14 books – part 2

Today marks the second in our series regarding the Intramuralist’s still incomplete journey, sharing some of what I’ve learned in my pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony. Know that my desire is two-fold: (1) to be part of a greater coming together; and (2) to fulfill what I wholeheartedly believe is the second greatest commandment for us all — to love another as ourselves. [Note: if you have not read Part 1 of “14 Books,” allow me to encourage such now, as it will provide necessary context.]

Drawing from the insights of 14 articulate, diverse authors (… Carson, Kendi, and Picoult… DiAngelo and Loritts, Stevenson and Steele… Yancey and more… oh, my… George Yancey…), I found multiple perspectives vital, as almost from the onset, I sensed a mounting confusion. None denied racism’s existence; all believe racism is morally wrong. But yet, as I read — while listening to additional, insightful others — an inconspicuous disconnect quickly unfolded. Intelligent, honorable people keep talking past each other on this issue — people of solid integrity, varied age and ethnicity. They simply, sincerely can’t get what another is trying to say.

I increasingly gleaned a huge source of the confusion: people are assuming two different, dominant definitions of racism. Simplifying the definitions for the purposes of today’s discussion, some define “racism” as judging another person by the color of their skin. Others define “racism” as a socially-constructed marginalization of people of color. This distinction is key because how racism manifests itself appears strikingly different based on which definition one assumes. It also impacts what one believes to be an effective approach in dealing with the disgrace [to be addressed more in Part 3].

If I define racism as judging another by the color of their skin, I can logically conclude that racism is based solely on the individual. If I believe then that I personally never engage in that behavior nor adhere to such thinking — am even abhorred by it — I may be tempted to minimize the extent to which racism still exists in this country.

If, on the other hand, I define racism as a social construct marginalizing people of color, I can also logically conclude, if I belong to a minority race, it’s impossible for me to be racist, as racism is based solely on the system (aka “institutional” or “structural”). If I believe racism is a systemic social construct, I may be tempted to minimize the work I need to do to contribute positively to racial harmony.

Remember, friends, I am not advocating any singular perspective. I actually am learning how harmful embracing a singular perspective can be, even if it’s shared by 47 likeminded people. If I read only to reinforce a desired paradigm, my growth will be stunted, as paradigms are made to be challenged — not insulated. Wisdom is revealed when pressed paradigms hold up over time to unlike thinking.

Consider, for example, the unquestionably polarized reactions to both the notable OJ Simpson verdict and more recent Colin Kaepernick NFL-kneeling protest — two situations where good people simply don’t get how another may feel completely, totally differently… Do I see Simpson as one angry ex-spouse potentially responsible for a vicious, heinous crime? … or do I see a man who had a racist system stacked against him from the start? … Do I see Kaepernick as one disgruntled, once-starting QB who openly mocked police officers? … or do I see a marginalized man who finally had the guts to stand up to injustice within the context of an all-white ownership situation?

No doubt how I view racism doesn’t dictate my response, but it certainly impacts my empathy for each of the one time football professionals. Empathy affects outcome. Empathy affects communication. Empathy affects what each of us thinks is wise to do next.

Reading through the 14 books, I found each of the respected authors with a huge challenge on their hands: how do they not minimize or overstate what’s individual and what’s systemic? How do they wrestle with both definitions without neglecting or rewriting either historical sin or current progress? Where have we made progress? Where have we not? Several of the authors boldly averred a sole definition; one in particular even created a series of binary choices to in my opinion, too-easily explain away that which clashed with his paradigm.

As for my ongoing journey, I found myself resonating with author John Piper’s definition, where he recognizes individuals and institutions which exhibit “an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.” That happens through our  prejudice and implicit bias, as author Latasha Morrison points out, noting that prejudice is chosen; implicit bias is not. Some individuals and institutions exhibit racism in their beliefs or practices and aren’t even aware. Sometimes that’s a racist act — intentionally valuing one race over another; sometimes, too, as author Emmanuel Acho distinguishes, it’s more an expression of racial insensitivity. In either case, whatever race, there is knowledge to glean and work to do, continuing to listen and learn from those whose experience is different than our own.

Hence, I rawly but boldly ask myself… 

  • In regard to individual responsibility and collective history, what aspects am I minimizing, overstating, or even omitting? 
  • What flawed conclusions have I drawn because they better fit my paradigm? 
  • And where is my empathy lacking? 

As one of the absolute wisest voices I read, African-American sociologist Yancey, shared, “I discovered that racism was not just the other person’s problem but mine as well.”

Looks like I have work to do… learning to love all others as myself… which leads us to Part 3.