Ten Myths about Racism: Toward a Deeper Understanding among White Christians

By Helsel, Carolyn B. | The Christian Century, January 2, 2019 | Go to article overview

Ten Myths about Racism: Toward a Deeper Understanding among White Christians


Helsel, Carolyn B., The Christian Century


PREDOMINANTLY white churches may be hesitant to talk about racism. Some may fear saying the wrong thing or not getting it right. Others may assume their congregation does not need to talk about racism, since they do not see their members reflecting racist actions or beliefs. Even if a predominantly white church views itself as socially progressive and talks about concepts such as systemic racism, persons in these congregations may still harbor illusions about racism that prevent a deeper understanding of the problem. The following myths often arise or lurk near the surface in white people's discussions of racism.

Myth 1: Racism is not our problem. This perspective can be seen in the question "Why do we need to talk about that?" The assumption is that we, in our faith community, are not racists.

A helpful way to expand listeners' capacity to see racism as everyone's problem is to name some of the implicit biases that people may not even notice: pulling your purse closer to you when in an elevator with a black man; walking to the other side of the street when you see people of color coming your way; feeling afraid or nervous when you are around people of color; assuming a person of color must be guilty of a crime when they're pulled over or arrested by the police; jumping to conclusions about a person of color stealing something that you may have misplaced; or feeling the impulse to ask people of color "Where are you from?" (meaning a different country) when you do not ask whites the same question. These examples highlight the subtle ways implicit bias is still at work.

Another way of framing racism as our problem is to identify the advantages white people may experience. In other words, name not just the negative side of the impact of racism on communities of color, but also the way white people have benefited from years of racism. These privileges may be different for whites who experience other aspects of their identity as marginalizing, but there are enough examples that it is possible for even the most disadvantaged white person to be able to relate to at least one of them.

Myth 2: Racism is about hateful actions and words. If racism were just about mean actions and words, then we could easily say this is not about us; we ourselves do not harbor racist beliefs or say racist things (at least to people of color). Two problems arise from this belief. The first is that it assumes that we are the best judges of whether we are racist or not. The second is that it misses a whole world of data that shows less obvious factors in racial inequality and discrimination.

Racism is more than someone calling a person of color by a terrible name. It is also seen in differences in pay, housing discrimination, mortgage lending, school segregation, and rates of policing and incarceration. White people may not feel that we have anything to do with these larger problems, but our silence is part of the problem. Our acceptance of the status quo makes these injustices harder to challenge. While racism is certainly seen in hateful actions and words, it is also seen in our inaction and silence regarding the larger social problems that stem from our racist history and continue because of our indifference.

Myth 3: Only Ku Klux Klan members and self-proclaimed white supremacists perpetuate racism. It is easy to envision the "bad guys" when it comes to talking about racism--men wearing white sheets and pointy hats, burning crosses in yards. Or we think of the images of young white men chanting "Blood and soil!" in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

The moment we point away from ourselves to some other person or group as the "real racists," we become like the self-righteous character in Jesus' parable who declares, "God, I thank you I am not like other people" (Luke 18:11). The moment we catch ourselves making that distinction, we need to remind ourselves to be more like the tax collector in the story, asking, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner! …

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