Can We Talk? Some Tough Love Steps to Ending Racism in Our Time

Flag of the United States
Flag of the United States

Overcoming racism is about partnership. In spite of our ignorance, prejudice, and privilege, we have the power to end racism, little by little, through conversations, policies and practices. Accordingly, until everyone is willing to come to the table, listen, and open their eyes to how racism is destroying our nation's potential for true greatness, racism will not die.

The recent tragedies in Sanford, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and elsewhere force us as a nation to address an uncomfortable, yet ever-present elephant in the room: our inability to be truthful about which lives actually matter, and under what circumstances. The U.S. professes itself to be the "land of the free and home of the brave," and is unquestionably a great nation with a rich history of overcoming adversity. We have emerged stronger after surviving wars, natural and man-made disasters, and disease. While our nation has overcome many obstacles successfully; our failure to conquer the cancer of racism will stain our legacy and may even destroy our nation.

The Realities and The Steps Toward Conversation

1. Privilege is real. Acknowledging it is winning the battle. Attacking or deconstructing privilege is winning the war. Merriam Webster defines privilege as "a right, benefit or advantage given to some people and not others." Whites, as beneficiaries of privilege, stand in and shape the corridors of power and access in every arena.

White or Supremacist ideology defines our "rightness" standard in beauty, education, the economy, and other key areas of American life. Sadly, it is often the measuring stick by which all other races define their value. Whites have the privilege to be or not be concerned with racism, while it is a daily reality for people of color. Whites will never have to fear being killed by law enforcement while unarmed due to race, being murdered in church due to race, or being assumed to be "illegal" or interrogated about citizenship due to race.

Whites must acknowledge that privilege protects them from violence, harassment, and assumptions of criminality due to race. White privilege protects Whites from having to learn the customs or norms of other cultures, as minorities must do to successfully operate in mainstream educational and professional settings. Whites acknowledging that they rarely, if ever, view other Whites with suspicion of their criminality, immigration status, education level or income, is an incredible step toward recovery. While acknowledgement is the first step; renouncing privileged mindsets is the next step.

Once Whites acknowledge their privilege, the next step is to deconstruct that privilege. This means, speaking out, not only against the Charlestons, Fergusons, and Baltimores, but also against the daily instances of racism in one's own spheres of influence. It includes educating oneself on the histories of other races and being better equipped to speak against racism when it is recognized as such. It also means consciously and intentionally building relationships with members of other races, to gain greater insight into the plight of historically oppressed groups. In many instances, because no non-Whites are present during conversations Whites have regarding race, it is imperative that other White people become mouthpieces on behalf of those who don't have a voice in the conversation.

2. Hearing is important, but listening is fundamental. To hear is to perceive by the ear, but to listen is to pay attention with the intention to attend closely or obey. Therefore, improving race relations requires everyone to improve hearing AND listening to one another. Truly listening requires us to value all lives as much as our own. It means seeing every person as being divinely created humans, made in the image of the Creator, and valuing others as worthy of being heard. Then you can listen to others' perspectives and learn from them.

For instance, when minorities speak about White Privilege, they are not necessarily attacking White people as a race or community. Addressing White Privilege confronts historically oppressive systems that give members of a certain race access and power at the expense of non-Whites. Likewise, some Blacks take offense when Whites question how the killing of unarmed Black men and women is more problematic than "Black on Black crime." Rather than simply getting offended, Black people might seize opportunities for teachable moments, because these moments help build bridges between [people of different] races. For instance, one might help people see that systemic injustices may lead to black on black crime. At the same time, historic and contemporary racist institutions cultivate and sustain police brutality. While painful for people of every race, engaging in conversations with persons of diametrically opposed views on race is a critical step to build bridges and strengthen cross-cultural relationships and understanding.

3. Value others and see them as divinely crafted creations worthy of utmost dignity and respect.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said "an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and injustice hurts everyone. Injustice to others is injustice to me. Their harm is my harm. All races have equally inherent value with the same right to be here. The people who will cure cancer, advance technology, reverse global warming, or improve our economy are not just White. Therefore, racism, whether as bold as killing unarmed black men and women, or as subtle as refusing to acknowledge someone from a different race, sabotages our collective ability to invest in all God-created lives.

Ultimately, this is the first important step on the way toward ending racism: recognizing that every person born of any race or background is created in the image and divinity of God, and their lives matter to God and must matter to me.

Note: This is the first in a series of articles on having the kinds of in-depth honest conversations needed to end racism in America. Future articles in this series will address ways that people of color can advance racial healing.