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Can a White Person be a Victim of Racism?

At the recent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting, a white man (presumably an SBC pastor) got up to the microphone and said that he had experienced racism personally in his life. He might have even said he had been a “victim of racism” (unfortunately I don’t recall his exact words) * (see note at the end).

What brought him to this conclusion?

He told the story of how one time he attempted to worship at an African-American church. He was discouraged from attending by a couple of people there and even asked to leave. One person told him he would be better off worshiping “with his own kind.”

On the Importance of Avoiding False Equivalencies

Words are important. This white man may very well have experienced discrimination. He may very well have been the target of bigotry. Or maybe there was another explanation (see below). But one thing is clear: He was not in any way a victim of racism.

Racism is discrimination with systemic, social power behind it. Racism is more than just one individual rejecting another based on superficial criteria. The power of a congregation to discourage a visitor from attending a single church service is not sufficient to merit the term “racism.” Racism is the social, political and legal structures that keep one group of people in a second-class position as another. Racism may certainly be expressed by individual incidents like the one above, but it also requires a larger framework.

I totally understand that this man may have been hurt. He may have felt rejected. He thought he was attending in good will, but instead of a wonderful experience of unity he found himself on the outside looking in. But to call this “racism” is to create a false equivalency. One person’s one time experience of rejection is not equal to a population of people who live with both historical and ongoing trauma, oppression and marginalization every day of their lives.

Further, calling them “racists” if they don’t enthusiastically open their doors to your one-time, unexpected visit is to not take seriously the trauma this group may be acting out of. He needs to work harder than that.

Whether it’s intentional or not, claiming that “there is racism on both sides” comes across as an attempt to downplay the experiences of the African American community. As such, it is actually considered a an expression of racism itself. There may certainly be negative experiences felt by both African and Caucasian Americans by the other, but the situation of race in America is anything but equal. Taking one isolated, small incident and acting as it if levels the experiences of both groups is not fair and it is easy to wonder if this SBC man was really acting in good faith.

Maybe it wasn’t even discrimination at all

There is another another reason why this man may have been rejected from this church besides racial discrimination.  Both historically and in the present day, life for African Americans has been much more difficult than for white Americans on average. African Americans have found that whenever they have been happy or successful, or whenever they have expressed themselves, talked energetically or laughed loudly, that white people would inevitably do something to sabotage that. They were accused of being too “uppity” and put down harshly. Their leadership was thwarted. When they complain, they are gaslighted and accused of playing the victim, which only exacerbates the trauma. This is the brutal reality of life as second-class citizens.  Many African Americans have had to pretend they were less successful, less happy and less educated than they were for fear of precisely this.

Look at the burning of the black wall street in the Tulsa riot and the murder of hundreds of black people by an angry white mob. America has a long history of brutal lynchings and white supremacist groups which operate as a system of domestic terrorism designed to keep one group of people “in their place”–that means not equal.

In the midst of all that, the black church has been a refuge. It has been a safe haven for black people to more fully express themselves without fear (although given all the church burnings and bombings through the years, this has obviously made the black church a target for white racist terrorists). In milder times, the black church has been a place to simply be yourself. It is a place where others can sympathize with and understand you.

Is it any wonder then that when a white man shows up unexpectedly at an African American congregation that perhaps the congregation might feel invaded?

Emanuel A.ME. Church in Charleston, SC, opened their doors and allowed the young, white Dylan Roof to attend their Bible study on June 17, 2015.  The consequences were that he shot and killed 9 of their members. In light of this, is it even remotely fair for a white man to claim he is a victim when he shows up unexpectedly at a black congregation and finds himself discouraged?

The work of healing racial wounds is going to take a lot more than a random Sunday visit, however well-intentioned it may be. And if you are angry that African Americans don’t let you into their space, ask yourself:  Where is this anger coming from? Do you feel entitled to be in their space?  Does it bother you that they have power and are using it? Historically, white people maintained numerous “white only” spaces but back people were often putting themselves at great risk to ever dare say “no” to a white person. Could this anger be an expression of this racism? Look deep within yourself to answer that question. There are many layers of racism buried within each of us, hidden even from ourselves, but the fact that they are hidden does not take away their sting nor their seriousness.

I know this is hard for many white people to hear, because white groups are being asked to open up and become more racially diverse and integrated.  Why is it good for one group and not the other?  The answer is simple:  Experiences in both groups are not the same.  White people do not have anything close to the multi-generational trauma and ongoing systemic racism that African Americans live with every day. There is nothing in theory “wrong” with spaces for white people to be with other white people. However, those opportunities present themselves almost every day for white people. As a white man, I could easily live my life without any contact with other races if I chose to. There is plenty of “white only” time if I actually wanted that. Furthermore, white people have consolidated power and privilege in those white circles, so there is not only value but actually a need to open that up to dividing up power and privilege as well as for education purposes.

Not every black congregation will respond this way, of course. Personally, I have been welcomed to worship services at black churches–although I usually go after receiving an invitation or at least getting to know one of the members and asking first. Some were quite happy I was there. Perhaps some were simply being polite. I should also point out I’ve been to some very secluded rural white churches where I didn’t exactly feel cozy and welcomed, either. They may not have been mean, but perhaps they just weren’t used to having visitors. And that’s the point here:  Maybe instead of rushing to judgment we can take a deep breath and consider that maybe the story is much bigger than we realize and that the work of unity may take that–a lot more work than just showing up unexpectedly one Sunday and expecting a hero’s welcome. Maybe that Southern Baptist man could take time to get to know individual members of this African American congregation and enter into a dialogue where trust can be built so that one day he might very well be welcomed to the church that once asked him to leave.

* NOTE: It is important to point out that this one white man’s comments do not represent the SBC as a whole. I just thought his comments were a good case study, because what he said is similar to what I hear elsewhere. I find a wide range of racial perspectives within the SBC. The SBC leadership overall is continuing to work hard to make racial progress.

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