Addressing the Fear Factor
If you have been keeping up with my blog articles, you know that my main objective in writing is to strongly encourage interracial discussions in the church about racial issues. We are biblically the family of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. This family should be the “safest” place to express our hearts to one another about every subject that is meaningful to us. In some ways it is, but in other ways it isn’t. One of the most sensitive areas in our diverse fellowship is that of race related areas. Why don’t we talk honestly about this area like we do about many others? In a word, fear.
I know I am repeating some things I have already written about in earlier articles, but it is needed in my opinion. Our white members are afraid of stepping on land mines unwittingly and offending their black brothers and sisters. The land mines are hidden to us in direct proportion to our ignorance of black history and black culture. Hence my consistent emphasis on the need to talk and listen (better listen much and talk little, by the way). I want to know what others from different races and cultures are thinking. What does their world look like to them and how do they feel about it? What can I do to help share or lessen their burdens? Honestly, the main thing I can do to help is first of all to demonstrate that I simply care, and then do what I can beyond that where possible.
Dealing with white fears due to ignorance can also be helped by just availing ourselves of material about racial matters of which we are ignorant. Reading books and articles, watching movies and especially documentaries, in combination with asking questions, listening and talking will help solve so many of our fears and problems. People want to be understood, but they have to share their thoughts and feelings in order to be understood. I love all types of learning but I love learning about my brothers and sisters most of all. We are family. It’s high time we start functioning as family, in God’s way and with God’s help.
Our black brothers and sisters do appreciate the level of diversity we have in our fellowship of churches. Regardless of its limitations, it is still the best thing going regarding mixing people of differing cultures and races. Our black members don’t want to endanger what we do have, but they can quickly point out our limitations as they wish for a higher level of diversity. (I will have more to say about these limitations in a future article.) From hence comes their fears of broaching the subject of race. I appreciate those in my home church (Dallas/Fort Worth) who have pointed out what they are facing and feeling. It is leading us to better places. I appreciate similar progress being sought in other places. I don’t appreciate my white brothers letting fears motivate them to make excuses about why racial discussions under the umbrella of the church aren’t necessary or may even be harmful. The seriously harmful thing is to minimize what other members see as highly important to them.
Many of us, both black and white, are unsure about what terminology might be offensive to those of another race or culture. We are going to have to venture out of our comfort zones and risk using terms that will need to be corrected. I said as much in starting this blog. I said that I expected to make mistakes and be corrected. I have been and will continue to be. I have advisers who read what I write before I post it on my blog. I have readers who write me via email, some of whom ask to converse on the phone ─ which we do. I am much more afraid of doing nothing than of doing something wrong. The latter can be corrected much more easily and quickly, and it can promote learning.
Racism Goes Both Ways (NOT!)
In some fairly recent sermons on racial issues, I made the statement that racism goes both ways. I was corrected on that, and will no longer say it. The terms “racism,” “racist” and the like are loaded terms and have to be used carefully and sparingly, if at all. Quoting from my friend Michael Burns’ upcoming book, he defines racism as “A system of domination or oppression of one ethnic group or racial collective over another based on differences that are believed to be hereditary and unchangeable. For racism to exist, a group must have the power to enforce their dominance through either overt or implied means.” Thus, a white person may be a racist in their attitudes toward blacks, but while blacks may be highly prejudiced toward whites, they are not racist. The definition won’t allow it. Is that a big deal? Both words convey similar ideas on a practical basis, but using correct terminology is important when that terminology is controversial and sensitive to many. I appreciate those who pointed this difference out to me. I want to get it right when discussing a subject that is filled with tension in our society.
