On “Soft” Racism
Hi, my name is Mike and most of my life has been lived in a culture of “soft” racism.
“Soft” racism is my phrase for the mindset of people — like me — who grew up in a homogeneous white culture.
I was raised in the Midwest, northern Illinois to be precise. Small town America. Surrounded by farms and endless countryside. As white as a sheet of typing paper.
My only exposure to people of color was through the sports and music I watched and listened to.
When I was a boy, we had an all-state basketball player in our little railroad town of Galesburg, Illinois (home of Carl Sandburg). His name was Dale Kelley, and he averaged 27 points a game in 1966, leading the Silver Streaks to the championship game of the Illinois state tournament. My dad took me to home games, and for those I didn’t attend I kept score while listening to the broadcasts on the radio. Kelley went on to have a good career at Northwestern, played in the ABA, and was admitted to the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. Dale Kelley is a person of faith, who eventually became a Methodist minister on the southside of Chicago. He is black, he was a black athlete in the midst of lily-white Galesburg, Illinois. I don’t remember any others.
We lived for a time in my dad’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois (home of Ronald Reagan). I remember when the Harlem Globetrotters came and played in our high school gym. The great Negro League baseball star Satchel Paige was with them, and I got his autograph. It may have been the most black people the town had ever witnessed together in one place at one time in Dixon.
Our family moved into a new housing development in Chicago’s southwest suburbs in the late 1960s. Nary a black or brown face anywhere to be seen.
But few in my generation — me included — were able to resist the sweet sounds of Motown or the grittier records out of Memphis. I was too young to participate in the marches of the Civil Rights era, but I dug Sly and Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the Temptations. I went to the movies and watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I vividly remember the night Dr. King was murdered.
However, in fact, I don’t recall ever meeting a person of color my own age until I was a senior in high school, after we’d relocated to the suburbs of Baltimore.
The Bible college I attended was 99% white, and those who weren’t were from other countries.
I moved to Vermont, where the joke used to be that integrating the schools meant one bus taking the two black children in the state around to all the schools in Vermont so they could say they weren’t segregated.
Every church I’ve ever attended or pastored was almost completely made up of white folks. Even in the city of Waukegan, Illinois, which is in one of the most diverse counties in the country.
Now I live south of Indianapolis, the side of town some black people I’ve met have told me they’re afraid to visit.
There are many people who could write a resumé like this. We shudder to think of ourselves as “racist.” Most of us never heard a lot of direct bigotry expressed in our families or communities. It wasn’t so much that we were against people of color — we simply had no experience of relating to them, of living with them, of interacting with them in personal and meaningful ways.
They weren’t the enemy, they were the other. As foreign to our way of life as a businessman in China, a farmer in India, a burka-wearing woman in Saudi Arabia.
This state of affairs in the midwestern United States was initiated at the outset of our country. I’m currently reading David McCullough’s book, The Pioneers, the story of those who settled the Northwest Territory, which now comprises the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota.
This land, the “Ohio country,” was given to the fledgling nation by the British in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. The charter for this “backcountry” was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the Confederation Congress two years before the U.S. Constitution. And one of its chief tenets was this: no slavery would be permitted in this territory.
From the beginning of the United States, a region was carved out that would never be desecrated by the institution of slavery. I’m proud that this is my geographical heritage. However, this commendable decision also had a (not so) unintended consequence: the Midwest became wholly the land of the whites for nearly a century.
Not until the 1860s did African-Americans begin migrating into the region. The flow increased after the Civil War and then multiplied during the Great Migration of the 20th century (1916-1970). However, the black cultures that developed were primarily urban, as blacks and other people of color came for industrial jobs and a new life away from Jim Crow oppression in the rural south.
In those settings where people of color came, settled, and worked, the north proved as inhospitable as the southern states from which they fled. There was a great deal of hard racism: direct bigotry, prejudicial practices such as redlining, discriminatory laws, and hateful xenophobic crimes that kept most blacks on the margins and held them back from building generational stability and wealth.
But for most of us, away from the cities and industrial centers, life remained pure white culture. The soft racism I have lived with most of my life was mostly just ignorant of people who were different from us. No developed theory of white supremacy. Few statements of outright prejudice. We simply lived in a different world — a white world. We weren’t exposed, except through the increasingly invasive power of television and other media, to anything other than the world we knew and loved.
Thankfully, I’ve had opportunities to overcome this ignorance in my own life. Overseas travel and cross-cultural engagement has been the most potent remedy. Time in Haiti, India, and Brazil exposed me to the wonders of cultural diversity and enabled me to have experiences and make friends among people I never would have met otherwise. Working in hospice with and visiting people of different races, religions, backgrounds, and cultures has been transformational for me. I feel my world is no longer so closed off, separated from the versicolor ocean of humanity that surrounds the little island where I’ve been isolated far too long.
The New Testament epistles of Paul have been of invaluable help as well, with their insistence that Jesus came to break down all walls between people that separate, divide, and create ignorance, suspicion, and tribal hatred. I’ve come to think that Paul was much more concerned about the inclusion of the Gentiles and other excluded people into the promises of God than he ever was about most of the “theology” we attribute to him.
I’m convinced that Jesus won’t be satisfied until he welcomes
…a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, crying out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9-10)
A multitude who not only luxuriate in the love of God but who also embrace one another with deep pleasure and appreciation.
I want that. I want to want that more. And more.
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The Disorder of Dismantling Racism (Richard Rohr)