April 30, 2014 by cbbeard
It seems to me that prejudice is simply racism with plausible deniability. Some might say that there is no distinction between prejudice and racism, and to a certain extent, I would agree. Both are harmful and absolutely incompatible with God’s call for his people to love their neighbors as themselves. Let me say that again…prejudice and racism are incompatible with being a disciple of Jesus.
But allow me to make a slight distinction between the two. I grew up in a rural Oklahoma town that was about as homogenous as it gets. The local state college increased the diversity of the community, but in my world, 99% of the people I came in contact with on a regular basis were just like me: white, and roughly on the same economic level. I grew up with a general prejudice against people who weren’t like me. My prejudice wasn’t hate-filled; I simply preferred what I was comfortable with and was unsure about how to interact with people in a diverse context.
I am convinced now that my prejudice was cultivated by a couple of things. First, in my homogenous community, I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. I believe that the more meaningful, diverse relationships we are able to have, the less we see race and the more we see people for who they are. Second, the homogeneity of the community provided very little accountability for insensitive speech. In school, for example, I regularly heard (and occasionally said) racially charged jokes, words, and phrases I now find deplorable. At the time I knew not their full meaning or implication.
I am guessing that many people share a background similar to mine…that is…not an overtly racist environment, but one that is peppered with seemingly innocuous prejudice. But what happens when the white boy from rural Oklahoma comes in contact with the “real world?” More so than at any time in history, that is inevitable. The world is flat and globalized. We can travel to any corner of the world in a day or so, and visit with people in almost every culture instantaneously. Homogeneity is history. So as I grew up and came in contact with a more diverse community, I had three choices regarding my prejudice: overcome it, hide it, or cultivate it.
Cultivating prejudice is racism.
This is easy to identify by its hate-filled speech and acts that plague our society. Cultivating prejudice grows it from the insensitive and impersonal to the hateful and the personal. Those who are counted among this group are proud to be identified as such, and the majority of people in our society would publicly condemn the attitudes and actions of overt racism.
Hiding prejudice is racism with plausible deniability.
Just yesterday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling 2.5 million dollars (the maximum allowed by the NBA constitution) and banned him from all NBA-related activities for life, as well as stating that he would make a push to have the other NBA owners vote to force Sterling to sell the team. These punitive measures were taken because of racist comments Sterling made in a private conversation recorded without his knowledge. What he said was reprehensible, but what shocked me even more than what he said was the fact that Sterling had been a recipient of an NAACP “lifetime achievement award,” and that he was set to receive another award on May 15th. How are those two things (the racist comments and the award) compatible in the same human being? It seems to me that perhaps Sterling was involved with the NAACP so that he could say publicly that he supports African Americans while privately spewing vitriol about them. Plausible deniability.
I wish I could say that Sterling’s actions and attitudes are an isolated incident, but I believe that the most prevalent and potentially the most harmful form of racism in our society today is hidden prejudice with plausible deniability. When I was a kid, most of us would have never said some of the insensitive things we did if we knew it was wrong or that it would cause harm to a human being. For those who choose to hide prejudice as an adult, there is a sensitivity to the wrong and harm that prejudicial attitudes cause; but instead of dealing with that prejudice and transforming it to love, they simply keep it out of the public eye. Make no mistake, these people would never call anyone by a racial slur to their face, but they might let one slip in the privacy of their own home. These people would never propagate racial stereotypes publicly, but will certainly hint at it privately. And if someone tries to attach the “racist” label to prejudice-hiders, they are able to say “I’ve never hated any other person before in my life” or “I’m not racist, I’ve got friends who are (insert ethnicity here).” Plausible deniability.
I believe that this is potentially the most harmful because it is the easiest type of racism to spread from generation to generation and because it is difficult if not impossible to confront directly. Apparently Donald Sterling’s racist attitudes were something people have known of for quite some time, but it wasn’t until his recent “slip-up” that he could be held accountable. Prejudice-hiders rarely “slip-up” in a way that requires accountability. And as long as these attitudes remain in the private sphere of our lives, generations to come will continue to deal with the repercussions of this injustice in the public arena.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said on March 31, 1968 in a speech in Washington D.C. that “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America.” Almost 50 years later, that statement still rings true. I believe that there are innocent reasons for this in some instances (some homogeneous congregations reflect their homogenous communities, for example) but I believe that one of the major reasons our congregations in diverse communities do not reflect their cultural context is because many people who claim to be followers of God hold racist attitudes with plausible deniability. This is a hidden blemish, because God desires for his church to be as diverse as his creation (just look at the diversity of people who came to Christ on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2!).
Overcoming prejudice is love.
Think of how Jesus loved. He loved the stinking poor, the grossly deformed and sick, the grimiest of sinners, and yes…even the Gentiles. There is no prejudice in Jesus’ love. Think of what Paul said in Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is no segregation or separation in Christ or in the church. When you remove prejudgment of other human beings and when you start to follow Christ’s example, only one thing remains…love. And as Proverbs 10:12 says – “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.”
Hopefully you see which choice I made. I still find myself prejudging, not so much racially, but my immersion in a culture that idolizes safety still causes me to view strangers of any skin color with skepticism and occasional fear. But I choose to overcome that prejudice, praying that each day my life is more and more characterized by love.