Other Loaded Terms
“Lives Matter” is another loaded term. I have said in sermons that while black lives matter, actually all lives matter. That is a true statement, but it is taking the title of a movement, “Black Lives Matter,” and using it in a way that can appear to be dismissive toward this group. One of my Boston buddies from the “Big Black Brother’s Club” days gave me a helpful example. He lives in a suburb in which someone put up a sign, “Dog Lives Matter!” As he said, it would have been fine to put up a sign that read “Protect Our Dogs!” But using “Lives Matter” in the way it was done is an obvious backhand against a recognized black movement. Whatever you may think of the movement (and opinions vary), showing such obvious disrespect is both stupid and racist. I am grateful that a loving brother helped me understand something that I needed to understand, and I will not use the phrase “All lives matter” as a result. I will state an obvious truth in another way. Learning is valuable stuff.
Terms with White in Them
We can add other no-no’s to our list of loaded terms. “White supremacy” and “white supremacist” are inflammatory and shouldn’t be bandied about readily. This is not to say that they don’t exist, of course, for the KKK is only one evidence to illustrate that they do. But calling a white guy by this term is not a good way to introduce meaningful conversation about race.
“White privilege” is another term best avoided. “Hey, wait a minute Gordon ─ that’s in the title of your blog!” Not anymore; look at the top of the page. Now my title is “Black Tax and White Benefits.” The idea of white privilege is going to be taken wrongly by poorer white people, who are wondering just where their privilege is. Further, it is a term associated strongly with politics, and right now an overemphasis on politics is dividing our nation amazingly. I am pretty much apolitical, although I am comfortable with those who are more involved ─ as long as politics doesn’t become their religion (and it has for many, including some who call themselves disciples of Christ).
One Dead-End Dialogue
I did have someone write me about the term early on after I started my blog, a white guy, and his main objection seemed to be that it was a political term that he thought was misapplied often by political liberals. I tried to look past the adversarial verbiage in his letter, and I gave him several scenarios to find out if he understood that whites in general have advantages that most blacks simply do not have. His answers denied that, which told me that further conversation was going to prove useless. We did write back and forth several times before we reached the impasse. I am absolutely astounded by any white person that doesn’t think that black skin doesn’t put you at a disadvantage in many situations. Black tax is real. But the point is that I chose a term originally for my title that I thought would grab people’s attention, not realizing the implications of it. So, I stand corrected, am more knowledgeable and now have a better title. Whites do have benefits that blacks don’t have in many situations. Nuff said on that point!
What Should Black People Be Called?
This can be a confusing discussion, and can induce fear in white people of referring to the black population in the wrong way. Like all terminology, our language is in a constant state of flux, both from a technical perspective and from a practical perspective. In the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and following, “Negro” was commonly used and accepted by any race. Martin Luther King used it often. Of course, it was a bit too close to the slang slanderous word to suit a lot of people, and fell into disuse. Now we have Black, African American, Black American and People of Color (the latter being more in vogue now in intellectual circles, so I’m told).
To start with, what I prefer isn’t the issue in this case, although I do have certain opinions (not strong ones at all). Actually, I have opinions about what I think white people ought to be called, and “Caucasian” is definitely not one of them! Technically, this term traces back to a region of the world named “Caucasus.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this region thusly: “a region of southeastern Europe (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and part of southern Russia in Europe) between the Black and Caspian seas, divided by the Caucasus Mountains into Ciscaucasia to the north and Transcaucasia to the south.” As far as I know, I have no ancestors from this part of the world. Thus my question: why call me a Caucasian?
I rather like the online Urban Dictionary’s comments about this term, as the writer says:
The incorrect term used to label a “white” man or woman. The word Caucasian refers to a person who is from the region of Caucasus, which is in Europe bordering Turkey and Iran. Therefore, I am not a Caucasian being that I am not from Caucasus. I am, in general, European. Also I am not “white” being that I do not blend in with white paint, or white paper. I prefer to think that I have some amount of pigmentation in my skin, thank you very much.
So I’m just a white dude, with 12% black mixed in.
As I said, Negro is an outdated term, although at one time the whole world’s population was divided into three groups: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. I personally prefer the term Black or Black American (the latter being a strong preference of two black men servicing my house for pest control). Saying that you are African American is fine is you prefer that, but unless you came recently from that huge continent, it seems a bit odd (to me at least). I wouldn’t say that I am a European American or a Scottish American, although most of my ancestors evidently came from there, given my family names. But I have no idea when they came, and it was certainly not recently.
