TBT: Racism and Where Whites Should Start

In re-presenting this post to you today, I’ve tried to revise it by cutting a paragraph of vague abstractions and adding what I hope will provide more clarity regarding where we are and were we can begin to go from here. I’ve updated it with three more resources regarding the necessity of Jane Elliott’s ongoing experiment, a nuanced definition of white privilege, and how the racially privileged in America can begin to understand the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

As May approaches and you start to think about your summer reading list, I hope you’ll consider putting at least one of the books Caris Adel recommends at the top of that list.

Playing the Race Card and Overreacting

I recently came across an old Frontline documentary called A Class Divided, in which 3rd Grade teacher Jane Elliott decided to put the phrase “actions speak louder than words”… into action. The day after Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, one of Ms Elliott’s students came to her saying “They shot a king last night Mrs Elliot. Why’d they shoot that king?” “I knew,” Elliott explains, “that it was time to deal with this in a concrete way, not just talk about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school.”

Jane Elliot went into her all-white, rural, Iowan classroom that day and divided her students according to eye color: “the blue eyes” and “the brown eyes.” The first day, the light-eyed children get to be “on top” while dark-eyed students suffer various limitations on their freedoms and a running narrative about the “nature” of brown-eyed versus blue-eyed people—the next day, roles reverse.

With remarkable insight and unmitigated moxie, Ms Elliott gave her students the incredible gift of living in an other’s skin. Once again, we see empathy inextricably connected to creativity.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 1.27.15 AMIn addition to documenting these children as they work through Ms Elliott’s exercise, the film fast-forwards a few decades to a group of adults going through Ms Elliott’s seminar (variations of which she still facilitates today). When discriminated against, both children and adults act out in hopelessness, isolation, anger, and aggression. They express feeling trapped, like the whole world is out to get them, like they can’t win, and they don’t matter. They feel all this after one day of discrimination. One. Day.

People who have never experienced categorical racial discrimination often casually, and sometimes defensively, dismiss the reality of entire communities by suggesting they are “overreacting” or “playing the race card.” Before dismissing the reality of millions of people by accusing them of overreacting or being “too sensitive,” please consider this eye-color experiment. Think through the effects of that single day of discrimination, the toll on the human spirit, and multiply the realities of that brief experience by the unjust inheritance of discrimination that stretches over 400 years.

Essayist and Christian thinker Dorothy Sayers attempts a similar experiment in her short, pithy essay “The Human Not-Quite-Human.” The parallels to our discussion here are rather straightforward.

After rhetorically imposing upon men the discriminatory narratives women often experience–in order to help men (and women) understand the more subtle forms we (often without any such intention) dehumanize women–Sayers puts it this way:

If, after a few centuries of this kind of [discriminatory] treatment, the male was a little self-conscious, a little on the defensive, and a little bewildered about what was required of him, I should not blame him. If he traded a little upon his sex, I could forgive him. If he presented the world with a major social problem, I should scarcely be surprised. It would be more surprising if he retained any rag of sanity and self respect.

She then goes on to observe how the women in Jesus’ day flocked to him and stood by him, “the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross.” Because Jesus understood them. Though not a woman, he understood them through divine empathy, that ability to put yourself into the skin of another. Jesus “took their questions and arguments seriously… never mapped out their sphere [place or roles]… had no axe to grind and no uneasy [sense of identity] to defend; [he] took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.”

We, being human and not divine, must pray for help from the Holy Spirit as we do the difficult work of stepping outside of ourselves, listening more, and talking less.*

Take an hour out of your evening tonight to watch this video, or watch it over a couple of lunch breaks this week; you will come away with profound food for thought and an enriched perspective. I did.

* Caris Adel’s fiery post “Where White People Should Start” opens with an incredulous, and perhaps slightly overcorrecting, response to a specific moment; however, don’t let that turn you off (lest we prove guilty of our own ‘too sensitive’ complaint). She offers a lot of wisdom and tangible resources too.