Saturday, November 19, 2016

I am White, We Are Black - Part 3: I am [not] a Racist

I read a story on Facebook recently about an African American woman at a nice butcher shop, ordering fine cuts of meats. A white man, standing in line behind her, says under his breath "I hope she knows that they don't take food stamps here" to his wife. The African American woman turns around and says "You want to say that to my face?" The man was surprised, but not as surprised as his wife.

She immediately apologies, "I'm so sorry Kiwana. We're not racist or anything." The African American recognizes the white woman as someone she had interviewed for a job earlier that day. She gives the man an earful about how she's the one with a job and his wife is not. The wife reiterates, "I'm so sorry, we're not racist...I guess I won't be getting that call about the job." The African American woman looks at the couple and says sternly, "You are racist."

This story moved me to realize that many American's don't really know what racism is. We often think that racism is a strong feeling of hatred or animosity towards another race and that this hatred is expressed by institutionalized separation of opportunities (voting, segregated schools, white business and black business, etc.). While this is racism, it's not the only form of racism.

Racism often reveals its ugly head in the form of stereotypes. We take something that might be true of one person in a group and apply it to the entire group. For white Americans, most stereotypes about blacks are negative: Lazy, entitlement mentality, uneducated, violent, and the list goes on and on.

I already shared a little bit about my own journey with racism. I have never felt any feelings of hatred towards my black brothers and sisters. I am guilty to stereotyping them though. I take facts that might be true about some blacks and apply them to the whole people group. In that way, I was racist.

The problem with stereotypes is that they can end up leading to hatred or self-fulfulling prophecies. If we believe black people are uneducated, lazy people we're going to create an environment where that sort of life-style is provided for. If we believe all black people are violent, hateful people we live in fear of them. These stereotypes lead to a systematic, institutionalized racism.

The best cure for negative stereotypes is building relationships. When you see a person who is different than you - whether a different race, age, socio-economic status, personality or something else - the first step is identifying when you're labeling that person with a stereotype. The second step is to set that stereotype aside and get to know the person as an individual. Build a genuine relationship with him or her and see what that does to your understanding of the group as a whole.

Another problem with stereotypes is that they can be based in reality, but are usually mislabeled. Millennials, for example, are oftened stereotyped as a generation who is not loyal to their place of work because they change jobs often. The reality is that millennials do tend to change places of employment more regularly and readily that some generations before them. From a millennial's perspective, though, it's not out of disloyality, it's motivated by other things we value: meaning in our work, transparency from our employers, means to provide for other activities that are important to us, etc. So, the reality that millennials change jobs is true, but it is actual because there are other values that millennials find important. It's mislabeled in the stereotype and applied to a group of people.

In the same way, stereotypes we apply to a people group might be based in reality or true for a small population, but it's likely just that we've labeled an activity negatively because we haven't taken time to understand it from their perspective.

Many of the stereotypes that white people use (like lazy or uneducated), my black friends have explained that those are because of the systematic racism white people have implemented for the black population. Broken welfare and education systems keep blacks "in their place."

Us white people who don't have a direct role in developing political systems then make judgments about those who live under their rule. We'll talk a bit more about this in the coming days.

Main Takeaways: Withhold stereotypes, build personal relationships, seek understanding, see what you can do to change the systems

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