Race Is and Race Isn’t… Thinking Out Loud.

Once again the question of race has become a central topic of conversation in the media and in everyday conversation this time centered on President Jimmy Carter’s accustion towards Congressman Joe Wilson. And inevitably we have been drawn into the whirlpool of accusations and counter accusations, cries of “racist” and “I love all people, how dare you call me a racist.”

Can we please begin to have an honest discussion about race? In order to have an honest conversation about race we have to begin by entering into a reasonable understanding of how behaviors are related to self-understanding and perceptions of others. Secondly, it is also important to honor those who have endured the violence of racist individuals, groups and regimes throughout our history.

First, someone shouting in the middle of a national speech does not provide immediate evidence about whether or not someone is actively resisting the presence of particular people in their town, state, or nation. Having been a teaching assistant for over 30 classes over seven years in graduate school I found a difference in the deference of students to some teachers. Certain white male professors would give their lectures and afterwards I would hear complaints about their assignments or their methods and more rarely their content. In similar classes taught by non-white or female faculty I was amazed at the willingness of some students to openly question the professor’s pedagogy, methods, or resources. They would do this not in private, but in front of the class.

What is it in these moments that allows these students to feel free to resist, speak out, or question some professors but defer to others even if they disagree?

I am not saying these students who defied are racist or sexist. The point is they are willing to defer to some and they are, for some reason, willing to be vocal about their disagreement with others. We need to be cognizant of this tendency in order to really begin to dialogue about how minorities and women are so often dismissed in public conversation not because of vehement denials, but through a more subtle lack of deference or respect.

This lack of deference is part of a larger process of social formation that we are subjected to in this country (and the West as well) through a complicated set of real-life relationships, media, and lack of varied teachers and examples in our lives. If we are really begin to talk about race honestly in this country we must ask ourselves why some might feel the authority to do something like shout “you lie” to the president of the United States in a national speech.

Second, perhaps we should begin be more precise in how we use our language of racists vs. not racist. All of us live out of a certain view of differences (race included) but does this make us racists? Racists use their power (however little or however much) to actively prevent those different from them from entering into particular spheres of participation. This is not an official definition but something that I think becomes clear in the patterns of racial interaction throughout the United States. There are some who actively used their privilege in order to resist the presence of others or assert their superiority. This can happen in small ways or in larger ways. But I think what separates a racist from someone who operates out of their racialization is the overt violence of the moment that is connected to the power they can actually exert over another person.

To overuse the language of racist also diminishes the legacy of those martyrs who died at the hands of such vehement and direct racism. There are those in our present and past who endured the direct and unquestioned violence of others who used their power or acted out of their self-perceived privilege to not-hire, to beat up, to drag a person behind a truck, to lynch, to rape.

There are many in this country that continue to endure the violence of racists. To simply call everyone who refuses to defer a racist diminishes the power of the word and the courage of those who resist such people.

I am sure President Carter understood the power of the word he was using. A man of his diplomatic skill I am sure does not use words like racist flippantly. After all of the public service Carter has provided this country, the many joint sessions of congress he has spoken to and attended, I think Carter understood quite well what he was saying because he has seen countless sessions and countless acts of deference despite vehement disagreement so this particular moment must have struck him in a certain way. As a child of the South, I think Carter also understood the tone and mentalitiy of a fellow Southerner and recognized something that struck a particular chord in Carter. Because of this I tend to think that Carter’s words were probably accurate and measured, but sadly also can only be heard within the overwhelming echo of the misuse of the accusation which only serves to drown out the voices that are speaking truthfully about what they see or have endured.

For the sake of our conversations and our national community (but particularly the church), for the sake of those who have endured the violence of racial exclusion or differentiation, for the possibility of clearly seeing the tragedies and variations of tragedies, we must become clearer about our language. To fail to do so is to not only miss an opportunity for reconciliation, but to further silence the voices that are speaking truthfully about the pain they endured.

Lastly, the language of racist vs. not racist pulls us into a polarity of guilty vs not guilty, need to change vs. okay as I am that belies the reality that we are all guilty in one way or another, we all participate in this lack of deference, this system of race that implicates us all. We need to be honest about ourselves.

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5 thoughts on “Race Is and Race Isn’t… Thinking Out Loud.

  1. I was shocked by Mr. Wilson’s spontaneous outburst during an address to Congress by the President of the US. Shocked not because of what he said or the way he said it, but because of the centuries-old decorum expected of everyone in attendance. My second reaction was to question his words — was Mr. Obama indeed lying? Who knows? Who has actually read the thousand-page document that is the proposed health plan? Certainly I have not, but I would be interested to know whether Mr. Obama (or any other proponent of the plan) is being truthful about benefits for illegal immigrants.

    Never once did it occur to me that Mr. Wilson’s outburst was in any way related to Mr. Obama’s race. I don’t know the man, but his facial expression was not one of personal hatred of the African-American president, but rather of professional distaste for what he believed to be inaccuracies in Mr. Obama’s words. I too have differences of opinion with Mr. Obama, just as I did with his predecessors. None of these was based on race, gender or even political party; these were my personal opinions weighed against the person who happened to be President at the time.

    I am a descendant of both Italian Catholic and French/German Jewish people. In spite of all that has been done to quash Catholicism and especially Judaism throughout the centuries, I am not sensitive to or defensive about my heritage. Indeed, quite the opposite is true; I am proud to be decended from people for whom I have such respect and admiration.

    No one owes me anything for what was done to my ancestors. I don’t hate a German today because of what Germans Nazis did to Jews generations ago. I abhor what was done — I lost family members during the Holocaust — but I can’t hate an entire people, many of whom weren’t even born then, for the mistakes and horrors committed by a group of crazed people 70 years ago.

    Racism is a term used equally frequently by people of all races and religious beliefs. It is a weapon on the one hand, a wall of defense on the other. Frankly, I am tired of the frequency of the use of the term as it seems to return the chains to the arms of African-Americans, sometimes by white people, sometimes by African-Americans themselves.

    Have I ever been discriminated against because I am a Catholic and a Jew? I have no idea. I’ve been too busy achieving my goals and living my life. Has racism played a role in my life? Who knows? But why does it seem to be central to the lives of so many others?

  2. Hey, Brian. Hope Seattle’s treating you and the family well.

    Thanks for this post. One clarification – Carter didn’t say that Joe Wilson is a racist. He said Wilson’s outburst was “based on racism.” I don’t think Carter would have said this if not for the broader social context of outright hatred and lies spread about Obama and people of color he associate(d) with (Van Jones, ACORN, etc.)

    Here’s a nice bit on the distinction between saying “What you did was racist” and “You are racist”.

  3. @phil… Thanks for the clarification Phil. I think this is generally good advice. Although if I say to you, “you are doing something out of your racism” the language is still a bit of a euphemism for calling you a racist. Your point about the larger atmosphere of rhetoric is well taken.

    @Karen… Perhaps Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (http://www.amazon.com/Whiteness-Different-Color-European-Immigrants/dp/0674951913) might shed some light on the process by which Jews, Irish, and Catholics became white and American citizens. I think you are right to say Wilson might have had a legitimate policy dispute with Obama. That was not the point of the blog. The point was what gave Wilson the hubris to publicly disrespect the president in that context? It might not be race, but I wouldn’t be too quick to exclude the possibility either.

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