A WHITE MAN ON RACISM
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

As a white kid growing up in southeastern Tennessee, I learned quickly that black people were to be treated differently than white people.  While I grew up in a very conservative Christian community, loving our neighbors somehow excluded people whose skin was a different color than mine.  Not that I was ever taught to harm others physically, but telling derogatory, race-based jokes was acceptable behavior.

 

I was taught, perhaps more indirectly than directly, the ugly stereotype that those whose skin was darker than mine were inferior.  Some of this came from what I was personally told by others, and some from television where most of the white characters were portrayed as wiser and more civilized than the black characters.

 

I spent almost 20 years in the South; I grew up in predominantly white schools and white churches.  Many blacks lived in my hometown, but I rarely associated with them until my teen years.

 

When I was 16 years old I went to visit a friend in Virginia Beach, Va., and although he was white, he lived in a predominantly black neighborhood.  During this visit a black man standing on the side of the road hurled a racial slur at us as my friend and I drove by.  I was shocked.  I'd heard racist comments all my life, but they had never been directed at me.  No doubt this young man had been slashed with racist terms throughout his life, but here at age 16 I was being verbally assaulted for the first time on account of my race.  However, as a white person, I could easily go somewhere to get away from such hateful speech, yet most minorities in this country cannot escape the daily bite of the fangs of racism.

 

If you've ever been the only person of your ethnicity or race surrounded by faces and skin color unlike your own, or if you've ever stood by yourself in an other-ethnic group while those around you refuse to include you in their conversations, you have a clearer perspective on what many Americans face nearly everyday.  And although, I no longer consider myself a racist in the classic sense, I know I still harbor prejudices.

 

The truth is, regardless of our background and skin color we've all got prejudices—hidden and obvious.  The real issue is not that we've failed to attain God's standard in our treatment of others, but that we are serious about continually confessing our sins to others and God, and that by his grace we make restitution for our sinful rebellion against God's will for us to love our neighbors as ourselves..

 

Hard questions remain: Are you more comfortable with a white man sitting in the car behind you at the traffic light than you are with a black man driving the same car?  Have you ever invited someone of a skin color different than your own to your church?  Given what you know about your church, would you dare?  Have you attended a church service in which you were the minority?  When looking for new staff members, has your church ever seriously considered interviewing candidates whose race differs from the majority in the church?  Do you ever invite people to your homes whose cultural background differs from your own background?  Have you ever considered helping a needy minority student through college?  Do you prefer to associate with Asians more than blacks or Latinos because Asians, at least in skin color, look a little more like you?  Do we silently resist the national holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, because it marks the life of a black American?  Do we laugh or sit quietly when race-based jokes are told?

 

Racism doesn't just exist in the South; this sin knows no geographic boundary.  The real problem likes in the human heart, not in a certain region of the country.  And I don't want to imply the complete solution to racial problems in this country lies at the doorstep of white America.  In fact, that belief borders on being another form of subtle racism, thinking that whites alone possess the tools to solve this problem.  Yet recognizing that most race-based abuse comes from whites, and that to a great extent the country's purse strings are controlled by the white community, there lies an extra duty on whites to see that such power is not abused, and in fact is used to positively address the "race problem."

 

Perhaps it would help to review news clips on the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s to see again the police dogs unleashed on children, the fire hoses turned on adults, and the smoldering ruins of firebombed churches.  It was not that long ago that men and women were beaten, not because of their unlawful behavior but because of the color of their skin.

 

It is in the interest of moving forward in racial reconciliation to understand how blacks and others have suffered at the hands of whites, even at the will of Christians who resist the full counsel of God.  The failure of the white church in America to speak prophetically, with some notable exceptions, for justice for all God's children (witness the institution of slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the civil rights movement) provides us the opportunity now to make a clean and godly break with the past.

 

Ask God to help you see people as he does.  Read Scripture with sensitivity as to how God would have us respond to those around us.  Encourage your congregation to arrange for joint worship services with an other-ethnic church.  Seek to involve your church in an inner city or rural ministry in which church members come face-to-face with the plight of the disenfranchised and look for opportunities to minister in other places with Christians of other races and ethnic groups.  Don't just throw your money at organizations to sooth your conscience, carry forth the light of the gospel and get involved with the lives of others.  Stand against unfair treatment of the defenseless and oppressed and lift your voice against the sin of racism that continues even in this age of so-called "enlightenment."  It's simply what Christ would do.

 

Reprinted with permission from Light magazine, January-February 1999.