On discovering my subconscious racism

On discovering my subconscious racism

I recently received a review copy of a new book by Ben Lindsay, called We Need to Talk about Race (it’s out now and you can buy it by clicking on the title). It’s a very good read – clear and helpful, with some good biblical illustrations (it’s aimed at Christians), and a hopeful call to power the fight with prayer.

One area where I felt it was a little weak was in helping the white reader – like me – understand the reality of racism in modern Britain. We know there are extremists, especially in this Brexit era, but surely on a day-to-day level racism isn’t really a thing any more, is it?

If you think that, I suggest you read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (or at least the first half of it) before you read Lindsay’s book. She really opened my eyes to the reality of the world we live in, and forced me to consider some of my own gut-level responses to what I was reading.

It was shocking to see how often I thought ‘but that’s not racist, it’s just…’ before having to correct myself and realise that if a black person tells me they feel ‘othered’, excluded or discriminated against by attitudes or actions I think of as normal, I need to listen to their experience and respect their feelings. There may be occasions when there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, but for the most part, the way I make them feel matters more than the way I consciously intended to make them feel.

Take the example of white people asking to touch black people’s hair. To the best of my knowledge I have never done it, just as I have never asked to touch a pregnant woman’s bump (eww!). I don’t touch anyone else’s tummy or hair, so why should I touch theirs? But apparently a lot of people don’t feel that way. Black people – men and women – frequently have friends and strangers asking to touch their hair – and it’s not OK. My gut reaction to that is ‘They should be flattered, especially when it’s women with amazing weaves – they look so incredible; it’s a compliment to want to trace the lines and feel the textures…’ But what I intend to communicate in that moment (if I were to do it) is not what my words and actions actually communicate. They say, ‘You are strange, you are different, you are not one of us.’ In some cases they may communicate ‘you are like an animal to pet, not a human to talk to. The interesting thing about you is your physical appearance, not your brain’.

How awful! Can you imagine what that must feel like?

I’ve now read two books about this, and have been thinking about it for a while. I am trying to be an advocate, or an ally as Ben calls them. I’m trying to look beyond the white ways of expressing godliness and giftedness, for example, and to look for the ways God is using the black and Asian people in my church, to see how I can help them to find their place in ministry, to use my voice and influence on behalf of those who don’t have such access.

And yet, as I’ve written reviews (for Think Theology and Jubilee+), and even as I’ve been writing this, I’ve discovered that I’m assuming my readers will be white. Just look at that line above the previous paragraph: “Can you imagine what that must feel like?” What does that assume about the reader?

In my reviews, once I noticed this I went back through and tried to spot those assumptions and to preface them with ‘If you’re white…’, but even having noticed them then, they have still crept in today.

Racism runs deep. It is formed of layer upon layer of assumptions and attitudes built into our culture over hundreds of years. It is incredibly hard to detect in oneself, which makes it incredibly hard to extract and correct. Which is precisely why we need books like these, from Lindsay and Eddo-Lodge. We – white people and people of colour – need these courageous individuals to stand up and say, ‘This is how it is for us. And this is how we can work together to make a difference.’

If you’re black, Asian or from another minority group in the UK, I’m sorry for my unconscious racism. Thank you for your patience with me, your willingness to love me despite my errors, your incredible tenacity to keep trying when I and others like me are so blind.

If you’re white, buy this book (and this one if you need to). Read it with an open heart, and let’s start making the difference that our brothers and sisters need.

4 Comments On This Topic
  1. Jess
    on Jul 19th at 3:45 pm

    I kind of struggle with this topic. I think that we all handle the unfamiliar differently.

    I am mixed race. I’ve had Caucasians (“white people”) ask me what I consider myself. I have had people of African descent jokingly call me a “white girl”, because I don’t speak, dress, or act the way that they do. I’ve had a European tell me that they did not like me initially, because I was American. I was told by a friend that a mutual friend mentioned not liking black people. They asked the friend about me, and the individual said, “She’s different, because she is a rich black person”. I was raised middle class, but I’m not rich. When I was younger the American middle class was huge. Why he thought that money was what made me different is beyond me. I’m me. I’m not a type. However, the terms “white trash” and “trailer trash” are similarly used phrases. I guess to some people, money is an identifying factor. I’ve had a person tell me that they don’t like students??? Lol, in Jesus’ day some people didn’t like “tax collectors” (not just a particular tax collector), but they had their reasons, I guess.

    We perceive people and situations based on what we are taught and our frames of reference. If an alien came to the planet, we would all behave differently. I’ve been the “other” at church, at school, at work, and sometimes in my own family. The friends that I have had over the years are all so different. I’m different. Deep down everyone is different. These categories help us to define and understand our world, but sometimes we loose ourselves in these categories.

    I don’t think that I’m subconsciously anything. I’m learning about myself and the world as I go. If I hurt someone’s feelings, I’m sorry. I can try to understand and change my actions, because I care. However, I’m not going to start apologizing. For all I know, they are calling out a plank in their own eye and a splinter that may or may not exist in mine. In my experience a lot of people who frequently call out racism, have some pretty racist beliefs themselves. I won’t change my thoughts, unless I’m confronted with truth. I love truth. I am open to it. I’m not sure that subconscious racism is real yet. There was an issue in the Apostle Paul’s day with how Jews and Gentiles related to one another. Once the truth was revealed, they worked it out. Culture clashes happen. We just need to make allowances for each other, seek the truth and embrace it. Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit!

    Thanks for writing Jenny. I don’t always respond, but I love reading.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 30th at 11:52 am

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jess. Yes, we all have a tendency to notice that which is different in others, and – consciously or sub-consciously – rank people according to whether they are ‘one of us’ or above or below us in the social ranking. It’s so easy to slip into!

      Yes, thankfully we have the Holy Spirit! We’d be lost without him!

      Reply
  2. Alisa Russell
    on Jul 19th at 8:50 pm

    Interesting thoughts on this subject. My take is that it is more of a boundaries issue, and, of course, we don’t need to be touching any women’s pregnant belly or anyone’s hair.

    It’s interesting that the other commenter talked about money. When I was growing up, people tended to be more separated by how much they made. It just happened that those lines fell along racial lines as well. I also have heard many times that when people of different races made more money, they were accused of being white and not their own race. That bewildered me because shouldn’t we all want to work hard.

    But, over the last few years, I have been learning. I go to a church now that is multi-racial where all are welcomed. I try to think before I speak and not speak common stereotypes about particular races. Most of all though, I think of my friends as people who Jesus loves and what we have in common rather than what is different. Jesus embraces all of us–differences and all, but the love should still be the same.

    I know I have rambled, but I do appreciate reading your thoughts. Thanks for posting!

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 30th at 11:48 am

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Alisa. Yes, comments like that you heard about black people earning ‘too much’ to be part of their race seem shocking now, don’t they, but were very much part of the culture not so long ago.

      Yes, we need to love one another as he loves us – if we get that right, we won’t go far wrong! (Easier said than done!)

      Reply

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