Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pondering Racism

Growing up in the small, southern-Indiana, river town of Madison, I was fortunate enough not to know anything about racism. Well, that isn’t exactly true. My parents watched the news everyday, and since we only had one television, that meant if I were going to watch TV, it had to be the news.

I don’t remember much about the news except two topics: Viet Nam and the Louisville Race Riots. Viet Nam interested me because of the pictures of brave soldiers fighting for our freedom, the helicopters, and the wounded being carried away on stretchers through the jungles and the rice patties. I remember the Louisville Race Riots because I could not understand why black people and white people could not get along in Louisville. After all, black people and white people were getting along in Madison.

Integrated schools? I cannot remember a time when I did not attend an integrated school. My first girlfriend was black. We were the perfect kindergarten couple. We refused to play with each other on the playground—she was with the girls, and I was with the boys—but after recess we would hold hands during story-time. I did not see her as a black-person, but as the girl of my kindergarten dreams.

I think I can honestly say I did not know what racism was until after I graduated high school and joined the military. In the Army, I met people from across the nation. Few of the people I encountered shared my small-town values. For me, people were just people. For them, it was painfully obvious, people were hyphenated: black-people, white-people, asian-people, hispanic-people, etc… For me, people shared similar hopes, dreams, and desires. For them, shared hopes, dreams, and desires meant nothing…it was all about accentuating the difference in skin color.

Suddenly, racism was everywhere. All black-people were the same. All white-people were the same. All asian-people were the same. All hispanic-people were the same. And, “same” was almost always deemed a bad thing. I found the military to be an intense mirror reflection of what seemed to be going on around the country and the world.

At first, I tried to fit in with the crowd. Who wants to be different? I certainly did not, nor did I wish to fight the overwhelming tide of popular thought. Then, I was assigned a black-people room-mate. My friends suggested I get moved to another room. I requested another room-mate and was denied. In fact, the company commander sent me to “sensitivity” training instead. Talk about contradiction! In my sensitivity training classes they taught what I came to the Army believing: people are just people. However, what they taught and what was practiced were polar opposites.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own ideas about racism. My philosophy is the sum total of my experiences and my academic achievements. It is simple. It is profound. It is true. Racism can only exist when people are not viewed as individuals.

Consider the present presidential campaign. Would you say Hilary Clinton is most commonly viewed as an individual or as a white-woman? Would you say Barack Obama is most commonly viewed as an individual or as a black-man? Would you say John McCain is most commonly viewed as an individual or as an old, white-man? The unfortunate truth is that this campaign may be the most prejudice-packed election of all. Americans are not looking at the individuals running for president. Americans are looking at race, gender, and age—all of which are peripheral to the individual.

How do you view people? Do you see each person as an individual? Do you react to people based on your experience with the person, or based on your experience with that person’s race? Here are a couple of tests. First, you are sitting in your car at a red light. It is late in the evening and there are no other cars around you. A couple of (you insert the qualifier)-people are walking across the intersection in the general direction of your car. Do you check to see if your doors are locked? Would you have checked if the two people were of your own race? Second, are you ill-at-ease when talking with people of another race? Do you watch carefully what you say and avoid using words that you might otherwise use? Do you take offense at the words used by other individuals that if used in another way could be racist?

So, what is the solution to racism? Some would have us believe the solution to racism is complicated and will take generations to solve. The truth is that solving racism is simple and only involves two steps. First, stop seeing people as anything but individuals. You would want others to see you for who YOU are, not your skin color. People are just people. We want success. We want happiness for ourselves and our children. We all have hopes, dreams, and desires. I am not my skin color. You are not your skin color. We are so much more than just color. Second, stop using skin color for personal gain or to inflict injury. In the presidential campaign, all colors have tried to use their skin as an advantage. Each candidate has tried to use the skin color of another candidate against him or her. These kinds of actions promote and propagate racism.

In the end, regardless of how you look at it, regardless of how you believe, regardless of how people act, regardless of what people say…people are just people. We are made and loved by the same God for the same purpose: to bring glory to Him.