Preparing to pursue racial justice (3): taking action

Continued from Introduction and Not so fast:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others

3. Become aware: don’t do anything at first; observe, reflect, pray, and become; then become active.


4. Make racial justice a priority & be intentional

The key word here is repentance – making changes in behavior and direction. Change won’t just happen automatically; we will have to be disciplined and intentional. We are going to have to stick our necks out – to take personal risks. If we don’t make it a high priority, it simply won’t happen; the status quo works against it.

5. Be accountable to & build relationships with people of color

We are relational people, and the best way of being transformed is probably through relationships with others. (See Perkins and Rice in More Than Equals.) Ideally, find a mentor, but at least try to find someone who is considered an equal. Seek to form multiple relationships with people of color from varying backgrounds and economic status. This relieves any one person of the burden of having to represent all people of color. Make sure to that you also have friends from different socio-economic classes from your own so-called “race.” All of these relationships help transform us more closely into the kind of image bearer that God calls us to be. Follow the example of Jesus. Ideally, immerse yourself into a predominantly African-American community, attend a black church, and learn to live in their world.

gilbreath-reconciliation-bluesPursue common goals with people of color. Become co-laborers as opposed to just having a relationship for the relationship’s sake. Invest yourself into something they are already doing. This allows you to at least contribute. Having a relationship with a white who is trying to learn about racial injustice is likely to be a big drain on someone’s emotional energy. Being partners allows you to be on the same team working towards the same goals they are rather than being people from opposing sides simply trying to learn to get along (a sure prescription for burnout – See also Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity).

Hold your thoughts and actions accountable to someone of color. This helps avoid the pitfalls of paternalism and misguided thinking. Accountability need not come from someone with whom you have a close relationship. Sometimes hard truth is easier to accept from someone who is not in a close relationship with you – where other interpersonal dynamics do not complicate the issues. Either way, you are going to have to accept constructive criticism graciously, because the truth is likely to hurt.

6. Find your prophetic voice – speak up & take risks

The most effective tool we have is often our own voice – including our written voice. Like the ancient prophetic message of justice and the hard teachings of Jesus, speaking up for justice can illicit negative and angry responses. As whites, we need to draw away some of this negative fire from our black brothers and sisters (they’ve certainly felt their fair share of that); take that burden upon ourselves. We will need to be courageous where truth needs to be spoken. While we should be prepared to “rock-the-boat” if need be, we are more likely to have opportunities to address small things. For example, recently my wife who works in corporate communications, noticed that all the photographs on a brochure they were preparing was reinforcing racial stereotypes. Under “expertise” was a picture of three white men dressed in suits. The section on global compassion featured a picture of poor children – all dark skinned. In that case, all it took to speak for racial justice and illicit change was bringing this observation to the attention of the brochure team. She was simply applying the skills of analysis – of learning how to recognize racial injustice in society – to common every-day activities.

7. Give up comfort & control

If you are in a position of power in a multi-cultural setting, the hardest thing to do may be to give up control. Often that is exactly what has to happen in order to promote racial justice. In my African context, that usually means keeping my mouth shut and refusing to take leadership. I almost always discover that other, more capable leaders, but habits of internalized racial oppression often lead them to look to the white guy first. (And to think that I used to believe this happened because I had some kind of natural leadership abilities. 😉

8. Team up & strategically organize against systemic injustice

Teams are much more effective than individuals. The Damascus Road Anti-Racism team helps establish and train teams that can help churches and other Christian organizations promote racial justice. The first half of their program is simply education. But even that learning takes place in teams that include people of color to provide perspective and accountability. These teams then enter a second phase of more strategic planning. Using the best tools of the corporate world, they draw up a strategic plan with a vision, goals, objectives and action plans for accomplishing those goals. A strategic plan allows the team to break down change into short-term, medium-range, and long term goals. Making change goals measurable also alleviates ambiguity and frustration.

