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It's in Me

An excerpt from
Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation

by Dr. George Yancey
Baker Book House, 1996

Let your light shine before men in such a way
that they may see your good works, and
glorify your Father who is in Heaven.

Matthew 5: 16
During my last year in Austin I lived in the northeastern part of the city in an interracial neighborhood. One day while I was watching the news, I heard that there had been a police shooting. While not an everyday occurrence, this was not unusual in Austin; however, my interest was piqued when I found out that it was in northeast Austin. The story really got my attention when the news reporter mentioned a street that was very close to where I lived. Then I listen intently to the details of the story.

It seemed that a man had been harassing a woman and had been driven off earlier by the police. He was told not to come back to that address. Unfortunately he did not listen and came back later that night. The woman called the police and when they showed up, the man produced what appeared to them to be a gun. The man was shot several times and killed. Afterward the police discovered that what they thought was a real gun was only a toy weapon.

As I listen to this story, there was one overwhelming thought in my mind: I hope that guy was not black. You see, if the man was black then I would wonder if racism was involved in the incident. Would the police have used such excessive force if the man had been white? Not only would I wonder if Racism might have been a factor, but I would anticipate the various African American political and religious groups beginning to place the label of racism on the incident. This was a reasonable fear after seeing the damage that similar incidents had done to cities such as Los Angeles and Miami. The city of Austin would be face with a whole new round of racial introspection, not all of which would be helpful to the process of reconciliation. Later I found out that the assailant was white and all of these fears were put aside.

Even as I was putting these fears aside, however, a new set of fears began to crop up in my mind. I began to think about my desire that a man who had been killed have a particular skin color. To put my dilemma in perspective I imagined someone like David Duke wishing that same sort of thing I had. What would you think if you knew Duke had heard of a police shooting and said, "Well, I hope they shot a black man"? Images of white robes and burning crosses would probably cross your mind. Was I any better? Is not hoping that an individual who has been killed is not black roughly the same as hoping that he is white? In horror I began to examine myself. Was I as guilty of racism as Duke? Perhaps my racism was merely different in degree from Duke's but not in kind.

I began to try to find ways to justify my thinking. After all, we know that someone like Duke would make his statement out of disrespect for the personhood of blacks. My thought was in response to the potential problems an act of racism would bring to my city. Surely my motives were more pure than those of someone like Duke. This excuse did not satisfy me for long. It may be true that I was responding to the societal situation around me; however, the grand wizard of the Klan could say the same thing. We have all seen pictures of white children at Klan rallies. When they grow up, they are just living by the lessons that society has taught them. In their minds, they are as certain that the mixing of the races is problematic to society as I was that a surge of protests after a racial shooting would have been. In both circumstances we are reacting to fears caused by society and thus allowing the development of racism.

This brings out a very important point about racism. We live in a racist society. Racism is not found only way down South or in certain neighborhoods. Unfortunately the phenomenon of racism is part of what makes American what it is. It is in our history and our culture. I am not trying to sound like some sort of unpatriotic radical; I am merely telling the truth. We cannot change a reality until we are willing to acknowledge the presence of that reality. I have to admit that racism is as much a part of my subculture as it is part of David Duke's. Racism is in David Duke. It is in the skinheads. It is in the black nationalists. But more important, at least from my viewpoint, racism is in me. The society has taught me to be racist and I have learned those lessons well. I cannot ignore the realities of racism in our society, so sometimes, in reaction, I act or think in racist ways. I want to think that racism is something that is only found in those groups or individuals that we tend to think of as bigots. But now I am force to be honest. It is in me as well.

I must say that this is a sobering revelation. If I am forced to admit that at times I act and think in a racist manner towards whites, this revolutionizes the way I have been thinking about the problem of racism in our nation. It is not just their problem anymore; it is my problem as well. I can no longer just see myself as the victim of racism but I am forced to admit that I am one of the channels in society through which racism can flow. Then, if I do not make a concerted effort to be part of the solution to racism, I will continue to be part of the problem.

If I am not free of racism, what does that mean about others in our society? I am sure no one who knows me would think that I am racist towards whites. When I was a child I was accused of being an Oreo because I had white friend. My best friend in college was white. Many of my roommates were white. Most of the churches that I have attended have been white. I am married to a white woman. I am firmly committed to ending racism and am repulsed whenever I encounter it. Yet in spite of all of this, I have found racism lives in me. I am forced to wonder that if I am not free of this sickness, who in our society is?

It would be wrong for me to judge anyone but myself. Even though I use him as an example, I cannot say with 100 percent assurance that Duke is a racist. If you are honest, is not it possible that some of the racism of this society has crept into you? We hesitate admitting this possibility because we have been told that racism is so evil. But I am not an evil person who is trying to impose some sort of black superiority on this society. You are probably not an evil person either. Let us stop slinging emotionally charged words such as "bigot" or "redneck" and become real with each other. If there is even the slightest possibility that racism resides in your life, there may be something in these pages that will help you deal with this sickness. Maybe something I write will help you understand the confused young blacks who often riot out of frustration or the Hispanic you have tried to befriend who seems to distrust you. If you are a minority perhaps you will begin to understand why your white friend cannot see the obvious racism that so disturbs you.

Racism has affected us all and my desire is to help others find a way out of it. Maybe in helping you I will be able to help myself. Somehow I think that encouraging each other to heal is part of an interdependence that is essential to Christians who are serious about being members of the body of Christ. So I challenge you to read on and I pray that the healing may begin.

Dr. George Yancey is a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. Currently he is working with Dr. Michael Emerson on a half-million dollar grant funding research of multiracial churches. He founded Reconciliation Consulting, a ministry dedicated to the promotion of racial reconciliation.

Dr. Yancey's book Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation exhibits much of his philosophy on racial issues.

You can purchase the book directly from Dr. Yancey by contacting him at yancey@scs.cmm.unt.edu. Price of the book is $10 (a $3 discount off the list price).

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