What We Can Do About Race/Racism, Pt. 1

After seeing some of my Facebook posts about race and racism, a friend asked me what we should do. Indeed, what can be done? I must confess that I feel overmatched by the question. I am still trying to figure out what I can do. But here are some thoughts. I am open to the suggestions of others, for I am very much in the learning stages.

First, recognize that the desire to do something about it, without committing to the hard work of education and self-reflection, will likely be counterproductive. Our racialized American—and global—culture is a complicated web of deeply embedded ideologies and social practices. We have all been habituated into it at the profoundest levels. It pervades everything. Race has infected and affected our thoughts, our ways of seeing, evaluating, hoping and fearing. It takes a lifelong commitment to learning just how our world, and all of us, have been affected by racial realities to begin to imagine ways forward. We have to learn to see, to discern, to understand, before we can do anything.

Second, if you are a white person, like me, you can educate yourself in what it means to be white. Black people know they are black and they know what it means to be black. They also know what it means to be white, for the world is rendered to all of us through the lens of whiteness.

White people know that black people are black, but we do not know what it means to be black in America. This is a problem and we have lots of learning to do. Equally problematic, if not more so, is the reality that we do not understand what it means to be white.

Black writers have been saying for well over a century that we don’t need to get to know them; we need to get to know ourselves. Because we inhabit a racialized culture, white people have also been “raced,” but we are blind to this reality. We have not been taught or trained to see it. Our task is to get to know how this has happened and how it has distorted our humanity.

We have inherited ways of thinking, ways of seeing, ways of hoping, fearing and longing, sets of practices and expectations about the good life, who is good and who is bad, who is trustworthy and who is dangerous. And for white people, these are all shaped and determined by our whiteness.

We have assumed that our way of seeing the world is “normal” or “neutral,” but we have not examined how the ways we see and think are white ways of seeing and thinking.

Third, we can learn about America’s racial history. The American story many of us learned in school was presented to us from a white perspective. It is a white story that favors whiteness in every way. We learned about the institution of slavery in an abstracted sense: black people were slaves and then they were freed. They engaged in a civil rights struggle and now they have rights and everything should be fine.

But this story obscures from view the agents of enslavement: white people. And it does not reveal the ideology of race that upheld the national hypocrisy of a profoundly unjust system, allowing it to continue to affect our imaginations and shape our lives.

Further, it airbrushes the reality of unspeakable injustices over centuries. And we were never taught about the national idolatry that motivated them—the quest to build a robust economy at the cost of crimes against humanity (both against African people and indigenous people).

Learning the truth about American history will help us to see our national sins, providing opportunities for confession. And it will open our eyes to the unjust realities of our current national situation, offering many opportunities for repentance toward justice.

*more to come…

4 thoughts on “What We Can Do About Race/Racism, Pt. 1

  1. conorhanson

    Grateful for this Tim. Question: I’ve encountered a number of white Christians who keep clinging solely to the notion of “free choice.” For example, when you say that “our racialized American—and global—culture is a complicated web of deeply embedded ideologies and social practices,” they may respond with, “Yeah but it still comes down to how people make their choices within those webs.” How would you respond to that? I’ve been very frustrated with that response and trying to understand it/respond to it.

    1. timgombis

      I totally get it. That’s a way of speaking that is completely trapped within an ideology of individualism. In Emerson’s and Smith’s book, Divided by Faith, they have loads and loads of examples from their surveys of those exact reactions. That’s a very white way of thinking and it perpetuates the problem. Robin DiAngelo goes into that, too, in White Fragility.

      Basically, we can only think from within that web and in terms of it. It takes a strong commitment to learning and expanding the imagination so that we can begin to see things in other ways and if the commitment isn’t there, there’s no hope of convincing them.

      I wish I had the magic key that would open someone’s mind to more fruitful ways of thinking! Alas…

      1. conorhanson

        That’s helpful, I’ll check those resources out. And yes, a key would be fantastic! Hopefully living against that individualism in view of those who are trapped in it will challenge them, too.

  2. Jim Stauffer

    I’d like to recommend Layla Saad’s “workbook” now published as “Me add White Supremacy” as difficult and necessary for educating ourselves about what our whiteness has entrenched as destructive assumptions.

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