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Curiosity in the origins of racism will help us avoid an ignorant sin

Curiosity in the origins of racism will help us avoid an ignorant sin

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Austin Channing Brown is a practitioner and writer who helps schools, nonprofits and religious organizations practice genuine inclusion. In her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, she writes, “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.”

This week, a 21-year-old white man opened fire on three massage parlors in Atlanta, killing eight people, including six Asian women. It was another major incident of violence suffered by Asian American communities, especially women. PBS Newshour reports that hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have surged over 150% in major cities in the past year. According to the Stop APPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Hate reporting center, Asian women have reported twice as many hate incidents over the past year. Taking a prophetic page from Brown, we should be curious about the origins of these racial injustices, what hand our histories have in them and how faithfully sitting in that discomfort can deliver us from them.

One of my first recollections of learning racism happened in the second grade. A family member, an adult I adored, was driving me to school. I was talking about my classmate and friend, Peter Hur — how Peter was so much better at math and spelling than I was, and how I wish I were that smart. My beloved family member said, “Well, don’t tell anyone this, but Asians are naturally smart. Peter is Chinese, so that schoolwork comes easier for him than it does for you.” This, of course, was not true, and strangely meant to comfort me. I wondered whether what I’d just learned should make me resent Peter — or, worse yet, hate him — as if my frustration with myself was his fault.

But, as Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Now it is obvious to me that projecting stereotypes onto anyone based on their race is an ignorant sin, given that the very definition of sin is “to miss the mark.” Now I understand how hating someone for their race contradicts the greatest command of loving God with my whole self, and loving my neighbor as myself (Mark 12:30-31), and how racism distances me from my neighbor and thus from God, who loves us both.

However, as Robert Jones writes in White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, “While it may seem obvious to mainstream white Christians today that slavery, segregation, and overt declarations of white supremacy are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, such a conviction is, in fact, recent and only partially conscious for most white American Christians and churches.”

Just as we are more concerned with guarding our established comfort than curious about the origins of racism, we are content to dissect the shooter and his possible motives for killing eight people, and troubled at the thought of being complicit to — or worse yet, contributing to — societal beliefs that enable such acts of violence. But indifferently fostering attitudes and environments that allow racism and white supremacy contradicts the egalitarian kingdom of God, where there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Building up that kin-dom — a description of God’s kingdom based on kinship across differences of race, gender and all cultural divisions — requires courage; courage to confront and correct racism and white supremacy, especially in their most seemingly harmless forms.

Being courageous in the face of racist narratives (language, jokes, stereotypes) is uncomfortable. One of Brené Brown’s personal virtues is courage, and the author, professor and speaker chooses subjecting herself to discomfort by speaking up when it’s tempting to remain silent. “Every time we choose courage,” she writes, “we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.” And as Jesus encourages his disciples when he is about to be taken away from them to be tried and publicly killed for always choosing courage as a relentless extension of God’s love, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Years after that lesson in the car, I was at a restaurant with family. The waitperson was an Asian woman. “May I take your plate, sir?” she asked. That family member said, “yes,” which puzzled me. After she walked off, I said to him, “How come you didn’t tell her your joke when there’s no food left on your plate: ‘I didn’t like that at all. Can you tell?’ ” He replied, “Well, you know these Asians. No sense of humor.” The comment angered me, and I could tell it rattled others at the table, but I was afraid to say anything. Just then, the woman returned and asked me, “Can I take your plate?” Not a crumb was left on it, so I said loudly, “Yep. I didn’t like it at all. Can you tell?” The woman laughed out loud, igniting the whole table into laughter to the point of tears. I looked at the family member who had withheld his joke to find him nodding with a concessionary “Ok, I get it.”

In this Lenten season of repentance, let us change direction from anything enabling racism and move toward fostering God’s kin-dom one courageous act of love at a time.

The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.

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