An invitation to understand racism

Making sure our USMB house is an equitable place for all

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“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:23.

This past fall, the USMB webinar platform became a place of learning and discussion around the history of race and racism. For those who joined and participated in small group discussions either to process the documentary Race: The Power of Illusion or the book The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma, this time was rich. Rich with information, rich with documentation, rich with biblical lens, rich with real experiences and a call for truth telling.

This experience helped frame our understanding of questions critically imperative for the church—including the Mennonite Brethren Church—to address today. Questions like what lenses are we using to address challenges? What structures have we built? Whose idea are we leading from?  As our denomination welcomes new members, particularly members from a non-dominate ethnic group like that of DR Congo, the question we must ask ourselves and continually address is, what are we inviting others to join?

What God requires

Micah 6:8, which says, “He hath showed you, O man, what is good. And what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God” (ASV), is one of my life verses. This verse invites us to be deep in understanding what God requires of us, his bride, his church, his people. What does it mean to do justice? Who needs justice to be done on their behalf? What has been an injustice? Who has been on the receiving end of injustice? These are critical questions that the North American church has a duty and a responsibility to address.

These past years I personally have embarked on a journey of asking these questions, and seeking to understand our own U.S. history has been key. We are living in a land that Native Americans called Turtle Island. This land was occupied when the first European settlers arrived, and the original people of this land suffered great violence at the hand of the new settlers.

In the book Unsettling Truths by Mark Charles, who was a guest speaker for the fourth USMB webinar on racism, Charles tells the hidden truth of the massacre of native people done by the church. The disappearing of native folk and the taking of the land was not done by people who were naive to Christian faith. It was done by people who held a sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. Quite recently a movement around truth-telling has gained momentum, addressing false narratives like Columbus “discovering” America.

You might be tempted to ask questions: What are we to do now about an encounter between people so long ago? Will God hold us accountable? Does this have anything to do with us today? I invite you to read more about the Doctrine of Discovery, the spiritual, political and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians, and dive into the wisdom Charles, our Navajo Christian brother, shares with us in his book. 

Levels of racism

Jeremiah 22:3 says, “This is what the Lord says: Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow. Do not shed innocent blood in this place.” As we work for justice and read Scriptures like Jeremiah 22:3 or Matthew 25, one of my favorites, we need a framework of understanding levels of racism.

None of us want to be labeled a racist. The media has already done an explosive job of dividing our thinking around this subject, as though it can be sliced in political party lines or, dare I say, ethnicity. The truth is that we need to have the courage and wisdom to understand racism at several different levels. Here are five levels for us all to process:

Level 1 Intrapersonal Level: Intrapersonal racism is a way of seeing the internalized supremacy/racism that is the personal conscious or subconscious acceptance of the dominant society’s racist views, stereotypes and biases of racial and ethnic groups. It gives rise to patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that result in discriminating, minimizing, criticizing, finding fault, invalidating and hating others/oneself while simultaneously valuing the dominant culture.

Level 2 Interpersonal Level: Individual racism refers to an individual’s racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviors and can be conscious or unconscious. Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. Once we bring our private beliefs into our interaction with others, racism is now in the interpersonal realm. It’s found in our practice of overt discrimination and implicit biases.

Level 3 Institutional Level: Institutional racism refers specifically to the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. It is a pattern of social institutions—such as governmental organizations, schools, banks and courts of law—whose effect is to create advantages for whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from groups classified as people of color.

Level 4 Community Level: This is the system used to allocate resources and uphold inequalities based on race and amplifying disparities. An example is school segregation.

Level 5 Systemic Level: Structural or systemic racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics—historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal—that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism encompasses the entire system of white domination, diffused and infused in all aspects of society including its history, culture, politics, economics and entire social fabric.

Our house needs remodeling

Imagine moving into a house that was built hundreds of years ago. Wouldn’t we consider remodeling in order to have indoor plumbing and air conditioning and updating this house to hold the commodities now available? If we wanted to live in a more efficient home, we would examine what it needs, hire the right craftsman to do the work, tolerate the dust, be inconvenienced for a season and keep reminding ourselves that the end product will be worth all of the work.

The church must do some remodeling when it comes to racism. Within our own denominational structures—composition of leadership, styles of leadership, definition of leadership, perspective of kingdom work, allocation of resources, priorities—everything needs to be reexamined in light of our goal. What might we be missing if our structure continues to uphold our original floor plan?

In Revelation 7:9, John writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” We need to be inconvenienced. We need to break walls of hostility and injustice so that we make sure this house—that we do not own—may be an equitable living place for all of our MB family. This, my sisters and brothers, is a journey of trust, truth, lament, confession, repentance, unity and of love—all for the glory of God.

I am honored to be part of a group of writers that have trusted Christian Leader readers with their own journey on race and racism. Our experiences are rich, both with pain and with hope. As you reflect on your own journey, here are 10 suggestions for what is next.

  1. Participate in Mennonite Central Committee’s yearlong learning experience on race and racism and the role of the church in North America using Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the Church’s Complicity in Racism. Webinars will be available to hear from diverse ethnic faith speakers throughout the year.
  2. Advance your own journey by reading books like The Myth of Equality and others recommended by writer’s featured in this issue.
  3. Meet with folks for deep and brave conversations.
  4. Reach beyond your homogenous community and enter spaces with mutual engagement.
  5. Read authors from marginalized communities and be open to seeing the journey through a different lens.
  6. Invite speakers/preachers that have a different ethnic experience to share.
  7. Move beyond resourcing old structures and see what God is doing in marginalized spaces.
  8. Go on a prayer and fasting journey, asking God to reveal areas that need to be decolonized.
  9. Widen your circle to include people not from your ethnic group.
  10. Practice radical hospitality.
Dina Gonzalez-Pina
Dina Gonzalez-Pina is the executive director for West Coast Mennonite Central Committee. She4 and her husband, Xavier Pina, pastor Iglesia La Gran Comision, a USMB congregation in Hanford, California.

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