Defining Racism

We’ve got to start being clearer about what racism is and about what it isn’t. If we aren’t clear about what racism is and about what racism is not, we will misapply strategies for “diversity” and the reality of segregation in our churches and communities won’t change.

Racism is a system. It is a system of disadvantage and advantage based on race. This is tough for people to wrap their minds around because our culture is so individualistic. By that I mean we are hardwired to think about the world in terms of the activity, ambitions and adjustments of the individual. We glorify individual achievement. We condemn individual failure. This is our culture. Believe it or not, the entire world doesn’t view reality in this way. 

So when I talk about racism as a system, you have to zoom out from your personal feelings, personal friend group and the wonderful lessons that your parents taught you – personally – about loving people regardless of their skin color. Because when I’m talking about racism, I’m not talking about your personal preference for one race over another. I’m not talking about your personal efforts to build relationships with people who aren’t like you. I’m talking about a system. It’s bigger than you and me; it's the container we live our lives in.

Racism is a system of disadvantage based on race. This means that some people, based on their skin color, experience freedoms and privileges while other people – again, based on skin color – experience hindrances and barriers. Racism is etched into the foundations of our country. Did you know that in the Declaration of Independence, Native Americans were not even considered humans? Did you know that Black people were only considered 3/5 human? Let that sink in. That’s racism. Because these ideas led to the genocide of one people group, the enslavement of another, and our society – systemically- has yet to recover.  

We have to be clear about what racism is and about what it isn’t because if we’re not, we will misapply strategies for diversity and the system that upholds the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others will not change. 

Case and Point Number One: A Christian Conference

I attended the a Christian conference in Atlanta this year and it was an interesting experience. As you may know, they hosted a panel on race that featured four speakers of color. Prior to the panel, the main speaker was one of my heroes – the Reverend Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil – who also laid out some truth about the #blacklivesmatter movement. Honestly, it was pretty good. But here’s my hang-up.

If this conference was serious about addressing racism, they would have had more speakers of color in their conference line-up.* I think there was a total of 9 sessions, and maybe 2 of those 9 featured voices of color. Here’s why this is a problem – the church in Atlanta isn’t 7/9 white! Actually – its more likely to be a 50/50 split. So why are the voices that get to shape the future of “Christian leadership” mostly white voices?

Because we’ve defined racism too narrowly.

We think that by bringing in the nation’s leading African-American expert on racial reconciliation and by hosting a panel on race that we’ve checked our “uncommon fellowship” box. It’s kind of like us saying, “Oh, but I’ve got Black friends.”

I applaud those efforts. I do. Because they are important.

But racism isn’t about interpersonal choice. It’s a system. We have to make choices that reverse and undo the system.

At this conference, this would have looked like doing the real work of “uncommon fellowship” to diversify the conference staff team. It would have looked like doing the work of “uncommon fellowship” to bring different cultural and theological perspectives to the main-stage. If this conference was addressing racism, the structure of the conference would change. I would argue that there would have been no need for a panel on race if the structure of racism had been addressed. The medium is the message. Had the structure of racism been addressed, the underlying narrative of the conference would have been: “Diverse voices matter to this conference community. Here are five of them. We believe so strongly in what these leaders have to say that we are giving them a real conference platform to share with you what God has deposited in them.”

We have to be clearer about what racism is and what it is not so that we can apply our diversity strategies in ways that dismantle the broken system.

In terms of our personal lives, this means that we can celebrate our cross-cultural friendships, because they’re a win. We can celebrate how far we’ve come in terms of dismantling our biases and our personal, family-based efforts to love the other. But we also have to advocate for systemic change. We have to advocate for our institutions to become places where we stop creating opportunities for some based on race (and gender), while creating barriers for others.

We have to ask hard questions about who has the most power in a given organization and why. If you aren’t at a place where you feel comfortable advocating for systemic change, then at least take the posture of thoughtful interrogation so that if you are in support of systems not changing, you can at least articulate why you feel the you do.

We have to use our brains here. We have to be more critical. And as our understanding increases, we have to move beyond our interpersonal love for the other towards a collective, systemic love and embrace of the other. This dismantles racism. This is uncommon. This will change the world.  

My critique of this Christian conference is really a critique of all of our institutions that uphold the interpersonal value of racial equality while holding the value of structural (systemic) racial equality at arms length. Our systems have to change people. Yes, that means that you may have to stop hiring white people and go out of your way to hire numerous – yes, numerous – people of color. You may have to bring people on board who don’t see things the same way as you. That’s the point. Yes, its uncomfortable. But it won’t kill you. I would argue that it may actually be the most life-giving decision you have ever made.

Racism isn't merely interpersonal. It's a system. Our choices either hold the system up or tear the system down. 

Thanks for reading.


*I am aware that during this conference's pre-event workshops, there was greater diversity in the speaker line-up. That's a win! But almost the entire conference planning team is white and the vast majority of the main-stage speakers were white. The medium is the message. Which voices shape the space and why? Ask the question; let me know what you think. 

Bethaney WilkinsonComment