“Calling a white person a racist…”

Over at Urban Faith Edward Gilbreath has a great overview and reflection of the saga with Shirley Sherrod.  As Ed points out, this story is significant not just for the grief suffered by Sherrod but also for what it exposes about race in America.  In this case, the Tea Party, the NAACP and the Obama administration were all affected by the “paranoia and irrational behavior” so often provoked by issues of race.  A lot of ground is covered and I encourage you to read the entire article.

John Darkow, The Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri

Towards the end Ed draws three lessons from the “Sherrod incident” and the first really jumps out.

Calling a white person a “racist” has in many ways become the equivalent of calling a black person a nigger.

I had to look at this sentence a few times to be sure I’d read it correctly.  But unless I’m missing something, Ed is making the observation that these two words have somehow achieved cultural equivalence.  He goes on,

White people are tired of being repeatedly cast as the villains in our nation’s racial drama, especially when it seems political correctness forbids them from broaching racial topics while blacks and other ethnic groups are free to bash whites for their racial prejudice.

What do you make of Ed’s observations? Do these two words carry the same weight?

An Asian-American mentor recently told me that he imagined that, for a white man, the possibility of being called a racist must be absolutely terrifying.  And, to be honest, it is.  As a white pastor in a multi-ethnic church, this is certainly one of my greatest fears.  But is it the same as “calling a black person a nigger”?  Not a chance.

For one, we white folks continue to live within the dominant culture in America.  Being called a racist will always hurt,  but any such charge will be muted by a white person’s privileged position.  Also, these two words have vastly different histories.  One was meant to dehumanize while the other describes oppressive attitudes and actions.  The meaning of words change based on intention and context, but it’s impossible to gloss over where those words come from.

One last reason I don’t think these two words are equivalent- though I’d be interested in your additions: Our country continues to suffer from systemic racism that benefits the dominant culture.  Those of us who are white have been formed in ways that lead to racist perspectives, though most of us are mostly unaware of this.  As such, there are times when I need to be challenged about attitudes or actions that may be racist.  As a white man there is never a time when I can use the other word in similar ways.  Never.

In his article I believe Ed is making the point that some white people receive the charge of racism as if it is equivalent with the n-word.  That may be correct, but it certainly isn’t right.

As always, your charitable comments are welcome.

Shirley Sherrod: An Experiment in Truth

Update: I originally posted this quote by Charles Sherrod in March.  Now that his wife, Shirley, has been in the news for the way she was so grossly misrepresented, it seems appropriate to post it again.  Given Shirley Sherrod’s recent experience I think it’s safe to say that the beautiful “experiment in truth to find the truth” is still very much worth sacrificing for.

Charles Sherrod was a significant figure during the Civil Right movement, starting with his involvement as the SNCC director in southeast Georgia in 1961.  The following paragraphs are quoted in The Beloved Community by Charles Marsh, a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

But let me bear witness before you that I have seen the earth, moving, surging, and falling, struggling to breathe, eager to learn the truth; I have seen it in stinking jail cells packed with people, singing and sweating people, brought before the Pilates of this day; I have seen the church under the stars praying and singing in the ashes of a burned down church building, in the winter shivering under a tent in the open country, in a home where people cried together without speech but with a common understanding; I have seen the church in a pool room.  I have seen with my eyes whites protecting blacks with their bodies and blacks bleeding to shield whites from whites.

I have seen ministers lead their congregation from Sunday services to the City Hall to condemn the state.  I have heard ministers with three grades of education put Ph.D.’s to shame.  I have seen men share their bread till the last was gone.  I have seen a band of rugged brothers willing to risk death for each other if need be.  I have seen the strength of fellowship among those who formally refuse the fellowship of the church.  Somehow I think this life must be shared for it to be comprehended; we do have something to offer but there is probably much to receive.  This is an experiment in truth to find the truth.