As a small child, I had a lively curiosity about individuals who were observably different from me. There was that guy my dad brought home from seminary who spoke Japanese. And then there was that other guy he had over to dinner who had black skin.
There were gender and age differences to ponder. I studied the sight of adult body hair on my parents. I also noticed how different my own smooth face was from my grandfather's whiskers and how firm my upper arms looked compared to the baggy skin that hung off my grandma. And there was the
neighbor girl who described (but would not let me see) her secretive and strange crotch.
The first time I ever paid attention to a man of great girth was when a bishop visited my grandparents church and I wanted to know if a man could be pregnant.
And my world was further expanded by staring at the man down the street who was always in a wheelchair. So many different kinds of people, so many questions to ask, so many oddities deserving of a child's stare, so much peculiarity worth pointing out to others...so much
The nice adults in my life would tell me that I asked too many questions...that I shouldn't point at people...or stare...or mention the obvious. By the time I started school, I had already learned to pretend that there
no elephant in the room. Don't sneak a peek at people who are different. If if we must speak of those who are not like us, use euphemisms. Mind my own business.
Heck, I was a kid. If adults wanted me to pretend that differences in people shouldn't be explored, I could do that. When you're a kid, most of life is supposed to be pretending and games anyway.
The only adult in my childhood who didn't pretend that black skin wasn't black was my great-grandfather. He explained to me that black children were like kittens; really cute; in fact, much cuter than white children. And then he explained to me that when black children got big, they became rabid; and we best rid ourselves of them, even if it meant shooting them.
Ah, finally an adult who would speak openly to me about
some people had different colored skin: so we would know how to identify people who would eventually destroy us. By the time he explained all this to me, however, my child's heart assured me that what he was saying was sheer idiocy. I loved my great-grandfather, but I knew not to give his racism any oxygen by challenging him or even staying in the room when he got on the subject. In retrospect, however, he was the only one in the family...or the church...or the grade schools who was willing to talk pointedly about the subject.
True, I had Sunday School teachers who taught me, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world: red and yellow black and white." But it never seemed like a serious song, more cutesy and happy instead. It always seemed like a song about make-believe children...never about Somalian or Mongolian boys and girls. Lovely as the words were, that sweet song never held the veneer of gravitas that my great-grandfather exuded when
talked about real black folks he'd supposedly known.
We live in a country not known for thoughtful conversations about race. Throughout our history, someone would occasionally say or write something that stirred passions, made us think a little, or even motivated us to change things here and there. But by and large, American conversations about race have been rife with lies, euphemisms, excuses, rationalization, finger pointing, incomplete facts, and faulty logic. In just the past few weeks we have engaged in unenlightening conversations about whether Joe Biden used to be complicit with racists, whether Donald Trump
is a racist, and whether our current immigration policies are motivated by racism.
One thing is clear: we have no national consensus over the definition of "racism."
Thus I've been working on a definition of my own, based on the stories of my own life and the racists I've known. My great-grandfather once told me that he was attracted to the KKK, in principle, but never joined officially because he thought their leaders were too bossy.
He was an odd man. There was a part of him that cared for
some people, but his better angel was always too cowardly to wrestle with the other part of his thinking that oozed bigotry. He was never a direct threat to anyone else, but the words and attitudes that seeped out of him were a poison that contributed to the mess we are all still in.
So, here are the definitions I have wrestled out...at the present moment: subject to change as my life and experiences and conversations continue.
racist is one who surmises that the people of another race must be controlled because they are a threat to the well-being of one's own "kind." Racism always suggests action: segregation, a separate set of laws to govern certain races, sending "them" back, even extermination from time to time.
demagogue is worse than a simple racist. A demagogue is a leader who agitates the racism, bigotry, and prejudice of others in order to gain political power. The presence of a racist should raise a yellow flag for Christians. The presence of a demagogue should raise red flags, set off sirens, and propel us into prayer meetings and resistance marches.
Is Donald Trump racist? Once you are a demagogue, does it even matter if you are a racist? That's like trying to figure out whether a drug kingpin uses heroin himself. What's the point of even debating such an inane question?
Did Joe Biden do business with racists in the Senate to get things he wanted in the 1970s? Of course. James Eastland (Mississippi) and Hermon Talmadge (Georgia) were two of a long line of racists serving in the United States Senate. When Joe Biden was first elected to that august body, a squad of southern racists controlled all its key committees, and if you didn't play ball with them, you'd get nothing you believed in, and you might as well stay home. But does such practical necessity
that Mr. Biden isn't a racist? Not really. He has some better explaining to do than he has done so far.
There are some other terms that should be defined:
bigot is someone who dislikes certain groups of people and then fabricates lies to justify rationalizations growing out of that dislike.
A person who is racially
prejudiced has automatic negative opinions about people from another race; although those opinions may be suspended for certain "exceptional" individuals.
Hatred is a matter of the heart. It may or may not have anything to do with race. If someone hates you, it's not you...it's them! Those who hate project the dark evil of their own hearts onto anyone who can be easily identifiable. People who are obviously of a different race make excellent screens for projecting the hate that festers in the human heart.
But finally, what do we accomplish by putting labels on one another? In truth, labels destroy the curiosity we need in order to understand the origins of racism. Racism feeds off the same creepy phenomena as ageism, sexism, and nationalism. Its ingredients are anxiety, carelessness with facts, intolerance of uncertainty, loss of curiosity, use of various powers to control "them," blind loyalty to ones own tribe, and lack of godly imagination.
We will never overcome racism without being able to distinguish the cause from the symptom. Until we stop our obsession with labeling everyone, we will never be able to understand the toxic anger, humiliation, and anxiety that fuels racism, bigotry, and hate. Labeling generally alienates us from people we need as allies in the struggle. Name-calling is always a lazy and losing way to fight a battle.
As a child I loved living in a world of such diversity, even if adults never wanted me to point, gawk, or ask questions. Children haven't changed from the way children have always been. Thanks be to God. But if we adults don't change our ways...Lord, have mercy. Really. --Mike