It is virtually impossible to grow up white in America completely free of racism or bias. We are a country which was built upon the genocide of one race, and the enslavement and brutalizing of another. White, and male, superiority was written into our original Constitution, and has taken centuries to soften. Much as well-meaning and ethical white people would like to avoid them, racist notions seep in under our doors, appear unbidden on our screens, as much as does body distortion for women and hyper-masculinity for men.
Some of us, like me, were schooled in bias from the inside, on the other side of the door. My parents taught me to look down upon anyone who was not white, northern European, and Protestant. The “n” word was used both caustically and “jokingly”, and we were taught to identify “wops”, “japs”, and “spics”. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized with a horrifying thud that if you get a good deal on a car, then say you “jewed down” the salesperson, you are invoking a centuries-old stench.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, my family took its bigotry underground. At least in the North, blatant racist speech became unacceptable, and as propriety was important to them, they complied. In my experience, however, latent bias can be equally problematic. White people’s bigoted ideas become inaccessible to them, removed from everyday consciousness. People like me can then commit some of those microaggressions that are so much a part of the everyday lives of black Americans, without awareness.
A number of years ago, I was involved in two interracial partnerships, among three mainline Protestant churches, my white and two black congregations. One of the partnerships created a public access TV show, something that became one of the most meaningful, and fun, things I’ve ever done. But while the growing popularity of the show eventually caused my white congregation to shut it down, I myself regularly became aware of biased attitudes of my own, even about people I’d come to love and respect.
During that time, and since, I’ve realized that I must be continually open and vigilant to old, and new, biased ideas that might be polluting my worldview. Following awareness, I must struggle with them, expose them to the light of fact, and ferret them out. A from-the-manor-born preacher who was jailed with Dr. King, William Sloane Coffin, stated that he must continually live as if in recovery from his racism, sexism, and homophobia. Recovery takes vigilance and intentionality. It works, but it’s work.
Which brings me to my latest struggle with bias. There’s a Muslim man I’ve known for years. He and his wonderful family have been upstanding, tax-paying, and contributing US citizens for decades. Naturally he is, as am I, concerned over talk of a Muslim registry. Many of us have committed to registering with him.
This is where the problem comes in. This otherwise person of integrity is homophobic. While she was infected on the job as an RN, my little sister died of AIDS, and homophobia hits me hard. Each time I hear of yet another murdering young man who identifies himself as Muslim, I think of my Muslim friend and his bias against gay people. Islamophobia begins to gnaw at me.
So I have to get to work. I remind myself that Muslim terrorists don’t have anything more to do with Islam than those men who lynched on Saturday night and went to church on Sunday morning had anything to do with Christianity. And that the common thread in so much of terrorism is domestic violence, not religion.
Then, as therapists and their clients know, it so often boils down to honest, authentic, human interaction. My Muslim friend and I have to talk, and it’s up to me to make it happen.
And, as I saw growing up, tolerance is all of one piece. I cannot be genuinely tolerant of one disenfranchised group, and intolerant of another.