses. Thus, rather than being open to learn why their behavior was perceived in that way, they either shut down dialogue or mount a vigorous defense of their integrity, a defense that usually includes blaming the accuser of being intolerant, offensive, perhaps even racist themselves.
This defensive posture impedes the type of genuine, grace-filled dialogue that is necessary for racial reconciliation. In particular, it obscures the way that racism works. It is based upon a dualistic understanding of racism that assumes that either a person is racist all the time or she is not. It is akin to the sheep and goat story in Matthew 25: 31-46. The racists are the goats, unrepentantly evil people who will be doomed to eternal damnation. The non-racists are the sheep who will receive eternal reward for their righteousness.
But the reality is that all of us – regardless of our race – likely have a mixture of sheep and goat DNA. Racism is not simply a cultural artifact. It is the manifestation of the very “principalities and powers” that Paul describes in Ephesians 6:12, a power that affects all of us in some way or the other.
One of the most powerful – and invisible – ways through which racism exerts its influence is by robbing us of our ability to think for ourselves. It is a little like “the Matrix,” each of us unknowingly plugged in to a system that has taught us that the most salient feature determining the worth of another human being is his race (there are other systems too, for gender, nationality, sexuality, and so on). This system replicates itself through mass media that socialize us to associate beauty and morality with whiteness and deviance with blackness.
Here’s a small example. Take a look at the ethnicity and facial features of the models in any beauty magazine – notwithstanding those that specifically target women of color as their audience – and the message is the same: the ultimate standard of beauty is white. This shapes not only how white Americans perceive people of color, but also how people of color perceive themselves. Visit a locally owned beauty supply store in a predominantly black neighborhood and you will see the evidence. Most of the retail space will be devoted to products designed to give black women the attributes typically associated with whiteness – long hair and lighter skin (in additions to weaves, wigs, and relaxers, these stores usually sell multiple varieties of skin bleaching creams). It’s a direct consequence of internalized racism, but many of the women purchasing those products would deny it.
Here’s another one. American television and film have a long history of depicting criminals as people of color. As recently as the early 1990s, I remember watching television dramas and expecting every criminal to be played by a black actor. This shifted to Latinos in the nineties and expanded to include people of middle-eastern descent post-September 11. It is no wonder, then, that studies repeatedly demonstrate that most Americans – not just white Americans – associate criminality with blackness even though the majority of crime in this country is committed by whites.
Likewise, despite the fact that more people have been killed on American soil by white domestic terrorists than by Islamic extremists, most Americans associate terrorism with Islam and people from the middle-east. So it’s not surprising that the media and public quickly – and quite incorrectly – assumed that the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings would be Islamic extremists from the middle-east. Within hours of the explosion, the New York Post published a cover photo of two dark-skinned men that the paper believed to be suspicious, one later identified as Moroccan-American high school student and long-distance runner Salah Barhoun, with the headline “Bag Men.” And the family of Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, an Indian American who had been missing for one month and whose body was later discovered in the Providence River, was forced to temporarily shut down their “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” Facebook page because of viral social media rumors about his involvement in the bombings.
Without the mind-robbing influence of racism, black women probably would not spend a highly disproportionate amount of their income trying to mask the natural textures of their hair, the New York Post likely would not have singled out two phenotypically middle-eastern men as terrorism suspects, a family’s distress over their missing son would not have been amplified by strangers accusing him of being a murderer, and George Zimmerman would not have assumed that a black teenager walking in a gated community in the early evening was a criminal.
When we become aware of racism’s mind-robbing powers, we realize that most racist acts are committed by people who have succumbed to its influence. And we realize that given the strength of that influence and the ways in which it often remains invisible and uninterrogated, more people – including, but not only, white people – are susceptible to acting racist than we might like to think. Being racist does not necessarily mean that you are evil. It means that you are human and a product of a society that has a long history of valuing people based upon race. And it means that with some truth-filled soul searching and grace-filled intercultural dialogue, you can unplug from the matrix.