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gRACE & RACE (+ Racism) – Part I
By Swee Ann KOH
Posted in Culture
I don’t want to be known as a single-story person. A person known only to speak about race, racism, white privilege and power. However, I am convinced that silence is not an option. There is an elephant in the room, and it has been there for a long, long time.
We all know that conversations on racism make some people uncomfortable, defensive and unhappy. Some of us have approached race like the Field of Dreams movie: “If we build walls to ignore race, the progress will come.”
When people get uncomfortable they often project anger, frustration or animosity. It’s a coping mechanism; a way of dealing with the deeply buried shame, confusion, and issues that just feel too difficult to tackle.
Discomfort is OK. Stay with the discomfort. Befriend it. Whenever you feel discomfort, ask yourself ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ Furthermore, momentary discomfort is nothing compared to a lifetime of feeling shamed, and feeling never good enough because of racism.
I have been reflecting and speaking on racism for a long time. At times it has been energy sapping and, at times, hope-full. I probably have irritated a few white friends. However, I am convinced that if we want to have a life-giving conversation on this uncomfortable issue, we need grace, God’s grace and be grace-full. Without grace, the conversations might escalate into conflicts and damage relationships.
I know it’s hard -- I find it hard myself to face up to things that are difficult to talk about; we all do. That’s why we need grace, God’s grace to talk about race, racism, white privilege and power. Four things that might help us to have grace-full conversations are:
- Listen, listen and listen again
- No 'buts'
- Don’t pit one ‘ism’ against another
Listen, Listen and Listen Again
To have a grace-full conversation on race, racism, white privilege and power, those from the dominant culture need to listen and listen and listen again to voices that express the uncomfortable experiences of racism. This is so important for those who are courageous enough to share their experiences of racism. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." So, the real important question is ‘can you listen?’
I implore those from the dominant culture to listen. Becoming defensive, micro aggressive, or denying that racism exists is not helpful and will not encourage grace-full conversations. We need to listen, listen with sensitivity, humility and grace with an understanding that there are ways of listening and sense making that are also culturally nuanced and influenced. Remember, we are all part of each other’s stories and conversations.
Grace-full conversation begins with listening. Let’s remember what James said: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak." (James 1:19) Silent and listen are spelled with the same letters.
Grace-full conversations on race, racism, white privilege and power have no “buts”. For those who experienced racism when they hear “buts” what they hear is “we don’t believe you.” It’s heard as denial. It’s heard as excusing. It’s heard as you are not important.
"I’m not racist, but these other races can't just come to our country and get on the dole, they have to contribute" The denial of racism is just a form of racism itself. I'm not racist but... is soft racism.
Let me share two experiences of “buts” in the church which I experienced.
Once I brought a proposal to the Synod meetings to set up a committee to see how the various committees and councils of the church can be more culturally and ethnically diverse. The Moderator was unable to find consensus initially. A white man from a country Presbytery stood up and said (I am summarising): “We Anglos were here first and we have given much to the church right from the beginning. Yes, you need to be represented but we came first and so you need to take your turn.”
Another time I visited a country congregation where a CALD minister was placed. The minister arranged for me to meet with the elders and church council members. I shared the National Assembly resolution of 1985, “The Uniting Church in Australia is a Multicultural Church” and explored with them what it means. One elder said, “Yes, I know, but, we Anglos are the majority in the church and you need to listen to us.”
Don’t Pit One ‘ISM’ Against Another
One of my frustrations is whenever I raise the issue of racism, someone would remind me of other ‘isms’ – sexism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, and ableism etc. Frankly I feel insulted when people feel the need to remind me of the other ‘isms. I feel that I have been stereotyped or pigeonholed.
Once I posted this: “The health of the church as a covenantal community depends on fostering a unity that flourishes by embracing a just diversity… a diversity that cultivates equity and shares power.” Someone commented, “… yes as long as this includes gender equality. The primary gender equality issue is male/female so let’s address that first.” Why? Why not address them at the same time? Why must the gender issue be first? It sounds like racism is not as an important issue as sexism. It’s a false equivalent. It pits the oppressed against each other, forcing groups to compete for God’s justice. Justice is infinite, not finite.
The common denominator of these “isms” is the stereotyping of a group, assigning the same attributes to all of its members. The stereotype serves as a basis for discrimination and vilification. Isms are based in the history of power relations.
Grace-full conversation on racism doesn’t pit one ‘ism’ against another. All ‘isms” need to be rejected. All ‘isms’ are anti-gospel. All ‘isms’ dehumanised and failed to acknowledge that we are all created in the image of God. But when the minorities within our church share stories of racism and obvious white privilege reminding them of other ‘isms’ is not helpful to say the least.
Please don’t move to guilt-setting as your immediate response to conversations on racism. To overcome racism our conversations must be grace-full instead of guilt-full. For me there is healthy white guilt and unhealthy white guilt. Healthy white guilt leads to change, transformation, and new life. Unhealthy white guilt leads to paralysis and inaction.
Howard J. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias” says, "We need to reduce the level of guilt but increase the level of responsibility we take for it." Stop wallowing in your guilt and start doing something for racial justice.
Sometimes this guilt complex operates as a smokescreen for inaction. If we’re talking about how guilty white people feel, we are re-centring our needs, our comfort, our perspective. This is a power play, a refusal to centre the people who are actually harmed by the oppression. We are the beneficiaries of racism—how can we so easily get away with centring our own discomfort?
Guilt (and shame) contribute to the continuation of privilege because they are paralysing feelings that keep us spinning within them rather than mobilizing us to take action, individually or collectively. If we are feeling bad about racism we need to ask ourselves does our guilt lead to change or is it simply self-absorption.
A healthy white guilt keeps us focused on ending racism and not remaining centred on our feeling bad about it. A healthy white guilt empowers us to see that the small steps we take –working persistently over time – can bring substantial change and bringing God’s justice into the world.
The writer of Colossians says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Conversations on race, racism, white privilege and power are difficult and often they evoke feelings of anger, denial, guilt and defensiveness. Grace-full conversations begin with listening without ‘buts’. Grace-full conversation on racism doesn’t pit one ‘ism’ against another. Lastly grace-full conversations focus on ending racism, and not simply on our feeling of guilt which can paralyse us.
 An excellent TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. It’s a must watch video. According to Chimamanda: “I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
 I have written several articles over the years on race, racism and white privilege and power. My article on ‘Racism in the Church’ published by Crosslight on March 3rd, 2017 won me a gold award from Australasian Religious Press Association for Best Editorial.
The Synod of South Australia's Mission Resourcing Team's Intercultural Lunch Conversation is a FREE event, with lunch.
- Wednesday 5 February, 12:00pm
- Uniting College for Leadership & Theology, 312 Sir Donald Bradman Drive, Brooklyn Park
- RSVP (for catering purposes) to Bev Freeman: 8236 4243 or email@example.com
More from Culture
"The Day of Mourning worship service encourages us to pause to remember the violence and dispossession inflicted on our First Peoples, and to lament that as a Church and as Second Peoples, we were and remain complicit." - Dr Deidre Palmer
Last week Wednesday (5 February) Rev Swee Ann Koh led an Intercultural Lunch Conversation about grace and race. This article is the second part of his thoughts on this topic.