People of the dominant culture sure don’t like hearing anything that hints they might be even a little racist. Folks quickly protest, “I am not a racist.” Others angrily ask, “Are you saying that I am a racist?!” This appears to be based on a misunderstanding of what racism is: a systemic problem more dangerous than any individual’s bad attitudes or prejudice. Part of the real danger of racism is the way it hides out in commonly held assumptions and polite agreement across a whole culture. It infects and deforms all of us.
Many people think of racism only as a gross display of objectionable prejudice by a person or persons against another person or people of a different race. Although this is certainly bad, it is not the real danger of racism. As a systemic problem, racism lurks in quiet assumptions held by many people. Racism usually abhors loud displays of prejudice. They threaten its power by raising people’s concern.
Take, for instance, the widely held assumption that Indigenous peoples are primitive. This idea, based in ethnocentric and culturally biased notions of proper and desirable behaviours, has spread among Western peoples and across their cultures. Place this idea across a culture—in governance and in church practice and teaching—and you have, without much fanfare, laid the foundation of mayhem, destruction and death. In such a simple idea, racism hides by looking like wisdom or compassion. This is what systemic racism is like—ideas that are quietly held by large groups of people, including the people who are the objects and victims of the bias. Over time, racism hides and abides in the various structures of our common life and culture.
The Scriptures describe systemic evils like racism as principalities and powers. St. Paul asks us to put on the whole amour of God to struggle with these things that we know and encounter today in institutions, ideologies and images. Confronting racism is a basic and fundamental aspect of our discipleship—to do good and to resist evil.
The question is not, “Am I a racist?” Sadly, we all have traces of that thinking in our minds and hearts. The question is, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”