How should we handle this word? Is there a way to engage racial issues without calling someone a racist? Should we just stop using the word all together because people get defensive if it is suggested towards them? Interestingly enough, thinking about the term, “racist,” makes me think about driving a car.
You know the scenario. It’s rush hour. You are driving along and someone unapologetically slices over two lanes and cuts you off. You slam your breaks and take evasive action in order to spare your car and self from the ramifications of an incautious driver. As the car takes over the lane in front of you, all you want to do is honk your horn and yell “You Idiot”, “Jerk”, “A**hole” or some other negative phrase. Some of you not only want to do this, you go through with it; others accompany words with certain non-verbal actions.
Often we don’t consider our words. We use language so flippantly that we don’t think about the right usage of speech or the social communication that occurs underneath the actual words we say.
In the instance of the disruptive driver: was that person really an idiot? Or did they just do something idiotic? Is it justifiable to claim that one action automatically places them in league with those that make consistently poor life decisions? What if their decision to cut across lanes was because they had a bad day at work? Or because they needed to get over to the off ramp and that was the one opportunity they had to get off at their exit, otherwise their trip would be increased by another 30 minutes of backtracking? What if . . .? You get the point. There are a great deal of compounding variables.
Community and diversity expert, Maura Cullen, calls it the “pile on principle”. Sometimes ill-conceived actions are not due to our true character, but rather because we have experienced annoyance after annoyance and we have not had the opportunity to rest and make the clear decisions that we would usually make. This doesn’t justify the man or woman who pulled in your lane, but it provides space for grace. Of course some people really will cut us off for no reason, but it is dangerous to assume intention in a very limited interaction.
The same thoughts can be attributed to the word racist. If someone says “you people,” prefers to hang out with those that are “more like them,” or even says a racial slur, does that make them a racist? Or have they done something racist? Have they had a bad day and allowed society’s glamorization of racial slurs (even in satire) impact what comes out through their mouths? Are they really thinking about what they are saying?
It’s a question of character vs. isolated action. Again, there are some people who are indeed living lives of consistent racism, but we must be careful how and when we use that label. Otherwise, the word gets diminished and we lose the ability to differentiate between combating the racist acts that we all are capable of perpetrating and being labeled as “hyper-sensitive”.
We do a great disservice to those of all races and ethnic backgrounds when we label people struggling with diversity, race issues, and the like as racist. Instead of allowing people to be imperfect, we expect a world where everyone is politically correct and allow no room for individuals and society to grow. We must approach issues of race with hospitality, which does not mean permissiveness, it means allowing everyone to come into community and relationship as they are, hearing perspectives, and moving forward towards growth.
This is how God welcomes us. God does not come into community with us by lambasting us about all of our shortcomings. We are asked to see ourselves as broken and sinners, but God does not lead off with the latter. Rather God asks us to dwell with him as we are, not so that we might stay in our current state, but that we can become more righteous and greater reflect God’s image.
Racial slurs and racist actions are never appropriate, but if we demonize those who are coming into an understanding of race and racial etiquette, rather than cultivate growth, we are going to harvest citizens (including Christians) who are confused, frustrated, and downright indifferent toward the true, difficult, and hospitable work of racial reconciliation.