A few years ago, I took a class called Black Literary Tradition that focused on over two hundred years of literature from black writers in America and around the world. This class completely changed my outlook on the black experience in the United States and helped me to better understand my casual racism. Casual or covert racism is something that people often experience in societies that have been plagued by overt racism or systemic racism. Casual or covert racism can rise to the surface in some of the most unexpected circumstances. Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Capetown, reflects on his own unexpected, casual racism toward the end of his book, No Future Without Forgiveness. He writes:
On my first visit to Nigeria, I happened to travel to northern Nigeria in a plane piloted by Nigerians. Coming from South Africa where blacks did not do such work, I really grew inches with pride in black achievement. The plane took off smoothly. Then we hit turbulence. At one moment we were at one altitude and the next we had left our stomachs up there as the plane shuddered and dropped. I was shocked at what I discovered – I found I was saying to myself, “I really am bothered that there’s no white man in the cockpit. Can these blacks manage to navigate us out of this horrible experience?” It was all involuntary and spontaneous. I would never have believed that I had in fact been so radically brainwashed. I would have denied it vigorously because I prided myself on being an exponent of black consciousness, but in a crisis something deeper had emerged: I had accepted a white definition of existence, that whites were somehow superior to and more competent than blacks. Of course those black pilots were able to land the plane quite competently.Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. Doubleday, 1999, p. 252.
Casual or covert racism has infected out entire society. Most whites would deny that they are racist, that they have black friends, that they see all people as equal. However, in some of the most unexpected circumstances, racism tends to rise to the surface. Part of the reason that has happened in America is because there has yet to be reconciliation for the years of slavery and systemic racism against blacks for over two hundred years. Tutu also writes about this issue end the conclusion of his book:
If we are going to move on and build a new kind of world community there must be a way in which we can deal with a sordid past. The most effective way would be for the perpetrators or their descendants to acknowledge the awfulness of what happened and the descendants of the victims to respond by granting forgiveness, providing something can be done, even symbolically, to compensate for the anguish experienced, whose consequences are still being lived through today. It may be, for instance, that race relations in the United States will not improve significantly until Native Americans and African Americans get the opportunity to tell their stories and reveal the pain that sits in the pit of their stomachs as a baneful legacy of dispossession and slavery.Tutu, pp. 278-279.
As Americans, we don’t like to admit that there is still a problem with race relations. We like to imagine that it’s all behind us. But it’s not. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been revealed through the media that two more black men have been senselessly killed, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota. The backstory does not matter. The fact remains that they died unnecessarily. We have a very real problem. We need to change the narrative. And it starts with each of us.
Today, I’m fairly angry at a few of my brothers and sisters who don’t seem to get it. They argue that people should have the right to protest mask wearing and social distancing regulations in their state, but they don’t seem to understand Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the nation. White privilege has poisoned some of our minds to such an extent that we don’t try to understand what it looks like to experience oppression and injustice decades after Jim Crow has ended. We misunderstand when riots break out and expect that any demonstration of blacks is going to end in violence.
My frustration is not with nonbelievers, but with people who claim to live out the Gospel message in their lives. Church, we must do better. We must be better. We must at least seek to understand rather than live at odds with one another. Forgiveness and mercy must be central to any message we preach. Sweeping obvious racism under the rug is a sure fire way to continue to see unnecessary violence infect our society for decades to come.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some insights that I gained from literature during my Black Literary Tradition course. I hope that by reading literature, we can begin to try to understand the conflicts we still have in our nation. I believe that literature can give us empathy toward one another as it helps us to gain wisdom and knowledge from those in the past. I am open for dialogue with anyone about this issue, and I hope that shared ground can be built for the sake of our nation and for the sake of the Church.