“I’m not a racist.”
I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”
Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.
But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.
Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.
Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.
Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.