Is it possible to get over our racism? As the events in Ferguson, MO continue to unfold, one has to wonder if it’s even possible for racism to be relegated to the pages of history. It’s been 150 years since the US civil war which was fought to maintain the institution of slavery. It’s been fifty years since the great civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Yet, in 2014, the neighborhoods of many cities are deeply divided by race. Institutional racism that impacts the way Blacks and whites are sentenced differently for the same crimes remains consistent. New immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa face multiple levels of prejudice and racism. Can it ever end?
I grew up in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania. While there were some Black people in the small cities nearby, everyone where I lived was of European descent. Mostly, people were of German or Eastern European heritage. The first African-American person I knew was in high school. There was one girl who was Black in my high school. We were friendly with each other but were in different social groups. I know there were some African-American students at my college, but none lived on the same floor of my dormitory. There were no African-American people in graduate school, but there were a couple of Black people from Africa. Essentially, I spent my early life, including my educational experience, with white people. While I had values for respecting all people and treating others as equal, I had no awareness of the cultural assumptions I made each day. Why did I need to be aware of the assumptions I made based on race and culture? My world was made up of people with cultural values very much like mine – and they were all white.
After I was ordained, my very white worldview was challenged. There were the occasional people I encountered as a hospital chaplain who were African-American. It was an inner city hospital. I came to understand that African-American people often understood things like the concept of family and relationships much more broadly than I did. I also worked in Appalachia with the rural poor and came to understand the dynamics of race differently in the mountains and hollows of that region of the country. In these settings, I came to understand something of the uniqueness of worldview that is based in race and culture.
My real education about race came when I was appointed as administrator of an international missions program. As a denominational official, I attended a series of workshops on race with other denominational leaders. This was in the late 1980’s. The group of us was mostly white. There were speakers who talked about things like white privilege and power in society and sociological concepts about majority populations and minorities. It was generally informative and provided some insights. But that part of the training was simply informational. What struck me at a gut level was what came later: hearing people who were African-American, Latino, and Asian speak about their life experiences. While some of the speakers were people I didn’t know, others were people I was working with and got along with well, or at least I thought.
Over the next year or two, I sought out some of my colleagues who spoke that day and had private conversations with them. One was a African-American minister from Detroit. We sat for a few hours one evening during a conference in Houston talking over scotch about race, culture, and our different life experiences. While we found some common ground because of my family’s history as Eastern European immigrants, it became clear that because I was a white, educated man, I had far fewer limitations to face. Another colleague who was very insightful was of Chinese descent from Singapore. He shared with me some of the experience of colonialization and his sense of the loss of culture and identity. There were several others I spoke with as well during those years of my life.
I came to understand what racism was really about and the ways it impacted the lives of people by talking with others, developing friendships, and being willing to allow what other people shared with me to change me. That process has continued over the years as I became friends and worked with Native American people in the Southwest and ended up as part of a bi-racial couple with someone who is Chinese from Hong Kong.
Do I still make assumptions based on my white worldview and values? Of course I do. But I’m not embarrassed by it any longer and can generally joke about being a middle-aged white guy. More importantly, I don’t view my cultural view as right and others as wrong. I’m generally aware that there are multiple ways of looking at the same thing. It’s all relative.
Recently research shows that over 40% of white people in the United States have never had a friend outside of their own race. That percentage increases in the South and Mid-West. Among non-whites, only 25% have friends limited to their own race. For Latinos/Hispanics, only 10% report having friends limited to their own race.
One of the most important ways that we can move beyond racism is to meet people and become friends with those who are different from ourselves. By getting to know other people, spending time with them socially, we’ll come to see that, on the one hand, people are people and that we have more in common with each other than we have differences. On the other hand, we’ll find that our differences can expand our worldview and enable us to appreciate life from multiple perspectives.
If you have no friends who are different from yourself, why is that? Can you get to know others who are different from you in your neighborhood, house of worship, children’s school, or other groups? Living in a bubble will only help to perpetuate the heritage of racism that has marred history and ruined lives for far too long. Racism will end when we bring it to an end in our own lives by expanding our circle of friends to include those different from ourselves.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.