“On Many Sides,” the insidious nature of minimizing racism

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By Kristina Gonzalez | Director of Leadership Development for an Inclusive Church

I listened to National Public Radio in its coverage of the violence in Charlottesville VA, one among the sources of analysis helping to shape my understanding of the scene there. Church was front and center in the NPR coverage on Sunday. Journalist Sarah McCammon told of her experience in two congregations, one majority Black, and one majority White. Below is an excerpt from her piece, Virginia Congregations Condemn White Supremacy after Violent Demonstrations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: … How are the churches in Charlottesville responding this morning? How are they offering comfort?

MCCAMMON: Well, I went to two churches. That first one was almost entirely African-American. And I just got out of a almost-entirely white Baptist church service. The weekend’s events have certainly been front and center at both – you know, lots of prayers for the city of Charlottesville, calls for unity and, again, condemnations of white supremacy very clearly from both pulpits. The pastor here at First Baptist Park Street, Rob Pochek, called white supremacy, quote, “a lie straight from the pit of hell that cannot coexist with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” So very religious language and very clear condemnations of what’s gone on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the mood like among the congregation?

MCCAMMON: Very somber at both. I have to say, though, you know, there’s a difference. These are two churches, one almost entirely white, one almost entirely black. I – in the white congregation, I sensed a lot of confusion. I talked to one gentleman who said, you know, white supremacy absolutely needs to be condemned. But from him, I heard more of a sense that everybody needs to kind of settle down – very different in the black church. Incredible sadness.

Why is that? Why would the mood in the majority African American church be sadness – synonymous with grief, sorrow, unhappiness, despondency, desolation – and the mood of the White majority church be confusion – synonymous with misperception, misunderstanding, mixed up, muddled? Why would good Christian people differ so significantly in their responses to this incident? Why was the response not swift, certain and unequivocal from all persons of faith?

I suggest that the answer to this question is evident in the first response to the incident from President Donald Trump. In condemning the violence in his first statement, President Trump did at least two things related to this societal phenomenon:

  • He failed to confront the White Supremacy movement, essentially casting the violence that led to Heather Heyer’s death as the act of an individual rather than the act of a domestic terrorist movement;
  • He consciously or unconsciously minimized the act by implying that the counter-protestors had been violent as well. He planted a seed of doubt.

His remarks were met with round criticism, and rightfully so.

Left unsaid in the commentary is that this minimizing behavior is a strategy -conscious or unconscious – to release those in the majority from the imperative for deep reflection on their culpability in sustaining White Supremacy and other philosophies of hate. The culpability is not in financial support or even in adherence to the philosophy. The culpability is in avoiding the evidence that racism – any ism – is a societal problem that must be treated with systemic solutions. Anything that dismisses the problem as belonging to an unstable individual or individuals is simple avoidance.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not a response to a few highly visible police actions. It is a response to a system of oppression and impunity that characterizes the Black experience in the United States. The All Lives Matter response is a minimizing response that exempts church and society from acknowledging and confronting the historic systemic and structural injustices that birthed the BLM movement. In this way, All Lives Matter is a minimizing statement, as is the president’s recent “on many sides.”

How often have people of color; women; LGBTQAI persons; persons with disabilities, among others – presented an experience of aggression or oppression to their friends or colleagues only to be told that they must have misunderstood, or that they were too sensitive? How often have the lived experiences of those who are not of the majority culture been discounted?

For many decades, the pinnacle of diversity has been to minimize differences. We’ve all heard remarks like, “I don’t see color,” or the very famous, “Can’t we all just get along?” Those who use these statements do not have ill intent. Most are persons who affirm the humanity of all, and wish for peace and reconciliation. However, peace is not the absence of conflict. Rather, peace is in the deep understanding of one another and the affirmation of our stories, even if those stories are different, uncomfortable and difficult.

Reasonable people agree that purposely driving a car into a crowd is a violent act. But to leave it there, as an individual act, is to avoid the more meaningful conversation about the societal factors and messages that so polarized this young man from those who look or think differently from him, that he was willing to sacrifice his life and life of Heather Heyer for zealotry associated with skin color. That conversation will never happen if leadership normalizes or justifies the violence with statements like “on many sides.”

So, what to do?

If you are in the majority and are blessed to be in relationship with persons of a different race, culture, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, economic status, immigration status and so on – listen first. Listen with your heart, to hear the emotions associated with stories of life as a minority. Listen with a growing knowledge of history to place the stories in the context of the societal norms, laws and assumptions that take the stories beyond individual pain. Listen with openness and understanding that your experience may be so radically different from the person to whom you are listening that it would be easy to dismiss the stories as exaggerated or fringe.

If you speak, speak with humility owning that your experience of the world is limited. Ask questions that are born of curiosity, not of a desire to be right or provide solutions for the benefit of the other.

Before you adopt your position on an issue, ask yourself whether you have minimized what is before you in order to avoid a more nuanced or complex conversation, and one that might be difficult, uncomfortable or rock your worldview.

Jesus started his ministry among the Jews. The Syrophoenician woman confronted him with his societal blinders when she persisted even after Jesus referred to her as a dog. (Matt 15:21-28) The encounter changed his ministry. Who and what will call us forward to confront for the first time, the 100th time or the 1000th time the systemic issues that foster hate and division, haves and have nots, us and them?

Or, will incidents like Charlottesville become the new norm?

Photo Credit: “tiki tacky” by Flickr User “wayne marshall“, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

4 COMMENTS

  1. A necessary message and call for change and confrontation of systemic bigotry and hatred. Thank you, Kristina.

  2. Thank you for naming the reality of sadness and confusion that reveals the difficult space distancing predominantly white and black churches. Thank you also for asserting a vital part of the remedy: listening. I pledge to continue to work to do better at this and I acknowledge and lament the stakes of not doing so.

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