I am a racist.
I serve as a manager of diversity and reconciliation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I am a racist.
If not being a racist was a qualification to serve in this position of such presumptuous claim (as if diversity and reconciliation hasn’t happened yet because it hasn’t been managed well), no one could qualify for it.
I am a second-generation Korean American. I am a person of color and know firsthand the havoc racism creates in my external opportunities and internal self-valuation; I’m still a racist. A person of color can be a racist to another person of color if there is power involved, because racism is not so much a personal character flaw but the worldview and structures of our American society. And if you grew up in America, racism is your default operating system.
Our mind turns sensory data into knowledge by categorization because only by categories can we move from the particular to the universal, and knowledge is useful only if it helps us with what is not known. Categorizing is how we start making sense of the unknown. So, we meet people with biases. In American society, our biases are constantly programmed with white supremacy code. It says fairer skinned people are better, smarter, more moral and valuable. When one has even an iota more of power, one will go with their bias because power births false arrogance of knowledge and less accountability. I am a racist.
I called one senior housing provider several times to get information as my parents were getting ready to move closer to me. I left my phone number and a message, but no one called me back. I went to the office twice and both times the office door had a sign saying, “Out of office, will be back.”
When I got an email two weeks later, her Google profile picture surprised me. Only then did I realize that I’d assumed the housing manager was a person of color.
When I went shopping with my mother, I became anxious when she started talking to a salesperson, afraid she might haggle as she mangled the English language. I was like that when I was seven. I know better now; I shouldn’t internalize racism and use it against myself and my mother. I am 45 and it’s difficult to control my initial reaction to fidget whenever my mother starts talking. It takes a while to catch my mind’s programing.
About a month ago, our diversity and reconciliation team, which gathers monthly at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, had a conference call with Nibs Stroupe, a veteran in pastoral leadership of intercultural congregations in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In the 1980s he helped turn Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, a dying white church, into a thriving intercultural congregation. If there is any white person who’s “woke,” it’s him. He started our conference call with a confession. He said, “I’m a racist, repenting of my racism.”
Suddenly, the room grew spacious because there was no pressure to avoid saying something offensive. By the admission, “I’m a racist,” we were free to talk about racism, not just as a thing happening out there, but what continues to narrate all our relationships.
Conversations begin with anxiety about what can be discussed because we don’t want to upset anyone. When we say, “upset anyone,” what we really mean is contradict a person’s self-identity. For the most part, we want people to leave the room with their identity intact because we want the same for ourselves.
This means the identities we bring into rooms can clear the table for truth or leave very little room for it. If our identities are truthful, then they would be able to “handle truth.” But most of us carry around “inflated” identities. We all have better impression of ourselves than we really are. Studies show that the average American thinks he is better than the average American in most anything, which doesn’t work out mathematically. Psychologists call it “illusory superiority” and say it’s stubbornly persistent. And if you think you are not one of those “average Americans” who foolishly think they are above average, it’s most likely because you think you are more self-aware than the average American — which is to say you are still mired in the illusion of superiority. In theology, we call it self-righteousness. We think ourselves good because we think we are better than the person next to us.
I feel the black hole pull of this illusion, especially when it comes to a subject I am supposed to be an expert in. Since I lead conversations on race, surely I am more aware of how race works than the average person, which must mean I’m not as racist as others. But that false identity is a shadow under which the mold of racism can fester.
In a planning meeting for a progressive conference, an Asian American recommended an Asian American professor for a workshop. A white progressive person on the planning team replied, “Well, we don’t want to compromise quality.” When that person’s racism was called out, the person replied, “Well maybe I might have said it.” Maybe? She could not admit her racism because her identity as a “woke” and progressive woman had to be protected.
But that identity – awoke and progressive – are not her fundamental identities. They are adjectives. They are her projections, her political leaning and perhaps her aspiration, but they are not fundamental to her identity. When you aren’t truthful about yourself, it’s hard to hear the truth. When you have built an identity on having arrived, then there is no space for any evidence challenging that arrival. If you are not a racist, there’s no way we can talk about racism.
The elimination of self-righteousness, or human-righteousness, is the most pivotal move Paul makes in his letter to the Romans. Conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians was brewing in the Roman church as it was in many of the early churches wrestling with what it means to be people of God when the “new” people are so different from the “old” people in their heritage and lifestyle. Jews were convinced that they were more holy (i.e. more “woke”) because they saw the pagan idols for what they were. At the same time, the Gentile Christians thought they were stronger (i.e. more “woke”) because they weren’t bound to the old laws of dietary restriction but free in the grace of God to see that idols were just artifacts and not real spiritual entities.
Paul plays along with them for a while, employing the judgmental rhetoric they used against each other. He uses their slurs — like the “pagans,” the “weak” and so on. And it seems for a moment that Paul is going to settle the conflict and declare a judgment on who is right because he, an apostle, will be an authorized impartial judge on what parts of each culture was good and what wasn’t so good. But he doesn’t judge. He doesn’t do ethics in the Greek way (philosophy and wisdom), or in the Jewish manner (Torah). He makes ethics moot by saying, “All have fallen short of the glory of God.”
“What then?” Paul asks rhetorically. “Are we any better off? Or at any disadvantage? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). Wisdom of Socrates and the Law of Moses cannot be compared because neither philosophy nor law cannot make anyone better. The truest identity with both groups, Paul says, is neither their wisdom nor their laws but their brokenness.
That confession isn’t a downer at all. For the gospel begins with the confession, “I am a sinner.” That confession clears the space for truth without which transformation can’t happen. Grace – which is the experience that truth judges to free us – can only come to the one who stops telling lies about herself. There is a reason why Alcoholic Anonymous meetings start with introductions of name and a confession, “I am an alcoholic.” Only an alcoholic is ready to learn how not to depend on alcohol; only a sinner is ready to repent of his sins; so only a racist can learn to repent of racism.
When we turn on the news, we hear public figures (including the president) declare, “I am not a racist.” Ibram X. Kendi, author of the book “How to Be an Antiracist,” reminds us that such denial of racism (by denying oneself a racist) has been a recurring rhetorical self-justification in American ethics. Kendi writes about when eugenicists were called out as racists for their illegal practice on black people, they replied, “We’re not racist.” When Jim Crow segregationists in 1950s and 1960s were called out for their racist laws, they answered “I’m not racist.”
But even as we are confronting racism, we can’t stop making our own confession or we will perpetrate racism in our contexts. It is easier to get angry about others’ racism than to confront racism in our own hearts, families, churches, businesses and schools.
So next time you gather in a meeting, even if the topic is not racism but you will be making decisions that will impact others, try starting it with a confession, “I am a racist.”
Maybe the gathering is more personal, such as a dinner table, and you sit across from is your uncle who spews racism and has not been receptive to your previous confrontations. Maybe this time you don’t start with a confrontation – there is place for it – but a confession: “I am a racist.”
We who are committed to dismantling racism must ever be vigilant about dismantling it in our own hearts and in the small systems we participate in, because those small systems interact with other systems. Though rhetorically we can be against racism, our actions can perpetuate them because of our self-righteousness. “Like fighting an addiction,” Kendi counsels, “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
SAMUEL SON is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville.