Raising Our Race Consciousness by Malinda Berry :: Timbrel Winter 2016

by Malinda Berry Malinda is an educator-activist-doer. She’s had teaching roles at Goshen College, AMBS, and for the last five years at Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, IN. Her scholarship endeavors include being one of three founding editors of the Prophetic Christianity book series, a project focused on cultivating the scholarship of those connected to the Black Church, the Historic Peace Church and progressive Evangelicalism.She calls herself an “epicurious localvore,” she enjoys worship and prayer that involves our senses, and she loves to knit. This piece originally appeared in Timbrel magazine’s Winter 2016 issue on race.

Race is a quirky thing. We both want to talk about it and don’t want to talk about it, all at the same time. I have learned a lot about race over the past twenty-plus years, and one of the lessons I keep coming back to is how important it is for each of us to develop and raise our “race consciousness.”

Consciousness-raising is a phrase from the 1960s associated with gatherings of women where they would share their stories about their lives about discrimination and oppression they were enduring because they had been born into a sub-culture linked to broader Western culture in which women are necessary but of lesser economic, political, and cultural value than men. Women wondered why her brothers and male cousins were allowed to do what they wanted. Why did the congregation affirm her spiritual gifts but decide not to affirm her to be an elder? Why didn’t anyone, especially her own mother, believe her that the neighbor had molested her?

“Discrimination” and “oppression” are hard words. Hard to speak, hard to hear, hard to chew, swallow, and digest. Why? Because we tend to begin our explanations for life’s difficulties with personal responsibility. This isn’t just a societal or cultural tendency; as Christians we do this all the time. We have baskets full of scriptural references to our moral obligation to accept individual responsibility for ourselves, some more indirect than others: “spare the rod, spoil the child” based on Proverbs 13:24, Jesus’ words in John 6:44 that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (NIV), and Ezekiel’s delivery of a “word from the Lord” in 18:20 that clarifies “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child” (NRSV). And yet…

We are at a time in Western human history where we are being urged to pay more and more attention to “context” than we used to be.

By paying attention to context, we recognize the truth of Wade Davis’s oft-quoted statement, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” If this is a statement we agree reflects our own experience of the world, then we find it easier to work with words like discrimination and oppression, because we know what happens when people in Group A think people who are part of Group B are failed attempts at being like the A’s. We can also see we do not pay close attention to how the actions, attitudes, and choices of people with more social, cultural and political power shape the lives of our neighbors.

Before you think I am not saying that Christians should work for a reality where everything and everyone is viewed as equally valid, moral, and acceptable, let me be very clear: I believe God calls us together, as faith communities, to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1b) through processes of communal discernment and soul-searching, which helps us do that work individually, too. 

Consciousness-raising that happens in these kinds of settings is rarely easy, but can, when led by spiritually mature and seasoned members of our congregations and families, help us build stronger relationships that have a theological commitment—not just a social commitment—to multiracial community that confronts racism and race prejudice with as much willingness (not necessarily enjoyment) as it sings or eats together.

Raising our race consciousness about race prejudice and racism, like raising our consciousness about gender discrimination, involves learning about how our assumptions that individuals should “forgive and forget” and our collective, and deeply embedded, beliefs that there is an expression of human culture that is better, superior to all others shape our identities as Christians.

There are different, and even conflicting, ways to understand and describe what racism is. In light of this fact, raising our race consciousness translates into people across the racial map sharing the burden of educating ourselves, our families, and our congregations about things like racial formation, systemic racism, and the pseudoscience of race. As I stated at the beginning of my reflections here, I believe it is important for us to develop and raise our race consciousness because we carry history in our bodies, most of it untold, most of it unknown. When we live with such dimmed awareness, we do harm by believing that our intentions should be enough to commend us to others as Christians.

Imagine an empty cross. The vertical beam is the voice of all races affirming with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” The horizontal beam is the hard reality of discrimination and oppression exemplified by white supremacy’s hold on Western Christianity. Racial reconciliation resides at the meeting place of these beams. A symbol of transformation through resurrection only after crucifixion.

The next time you find yourself in a conversation about race, no matter what your race is, pause and set an intention. You can even say it out loud if you feel brave enough! Here is my intention that I share with you: “I want this exchange to help end racism’s power in my life today.”

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