9. Develop, promote or support multi-cultural congregations, communities, or organizations


§ Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, New York: Oxford, 2003.

§ Manuel Ortiz, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

§ Stephen A. Rhodes, Where the Nations Meet: The Church in a Multicultural World, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.

[Previously posted on Christ, My Righteousness.]

Practical steps for racial awareness (2): Not so fast?

See previous post for introduction and:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others


3. Become aware: don’t do anything at first; observe, reflect, pray, and become; then become active.

Once we have begun to see that there is a racial problem, we will probably to want to jump into action and fix it right away. We may want to “wipe away the pain that race causes” or look for a quick fixes to rid ourselves of guilt.[1] Church historian Mark Noll says (with special reference to Evangelicals) that Americans tend to be “activistic, populist, pragmatic and utilitarian.” We value action more than careful thought and therefore get caught up in the urgencies of the moment and leave little room for “broader or deeper intellectual effort.”[2] N.K. Clifford is a little more biting in his criticism of evangelicals,

The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection.[3]

If racialization is something steeped in our unconscious worldview, it will take time to begin reorienting ourselves. Like the Old Testament wisdom writers, we will need to observe the world around us and seek God’s wisdom. We will need to ask, what are the problems? Where are we heading? How do class, growing diversity, the economy and politics impact the racial landscape? How do different ethnic groups look at the same issues?[4] We will need to examine where we live, work, study, socialize, relax, and worship and ask how racial injustice has shaped our world. Where is it obvious? Where is it more subtle? How is it reflected in our own thoughts and attitudes? How is it reflected in the structures and organizations in which we participate? What are the values, assumptions, perceptions and patterns of interaction?[5] How might we personally benefit from racial injustice? Are there any economic interests we might subtly be trying to protect? We will need to be thoughtful so that our actions are not paternalistic and do not simply reinforce racial stereotypes or unjust systems.

On the other hand, while we need to begin by observing and learning, we will eventually need to move towards being activist and practical. We must avoid putting off too long by saying, “We really need to acquire more information, read another book, attend one more conference, hold further conversations, in order to ‘clarify the issues.’ Then we’ll act.” [6] We need to be committed to action. There should always be an ongoing relationship between thinking and acting – a hermeneutic spiral – but in the end, we must act. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”[7]

If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. “If an elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu[8]

All wisdom comes from God, who has given us his Holy Spirit to guide us. In order to effectively promote racial justice, we will also need to seek God through prayer.


[1] Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Continue reading

Practical steps for becoming racially aware and promoting racial justice

[Previously posted on Christ, My Righteousness.]
Again, I speak as one white man to other whites. In two earlier posts I talked about the important postures we need to take when beginning to think about our own roles in systemic racism and the emotional explosion that often reacts to growing racial awareness. Today, I move to more practical ideas for becoming more racially aware and to begin promoting racial justices.
If we are interested in racial reconciliation, and we should be, we are going to have to take responsibility and action. [For a Biblical basis for pursuing racial justice you really don’t need much more than the following: 1. God created all humans in his image -dignity, 2. God values justice 3. Love your neighbor as yourself. 4. Jesus and the early church specifically broke down ethnic barriers. 5. We are all one in Christ. 6. God paints a picture of people from every nation and tribe worshipping him together (Rev. 5 & 7)].
Given this biblical narrative, the onus is really on us as whites to take the lead role in educating ourselves and others about deep roots of racism, and being advocates and instruments of racial justice. We are the ones who most benefit from the privileges of the history of race.
To help us move forward with racial reconciliation and healing, I’ve listed a few practical things that whites can do to become advocates and instruments of racial justice:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

I think the hardest thing for any white person (it was for me) is to admit that we are part of the problem – that we have racial prejudices and we support systems that racially oppress others. (I had grown up in and loved Africa, I had good black friends, etc.) We tend to see racism stereotypically as views that others like skinheads hold. Even if we do admit our own prejudices, it is likely to be hard to see and understand how our innocent behaviors can help maintain systems that racially oppress others. I don’t have time to develop this idea here, but in the interest of racial healing, I’d encourage you to accept as a given – at least at the beginning – that most of systems and organizations in our society and culture benefit whites. As you do the things in the rest of this list, it will be easier to see how our communities and organizations do this. In the meantime, assume that racial injustice is everywhere and try to train your eye to recognize it.

