Racism: a failure of self-perception

conceptual-photography5In light of police violence resulting in the deaths of black persons, Dwayne and I have been chatting about, among other questions, the systemic nature of white privilege in America. I thought I’d share my thoughts (very much in progress).

I don’t think the “systemic” problem is an ill will or intention to harm. I think it’s a failure in the core of white folk to identify black people as truly and beautifully human, and this failure is essentially a failure of self-perception, that is, a failure to perceive one’s self in the other (in this case the other who is a black person) via identification of the true self with Christ as the shared ground of being and value for both the self and other. It’s not something white folk are aware of, and we deny it when the question enters conscious thought where we engage the morality of racism, etc. We say the right things when we intentionally engage the questions. Of course all races are equal before God. But that confession hasn’t soaked the deeper soil of our deepest self-perception.

Already I feel like I’m not really expressing my feelings well on this.

This happens because we fail to identify the ground and source of our own personal meaning/value with the ground and source of the meaning/value of black people. Bottom line, white folk by in large fail to see themselves in black people, and that is why racism is first a failure to perceive the truth about one’s self and only secondly a failure to see the truth about others. “Love others as you love yourself.” Jesus understood it. Love of other is a function of love of self, and every failure to love the other is first a failure to love one’s self. Racism is a misrelating to the self.

What do I mean when I say white people don’t see themselves in black people and that this is first a failure of self-perception before it’s identifiable as racism? I’m referring—theologically speaking—to that fundamental ‘self-constructing’ act we all engage in throughout life. We ground our meaning and value, our unique identity, in something outside ourselves. If my deepest sense of self is the belief that what grounds and gives meaning and value to my existence is identical to that which grounds and gives meaning to every other human being no matter the racial differences between us, then I must inevitably value and love others as I love myself. My guess is white people simply don’t see themselves and blacks as ‘one’, truly one, in that which grounds their value and identity. They can look at a black person and not see themselves, by virtue of their shared humanity, gifted and grounded in Christ. This failure needn’t be explicitly chosen by a white person, but it is easily confirmed in the historical advantages that whites enjoys in the United States. One has to intend to expose and confront it.

It’s not for the most part that white cops show up on the scene, see a black man and consciously say to themselves, “Oh good, a black guy, I hate black people, so here’s my chance” and then decide to lie about that when questioned. I think what happens is that the deeper unexamined racism I’ve tried to describe above is what comes out in tense and escalating situations. As tension escalates, people increasingly respond from their deeper values and identity structures, not from the textbook morality they agree to popularly. And that may mean slight or drastic alternations in judgment. When it’s all over, naturally they affirm what they believe on a conscious level. And there are always ways to plausibly explain their actions in terms of situation, perceived threat, etc. The racial false self slips beneath the surface and disappears.

What complicates this is that the law cannot peer into the deeper, core false selves that people access in heightened stressful situations. The law only sees ‘actions’ and only recognizes motivation when they’re made explicit or are obviously implied in actions. And that implication is much harder to prove in these cop situations where black people are killed. Indeed, I’m not claiming to have access into the hearts of white people everywhere. I’m only sharing from my own experience and journey.

(Picture here.)

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