Seeing Color Clearly: Moving Toward Racial Righteousness
By Alvin Sanders
“Alvin, I don’t see you as a black man. I just see you as a man.” I hate to hear that. I believe God created us with different skin tones. It was not an accident; it was His intent. Therefore to say that you don’t see my skin color means you are ignoring what God created. Nobody has ever said to me, “Alvin, I don’t see a tall man” (I’m 6’5) or “I don’t see a slightly plump man” (My weight is none of your business!). The only thing I’ve been told by others throughout my life is they don’t see my color. I have often wondered where my blackness went for them not to see it.
My statement sits in the middle of historical context. Humans have taken what God meant for good (diverse skin color) and perverted it for evil. For centuries skin color has been a cause for a tremendous amount of human suffering. Because of this historical legacy race affects our lives either overtly or stealthily.
This phenomenon is called racialization. A racialized society is one wherein race profoundly matters for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. It is one that allocates different economic, political, social, and psychological rewards to groups along racial lines.
Let me be blunt and tell you where the problem lies. Despite the avalanche of historical evidence about the role race has and continues to play in causing disparities in our society, many want to live in a colorblind world. Because of racialization, colorblindness is not an option. Our racial history is ugly and as Christians we need to recognize it.
The Shadow of Racial Tolerance
Racially speaking, in 2013 we find ourselves in a markedly better country. Life as a black man is much better for me than my dad. He felt the full weight of racialization growing up in 1950s Alabama. Blessedly, I don’t have any life experiences anywhere near that type of oppression.
My dad dropped out of high school because the segregated school system tried to force him into vocations not to his liking. He was more academically oriented, but it was made perfectly clear to him that little black boys should not dream of growing up and going to college. We now live in the age of racial tolerance, which is fine with me. I would much rather live in a society that is racially tolerant than one that is not. But there is a shadow side.
We get racial amnesia and racial arrogance (a false sense of racial security). “Daddy, when did racism end?” is the question my teen daughter asked me last year. What she meant to ask was when the civil rights movement occurred. In her mind and in most millennial minds, the civil rights movement pretty much solved everything.
Once I was talking with a very influential Christian leader. If I said his name most of you would know it. During our conversations he told me—point blank—that race isn’t that big of a deal. “The culture has moved on,” he said. Really?
My second-generation Korean friend, David, grew up in the United States. English is his native language, but he will unapologetically say to you that he does not consider himself anything less than an Asian-American. This is because he has been spat on, beaten, kicked, and ridiculed for being Korean.
We’re not talking about deplorable actions in some civil rights documentary on PBS. David is part of the millennial generation. To tell David that “the culture has moved on” is to deny his life experience.
In a “post-racial” world, claims of racial prejudice or discrimination are easily muted. In some instances, this makes the truth extremely hard to reach. This is the primary problem colorblindness creates.
However, here is the most important point about the shadow. Ask average Christians why they should racially accept others and you will probably not receive strong biblical responses. Their answers will typically run along the lines of what their parents taught them, how they feel, résumés of what they have done to demonstrate their love for others of a different race, or what they learned in cultural diversity seminars.
These are all fine and dandy reasons, but as Christians we must learn to think about race in biblical categories. I’m preaching to the choir here as I’m not immune to the shadow. Years ago a colleague walked into my office and offered a suggestion:
“Why don’t you add a strong theological component to your presentation?” he asked.
“That would be a waste of time. Everybody knows you are supposed to love your neighbor.” I responded.
“Yeah, but everybody doesn’t know why or how.”
After six years of Bible college and seminary training and years of multi-ethnic ministry practice I found myself in the shadow, teaching from a place of racial tolerance, and I didn’t even realize it. I had left the Bible on the sidelines. Without it we cannot possibly go from racial tolerance to racial righteousness.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So here is the situation. Racially speaking, we are better off now as a nation than we have ever been. But since we live in the age of racial tolerance, there is racism without racists. Racial divides exist in our neighborhoods, churches, and other institutions but nobody owns it.
How do we move out of the shadow of racial tolerance and move into racial righteousness? This is much more than a rhetorical question. We live in a majority-minority, multi-ethnic America. The spread of the gospel rests on our answers. Here are six principles to follow in order to achieve racial righteousness:
1. Be Bible-Based and Spirit Empowered. Issues of race were different during biblical times, but that does not mean we can’t use Scripture to address what we face today. Second Corinthians 5:14-21 is clear that we have been given the gift of reconciliation and we are to be ambassadors of it. Live out the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) in order to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). This is our foundation.
2. Practice Humility. It’s possible for someone to perform racist actions but not be a racist. I work hard on giving people the benefit of the doubt, marking them innocent until proven guilty. Real humility is to decline the temptation to put ourselves in God’s place and judge people harshly.
3. Become a Truth-Teller. A big reason people don’t discuss race is because it can quickly become emotional. It is okay to be emotional, but not in a destructive, all-consuming way. This requires that we work hard on keeping our emotions in check. When we’re with people we truly care about, we’re honest about what matters, regardless of how potentially offensive the situation may seem. Take the risk.
4. Develop Patience. Keep your zeal in check. When it comes to racial issues it takes time to understand the significance of racialization. I’ve actually seen very sincere people that were very willing to make progress back off because mentors wanted them to get it immediately. Don’t beat up people; instead, build knowledge together.
5. Be Positive. Too much time is spent on the negative side of racial dynamics. At some point, the focus has to shift toward solutions. Dialogue needs to revolve around proposed solutions. We need to be careful that we do not build an atmosphere filled with a constant diatribe on what is wrong that short-changes us spending time on what is right. Find the bright spots and study why they are bright! We have to learn to encourage one another in the Lord instead of always assigning blame or imagining slights.
6. Show Respect. All racial groups need to be treated with dignity. One killer of reconciliation efforts is paternalism—the intrusion of one group on another against its will. The intrusion is justified by a claim that the group intruded upon will be “better off.” What results is a one-sided relationship.
Living in a world of racial tolerance and colorblindness might seem like an acceptable way to get by, but in truth it only allows us to maintain status quo rather than embrace the diversity that is a gift from God. When we simply exist and leave the Bible on the sidelines we reject opportunities for healing, collaboration, and reconciliation, and instead uphold divisions in our communities and our churches. As believers in Christ, we have the opportunity to embrace unity and see color clearly. We are able to recognize our differences and start moving from racial tolerance to racial righteousness.
For two decades Alvin Sanders has coached Christian leaders on issues of racial diversity. He’s happily married and the proud father of two teens, and when not with them you will find him glued to the TV watching Buckeye football. He blogs at alvinsanders.net. Be sure to check out his book, Bridging the Diversity Gap: Leading Toward God’s Multi-Ethnic Kingdom.