I used to tell racist jokes. The problem was, I didn’t understand that they were racist jokes. Well, obviously I knew they got laughs by making fun of other people, but somehow that just didn’t add up as wrong. I never would have called myself a racist.
My family members told racist and sexist jokes; I heard them on TV and radio; friends told similar jokes. Without thought, I became a product of the culture in which I lived.
It’s not that I was a bad person; I was ignorant – which, by the way, is a perfectly good and kind word to describe anyone who doesn’t know what they don’t know. Seeing the light took some strong-willed people in my young adult life who had the courage to tell me those jokes weren’t funny. And it has taken a series of events over decades since then to continue to learn the ingrained forms of racism and sexism that abide in me. I’m more aware than I used to be; but I’m not nearly as aware as I want to be.
What has changed me – and continues to change me – is the persuasion of other people who shine a light on my words and thoughts and actions. And my willingness to listen to their definitions. Those are the people who have earned the right to define what is racist or sexist or bigoted. If the definition were left up to me, of course I never would define my own actions as improper. Who would?
I have learned, though, that when someone frequently has to tell you how they are “not a racist” or “not a bigot” or “not sexist,” there’s a pretty good chance they actually are those things. To quote Shakespeare: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
“When someone frequently has to tell you how they are ‘not a racist’ or ‘not a bigot’ or ‘not sexist,’ there’s a pretty good chance they actually are those things.”
If you have to tell people how you’re “not a racist,” you are setting the definition yourself. In logic, that’s called circular reasoning: You begin with the outcome you’re wanting to end with.
While most of our attention today is justifiably focused on white-skinned people who are racists, the truth is that all people of all races can be racist. One of my favorite Broadway musicals is the hilariously irreverent “Avenue Q.” Think “Sesame Street” for grownups. At a key juncture in the show, all the diverse cast of characters realize they are racists themselves and not just the victims of racism. The song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” ends with the shocking discovery that Jesus Christ was … ahem … Jewish!
We all have something to learn, if we are willing to learn and to let others show us the unvarnished definitions of the labels we want to avoid. However, those of us who have the most to learn are the ones who seldom have been victims of racism ourselves, who think we know what racism means but in reality do not know the definition. We have the opportunity to be shaped into better humans, better Christians, by learning from others who hold up before us the dictionary and the mirror and the Bible all together.
What scares me most about America today – and about the Christian church in America today – is the seemingly vast number of people who are not willing to have the mirror of truth held up in front of them. Or who know the definition of racism and simply don’t care. This is the insidious evil of white nationalism and other forms of bigotry that seek to say up is down and wrong is right; hateful behavior gets covered up not just by ignorance but by willful redefining. And good people who know better choose to say nothing.
In those cases, the rest of us need to muster the courage to remember where we’ve come from and to hold up for others the dictionary and the mirror and the Bible all together – just as someone probably did for us. Sticks and stones are nothing compared to the power of words to make or break us.