In my last post I only hinted at the encounter I had with racism couched as white privilege. Thinking further about the post, and having Anthony Bradley ask for details, I realized that by not being totally forthright, by not mentioning names, ethnicities, and gender, I subverted the initial aim of my post: to share experiences of white privilege parading as racism in order to encourage the repentance it takes for racial reconciliation in the church.
I hope this post becomes part of the discussion surrounding Scot’s current series of posts, Bryan’s observations, and Anthony’s reflections.
Let’s set the scene: It is September 15, 2005, the first night of the After Evangelicalism conference in Grand Rapids. In the Gainey Conference Center on the campus of Cornerstone University Anthony Smith and I make our way through the book display (Baker and Eerdmans had books for sale), grab our materials for registration, and chat eagerly about what is ahead. We then make our way over to the coffee and dessert table to grab a quick cup before Robert Webber’s opening plenary address.
Standing near the table about to pour cups of coffee, a conference attendee, who is a white, middle-aged female, has a quizzical look hoping to find some help; she asks Anthony: “Are you the server guy?” Then about 3 awkward seconds of silence.
This attendee did not even offer a personal introduction or extend a hand in greeting; the assumption was that an African American male at a theology conference about evangelicalism must be hired help for the event. Hence, as this attendee uttered “Are you the server guy?,” as I stated in my previous post, unconscious racism couched in white privilege reared its ugly head. Anthony graciously answered with something like, “No, I’m here to present a paper.” Befuddled, stammering, and clearly embarrassed, the conference attendee asked where Anthony was from, and the conversation trailed off as we eventually headed into the meeting room for Robert Webber’s presentation.
Anthony and I reflected on this encounter several times throughout the course of the conference and have talked about it a few times since. I also been giving it much thought personally as well.
I must say that, while I had seen previously encounters displaying white privilege like the one in Grand Rapids, for the first time my soul grieved deeply after this encounter; I grieved for the racism that still pervades the church.
Recognizing white privilege, much less uprooting the racism that lurks behind this posture and this practice, in my opinion, is not something white folks are wont to do. In my experiences the so-called Christian responses to this claim are things like, “racism doesn’t really exist,” or, “In truth, God is colorblind.” Generally the gesture is a genuine but ill-informed tokenism stemming from what has been called the white western guilt complex. (Yale historian Lamin Sanneh comments on the guilt complex in the context of western missions here.) In other words, to combat racism (again, in my experience) white folks, generally aware of the history of racism in the United States, start down the road to reconciliation with the mindset to right the wrongs of America’s white racist past. This seems to be another version of a socio-political response to racism; again, socio-political responses (e.g., congressional legislation, etc.) are necessary and important, but do not recognize racism as sin, as a subversion of the Eucharist we are invited to share.
When will Christ followers of Euro-American heritage, my white brothers and sisters, own up to the systemic racism in the church that shows up as white privilege? While I do not discount claims of “I’m not personally racist” by any means, as Scot demonstrates and as Anthony articulates, individual testimonials fail to uproot that which chokes community cultivation and fail to bridge that which prevents dining at the Eucharistic table together.
Through the grief I see a ray of hope. I’m hopeful because practicing Pentecost corporately (and individually) can combat the racism that remains among and between Christ followers. I’m hopeful because I was greatly and profoundly encouraged not only from Anthony’s written reflections, but from his enactment of Pentecost.
I’m also hopeful because of the work of Michael Emerson and company, because of the work of Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp (and other books of “Multiethnic Interest” published by InterVarsity Press), and because of the musical meditations of people Derek Webb and Lenny Kravitz, among others.
I close with a quote from Harris and Schaupp’s book, Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World (2004):
“Unaware/covert racism can operate despite our commitment to racial reconciliation, because we cannot see it very well. We whites are not aware of our own paritality; we don’t know how to look for it, so it is hidden from us. People of color feel something is not right, but it’s hard to name and describe. We white people want to excuse ourselves from it when it’s pointed out to us. It makes us appropriately uncomfortable to think about racism operating in our hearts and around us….we create other explanations for the inequity.
If we are going to uncover racism, we cannot be satisfied with easy answers. Scripture says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:16). The word that is translated “wickedness” can also be translated “injustice.” If we continue to live in injustice or wickedness, what happens is that our thinking becomes cloudy….[w]hen we white people do not confront our own racism, we begin to put ourselves in God’s place. We don’t want to commit ourselves to learning to be simply human equals with people of color.
Underneath it all, we white people don’t want to do the hard work of uncovering the racism in our systems” (105).