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others

It is safe to say that most whites don’t really understand racial injustice. To remedy the ignorance and distorted perspective, we will need to listen both to those who have experienced injustice and those who have more background and experience. Try to understand the history and shifting nature of racism. There are many decent books available at all levels and in different kinds of genres. One good place to start is Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). There are also movies available which address racial injustice. Look at areas where you benefit from being white (privilege). The main thing is to put yourself in a situation where you can be teachable.

In other words to effectively promote racial justice, we must be good listeners. We must set aside our agendas and take the posture of a humble student. When talking to minorities, we will need to check our motives, ask open ended questions, and try putting ourselves in their shoes as best we can. We must also provide a safe place where the frustration, anger and other emotions that result from a lifetime of marginalization and put downs can be honestly expressed. To do this effectively, we will have to check our fight or flight reactions – detachment, ignoring, anger, combativeness, etc – and seek to be as genuinely empathetic as possible. Our goal should be a deeper understanding that goes beyond just the symptoms.


racial awareness and the emotional explosion

Yesterday, I reflected on some important postures we whites need to take in order to become aware of racial injustices and how we participate in racist systems. Today, we look at one of the inevitable results of exposing ourselves in this way – the emotional explosion.

Few subjects are as emotionally volatile as race and ethnicity. When they first started teaching anti-racism, Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips discovered that there was always an “emotional explosion” about four or five weeks into their class. At first they tried to change the structure of the class so that the emotional explosion wouldn’t occur the following semester. It did anyway. Eventually they realized that the emotional explosion was a necessary part of the process and sought rather to channel it in a positive direction. Racial justice needs to be learned emotionally as well as cognitively.[1] We are emotional people, so when dealing with a subject as difficult as racism, uncomfortable emotions are inevitable.

The key is learning to manage our emotions in a wise way. With our emotions, we need to check the source, the usefulness and how we handle our emotions. We need to feel and experience our emotions, use and evaluate what they reveal about our beliefs and purposes, and express every emotion with the purpose of love. Again, we turn to Christian counselor Larry Crabb who lays out three types of reactions to blocked, uncertain or unreachable desires. When we have an inaccurate perception of ourselves and our goals, we tend to react in rage, worry or depressing inadequacy. A more accurate assessment of ourselves and our circumstances can transform these feelings into righteous anger, painful concern or productive sadness.[2] “Our deceitful hearts are capable of hiding strong emotions (particularly rage) which, if recognized and properly handled, could lead to life-changing repentance (Crabb, 185).”

Thus, to effectively promote racial justice, we need to learn to understand and use our emotions wisely.

  1. The first principle is to simply allow ourselves to feel our emotions (186). The common Christian habit of escape and denial of feelings is very unbiblical; the Bible is full of expressions of emotion.
  2. The second principle is to “evaluate and deal with acknowledged emotions (187).”
  3. Third, we need to abandon our self-protection and fearlessly be willing to state exactly how we feel.

Our open expressions should be tempered only by our love for others – not any kind of fear. This is particularly important in our interactions with African-Americans. More importantly, we need to provide safe environments for blacks to express their emotions honestly – especially anger, which is present in nearly all American blacks who have been dealing with injustices all their lives.[3]

Rather than reacting negatively to this anger, we must seek the reasons behind this anger and learn not fear it.

[1] Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1997), 4.

[2] Larry Crabb, Understanding People, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 177-182.

[3] Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000 revised edition), 95.

