If there is one thing we know about racism – it’s that racism is deeply personal.
Racism arises from within human personalities even as it dehumanizes others. Those subjected to its trauma feel the sting of being constantly defamed, excluded, and oppressed. Those indoctrinated and brainwashed into racism either accept its false-narratives and participate in its abuses and privileges, or they risk deep alienation from their own origins.
Racism is profoundly psychological, impacting the personality, the perception, and all relationships. Racism undermines the freedom to love and to be loved.
In American culture, racists are often personified like monsters in a horror story. These monsters, however, are real: the hooded KKK, the tattooed Neo-Nazis, the radicalized mass-shooters, the Tiki-Torch marauders, the backwoods racist red-necks, the loose-lipped Greek fraternity bully, and more recently, the insidious “Karen” using her cell-phone to summon one more brutal police attack on a Black adult or child.
When you think of the term “racist” – is this what comes to mind? The racist monster? Does such an image help or prevent you from seeing racism closer to home?
In reality, we are most likely to encounter the biases of racism in someone we know or in ourselves.
Personal racism exists within our experience of the church. I remember the Sunday School class that asked me if “inter-racial” marriage was prohibited in Scripture. I remember the college girl who confessed that her family chose their White church because, “We have to be around them the rest of the week.” I remember the ladies group that put locks on the kitchen cabinets after the Spanish service was organized. And of course, there was the Winter Texan who told me, “You taught me to stop hating Mexicans, but I still have a problem with Blacks.”
Anyone doing significant ministry in America will encounter those who suffer from racism.
Personal racism exists at all levels within the church. I have personally heard cabinet members refer to work in the Hispanic church as a “taco circuit,” “a pig in slop,” and a “half-breed appointment.” In one instance, I was called out at a district meeting as a race-traitor with the challenge, “Who do you represent?”
As Isabel Wilkerson so keenly demonstrates in Castes: The Origins of our Discontents, racism associates attributes of physical appearance and national origin with social rank or caste. Racism is mental, emotional, ideological, cultural, and spiritually toxic. It is personal, but is is not merely personal.
Racists are actual people. Those who spread racist ideology, who join hate groups, who spew hateful insults and epithets, who threaten, intimidate, mock, sabotage, stalk, and lynch people of color, who sit smugly in their own privilege as others are crushed, are actual people.
When you recall your own experiences of racism, what comes to mind?
Most likely, it will be personal racism.
So ubiquitous is the experience of personal racism that it can easily consume all of our anti-racist attention, turning it away from critical examination of social and organizational structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice.
Where externalization moves the focus away from the church entirely, the tactic of personalization limits the scope of our reflection and action to the realm of the individual, the realm of psychology and personality, to the individual racist. Racism, as a mere personality disorder, is addressed through therapy, education, enlightenment, and spiritual intervention, rather than through political reform seeking structural change.
Personalization not only excludes systemic and structural racism from the agenda, it has the very significant consequence of transforming any concern with systemic racism into a concern with the character of individuals in power. In many cases, especially within the church, those individuals project the very model of virtue. Any concern with structural racism, therefore, raises the scandal of defamation against beloved leaders, concerns easily dismissed as resentment, jealousy, or political mudslinging. Personalization frames the pro hominem work of anti-racism as an ad hominem against leaders.
When the structures of power are undifferentiated from individuals in power, the true mechanisms of structural racism can hide behind the cover of winsome and eloquent personalities who clearly “could not be racist.”
In a setting where personal racism is seen as a vice, those in privilege will generally project a non-racist persona even as they become dependent upon the privileges of systemic racism. The lack of differentiation can extend even into their own self-understanding. Since these virtuous leaders are not racist, the system that sustains their privilege cannot be racist.
Populist racism challenges the hypocrisy of non-racist elites governing a racist system. Instead of challenging the racism, however, populist racism privileges the shameless and open bigot as the appropriate leader of a racist system.
After a brutal police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, President Trump, a man with a well-established pattern of personal racism, visited areas struck by riots and violence. A White police officer had shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back in front of his three children.
At the news conference, two African-American pastors who serve the Blake family stood with the President. A reporter asked the pastors if racism was systemic.
Before the pastors could answer, President Trump answered for them. His verbal response diverted the concern toward the welfare of police officers, but his rude personal conduct diverted the concern from systemic back to personal racism.
Trump’s rudeness was tactical. It redirected the conversation from structures, systems, and incentives that produce and reward police brutality, to his own personality. His rudeness would serve as a trigger wire to gaslight the “snowflake” media for being concerned with his personality rather than the more substantive issues that he himself did not want to address.
These are the dangers of a narrow personalization of racism.
Whether the personality in question is openly racist, non-racist, prejudiced, bigoted, mildly biased, obnoxious or eloquently virtuous and winsome, when the conversation is about personality, it is not about the system.
It needs to be about the system.