If my experience of trying to root out my racial bias and racist tendencies is at all normative, one of the most significant barriers is defensiveness. Though it makes complete sense for whites to feel defensive when the topic of racism comes up, if we want to bring this systemic sin to an end, we need to learn how to recognize it, understand what’s underneath it, and refuse to be ruled by it.
I grew up in a mostly monochromatic, rural community during the 1960s and 70s. There was significant economic and religious diversity, but I only had two non-white classmates from kindergarten through senior year. That lack of racial diversity coupled with history books that never questioned the white narrative led me to believe that the battle for racial equality had already been won. Of course, I was wrong.
While I was walking a mile to school past the modest homes of my blue-collar neighbors, other school children across the country were boarding buses and coming face to face with hatred, violence, and discrimination due to federally mandated school desegregation.
It wasn’t until college when I developed a friendship with an African American woman I’ll call Lea, that I began to learn racism was not something from a bygone era. Lea’s elementary school experience (which coincided with the busing conflicts in Boston) included being shamed, being falsely accused of cheating, and being treated unfairly. Though we were peers in every way, her story was utterly foreign to me. Hearing her first-person accounts caused some deep internal shifting.
As I listened, a strange mixture of grief and defensiveness began to well up. The grief was a godly response: the defensiveness—not so much. This new information exposed my ignorance of the Black experience and my unwitting collusion with a system that benefits me simply because of my skin tone. And I did not like this.
Defensiveness is a natural human reaction when we feel a physical or psychological threat. It’s a form of self-preservation from actual enemies, but also a means to protect ourselves from feeling guilty or ashamed when we have done wrong. It would seem that Adam and Eve’s instinct to cover themselves when they disobeyed God set a pattern in motion for all humanity.
The impulse to avoid shame triggers is universal. None of us like feeling bad about ourselves or the people we most closely associate with. As a result, we either avoid situations and/or conversations that trigger shame or, if avoiding is impossible, we defend ourselves in an effort to keep these feelings at a safe distance.
However natural or understandable, such default patterns cause problems. They enforce our pride and self-righteousness; they prevent us from maturing; and they block us from being able to empathize, support, and love.
Shame triggers are everywhere. Receiving a bad job review. Realizing that your mistakes or limitations have hurt someone you care about. Public failure. Based on my experiences as a pastor and journalist, one of the most consistent shame triggers is when majority and minority folks have honest conversations about race. As soon as minorities bring up issues connected to racial bias or racism, white majority folks tend to react. We accuse them of playing the race card. We minimize their experiences or tell them to get over it. By and large, it’s not what Jesus would do.
Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, coined a term to describe this response: white fragility. She describes it in a 2011 journal article as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
If we can’t bear the idea that we made a mistake, that we are flawed, or worse—that we are complicit in a system that continues to hurt and oppress minority cultures, we lessen the shame by any means possible. We may get angry because anger is safer. Anger transfers that shame back on someone else so we don’t have to carry it. We may change the subject or choose to focus on one insignificant component of the conversation as a means to dodge the real issue. (Read Austin Channing Brown’s excellent post for more.)
While shame is a completely natural response to mistakes or failures, if we stay in the shamed posture and defend ourselves or our ideologies, the story becomes about us and we miss the point: wrongs have been done and actual men and women have been hurt.
Though shame is powerful, it doesn’t need to control or incapacitate us. It’s actually meant to inspire us to action. For whites, perhaps the first step to moving through shame is to have sufficient humility and self awareness to admit, “I’m feeling defensive right now.” Then, refuse to be ruled by the feeling and instead, intentionally listen to Black, Asian, Latino, or Muslim brothers and sisters. Christena Cleveland wrote in her piece for Christianity Today, “When oppressed folks speak up, privileged folks should be all ears.”
In practical terms, what might this look like? If you are white, ask a minority friend, co-worker, or neighbor if they would be willing to talk about their experiences. Resist the urge to control how they tell their narrative. They might get angry and it might be messy. Don’t interrupt, defend yourself, or stop listening until they have finished. If you think they’re done, pause, and then ask, “Is there anything else you want to say?” It’s painful enough for minorities to feel abandoned by the American justice and political systems but if we refuse to listen, we invalidate their experiences and exacerbate the problem.
Many whites believe that racism no longer exists. They point to affirmative action, the rise of minorities in the sporting and entertainment industry, and even Barak Obama’s presidency as proof. As I wrote in a recent article for Relevant Magazine, the historic roots of racism continue to impact nearly every aspect of minority life: including housing, education, and law enforcement. Matthew Simmerman-Gomes explained, “I want racism to end, but almost as much, I want to stop being told by whites that it has.”
When we choose to listen rather than react or defend ourselves, we give God permission to transform us. By validating another’s story, rather than assuming we know more or have better information, we learn. When we open our hearts to the pain and hardship that others have faced, we share their burden and ease their aloneness. Finally, listening makes space for the Holy Spirit to convict us of any pride, judgment, or other sins. We rarely experience this if we remain defensive.
As you engage with minorities, thank them for teaching you something that has been outside of your life experience. If you sense that you have contributed to a broken system, admit it and ask them for forgiveness. Then go and repeat the process about a hundred times.
I am not naive enough to assume that one-on-one conversations will miraculously eradicate racial divides. However, I do have the faith to believe that when whites listen and then communicate something along the lines of, “I’m so deeply grieved that this has been your experience. What can I do to stand with you and how can I help to change the broken system?” that kind of conversation and the will to back it up might actually bring the healing and restoration that our country so desperately needs.