Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Racism: A Discussion That Needs to Happen (But Isn't)

When I was in elementary school, I thought racism was a thing of the past. We learned about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, about the segregation of the 50's and 60's; the picture painted was that Dr. King curb-stomped racism when he marched throughout the south. I thought racism was only an issue that had existed in the south, that the north were people with some darn good common sense. Tack that in with the capitalist notion that all it takes to be successful in life is hard work, that everyone has an equal chance; racism couldn't possibly exist.

Fortunately, my parents abhorred racism and did their best to raise my siblings and me to be accepting of all people regardless of skin color. The problem that rose up was that racism was not discussed in the modern context. It wasn't portrayed as something that still occurred. Even when I was in high school, though by that time I knew that racism still existed I still had no idea how rampant and embedded it is in the American culture (if I can be permitted to express it that way). My position was solidified when I was falsely accused of making a racist comment towards a latino student at my school. I said, "is that so hard to understand?" and he heard, "do you speak English?" At the time, I was enraged that someone would have the audacity to claim that I was a racist. I felt like my entire essence was being put on trial and my value as a human being was being assessed. Ultimately, I was suspended for two days on account that I had only myself to support my side of the story while the latino guy had three black friends who said they all saw it his way. Do you see the way this story is shaping up? At the time, it seemed like the school was favoring the other guy simply because he was latino and yet it didn't matter that there might have been a conflict of interest when his three black friends stood up for him.

For years I harbored bitterness towards other ethnicities, not because they were different; I didn't really see them as being any more different than my German-Irish family is from my Scandinavian neighbors. I did not ask to be born of the privileged white male elite. I did not ask to inherit the history of an oppressive, evil, and savage stereotype. I did not enjoy looking into the eyes of a black man and feeling as though he might think I'm a racist "like all other white folks". I've grown up in a multi-ethnic church (though not necessarily multi-cultural). After the pastors' daughter married a man from Uganda and they started orphanage there, I became more and more accustomed to the differences in culture between my American self and the boys of Uganda. I actually had the privilege to spend time with some of the boys who came over here to study (and another who came over for medical procedures). Even then I was still so bitter that because I was white that I automatically must be a racist.

It wasn't until I went on a retreat with my chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV) that God began to work on my hard heart. I began to understand that God was calling me to leave my bitterness at the foot of the Cross and begin to see with the eyes of love again. My resentment towards my own elite status of color and sex were actually causing me to be less sympathetic that there is in fact a huge disparity between races and genders. It wasn't about who was a racist and who wasn't, it was realizing that God's heart was for the oppressed and overlooked- that included those victims of racism I so neglected to acknowledge.

Enter Kony 2012 trend...

When I first watched the film there was a conflict between my rational mind and my emotions. Emotionally I was ready to jump on the Kony 2012 bandwagon and do whatever Invisible Children (IC) told me to do. Rationally, I was thinking about how things weren't adding up that the only part of me that was moved by the video was the emotional side of me. I mean, who doesn't want to help scared children who are being taken away by big scary mean warlords? I was on their website, literally about to order the geo-tracking bracelet they feature in the film and a kit of about 30 posters. Just before I put the order in I stopped and thought about it. I asked myself if this is the kind of revolutionary action Jesus would take to end such a horrible thing? Would Jesus really drop Benjamins into the hands of other warlords to kill one warlord in the spotlight?

At the same time, I still wanted to do something. I heard people complain about the IC and the Kony 2012 trend and felt as though it was an attack on me personally. I felt as though all the awful things they were saying about IC were also being said about me. At that point I broke down and posted on my Facebook wall that I was upset that no matter how genuine I tried to be in my attempts to do good work in the world, there was always a critic to point out the flaw in my work. This status inspired a few people to respond sympathetically, but at least one person wanted to discuss it openly and honestly. From this talk, I didn't come away with more answers, but it did clarify something to me. Racism is an issue and it needs to be discussed.

Not just racism, but what does it mean to be American? One of my favorite authors from last semester, W.E.B. DuBois brings up the issue of being both African and American- not wanting to sacrifice being either. What does it mean for me, of German and Irish ancestry, to be living as an American? What is my responsibility as both white and male? What about white guilt? There are so many questions and so few discussions on this and many more issues... The scary thing is that the more we ignore these discussions, the more I believe we will see things like what Jezebel reported in this article.

In short, the article highlight that's people are feeling cheated because they invested emotionally into characters from Suzanne Collins book, The Hunger Games, only to see the film version come out differently than they expected. What was different? Was it missing plot points? Was it bad acting or misrepresented characters? No, it was because the characters were faithfully portrayed as ethnically diverse, in particular the character of Rue. Let me warn you that SPOILERS are ahead. Reading the book, almost everyone falls in love with Rue. It's hard not to. She's sweet, innocent, and most people can readily identify her as the little sister-type. When people went to the movies and saw her as a young black girl, suddenly they got upset. They got upset because somehow being emotionally invested in a black girl is bad and it's Hollywood's fault for portraying her as black. This speaks volumes about the underlying racial attitudes of white people in America. It says to me that racism is still alive and thriving, only now it is unspoken. It's not in-your-face-cross-burning that was seen in the 60's.

I don't have all the answers... I don't know exactly how to begin, but I encourage everyone to start thinking about racism and the questions we have when we think about it. Maybe you've been on the receiving end of racial slurs, maybe the one spitting them out; the discussion must happen if want to see a change. Sweeping it under the rug has not solved anything.

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

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