We swim in a sea of racism—everything is wet
Everything in the United States is touched by racism and so every single one of our interactions is racialized. Everything we experience is “seasoned” with racism. And because that is an ongoing reality, because it is so ingrained in the fabric of our society, it is both hard to identify for many of us, and its perpetrators often have plausible deniability. Too frequently the perception of people of color of racism is named as hysterical or untrustworthy because those who harm them are merely asking questions. But racism is so nefarious that while intention may be innocent, we must interrogate the impact of it.
Like whiteness, racism is invisible because it hides in plain sight. If everything is covered in racism, it’s hard to identify it. The racial hierarchy orders everything around us, but because we swim in a sea of racism, we don’t understand what it means for something to be wet; or better yet, what it means for something to be dry. We don’t have a grammar to describe white supremacy because so often we are just describing business as usual. One of the reasons that the Trump Administration named Critical Race Theory as anti-American is because when we begin to teach about the racist history of the United States it feels like it’s an assault on the country itself. Racism is so embedded in the country, in our organizations, in our churches, and even in our very bodies, that when we interrogate it, when we try to root it out, it will often feel like we are attacking the essence of who we are. And it will feel personal, difficult, and painful.
Too often the pain that white people feel during that interrogation though is focused on, instead of the pain that people of color regularly endure and cope with just because we exist. The pain of white people feels new, and fresh, and so they are rather vocal about that discomfort. I suppose for people of color, because we learn to take our shots we can hit, we can cope with racism because, invariably, we have learned how to. It’s impossible to exist in the United States for a person of color without experiencing racism; people of color then have a choice to make: advocate for ourselves, repress our feelings (and thus internalize that hatred), or cope with it.
Ignoring racism leads to self-hatred
For me, I started out not knowing that I was a victim of racism. I didn’t understand that the reason I was embarrassed about my family’s accent, or the food I was packed for lunch, or the culture we came from was because of white supremacy. I didn’t know that our desperation to assimilate when we moved to the U.S. and especially after 9/11 was because of white supremacy. As a person of color, you desperately don’t want to face the reality that people hate you just because of how you look. I tried to avoid that for a long time.
It’s a normal defense mechanism not to feel all of the pain of racism I’ve experienced. I think our bodies might even protect us from that. But the result of that is a deep self-hatred and loathing. I admit, I wanted to be someone else, born into a different family, because of the pain I experienced as a person of color growing up. I wanted to be “normal,” so we tried to fit in so badly.
In fact, I was willingly tokenized to protect the organizations I was a part of from accusations of racism. I was propped up as a brown guy who was there to reassure the white folks not to be overcome with guilt, which is what antiracism boiled down to for many white people. This, of course, is a mutually beneficial relationship. Not only do I keep white people from facing the harm they caused, I keep myself, at least seemingly, from experiencing it.
It took a lot of work for me to wake up to the racism I experienced. I had to read, listen, feel, and open myself to the idea that people could hate me for something I couldn’t change about myself. That is incredibly emotionally taxing, and has very little upside when I continue to dwell in white spaces. One reason to awaken oneself to the racism one experiences is to relate to and connect with other people of color. But in a predominantly white organization, learning of the racism you experience is a recipe for more pain. It takes more work to notice it in a white environment. And because you are noticing it alone you are vulnerable to gaslighting—that is to say, your feelings of racism being invalidated. If you ever get to a point where you feel the pain, sharing that pain is even riskier, because it requires a self-disclosure, which your oppressor hasn’t demonstrated. So you are vulnerable and you have to fully prepare for the possibility that your oppressor will ignore you or disbelieve you. I know it, because it’s happened to me. It is devastating.
But because I am seasoned at coping with racism, I am not conscious of all the racism that I experience or that occurs around me. As of late, I’ve had several friends point out that a way I was treated was explicitly racist—and I was clueless to it. I avoided fully experiencing it because it was too painful to experience. This makes it necessary for me to listen to other BIPOCs and their experiences. They help me to see my own as they share their own. It doesn’t always register, but if I submit myself to their leadership, even when it makes me uncomfortable, I may learn something and I often do. But white supremacy is a force that is much more powerful than the singular stories and instances of people of color, and so there is a lot of resistance to listening to these stories because of how indicting they is to white people and painful they are for people of color. That is to say, some people of color will deny the experience of racism among other people of color to protect themselves from pain. And white folks will deny that experience to protect themselves from the accusation.
For me, especially as a young person of color in the church, who survived in predominantly white systems exclusively because of my acquiescence, it is easy for me to cope with racism by ignoring it. It is easier to act like racism isn’t a big problem than it is to address it directly. It certainly prevents a lot of pain. Plus, not making waves and getting along, is a great way to be affirmed too, and, boy, do I look for affirmation from my father figures. But for me, it was knowing that I was truly the beloved of God, that could allow me to advocate for myself and name the racism I had experienced. No longer did I need to avoid my pain in hopes of collecting some bits of love along the way, so long as I didn’t offend my dominator. I could fully receive the love of God and without fear name my experience.
Believing victims of racism means white people doubting themselves
Racism is so nefarious that we need courageous people of color to speak their truth, and white people need to listen to their experiences, before it’s too late. Too often we notice the damaging and deadly way our society is shaped when it is too late. We notice it when Breonna Taylor is already dead. When Derek Chauvin has his knee on George Floyd’s neck. When we have historic flooding in Philadelphia and a few tornadoes blow through our region. When the evidence is irrefutable, it is too late. And it’s a product of white supremacy to only believe it when white people see it. It means you didn’t believe people of color when they shared their experience.
But when people of color share their experience of racism with you, it’s a gift, not an attack. When you are defensive, when you think you know better, when you think you’re right, you’re rejecting that gift. And you may never get that chance again. Speaking from my own experience, it is easier to cope and to accommodate than to advocate. I would rather settle for oppression on my own terms than have it rubbed in my face again.
So please, keep interrogating where racism and hatred is in your heart, in our consciousness, and in our world. Do not wait until it’s too late. Do not wait until the person of color quits your organization, leaves your church, or you lose intimacy with them. It is very hard to win that back. Start with the assumption that you are complicit in racism in everything you do—because racism touches everything we do—and then keep going toward wholeness. The journey is never over, for the white people or people of color. We will keep discovering new ways we’ve harmed others and been harmed. But as Christians, we can enter into that struggle fully because we are loved and known fully by God. We get to be our true selves by rejecting racism wherever we see it. Christians have a chance to develop a lens to see racism where it is hiding and be true advocates against it, because we relate to a God that rules with a different order.