Passive Racism

This essay was originally posted at Uncommon God, Common Good on May 30, 2012.


By Paul Louis Metzger

I am a passive racist, or perhaps better, a passive racialist. When one speaks of being a racist, one often has in mind matters of intentionality. I am not intentionally attacking people of diverse ethnicities. I am not targeting or profiling them in any active sense. I have friendships with many people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. I want to cultivate healthy relationships with them. Thus, I wouldn’t say I am a racist. But am I doing enough to change the structures that still inhibit equality and mutuality in the church and society surrounding matters of ethnic diversity? I don’t think so. This is why I refer to myself as a passive racialist.

When I speak of being a “passive racialist,” I am speaking of passively benefiting from living in a racialized society that caters to people of my ethnic background. What do I mean by racialized? We live in a society shaped by race on matters pertaining to education, health care, home ownership and where we live, employment, and the like. I benefit from a system that favors whites like me much of the time.

Whenever I say that I am a passive racist (or more accurately passive racialist), people of my ethnic background—white Euro-Americans like myself—are a bit stupefied or puzzled. They often—rightly and understandably—ask for clarification. Further to what was said above, I inform them that I do not claim to be an active racist. I do not intentionally favor myself or “my kind of people,” over others. This is why I say that I am a passive participant in the problem. I unintentionally benefit from a system that has historically and even presently in various ways favored the white Euro-American heritage. Interesting fact: while Caucasians are still the largest group if framed in terms of ethnic categories, minorities now outnumber the “majority” (see here). Still, the Caucasian population is the majority culture in terms of influence. While one cannot change history’s past, one can change how history shapes us today. While I am not trying to do away with white people like myself shaping our culture, I want to make sure that I am intentionally collaborating with fellow white Euro-Americans and others of diverse ethnic backgrounds in shaping our country’s and church’s future.

Some will take this as a move to foster a sense of white guilt. I am not looking to lay a guilt trip on people. I do not intend these remarks to be deconstructive, but constructive. I want us to acknowledge our guilt in not actively addressing structures that cater to the white majority and move forward toward true freedom beyond guilt where everyone has equal access to employment, education, health care, and the like. I want to be free from guilt, and I want all of us to be free, too. I cannot be free, if I don’t know I am guilty, and to not know I am guilty does not mean I am innocent. Thinking and knowing is not enough, though. If I am not responding constructively to turn away from my participation in structures that inhibit others’ full expression in terms of owning and shaping our country’s, as well as the church’s, future, I am actually intensifying my guilt. I am actually guilty in terms of benefiting from white privilege and not doing enough to level the playing field.

I know I am not alone. I believe all people of every ethnic background are guilty in various ways, and in need of God’s grace. Moreover, the victim in one system can and often does become the victimizer in another system. Still, that does not excuse my passive involvement in this system. But acknowledging one’s need is not enough; active repentance is also necessary for forgiveness to be effective. So, I need to be involved in shaping the culture of my community at large, and church community, to reflect multifaceted representation in a variety of ways pertaining to ethnic diversity. Diverse representation in terms of leadership in the local church and in other spheres in our society is vitally important in this regard.

Others will think that I am catering to people of diverse backgrounds. I beg to differ. There is a difference between catering to people of diverse ethnic backgrounds (a form of political correctness) and cultivating community that fosters ownership of the community by people of diverse ethnicities. If a system caters to one kind of people, it is important to counter this move and make sure that everyone has a place at the table. The desired outcome is for us to reach a place where those of diverse ethnic backgrounds feel welcomed and appreciated, sense that they are being heard, and are also able to shape the conversation around the table that makes certain that ownership of the table is shared by all.

Some will no doubt claim: “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” Or “There’s no problem. So, don’t make it a problem.” It is easy to say these things when you are benefiting from, or no longer hurt by the system. And just because people of diverse ethnicities might not always say there is a problem, it does not mean that all of them think the system is fine or that there is no problem. They might not wish to rock the boat. If change is to occur, those of us who benefit most need to be the ones who change the structures most. We are responsible. Still, we will need the involvement of those of diverse ethnic backgrounds to help us lead the way.

So, I need to continue moving forward in becoming an active ethnic relationalizer rather than a passive racist/racialist. In place of political correctness, I want to foster ethnic relational awareness and equality/mutuality. This requires a desire for collaboration. In a collaborative system, everyone benefits, not just one kind of people or one or two people. The desire is to make sure that everyone benefits. What might such active ethnic relationalization (over against passive racism and racialization) look like? Stay tuned for a future blog post on the subject.


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