Preparing ourselves for becoming agents of racial justice (esp. important for cross-cultural ministry).

As part of the wind-down this week, I’m going to publish a few brief of posts to people like myself – whites interested in being racially aware and instruments of reconciliation and justice. These will include some important postures for any “whites” involved in cross-cultural settings.

Going in, we need to be aware that we are in for embarrassment, pain, and shame. If we truly are going to be agents of healing and reconciliation, our deepest faults are going to get exposed – even in those of us that are most well-meaning.

Racial injustice at the personal level seeks to distort our identities and harm our relationships. The process of understanding the roles we play in a racialized society and changing our thoughts and behaviors is Continue reading

American evangelicals and race 2: today

It is easy for people like us today to think we are progressive and play no part in racism. The brief history of evangelicals and racial injustice (see earlier post)demonstrates that while the contexts and forms may be different, white evangelical thinking about racial problems today shares many similarities with the past. Most evangelicals – if they even see a problem – still tend to focus on the need to improve interpersonal relationships.  Again, we turn to Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),

emerson-divided-by-faithCommon terms used to describe the race problem were prejudice, bigotry, anger, ignorance, lack of respect, fear of each other, poor communications, individuals hating or being angry at each other, and lacking Christ-like love for one another (75).

Most white evangelicals, directed by their cultural tools, fail to recognize the institutionalization of racialization – in economic, political, educational, social, and religious systems. They therefore think and act as if these problems do not exist (171).

Only a few actually seem willing to challenge the economic and cultural systems that preserve segregation and inequity. There continues to be a strong desire for separateness, if not explicitly stated, at least betrayed by actions. Even where intentions seem more pure, many of the solution to race problems proposed today are not that different from those proposed in the past. In essence, white evangelicals continue to be blind to what people of color experience, and as a result, their attempts as solving the “racial problem” reflect this ignorance. “With regards to reconciliation, whites often approach it with the expectation that black people will assimilate and essentially ‘become white’” (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Rev ed. InterVarsity, 2000, 76.)

Even so-called progressive whites tend to dominate leadership structures in multi-cultural settings. Without giving it a second thought, they just assume that they have the gifts and skills for leadership. On the whole, whites tend to be fairly ignorant about – and definitely uncomfortable in – black cultural settings, and so blacks and whites rarely have close, confiding friendships (Perkins and Rice, 77). Given this data, the possibilities for racial justice look quite bleak. Although, Emerson and Smith do not propose any grandiose solutions, they do warn against culturally shaped one-dimensional assessments and solutions. Instead they challenge us to think more seriously about the multi-dimensional problems of racialization and dialogue with others educated on the subject (Emerson and Smith, 171).

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American evangelicals and race 1: pre-civil rights

Many whites express fatigue with the subject of race and feel like everything has been rectified with the legal changes wrought by civil rights. Now that Obama has been elected President, many feel like they can rest their case. Unfortunately, we’ve still got a long, long ways to go.  Years ago, Spencer Perkins wrote that given that America has been working on racializing society and oppressing blacks for three hundred years, we should not expect everything to be rectified in thirty? (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Rev ed. InterVarsity, 2000, 96.)

Looking at how the American church has responded to racial injustice over the years can be very instructive for our blindness to the present. emerson-divided-by-faithMichael Emerson and Christian Smith do exactly this type of analysis in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 22ff) Before the start of the eighteenth century, only Quakers and a few others opposed slavery. Once they saw its economic advantages, most Anglos began to feel like slavery was necessary for survival. Initially when slaves became Christians, they were freed. But when economic ramifications were realized, the church quickly modified its beliefs and liturgy to insure that they would not be considered as equal –i.e. “free” – brothers and sisters (p. 23).This same concern for economic success led George Whitfield, of the Great Awakening, to lobby Parliament for the introduction of slavery into America’s newest colony, Georgia, where slavery was initially forbidden (26). Eventually, an abolition movement arose – partially due to Continue reading