As a Brit living in Alabama, my friends in the UK have been asking me if Americans are racist. In total I have spent four years in the USA, two years in Virginia and two years in Alabama. My experiences are just a small window into American culture and all I can offer are a few anecdotes to help answer this question.
A white friend has told me, more than once, how funny it was for her at her high school graduation in Mississippi. Apparently, many of her African American classmates shared her surname, so presumably an ancestor of hers had ‘owned’ their ancestors. I do not see what was so funny about this.
A group of white friends from the South told me how incredible their history is and how proud they are to hail from the South. It is good to be proud of where you come from, but anyone with even a superficial understanding of the South’s history of slavery and segregation probably needs to adopt a humbler attitude.
Many whites have struggled to understand all the nuances of the recent protests and rioting in the wake of George Floyds death, so they have asked their African American friends and acquaintances to explain what is going on. Yet to assume that a black person fully understands, and can be called on to justify, the complex situation occurring in many forms across the US is a form of racism itself.
Another friend has told me that she has been the victim of racism against whites and that this is the same as racism against blacks. This demonstrates a profound ignorance of the systemic racism that African Americans have faced. Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, has produced this video to explain institutionalised racism. In short, it seems to me that blacks have not been able to control their own destinies nor write their own stories.
The common definition of racism is too often limited to name-calling and abuse between one person and another. As a result, many white people do not consider themselves to be racist because they do not engage in these actions. If the definition of racism is extended to remaining silent while watching others face institutional prejudice and systemic corruption, then many more people are guilty.
Generally, in the US I have found hate to be far more acceptable than in the UK. I have written about this before in the post ‘When an American sends you hate speech’. At church in Virginia a man casually commented to me that ‘Gaza should be turned into a parking lot’. In these instances, the hate was against Muslims rather than blacks, but I have never experienced hateful comments like these from Christians in the UK.
Us vs. Them, Good vs. Bad
There is also a propensity in US culture to view people as good or bad; people like us are good and those others are bad. This is a common approach in the gun debate where it is assumed that the problem of gun deaths could be solved if the bad people could be identified and guns kept away from them.
Sadly, this divisive worldview leads to a lack of solidarity and black people have been abandoned and left to face discrimination and prejudice on their own. In my opinion, most white Americans are guilty of this form of racism. When I pray for Americans, I use Jesus’ words from John 13:35 ‘everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’.
Reasons for hope
It is enormously encouraging that sports such as NASCAR have banned the confederate flag which has been a symbol of oppression for so long. Christian friends here in Alabama are questioning the use of heavy-handed police tactics and are starting conversations with their African American friends. I’m optimistic that the tide is turning, and racism is ebbing away, although there is still a long way to go.
May I ask you to do something for me? I have lived in the US for four years. At what point does discrimination become my problem? How long do I have to live here before I am guilty of perpetrating systemic racism? My desire is to be part of the solution, but how?
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