Same Words but Different

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As I’ve followed numerous articles, interviews, speeches and conversations related to race relations in the United States over the past couple of weeks I’ve come to realise that we’re not all using words the same way. Our words sound the same, but the meanings and emphases differ. White society faces the temptation to adopt the role of guardians of the lexicon and deny the validity of new definitions arising from within minority cultures.

This blog exists to encourage and provide resources for multi-ethnic churches. One of the keys to speaking to a diverse congregation is using the right words. The less our congregations look like us, the more carefully we need to choose our words. This is true in regular preaching, but exponentially more so when addressing cultural flash points.

So here are some words related to race relations that I’ve come to realise have at least two meanings each. If you can think of additional examples please list them in the comment section below. I intentionally focus on Black – White relations as that’s been the focus of attention in recent weeks.

RACE
This may appear to be a simple term for all of us who’ve completed numerous forms that ask us our race: Black; White; Latino; Pacific Islander; etc. However, consider this definition from FreeDictionary.com,

“A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them.

(While that’s hardly the most academic source, it’s a fair summary of many scholarly discussions.)

Although we think of racial differences in terms of physical features such as skin color, eye lid folds, or sometimes language, those physical differences are genetically insignificant. I have found that when we talk about different races, we most often refer to social and cultural differences rather than physical distinctions. If someone says, “Black (or White) people like this particular food or think a particular way” they are referencing a cultural value or taste, rather than a behaviour arising from a person’s skin colour or genetic makeup.

While this term isn’t disappearing any time soon, it’s valuable to remind ourselves of its limitations and foremost that all people belong to the human race. Our similarities far exceed our physical distinguishing features.

RACISM
Traditional (White) dictionaries define this word in relation to an individual’s sense of superiority over another because of race, or their hatred or prejudice toward others because of race. Racism occurs when one person treats another person badly due to their racial differences.

Many African-Americans include an additional word in their definition that makes a vital adjustment to the conversation. That word is “power”.  By this understanding of the term racism is a sense of superiority over a minority population with the power and authority to implement policies and systems that honor the superior and suppress and oppress the inferior.

According to this definition a Black person in the USA cannot be racist towards Whites, because almost no sphere of society exists in which Blacks possess power over Whites. Racism isn’t an attitude an individual possesses. Racism exists in systems, policies and institutions representing the majority (White) population who have the power and authority to implement and maintain those systems.

This “power” definition doesn’t mean that people of color bear no guilt in their relationships toward White America. There are plenty of vices that reflect racial hate, just not “racism”. These attitudes can be found in people of all colors: prejudice; hate; discrimination; bigotry; intolerance; and arrogance.

WHITE SUPREMACY
When most White Americans hear the term “White Supremacy” they’ll picture images of Ku Klux Klan hoods and neo-nazis. To label someone a white supremacist is a grievous insult. Because of this association when White America hears the term “White Supremacy” being directed toward them they naturally grow defensive and the conversation stalls.

I’ve increasingly noticed writers using this phrase in reference to social systems and structures where those with white skins enjoy advantages over other ethnic groups. Like “racism”, this shift in definitions applies the term less to individuals and more to collective organizations.

For Example: If I were to say, “The NFL demonstrates and facilitates White supremacy”, I’m not accusing the NFL of being run by members of the KKK. Rather, I’m highlighting a system where a disproportionate number of owners and coaches are White, particularly in comparison to the ratio of White:Black players.

Personally, I believe church leaders should only use this second definition with great caution. In all likelihood the vast majority of the audience will associate it with extremist groups and therefore find it inflammatory. However, we should expose our congregations to the technical meaning so they will be willing to pursue the speakers meaning and be less likely to respond negatively and impulsively when they hear the phrase.

PRIVILEGE
White privilege is difficult to define and describe. A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals 8 definitions submitted by contributors. At its core, this term refers to the concept that within US society a person of white skin colour experiences inherent advantages over those with darker skin colours. These advantages will not necessarily be the consequence of intentional preference, but nonetheless they exist.

The primary rebuttal of this concept isn’t with the definition, but with the reality. Many white Americans point to their own struggles and challenges to succeed in life as evidence that they didn’t receive any benefits because of their skin colour.

Because this could be an extremely long discussion on its own, I’ll just give two examples I believe would commonly be described as white privilege.

  1. Dictionaries: This entire conversation relates in some way to the fact that English is a language of white people and the dictionaries have been maintained by representatives of white culture. “Proper English” is defined by White society. African-American word usage or Chinese-American terms may never make it into the mainstream dictionary and will be regarded as “lesser English”. In order for a minority to be regarded as educated they must speak like White Americans regardless of the degrees they’ve attained. Yet at the same time White English continues to evolve over time and “proper English” is continually redefined in a way that most people are oblivious to. The double standard is glaring and it advantages (privileges) White society.
  2. Church: Picture two 16 year olds, one white, one black. They go to school together. They have the same classes and the same teachers. But on weekends they go to black and white churches of the same denomination. Demographics tell us that when they start looking for entry level jobs the one attending the white church is more likely to have relationships with civic leaders, farmers, small-business owners, and executives. In addition, the White church members are probably higher educated than their counterparts at the Black church in town and reinforce the value of education to this student.
    Because of these relationships the White student gains part-time work with a career track in larger businesses, internships, and relationships with influential people in the community.
    Although both students will work equally hard, and their families of origin may live at comparable levels of wealth, the social connections made simply by attending a white church provide one teen opportunities the other never received. Looking back, the white student may never appreciate the privileges that came with his skin color while she credits her accomplishments to her efforts and therefore disparages the efforts of those (minorities) who haven’t succeeded as she has.

Each of these terms has huge conversations behind them. I know I haven’t scratched the surface of the issues and attitudes involved. Hopefully, this blog post can raise awareness of conversations that need to take place around terminology, even before substantive conversations toward reconciliation can occur.

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