The Ever-Expanding Definition of Racism Is Making the Conversation Impossible

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A regular refrain from those who claim to desire social change for justice on issues of race relations is that people need to be willing to talk about race. Race is integral to the history of the United States. Race and race relations have played a tremendous role in the lived experience of every citizen of the country, every immigrant and, one could argue, even every guest or visitor. We ignore race and it’s place in our history to our detriment. No, that it not the same as saying that race is the only or even the central element in American history, though it is certainly the or one of the central elements in the history of many Americans. Needless to say, if we are going to have a serious discussion of the history of and current events impacting the United States, race needs to be a part of that discussion.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, racism was pretty universally defined as relating to another first and foremost in terms of his or her race. It meant that the first thing you noticed about another, and the first principle on which you engaged in a relationship with that other, was the color of his or her skin. A racist was someone who attributed characteristics and expectations, almost always negative, to another based on nothing other than the color of the his or her skin. If a Black man was lazy, for instance, he wasn’t just a lazy man who happened to be Black. It was judged that he was lazy because he was Black. If a man who was Jewish was stingy with money, it was because he was a Jew. The Irish were dirty. The Italians were mobsters. The Arabs were misogynists. And on and on. There was no attempt to explain the industrious Black man, or the generous Jew, except perhaps to recognize such anomalies as “a credit to his race.” Defeating racism meant attempting to build a society where people were judged, in M. L. King Jr’s famous phrase, by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. This, too, was universally understood, by those who favored the goal as well as those who opposed it, to mean that, when it came to relating to others, race would not be a factor at all. No one would care if a person was Black, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Arab, etc., … The only thing that would matter is the quality of his or her personal character. Was he or she a good person, virtuous, trustworthy, honorable, diligent, loyal? Whether that goal was practical or pollyannish, it represented an idealism that spoke to the American spirit. It also meant that discussions about race and racism could be engaged in with some mutual understanding of what was meant by both.

It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to talk about race and racism. Why? Because the parameters that define race and racism are becoming increasingly vague, broad or, more to the point, increasingly subjective and individualistic. What I mean by that is, race and racism are quickly becoming what any particular person says they are. As such, our culture is being pushed to adopt as racist things that no one would have given half a thought to ten years ago, or last summer even, and that raise eyebrows, if not consciences, over the bizarre and ridiculous classification of such things as racist.

The first example of this trend, perhaps, was the infamous 2010 Rod Rosenbaum article in Slate that associated a preference for white turkey meat at Thanksgiving with racism. Rosenbaum wrote, “Despite its superior taste, dark meat has dark undertones for some. Dark meat evokes the color of earth, soil. Dark meat seems to summon up ancient fears of contamination and miscegenation as opposed to the supposed superior purity of white meat.” So, if you prefer white meat for Thanksgiving, you’re a racist. We learned later that brown lunch bags were racist, so Seattle civil employees were no longer allowed to refer to “brown bag lunches,” but to “sack lunches.” Now, the fact that brown bags were used to distinguish lighter-skinned Blacks from darker-skinned Blacks, and to discriminate against them, is true. But, if we’re going to classify everything as objectively racist that has been used as a tool of oppression, repression. or an aid in discrimination, we’re going to have to get rid of a lot of stuff. Should mackerel be removed from every fish store and restaurant menu because Catholics were once derided as “mackerel smackers”? Does anyone believe it’s called a “brown bag lunch” as part of an effort to discriminate against others? No. It’s called a “brown bag lunch” because the bag is brown.

The effort to identify whatever one possibly can as racist was likely ignited by White folks who wanted to communicate their sensitivity to minorities. Most of it is harmless and, in not a few cases, even humorous. But, it becomes less harmless and less humorous when it starts impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.

The movement to identify all things as racist took an ominous turn with the inclusion in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture of a chart of what it purported was a list of cultural values it identified as “white.” These values included such things as “hard work is the key to success,” “the nuclear family,” “emphasis on the scientific method,” “work before play,” and even, “be polite.” Doubtless, the idea that these values, generally thought of as central to many cultures and civilizations and key to any person’s success and any community’s progress, were labeled as part and parcel of “whiteness” took many by surprise. Indeed, it looked like a list of what a 19th-century racist might have argued Blacks and other immigrants and minorities lacked as justification for White dominance. The display was removed after significant criticism.

