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Racism And Memory: I Am What I Remember

“Not that I’m not disturbed by all the proud bigots, but it is alarming to think that everyone is walking around harboring all this ill will, and it takes a few drinks or a bad day to unleash it.”

–<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Richmond Times Dispatch worker, on Mel Gibson and George Allen racial slurs, in Richmond newspaper “Metro” section, Nov. 27, 2006<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The politics of the recent election remind us that we are not simply the public “persona” that we project to others, but a product of what we have learned and lived with most of our life.
 
I am not just the Christian adult who tells you that I believe that God loves everybody, “red and yellow, black, and white.” I am also the unfinished product of the environment and people who brought me up–and blessed my biases. I “house” within me both what William Miller called “the golden shadow”–my highest beliefs and standards–and the darker shadow side of me which nurtures my deeply held prejudices and my destructive judgments (Carl Jung).
 
In my better moods, you will hear me espouse biblical virtues I believe in and follow at my best. But within me there lives also, lurking in the darker corners of my soul, fed by fears and lies, a self that still repeats a tainted value system learned sometimes at home, sometimes in homogeneous subgroups, and sometimes in church. In each of us a “back up” system of prejudices and preconceptions shapes our response to life-under pressure.
 
Most of us today–in church or out of church–would never give lip service to racism, or prejudice of any kind. Yet we hold quiet judgments in our head and heart as “family secrets” ready to trump and set aside our better values.
 
The Bible identifies several major “players” in our motivation as humans: fear, guilt, duty, belonging, cause, shame and love. Gordon Allport, in The Nature of Prejudice, reminded us that we “rehearse” and practice stereotypes from the day we are born, and, unless challenged by examination and re-evaluation, they become an integral part of our self for life.
 
Political ads and presentations try to address some of our long-held prejudices. They are crafted to appeal to our fears, our preconceptions, and our “knee-jerk” reactions to issues that reinforce an “us and them” mentality. Racism and prejudice were major “notes” in the dissonant music of many campaigns this fall.
 
How can believers overcome a heritage of false assumptions, nurtured by their background and even fueled by the communities with which they still associate? A few suggestions I’m working on:
 
(1) How interested are you in overcoming biases and prejudices you have been taught? If you don’t believe you have any, you may want to quit reading; your assumptions are blinding you
 
(2) Listen to the inner voices of your own soul: What assumptions have you learned-that should be challenged? Are there persons you “group” together, as if all are the same? Are there particular colors, or characteristics, that are “superior” in your mind? Are there jokes you make about certain persons, in an effort to ridicule?
 
George Allen of Virginia lost a commanding lead as an incumbent U.S. senator this fall largely because of a racist comment he made about a rival’s aide- to what he assumed was a “receptive” audience in southwest Virginia. He revealed a racist side of himself his voters had not seen before.
 
(3) What “walls of partition” do organizations you belong to practice or encourage? Some churches today, and other institutions, have no racist policies or statements but discourage and resist membership by minorities.
 
(4) What language do you use that may demean or ridicule certain persons or groups of persons? Humor can be very racist. Monitor the messages in your “humor log” and the words you use to describe certain persons
 
(5) Do your homework in your “memory bank”–so that you are not blind sided by the “leftover bias” of pre-Christian judgments learned while growing up, but so that you are exercising your commitment to justice, equality and communal love to the whole family of God
 
(6) Study the Scriptures carefully at home and in church, to edit the myths we create about biblical “heroes” who are actually not heroes at all. Some examples: Samson, so often portrayed as a man of faith at death, actually prays to God for revenge over his enemies–after he himself was a model of irresponsibility. The book of Esther is more concerned with its nation’s Jewish heritage than invoking God’s name. Peter struggles to understand that God is not just a God for the Jews.
 
(7) Take a season of the year, as early Christians did, to dedicate yourself to increased spiritual maturity, by focusing on your biases and pre-judgments more carefully. I always asked congregations I pastored to join me by taking the Roman Catholic season of Lent–40 days before Easter–as a time to work on reducing one prejudice in my life.
 
(8) Lead your congregation to dialogue with God’s children from other races and backgrounds, so that you can celebrate God’s diversity in the human family as a gift rather than a burden.
                         
Daniel G. Bagby is professor of pastoral care at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.