Then we have the People of Color designation. That one reminds me of the old adage that says whatever proves too much proves too little. Everyone not white is a person of color. Reserving that term for black folks only is offensive to some others of non-white origin. I’ve asked Hispanics, for example, what they think of the term. One brother said with slight agitation in his voice, “Well, I’m not white, so if people of color are blacks, then what am I?” Good question, don’t you think? After all, the Latino population of the country is larger than that of the Black population. However, regardless of my preference, I use the other terms interchangeably in my blog, in trying to become all things to all people and respect the different preferences that I know exist.
A Black Brother’s Perspective and Preference
One of my blog advisers is Tony Chukes, a longtime friend tracing to my entry into this movement of churches in the mid-1980s. Tony served on the ministry staff of three different congregations for a total of 17 years. He is a member of the Denver church and also a member of their racial diversity group. I love Tony for many reasons, one of which is that he is built like me in that he is going to say what he thinks and not let fear stop him. We have some very interesting exchanges via email and on the phone! I am going to post one of his articles on my blogsite very soon, which explains how a systemic racism still pervades our society even though the slavery days are long past. Many still have a difficult time grasping this concept, and Tony’s article approaches it using a very interesting and informative analogy. At any rate, here is what Tony had to say about what those of his race are called and why he clearly prefers one term over the others.
People of Color
Let me begin with a little history. In January of 1970, Senator Daniel Moynihan wrote a memo to President Richard NIxon concerning what he called significant black progress in jobs and income. This memo introduced a concept called “benign neglect.” The memo was worded thus: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.” The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades. The administration can help bring this about by paying close attention to such progress ─ as we are doing ─ while seeking to avoid situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics or whatever. Greater attention to Indians, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans would be useful.”
Whatever Moynihan’s intentions may have been (a debated subject), the term “benign neglect” took on a life of its own and was interpreted as an attempt to downplay the plight of blacks. Placing more emphasis on other non-black populations led to diluting what blacks received and was no doubt more palatable for many whites. Today, because of terms like “people of color,” we have all sorts of “special” types of people benefitting from the few affirmative action programs that are left. Black males came out on the short end of the stick, trust me! Everybody has some color so the term “people of color” should not be used to describe me. I am black and my color is dark brown.
I have several problems with the term “African American.” First, Africa is a continent. Nobody calls a person from European decent a European American. They are given the respect of being identified by their country ─ England, Germany, Spain, etc. There are 54 countries in Africa. Why is that same respect not given to people from Africa? Second, what is an African American? Anybody who lives in Africa can come over here and call themselves an African American. A white Berber, an Arab, a Jew, an East Indian, or even a white South African. I am none of these and do not wish to be identified with them. I have nothing against them, but they are not black.
Skin Color ─ the Deciding Factor
Every place I go I am easily identified by the color of my skin. We have a wide array of colors, mocha, almond, chocolate, coffee, light, bright, and darn near white. I don’t have to tell you how the word black has been vilified in society. Many times the word is used to try an evoke fear in people, but the bottom line is God made me this way and this is what I want to be called. I do not disrespect any black person who prefers African American, but I would tell them why I prefer black.
A Final Thought
Hopefully, this article has been helpful in easing our discomfort in talking with a brother or sister of a different race than us. In other blog posts, I have suggested ways to start conversations if you are black or if you are white. I won’t repeat myself here, so let’s lose our fear of making mistakes and get the conversations started (or continued). We may forget many lessons we learn, but the ones we are most likely to remember are the ones we learned by making mistakes. Fear of being corrected is a fairly silly fear, and it is certainly one that goes against the clear teaching of many biblical passages. Proverbs 17:10: “A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.” Let’s lose our fears and learn from one another, perhaps especially through mistakes, for we are family!