Being racist in America

I’m sure you saw the news a few weeks ago of a bus full of University of Oklahoma fraternity students who were caught on video chanting the following about their fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon:

There will never be a n*** SAE!

You can hang ‘em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me!

There will never be a n*** SAE!

The uproar was swift and the consequences thorough: the fraternity shut down, all members required to move out within 24 hours, and the two young men shown leading the chant promptly expelled from the university. One thing was clear from this episode: we no longer tolerate blatantly racist words in our country.  Much has changed since the 1960s and the preceding decades (centuries).

What is less clear to me is whether we, white Americans in particular, really understand all that racism actually is.  Do we yet understand what it is like to be Black in this country?  Do we have any idea of all the small, subtle ways that our own day-to-day experiences differ from those of Americans of color?  Yes, most of us understand that it is wrong to use the N word and to joke about lynching, but do we see and understand all the more subtle expressions of racial prejudice that also occur regularly?

The parents of one of the young men who led the SAE chant, Levi Pettit, released a formal apology a day or two after the video went public.  In many ways, it was an excellent apology, humble and burdened as apologies ought to be.  They admitted that Levi “made a horrible mistake” and that “what we saw in those videos is disgusting.”  They went on to

apologize to the community he has hurt.  We would also like to apologize to the entire African American community, University of Oklahoma student body and administration.

They understood further that

our family has the responsibility to apologize, and also to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Our words will only go so far — as a family, we commit to following our words with deeds.

I am a parent, and I can imagine the horror of having your child caught publicly doing something vile.  It is one of the things we parents fear.  Not only do we not want our kids to behave badly, for their own sakes and for the sakes of those around them, but we also do not want them to embarrass us with their bad behavior.  We rightly understand that our children’s actions automatically reflect on us.

There was one part of the Pettits’ apology, though, that caught my attention and suggested to me that they do not fully understand the nature of racism.  It was when they said, “While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist.”  While I understand a parent’s impulse to defend their child and to try to give a fuller picture of him to a public who has only seen one small part, I think the Pettits’ words here betray their shallow understanding of racism.  To be sure, I do not believe that the Pettits are alone in this mistaken definition of racism;  it is shared by a large portion of Americans.

To say that a person who has been recently videotaped chanting the N word and casually joking about lynching is not a racist is preposterous.  To imply that what one feels or believes in one’s heart is a better measure of one’s racism than one’s actions is nonsensical.  It is not possible to hold no racist views in one’s heart and yet act and speak in clearly racist ways.  The Bible is right, it is indeed out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.  In Levi’s case, his mouth spoke and it revealed a belief that Blacks are lesser than whites, so much so that we can joke about their violent murders.

Further, even if it were possible that one’s heart’s beliefs could be totally different from one’s outward actions, it would not matter.  I want to suggest that in many ways, what one supposedly thinks in one’s heart is of less importance than what one does.  If our actions and words are cruel and demeaning, it matters very little what is supposedly going on in our hearts.  A just society can surely not be built on such untrustworthy hearts.

So, how do we begin to change our hearts?  I think the answer lies in doing more than gasping in horror when a story like the Oklahoma U one breaks.  Over the past couple decades, we–white, educated, respectable types–have learned that being appalled is the polite and socially appropriate response when someone displays blatant verbal prejudice.  Sometimes I wonder how much more than this we have learned, though.

I would like to be so bold as to suggest a few things that we can do to learn more, to go further in our understanding and practice of justice. First, I think we can start to tell the truth.  We can examine our own hearts and begin to discern what hidden assumptions lie there.  Let us not be so afraid of being labeled a racist.  There are far more important things to fear.  Like living in an unjust society.  Like looking the other way when Black lives are treated as not mattering.

Second, we can listen.  Let us listen long and hard to all the Black Americans who are speaking and writing right now about what it is like to for them to live in America.  There are many, many to choose from.  Pick a small handful.  Let us be brave enough to listen well, even when what we hear makes us uncomfortable.  Let us be quick to listen and very slow to speak.  We rarely err when we choose to listen.  Levi Pettit himself has begun to listen and I truly commend him for it.

Finally, if we are white, we can intentionally put ourselves in the position of being a minority in our own country.  This will take some work.  If you want to learn, nothing rivals the experience of being the one in the minority, culturally and ethnically, for a prolonged period of time.  Sometimes this is called “displacing” yourself.  If you want to examine our society and to grow, do this challenging thing.  And do it regularly for at least a year.  Join a club or a class or some kind of group where you are the only white person.  Even frequenting a restaurant where you are the only white patron would be eye-opening.  It may take courage at first. Later, it will take perseverance.  Give yourself the experience of being the one in the room who is different from everyone else.  It can be life changing.

Rick and I experienced being minorities in our church in Cleveland.  It was a large, almost entirely African American church and we were members there for five years.  To be clear, we did not choose it as our church primarily as some kind of learning experience.  We chose it because it was a mile from our home, it was very warm and spiritually alive, we loved its pastor and his preaching, the music was rich and stirred our souls every week, and it loved the Bible and Jesus as much we did.  In short, we felt spiritually at home there.  When we joined, it was a church of about 1800 regular attenders and I was the only white woman and Rick was one of three white men.  Was this hard for us?  Yes.  You can believe it took guts to show up for my first women’s Bible study, a meeting of about 25 women in a living room in East Cleveland.  Did we make cultural mistakes and embarrass ourselves?  Certainly.  Did the church welcome us?  Absolutely.  Pastor Kevin, the leaders, and the other congregants were unfailingly gracious.  We were welcomed into every aspect of the church’s life – membership, church picnics, Sunday school classes, the parking team, small groups, etc.  We were deeply blessed by the fellowship we experienced there (and still do, from a distance).  Suffice to say, we learned a great deal.

If we want to do as the Pettits said, “follow our words with deeds,” we can start with some of the steps above.  Rather than race to distance ourselves from people like Levi Pettit or even race to (prematurely) make things right, let’s set our minds on learning.  And on listening.

© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.

5 thoughts on “Being racist in America

  1. Kristen Johnson

    I sense that I’m becoming increasingly aware of the importance of listening. Thank you for this thoughtful post that furthered my thinking and challenged me in concrete ways.


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