Understanding Racism

“Understanding Racism” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely, February 10, 2019 Unitarian Church of Edmonton

I did not grow up aware of racism.

That’s not a boast or a claim to some special status.  I did not grow up aware of racism, because, well, in my part of Montreal, there were no people of colour.  Period.  In my elementary school there were just Caucasian kids.  I can’t ever recall family members making racist jokes or speaking derogatorily about people from other lands.  I didn’t see anyone of colour until about age 10, for the Haitian immigration to Quebec hadn’t begun in 1955.  My first acquaintance of colour was a Filipino lad in my grade 8 class in high school.

Which is not to say I was pure or clean.  In Quebec, we had our attitudes towards the French.  For us, they were the ‘other’ and not a group with which we associated much.  I suppose I probably picked up some negative racial stuff from TV: false character traits ascribed to various races, but I never thought much about them.

So while I was fortunate to grow up not bearing the burden of family messages of racial prejudice, neither was I exposed to the benefit of a multiracial or multicultural milieu.  

My children have been.  I am reminded of picking up one of my daughters after school a few years ago.  “I made a new friend,” she said happily.  “Oh yeah? Who?” “Alliyah.”  “Which one is she?” I asked looking at the front of the school.  “The one in the red shirt.”  I looked over.  There was one little girl in a red shirt…and she had brown skin and a niqab covering her head.  My daughter had not seen or thought the colour of her skin was important to her description.  I can’t claim that.  I see a person’s skin colour.  I consciously catch myself and say it doesn’t matter, but for better or worse, I do see that colour.  Not proud of that.

When people of colour did enter my life they were strange, unfamiliar.  They were other.  I wasn’t the first person to walk across the room and start up a conversation.  I wasn’t the one who began to build a bridge. It wasn’t that this segregation was a conscious act on my part, it just sort of happened.  I didn’t know enough to think that I had a role to play or even to notice that there was a problem.  

Simple ignorance more than deliberate racism, I think.  I suppose, on reflection, that I expected them to fit in with me, and did not feel an obligation to make the first move.  Unconsciously, I understood that mine was the dominant culture.  The obligation of ‘fitting in’, if such there be,  belonged to them.  

And yeah, that is racism, maybe not the hateful kind, but racism nonetheless.  Those of you who grew up in Canada, in very broad terms, have a way of seeing the world, of understanding how Canada works, how our legal system and medical system operates.  It’s the way of things, right?  We don’t barter in stores, we line up for busses in a certain way, most of us don’t fear the police and so on.  People who come to our country (or who are born here, but are the children of different cultures) are expected to fit into our world.  They had to change, not us. That’s white privilege and it is something some people have begun to challenge. 

Last week Bill Lee posted an article from a black woman, Lori Lakin Hutcherson to the UCE Facebook page.  She defined ‘white privilege’ for a friend.  She had many examples, but I was struck by the subtlety of this one; 

In my freshman college tutorial, our small group of 4–5 was assigned to read Thoreau, Emerson, Malcolm X, Joseph Conrad, Dreiser, etc. When it was the week to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one white boy boldly claimed he couldn’t even get through it because he couldn’t relate and didn’t think he should be forced to read it. I don’t remember the words I said, but I still remember the feeling… I know I said something like my whole life I’ve had to read “things that don’t have anything to do with me or that I relate to” but I find a way anyway because that’s what learning is about—trying to understand other people’s perspectives. The point here is—the canon of literature studied in the United States, as well as the majority of television and movies, have focused primarily on the works or achievements of white men. So, if you have never experienced or considered how damaging it is/was/could be to grow up without myriad role models and images in school that reflect you in your required reading material or in the mainstream media, you have white privilege.

And that is racism, systemic racism.

I’d like to think I have come a long way since my childhood lack of awareness.  When I was travelling for the International Council of UU’s, I was exposed to many cultures and races, some for the first time.  And on several occasions I was the minority in the room, sometimes the only white face.  And I was keenly aware that this world, whether African or Filipino or Indian operated very differently from the one I knew.  It was a glimpse into the kinds of challenges non-white people face in western nations. I hope it made me more aware.

I learned a lot from that international work.  I…well a lot of white folks, so I will say ‘we’ learned that we were using a very western model of operations.  A shining example comes from our friend, Rev. Fulgence who was here for a fundraiser a couple of weeks ago.  Fulgence was still living in Burundi and spoke a couple of African languages and French.  He had very little English back then.  English was the common language of the Council.  At a formal business meeting there was some heated discussion about a motion that was put on the floor and then on the table.  Confused he leaned over to a mutual friend and asked, “What are they talking about? I don’t see anything on the floor and I didn’t see anyone move it to a table!”

