If you could ask a fish, “How’s the water?”, the fish would probably respond by saying, “What in the world is water?”
That was the observation of David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech at Kenyon College used to illustrate how we as humans are shaped by culture and participate in systems every day without being consciously aware of it. The paradox of our culture and systems is that the more ubiquitous they are, the harder they are to see.
As a pastor who is involved with social advocacy ministries, I have found that one of the most difficult tasks is awakening ourselves to the ways in which we passively participate in harmful systems without being aware of it. It’s kind of like trying to explain what water is to a fish.
In our heart, some of us are decent, hard-working people. We may never consciously try to hurt anyone. So it may seem just too much of a stretch to think that things we do without thinking are harming others and participating in injustice. The journey from the motivations of our heart to being able to see patterns of injustice is a long one.
None of us goes to the cheapest big box store to get our goods with a conscious intent to deprive the cashier of adequate health care coverage or to impoverish growers in Latin America or to endanger a southeast Asian worker in an unsafe, unregulated factory. But that’s why the goods are so cheap.
Sometimes we’re even dealing with competing interests, and it’s hard to imagine anyone blaming us for the choices we make. Education can be one example. Despite great innovation and progress in some locales, inequity continues to plague our schools. You can’t blame any individual parent for doing what they think is best for their child. It’s common for financially stable families to move away from poorer school districts or even choose a private school in order to seek better environments and opportunities for their children. But such options are not available to the poor and, on a systemic level, this perpetuates inequity and socioeconomic segregation.
One of the more painful examples of systemic problems to come into the national spotlight in recent years is that of racism. One of the reasons we haven’t been able to have a coherent conversation about this is because we have so much trouble seeing systemic problems — the water we swim in. People assume that when you talk about racism, you’re calling them a racist.
To be clear: there are racist people. I know nothing of the experience of being the subject of racist jokes, comments, labels and assumptions. I just know it happens all too often. But you don’t have to be a racist to be a contributing participant in racism. That’s what makes bias so tricky: no one chooses to be biased, and it’s hard to see bias unless we’re the victim of it.
As the debate rages on about policing and black citizens, your friend or neighbor who is a cop will tell you that it’s ridiculous to think that he goes to work with a plot in mind to treat black people unfairly. You can safely believe him. Of course he doesn’t. The officers I know don’t either. But that doesn’t change the many measurable racial disparities, like how black people are arrested far more often than white people for marijuana even though they report using it at roughly the same rates.
Consider your other friend who is a business owner. You can safely believe her when she says that she doesn’t bring people in for interviews thinking that she’s going to give white people a better shot. But on a system level, that’s exactly what happens. A study published in 2003 showed that white people with felonies on their record have better job hunting success than young black men with no criminal record.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls this “racism without racists.” “The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers … the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game,” he wrote.
Sometimes, we can’t even see our biases in plain sight. Some of the kindest, gentlest people I know have said some of the most racist and sexist things I’ve ever heard. A soft-spoken, church going white woman recently lamented to me that her granddaughter has fallen in love with a black man. She told me about how much this bothered her and how she thought her granddaughter could “do better.” She ended by saying, “I’m not a racist or anything, it just bothers me.”
The journey from the motivations of our heart to being able to see patterns of injustice is a long one. It has been for me, and I still have a long way to go.
A 2014 publication by Cook Ross called “Everyday Bias” was written primarily for training on unconscious bias in the setting of the workplace, but it’s concluding section has a few suggestions that apply well to the task of learning to think systemically and become aware of different contexts and experiences. It suggests, for example, that we “develop and practice constructive uncertainty” in which we constantly ask ourselves how something can be alternatively understood.
However, there is one powerful tool that has been key in my life and ministry: encounter. “Everyday Bias” calls this “engaging with those people you consider ‘others.’” For our hearts to be able to bridge the gap and see systems at work, it often requires something that can be difficult and disorienting: being exposed to people and situations that challenge our assumptions and learned life patterns.
Jesus was a master at facilitating these encounters and reframing reality, but it’s also what most got him in trouble. Sabbath practice, for example, was deeply ingrained and considered one of the law’s key commands, but he challenged the way it was done in light of the burden it was placing on some people. Jesus also challenged social conventions and customs regarding table fellowship, and it didn’t earn him the best reputation (Matt. 11:19). The Jewish people of the day awaited a Messiah that would re-establish Israel by power and authority, but instead Jesus challenged earthly kingdoms, reinterpreted the role of a Messiah, and even dared to say that those most despised by the people would get first dibs in the Kingdom of God. Such talk just about got him thrown over a cliff (Luke 4:14-30).
It would be unrealistic to ask a fish to remove itself from its water. In the examples above, Jesus wasn’t asking people to leave their Jewish context. On the contrary, he embraced that context (Matt. 5:17-18). Instead, the call is to become aware of our culture and systems, critically evaluating them on the basis of whether we are honoring the image of God in all of life.
In a word, we need a “God’s eye view” of our life and all that we take for granted. In my experience, God will gladly take us on that hike when we’re ready (James 1:5). But be sure to bring some sturdy shoes.