More ominous still is the document “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.” This document, intended as a guide for educators to identify and eliminate racism in their efforts to teach students, claims that “White supremacy culture shows up in math classroom when … The focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer. Instead … The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so. Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.” This is not only absurdly false, but harmful to students of math who hope to grasp the concepts of the discipline and apply it to their lives for successful futures. The Commonwealth of Virginia is considering eliminating all advanced level math classes prior to the eleventh grade of high school as a means of achieving “equity” among Virginia public school students. This will negatively impact students who have advanced skills in math because it will prevent them from taking advanced level math classes in preparation for college. We have moved far beyond the silliness of a taste for white meat being racist. Now, we are impacting the real life potential of our children.

Other examples of things that are now considered racist by some include: the nuclear family, farmers’ markets, the song “Jingle Bells”, expecting people to show up on time to a meeting, owning a dog (if you are White), a White person holding a Black friend’s baby, correctly quoting a Black conservative politician, supporting voter ID laws, opposing voter ID laws, classical music, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the Betsy Ross flag, tipping, and soap dispensers.

Some of these are more serious than others, of course. Not many people are going to get worked up over the potential consequences of supposedly racist soap dispensers. Attacks on the nuclear family, however, have far greater ramifications. People who take such seriously, and there are many, can work to impact public policy effecting the family negatively. Research shows that intact families are the foundation of a healthy society, so public policy that negatively impacts the family will have a disastrous impact on society as a whole. This is not rocket science. We are seeing it played out in neighborhoods all across our country. It goes without saying that this is a conversation the country needs to have.

Which brings us back to the point of this post, the difficulty of making progress on racial equality when talking about race and racism is so difficult because of the ever-lengthening list of things racist, and the personal, individualistic definitions of race and racism. How do you talk about something when the definition of what you are supposed to be talking about is ever shifting? How do you talk about racism when you cannot agree on a definition, and your own disagreement is regarded as racist? How do you talk about racism when one of the most relied upon strategies of supposed anti-racists is to call anyone who questions or disagrees with them a racist?

This strategy of re-defining race and racism so broadly as to render the cause of racial equality ever out of reach, and so individualistically as to render the word meaningless is not going to inspire anyone, even those genuinely interested in making progress on racial equality, to engage in the cause. Rather, it will alienate people, because it will convince them that there is no hope for progress. It is the nature of people to give up trying when they become convinced that their efforts are or will be fruitless. If the first point to which a person must agree in order to participate in a conversation on making progress on racial equality and defeating racism is that the definition of racism is so expansive, so elastic that his or her own racism is inescapable and progress on racial equality impossible, even many genuinely sympathetic people will choose not to bother.

From the perspective of Christian faith, any conversation about race and racism must be predicated on the conviction that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and that, in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile. Christian morality is founded on the equal principles of the intrinsic dignity of the human person and the social nature of human life. This means that each individual possesses a dignity given by God that all are bound to respect based, not on race or ethnic identity, but on his or her identity as a creation of God gifted with a unique soul who will stand in judgment before God individually. At the same time, that one who stands before God never stands alone, for each is part of a larger community that is based, again, not on race or ethnic identity, but on the common humanity shared by all created in the image and likeness of God. As a Christian, each one baptized in Christ stands also as a member of Christ’s Body, a Body the dignity of whose members is predicated, not on race or ethnic identity, but on union with Christ and the saving action of Christ. As such, for the Christian, race and ethnic identity are, or ought to be, incidental. We are not Black, White, Brown, or what have you. We are one in Christ. Anything that threatens our unity in Christ is anti-Christ, and this certainly includes an emphasis on race and ethnic identity that demands priority over our union in Christ. Baptized in Christ, I am not White first, or Black first, or Brown first, or what have you. I am His first. If the members of the Body of Christ cannot or will not look to Christ first, but prefer that other identities take priority, then what answer will we give to the just Judge when we stand before Him, not in our skin, but naked down to our hearts?

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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