He helped our organization realize unconscious white privilege.  We began to confront our structural racism.  The Council conducts its meetings far differently now, focusing on consensus building discussions with a minimum of formal procedural debate.

I stopped being a child a long time ago, but my grasp of racism took much longer to mature.  I used to think racism was about slavery, and residential schools (once I learned that they existed) and lynchings and ghettoes and mean-spirited jokes.  You know, big and notable actions we can easily condemn and forget by saying, “Well, I’m not part of that.”  But racism is more complex.  So let’s take a look at it’s structure and history:

An article by Dr. Charlotte Reading points out that while dislike and hatred between social groups, tribes and nations has always been with us, the idea of race has not:

The Historical Construction of Race

Race is a relatively recent concept within western societies. In Europe, until the latter part of the 1600s, identity was primarily defined by one’s religion and language (Hannaford, 1996). The concept of race as a category of identity did not emerge until Europeans began to colonize other continents. 

In 1684, François Bernier published the first classification of humans into distinct races (Todorov, 1993), followed by a 1735 publication by Carolus Linnaeus which further classified people based on continental differences… He arbitrarily classified Europaeus as cheerful, Asiaticus as melancholy, Americanus as aggressive, and Afericanus as sluggish (Brace, 2005).

During this time, scientists became increasingly interested in looking for differences between groups who were now being defined as separate races. These investigations produced an official ideology (or worldview) of race. According to this ideology, racial categories are exclusive; they arise from nature, and they are enduring (Smedley, 1999). …Authors (including) Thomas Jefferson promoted a more oppressive ideology in which Caucasians were generally viewed as superior to other races, and particularly to people who had been classified as Negroid or American Indian (Graves, 2001). It is interesting to note that 18th century naturalists, who were formulating the characteristics of various ‘races’, relied primarily on colonists’ subjective descriptions of Indigenous peoples who were often referred to as inferior savages … (Smedley, 1999).

By the 1800s, the term ‘race’ had become commonplace and for the first time in human history, racial classifications were used to create and maintain discriminatory social hierarchies (Allen, 1994; Smedley, 2012)…

(Today)…Scientists have confirmed that there is

no biological basis for what we refer to as human ‘races.’ In fact, genetic researchers have discovered that among modern humans, 85% of our genetic variation occurs between individuals, with only 5% between so-called ‘racial groups’ on the same continent and 10% between people on different continents (Smedley, 1999). As Graves (2001) points out, some animals have more genetic variation than humans: “there is more genetic variation within one tribe of wild chimpanzees than has been observed within all existing humans!”.

In fact, (one researcher) suggests that “the idea of race and its persistence as a social category is only given meaning in a social order structured by forms of inequality – economic, political, and cultural – that are organized, to a significant degree, by race”.

So, bottom line, race is a false construct designed and perpetuated to create divisions, social hierarchy and privilege.  This is nothing new.  As Dr. Reading noted, before race we hated on the basis of religion.  We also had the idea of noble birth and royalty as a means of separating the privileged from the mass.  In times of war we have state sponsored propaganda which deliberately dehumanizes the enemy, even when they look just like us. These days we have the excesses of capitalism.  Some at the top of that pile use all the tools: racism, political fears about terrorism, threat of economic decline and mass destruction as ways to divide the population and perpetuate their privilege and power.

Racism is nothing more than one phoney tool of division, one more way to define ‘otherness’. And otherness is the shield and buckler of human insecurity.  We define people as other because we are scared or afraid of losing something.  We won’t or can’t see ‘us’ as enough.  We want more, we want safety, we want security, we want wealth or power, we want… fill in the blank.  And when we don’t have it, many feel less than complete and reach out to blame someone else for keeping it from us or wanting to steal it from us.  

The current US President has constructed his entire world around the exploitation of this insecurity.

Racism is a terrible thing.  It is the dominant means of exploiting ‘Otherness’; the dominant means of stirring our fears and insecurities; the dominant means of creating or reinforcing privilege, and not only in white culture.  Every groups dismisses some other group using race, ethnicity, religion or language.  

It is at the very least unfairly exclusionary and at its worst, downright dangerous and violent.  But it is only one way we let our fears define the others who frighten us and allow us to feel less than OK.  Sadly, we can have all kinds of government anti-racism programs, but until each one of us decides that we are enough as we are, dividing the world into ‘us and them’ will continue.

Next week I will explore how our Principles call us to challenge otherness.