Some years ago I was on a speaking tour in North Carolina. A local pastor was driving me to my various engagements, and one day he casually asked me, “What do you guys do about your black problem down there in Australia?”
“Our black problem?” I enquired. “Oh, you mean our indigenous community? Oh, we’ve treated them shamefully…”
“No, no,” he cut me off, “I don’t mean Aborigines. I mean African Americans. What do you do about them?”
It possibly hadn’t occurred to him that any Africans who live in Australia wouldn’t be referred to as African Americans, but I wasn’t going to quibble at that stage. I already had an ominous feeling about this conversation. I informed him that Australia has a very small African community.
“You’ve got no blacks down there?” he asked incredulously, “Wow. Do you want some?”
I felt ill.
This man was the pastor of a church. He wore a blue blazer with gold buttons. His hair was immaculately coiffed. He had a doctorate in Christian ministry. And he was a racist.
When racists wear black shirts, helmets, and boots they’re easy to spot. When they cheer the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and raise their arms in Nazi salutes, you’re under no illusions about their beliefs. When they march through the University of Virginia holding torches and chanting racist slogans we know who they are.
Those scenes of white supremacists marching on the old Confederate capital in Virginia are sickening. Rightfully, there has been an outcry across America condemning their behavior and bemoaning the racism that runs through so much of America’s history and which still affects so much of its society.
I’m not saying their outrageous and violent behavior isn’t a big deal. I think Charlottesville is a really big deal. But when a seam of hatred like this breaches the surface of civil society, you can bet there’s a bedrock of racism and ugliness beneath it.
Denouncing white nationalists is easy. Looking at ourselves and challenging the racist impulses of our fellow church members, neighbors and relatives is much more difficult.
Even if they didn’t descend on Charlottesville, and even if they don’t identify as members of Alt Right, there is clearly a group of people who feel that white people are threatened. They genuinely believe that some white conservatives are promoting the interests of Jews and non-whites over those of whites. They feel white people are being discriminated against.
David Duke spoke for them yesterday when he said these people “voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
Holding racism to account even when it’s expressed casually by fine, upstanding members of our community is essential. This involves a refusal to ignore or minimize racism wherever we hear it or see it, as difficult as it is.
When that North Carolina pastor offered to dump African Americans in Australia I remained silent. I like to think my mirthless silence was something of a passive rebuke to him. But the fact is I didn’t call it out as racism, when it clearly was.
I remember back in the 90’s when Katrina Hopkins sounded the slogan, “See It, Believe It, Say It, and Act on It”, and it’s still a good rule of thumb for dealing with everyday racism.
See it – Don’t look away. When we see a person suffering from racism and bigotry we must be willing to challenge that oppression, as well as supporting victims when they challenge it.
Believe it – We must be willing to accept the truth of the perceptions of a victim of oppression. If they say it hurt, it did. If they say it was racist, it was. And two people of color don’t have to agree that something is racist, for one to feel it is.
Say it – What I should have said to that North Carolina pastor was, “That is racist, and I don’t condone such language.” It would have been intimidating for me to do so, but guys like him count on no one ever saying anything.
Act on it – Do something. Protest. Partner. Preach. It was white abolitionists who made up the underground railroad, and white college kids joined the freedom rides and lunch counter sit-ins. Make a visible stand against racism.
As Katrina Hopkins once said, “We all have an opportunity to be allies in the fight against oppression. It is risky to step outside of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of another but it is necessary if we are to change the world for the better”.