This summer, in the wake of protests against systemic racism, our district clergy are reading books on race. Our Wednesday evening book study is doing the same. I decided to read How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
The experience has been eye opening and humbling because it opened my eyes to what I didn’t know from my white privileged perspective. I’ve always considered myself not to be a racist. I try to view persons of other races as equals. I don’t fly a Confederate flag, I am glad the U.S. won the Civil War, I’ve always thought the statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond were embarrassing and cheered when Arthur Ashe was added to the western end of statues.
A few years ago, I was in a mixed-race group of clergy and we discussed a book that introduced me to the term anti-racism. I discovered then that I was racist in unconscious ways that only came to light through reading and conversation. As a white male, I have been the recipient of privilege that persons of color did not have or were never extended because of their skin color. While I could minimize this by saying that such privilege is not anything I created or reinforced — it is not personal but systemic, after all — I must confess that there have been times when I have relied upon my privilege to open doors.
Reading Kendi’s book has opened my eyes to a different perspective and to consider what I didn’t know. I didn’t know . . . that saying "I am not racist” is a neutral perspective that could also be translated as meaning that "neither am I aggressively against racism.” The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is anti-racist. I didn’t know . . . that my unconscious assumption about racial differences in our society could be solved if all people of color would simply assimilate with the majority of society.
My incorrect assumption was challenged by the question, “Who sets the standard?” Looking back through history up to now, white people set the benchmark for this majority. My eyes were opened to the rich culture and heritage that people of color can benefit our society. This devotion is but one way that I can publicly confess my sin of looking at the world through eyes that have not fully understood nor taken into account the value and benefit of other views about race. But it mustn’t stop there. Sermons I write, prayers I deliver, in my leadership — in all of these -- I need to stop being concerned about neutrality and truly be anti-racist. I must challenge racism — whether in myself, others or our institutions.
This fall I am asking the Sharing God’s Grace group to call Mount Olivet to a period of soul searching about the ways we have contributed to racism in Arlington both past and present. A few years ago a group met over several weeks to talk about race. A comment was made, that still haunts me, by a woman in our community. She said that before Mount Olivet could improve race relations they needed to learn about and confront their racist past. Now is the time for us to do so. As I continue my reading, I hope to share more ways that I am growing toward becoming an anti-racist.