Equality: Rhetoric or Reality?

My keynote address to the Stand Against Racism rally at the Kalamazoo YWCA:

I’m racist.  It’s important that you know that.  I call myself ‘racist’ because, along with too many of my fellow Americans, I have internalized the rhetoric of equality without materializing the reality of it.

We internalize the rhetoric every year as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as we sing ‘We Shall Overcome’, and as we listen to a recording of the ‘I have a Dream’ speech. We internalize the rhetoric of equality because we find certain things distasteful: things like the N-word, Confederate flags, and the Ku Klux Klan. We internalize the rhetoric of equality whenever we ‘Like’ the Facebook posts of the NAACP and the YWCA. We have internalized the rhetoric of equality because we think of ourselves as “good people” who begin our sentences with the words: “I’m not racist.” We internalize the rhetoric of racism when we say, “I can’t be racist; I have friends who are black!”

But here’s the thing: we are still racist. I am racist. There is more to ending racism than simply saying “I’m not racist.” That is simply internalizing the rhetoric; the time has come for us to materialize the reality. Without that latter step, the words are nothing more than an empty hypocrisy, a farce of equality in a country where it’s okay to be racist, so long as you don’t say, “I’m racist.”

This hypocritical state of affairs reminds me of a passage from the New Testament, in the first letter of St. John, chapter 1, where the author writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins the God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In other words, it would be far better for us to put away our hypocrisy (i.e. Saying, “I’m not racist”) and step into the light with some honest confession (i.e. Saying instead, “I am racist”). Honest confession is the first step on the path to healing and wholeness, to mercy and justice. This is how we will begin to materialize the reality of equality, rather than simply internalizing the rhetoric.

For seven years, from 2006-2013, I lived a fairly insulated and isolated life in an all-white rural village in upstate New York.  I couldn’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I could easily show you who proudly flew Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses.  The church I pastored there had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school.  The membership included one mixed-race family.  During that time, I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties.  The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store were… you guessed it: mostly white.

The only time during those years when I came into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job as a college professor, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly got lower grades than my white students.  I didn’t know why that was the case.  Did I then stop everything and go to great lengths to find out what was wrong with my teaching style or my grading practices?  No.  Why?  Because I was too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I was just an adjunct professor.  I chose instead keep my schedule as convenient as possible, rather than do the hard work necessary to adjust an imbalance of power that benefits people who look like me but damages long-term opportunities for others.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.

Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to order protestors to stay peaceful and nonviolent when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial. I don’t have the right to slap you across the face and then tell you that it would be wrong for you to slap me back. A wiser person than myself once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I don’t have the right to accuse my African American sisters and brothers of “playing the race card” because, as it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others whenever I walk into a place of business/worship/government, or even when simply walking or driving down the street.

Being white comes with its own set of privileges that are automatically, subconsciously bestowed upon those of us whose skin happens to be melanin-deficient.

White privilege is what gives me the luxury of changing the channel or looking away from the suffering of my fellow human beings. White privilege is what allows me to shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but it’s not my problem.”

In the last fifty years, our American society has internalized the rhetoric of equality: we have declared that it is no longer socially acceptable to openly espouse views of personal prejudice against other people because of the color of their skin. But the job is only half-done.

White privilege is the other side of racism, which does not depend on one’s personal feelings about people of other races. White privilege is not about personal prejudice; it is about systemic oppression, which is much harder to see with our eyes that have been so blinded by individualism. We cannot see the forest for the trees; we have become fish who cannot perceive the water in which we swim… it is all around us and within us, but we don’t even know it’s there.

And if we refuse to raise our collective consciousness to the reality of systemic oppression, if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of this water, if we continue changing the channel and looking away from these inconvenient truths, then the current of this river will continue to sweep us downstream to where the riptides become rapids and the rapids become a waterfall, where we are swept over the edge to destruction and death. But for now, we still have time: We have this moment in which we can open our eyes to see the oppression and begin swimming against the tide.

We have today, in which we can still choose to show up, shut up, and listen to one another. We can educate ourselves: cracking a book instead of just changing the channel. We can say to each other this matters because you matter; you are a person, not a statistic. And together we are one people, made of one blood, in the divine image. Whatever our religion, we are living stones: bricks in the Temple of the Spirit where the light of glory shines forever.

This, we believe, is our common destiny. And that is why we have come here today: to materialize the reality of equality, instead of just internalizing the rhetoric. We have come here to make Dr. King’s dream come true because his dream is our dream and our dream is God’s dream.

Whatever our religion, however we understand that word God, we come together today with the faith to see this thing through, to open our eyes and change our fate before it’s too late: to stand up for freedom together, to speak out for justice together, and to work together until we move beyond the internalized rhetoric of reality and begin to materialize the reality.

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