Is That Racist QUESTION


So here’s the scenario: a woman (white) goes into a Muslim market, where she is given the cold shoulder, until she asks for some halal products. Then people are quite friendly. And the woman says later, “It seems that racism exists everywhere.” I give an understanding nod, even as I’m thinking to myself, “Is that really racist behavior?” Or is it the action of a group of people who are merely suspicious of strangers, of someone new (and, to be sure, different)?

There are plenty of times I’ve been in that situation: unfamiliar churches, different neighborhoods, stores. Sometimes I’ve gotten less than desirable outcomes, but I didn’t blame them all on racism. (The bar in the Holiday Inn outside Fenway Park that systematically failed to serve me on Flag Day, 1991, even as others got drinks – THAT I’m sure was racism.)

Another white female friend of mine says she gets a distant vibe from a local convenience store where most of the workers and virtually all the customers are black. And she was quite angry about it. She claims not to have a racist bone in her body, and perhaps that’s true.

It occurs to me that most of us profile, in one form or another. If I were out at 1:30 a.m., a single young adult walking by would not worry me, but a group, no matter the race or gender, might make me nervous.

Back in the days of the segregated South in the United States, if a white person walked into a black establishment, one might reasonably worry that it might mean trouble. Muslims had lived peacefully in the US for years, even after 9/11, but it is only recently that many of them have said that, for the first time, they felt afraid in America; maybe it’s the same fear that made them wary of the stranger.

But what do YOU think?

0 thoughts on “Is That Racist QUESTION”

  1. That’s a BIG question, Roger. I mean, what I think is way beyond what you want me to write here (hehehe); my thoughts about our crossing the line from feeling a natural human discomfort with strangers to racism is all too complex already. Being a white woman living in Asia gives me personal insight – except that most of the time what I get is a profiling to my advantage (it helps that I’m the smiling type and people generally like my face). The scene is complicated by my Chinese-born husband, who regularly gets mistaken as my driver, my interpreter or my employee… and gets treated accordingly… until they realize their mistake (good thing he has an amazing sense of humor and feels good in his skin). I say I am color blind, and I have lots of evidence to show it. Yet I recognize that to some extent we are all racist. We are limited in our knowledge and understanding of different peoples, their beliefs and cultures, and on top of that we are often willfully misinformed by powerful vested interests and media (small eg, who started the idiot rumor that Obama is Muslim; still believed by many? and to which I’d say, so what if he were?). When people want to believe negative things, it results in fear, and fear leads to bad behavior, especially towards those who expose their difference by skin color or dress, or length of hair, or whatever. The big problem starts when a large group starts to act badly, for that aggression then leads to fear in the target group, and a very very sad vicious cycle of bad behavior starts. It IS racism, and only education can stop it. I think your white woman friend who feels slighted in the store may never have had a lifetime of being treated badly for her skin color, and so she has no way of understanding the dis-ease or distrustful defensiveness that they have learned over many years of not being kindly treated. I wonder if she walks into the store with an open-faced smile or a sourpuss face. I don’t recall ever being regarded in a bad way by Afro-Americans (I travel and work in the States a lot). My point here is: be the change you want to be. But don’t be a pollyanna about it. Talk about random thoughts… How did you get me on this, Roger… 😀

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  2. I think that the use of language has become very sloppy; my 15-year old informs me that “racism” is used for ALL SORTS of discrimination, incl. what I myself would identify as sexism. Racism implies to me more of a power-based form of discrimination: “I will actively prevent you from obtaining something that is your due because of your race or ethnic background.” I think that there is far more BIGOTRY than there is out-and-out racism, ASSUMING something about a person because of their stereotypical traits. I have heard bigotry defined as “petrified prejudice,” i.e., it is not amenable to being changed, whereas there may be a chance that a prejudiced person can be shown that they are wrong. Of course, ALLIED bigots are generally on the road to IMPOSING their beliefs – discrimination – by their collective power. Long story short, I think that prejudice – bigotry – racism forms a continuum, and that bigotry is often a more frequent activity than racism, although, yes, there is plenty of actual racism to go around.

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  3. I think I read somewhere in the writings of N.T. Wright that when Paul speaks of Christ dismantling the barrier between Jew and Gentile, implied within that idea is that Jesus overcame the forces that contribute to tribalism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, etc. This idea is also associated with Christ’s cosmic work: the overcoming of the powers and principalities which distort God’s creation and the healthy functioning of social institutions.

    I mention this, because a number of years ago I was at a Christian college where I and various staff members were involved in a study on racial reconciliation by Raleigh Washington & Glen Kehrein called “Breaking Down Walls,” and it seemed to me that everyone was so very quick to disown racism that none of us had anything to really work on. It made me think that if the Church is going to effectively bring healing in this area it is going to have to make a distinction between racism as an ideology that some subscribe to, and racism as the fear, suspicion, or broken attitudes that blight all of us to various degrees as a result of being fallen creatures in a broken world.

    To illustrate what I mean from my own life, I am convinced that all people are equally image bearers of God, and that we all, through race, ethnicity, and culture glorify God in different ways, much like the facets of a diamond refract light. This being said, I also know that I have fears, beliefs, attitudes, etc that fall short of what God wants for me as a follower of Christ. Keep in mind, these things are subtle, and are apt to be undetected, since they are a part of what I don’t like about myself in my desire to be good, and so I fight against them, squelch them, try to root them out. In the end though, I think that living in the light, where we all can partake of the good things the Scriptures speak of regarding the work of Christ, means being open and honest about how we are twisted and broken. So, generalizing from my experience, I think the good people of the Church have to realize and openly own up to the ways they are still bad when it comes to the issue of racism. Only then can the work of God touch us at the root of the problem.

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    1. Anthony – thank you. I get very frustrated, especially with some people of faith, who look at the US civil rights struggle, e.g., and proud of the accomplishments that have no doubt occurred since the 1960s, declare racism over.

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