To be or not to be… Racist?

What does it mean to be racist? I know I typically think of extreme cases like the KKK or even just thinking that people of other races are dirt and treating them accordingly. But I don’t actually know anyone like that. Does real racism–or bigotry of any variety– have to be so overt, or is it more subtle in most people? Can you truly believe that people of every nation, color, faith, gender, and class have the same intrinsic value, deserve the same opportunities, and are capable of the same things as people who fit your own profile and still be a bigot? I think the answer might be ‘yes.’

Dr. Paul Metzger spoke yesterday at Evergreen about racism. He told us that Portland is full of racism. At first that statement seems absurd, but I think racism outside of the South is more subtle, but no less terrible. The way Paul put it is that (if you’re not white) in the South, it doesn’t matter how close you get, it matters how high you get. In the North (or the West Coast), it doesn’t matter how high you get, it matters how close you get. I think that makes a lot of sense: it doesn’t matter what color an executive, or senator, or president is to someone in the Pacific Northwest, but people don’t necessarily want to live in the same neighborhoods as people from different backgrounds, or sit next to them on a bus, or have to live with them.

I think Bob really nailed the issue when he took it a step further than race and pointed out the same tendencies toward varying classes and economic backgrounds. That expansion is where it began to feel like there might be something to work on in me. Of course, I don’t think of people as beneath me who have less; that’s not the issue. My tendency is more along the lines of falling back on stereotypes in situations where I don’t have an opportunity or reason to know someone as an individual. For example, I absolutely do not believe that someone on the street is any more likely to harm me because that person is of a particular race. However, if he dresses like he is part of a gang, then I’m more likely to be wary around him. Unfortunately, maybe someone truly in that lifestyle would do harm to a stranger, but to most people, that urban fashion is just a means of expression and fitting in to a group. At the point I allow myself to make a judgment about any person, based on any external criteria, I take a step toward bigotry.

Now, I could justify my caution around rough looking guys–regardless of race–and say, “Since I can’t know who this person really is, better safe than sorry,” and I could easily avoid contact without doing him any harm. But what about someone who likes music that I hate or comedy that I find distasteful and inane. Maybe somehow I find a person who values everything I just can’t stand, and loves the things that seem worthless and even crude, idiotic, or destructive to me. At that point I have a choice. Do I humble myself enough to say, “Maybe there is value in this I just can’t appreciate, or maybe neither is better than the other, or maybe his way sucks, but something has led him there, and before I make a judgment about him as a person, he deserves a chance to show me who he is,” or do I simply (perhaps subtly and without consciously thinking about it) decide that since I like things that are good and hate things that are bad (whether morally, qualitatively, or however else) and he likes what I hate, he must be bad?

The next step comes in defining the opposite of prejudice. Is it tolerance? I can easily tolerate a person without valuing them or even treating them well. The problem with tolerance (as Dr. Metzger pointed out) is that it can often just as easily be described as indifference. True opposite of bigotry is not tolerance; it is love. Love reaches out and touches someone. Love doesn’t ignore someone who needs us. Love actively seeks the betterment of its object, and it does it without demeaning or degrading. Loving someone from a different race or social background isn’t simply abstaining from seeking harm or elevating yourself above another person, but it is giving yourself to that person in a big way or small.

Openness, vulnerability, and personal risk characterize a life free of prejudice. That’s not an easy way to live, even if you don’t bear any hard feelings toward different people. I know I have work to do in myself, and I’m sure it will take a lifetime, but if I can make progress and show people Jesus’ love, it will be a life well spent.

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