What is racism?

Recently I was asked in the comments section of this post to define racism. My definition of racism might be slightly different than the normal ones you hear. I try to think Christianly on these matters. Racism is primarily a matter of soteriology and eschatology. So here’s my working definition of racism.

Racism is the denial of Christ’s cross and resurrection. It is a denial of the pouring out of the Spirit whereby Christ has and is creating a new restored humanity that is learning how to wrestle against the Powers and not be determined by the Powers. Racism is the belief and practice that biology is more determinative than a Christian’s baptism and place at Eucharist where Christ’s body celebrates the entrance into creation Christ’s kingdom. Racism, within the North American context, is the making normative of white European culture with its attendant hegemony of power. Racism is the denial of God’s new creation whereby one’s cultural presence dominates the existence of other cultures. Racism is the denying, through political and ecclesial institutions, the imago Dei of other human beings that are not descendants of Europeans. That is the more contextual version of racism as it relates to North America.

Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when European-American Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith. This is exampled by European-American churches that think they are racially diverse but still have a white, middle-class aesthetic while having people of different cultures present in their worship. Such practices are racist and are examples of the church being handmaiden to the Principalities and Powers that continue to oppress and render hostile different cultures towards each other. Racism is capitulation to Powers in their perpetuation of hostility and oppression between different cultures.


27 thoughts on “What is racism?

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  1. This is exactly why I wrote this polemic in a culture of inequity. As a hispanic, I guess I’m “sensitive” to racial issues. My wife, who is white, said, “Until I met you I didn’t realize or think twice about race issues. I didn’t even think they existed.” Unfortunately, I believe she has a strange point. Will the majority ever understand racism? Why do miniority’s only cry racism? Sadly, this also exists in the church, even the emerging church. Just take a step inside the emerging church blogosphere. Leaves me wondering what’s really going on.

  2. great definition anthony. keep bringin in.

    until non-white folks begin to define “otherness” in the expression of our theology or in conversations with emergent, our voice will continue to be the “minority”. i find it interesting that in our western context, where we have supposedly moved from modernity, we still place the highest premium on the “intelligensia” to often define a movement.

    I think our epistemology hasn’t changed as much as we think it has.

    jose h.

  3. Excellent post, Anthony.

    I was recently asked my definition of racism as I led what we call the Cultural Day in one of our programs. For me, the definition is rooted in the definition of Sin. Sin, literally meaning “to miss the mark”, is not about how it is bad, but rather on how is fails to be good- thus missing the mark. That being said, then for a Christian, racism is a failure to pursue and embrace the fullness of Christ in all His diversity. It is not simply about attitude of the negative (though they are a reflection of racism), but of our failure to actively becoming that very Christ.


  4. And racism can only be practiced by white European Americans? Can only be perpetrated by the majority onto the minority?

    A limited view at best.

  5. Bob,

    A good point, indeed. Though as minorities have suffered significantly worse from the racism needs to be considered. If you dismiss it as limited at BEST, I think you fail to give this post the time it deserves.


  6. Bob,

    Your question: “And racism can only be practiced by white European Americans? Can only be perpetrated by the majority onto the minority?”

    Racism ‘can’ be practiced by any group of people. But I am not dealing with what people ‘can’ do. I am dealing with what is going on ‘now’ and what has happened in the past. In our present context ‘racism’ can be something that is practiced by other groups…if you define racism as ‘personal’ prejudice. Such individualism is why it has been difficult to ‘name’, ‘unmask’, and ‘engage’ racism. Our struggle is not against European Americans but against the Powers and Principalities that have influenced political structures, intellectual structures, ecclesial structures, moral codes, and customs in a way that have priviledged European Americans over others in our North American context. Such a privileging has had dire consequences. Let’s not turn into individualist when we begin to deal with ‘race’. I mean…you wouldn’t reduce globalization to purely an individual consumer choice. You recognize the larger realities at work that shape and give form to a way of life whereby one becomes a consumer…right? The same goes for race. That we would reduce racism to personal prejudice is one more way in which hyper-individualism has dominated the discourse on important matters…such as race.

    In our North American context it has been European American Christians (not all of course) that have been practitioners of ‘race-ism’ in the Principality and Power sense.

  7. “Would you draw a distinction between culture and racism or are you saying that our culture is inherently racist?”

    I am saying that the church often practices the Faith in a way that is complicit with the principalities and powers that want to continue the hostilities between different cultures.

  8. I am having a hard time seeing how your working definition of racism is not racist on its face.

    You said:

    Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when European-American Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith.

    Wouldn’t it have been far better, much less racist, and significantly more accurate if you had said something like:

    Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith to the exclusion of other cultures in their midst.

  9. The comment I quoted used exclusionary language that separates one racial group from all others and castigates it for a particular behavior.

    I believe that racism is this very act of separating one race group out for generalization. It’s no more appropriate to say that “European-American Christians consider their expressions of faith normative” than it is to say that “African-Americans like watermelon and fried chicken” or “Mexican-Americans are lazy”. It’s simply not acceptable and it has little to nothing to do with reality.

    But it has everything to do with reconciliation. As long as we are willing to revert to these generalizations we build barriers to people being reconciled to each other through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These barriers are the heart and soul of racism.

    It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of generalization. Even though I try not to, I do it on a regular basis as does probably everyone else. But generalization is lazy, imprecise, and often very offensive to people who don’t see the world through the same set of lenses that we do.

    This is why I gave you the alternative which leaves off generalizations and challenges all Christians to re-examine whether they are oppressing the minority cultures in their context. This seems to me to be the more accurate, graceful, and challenging approach:

    Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith to the exclusion of other cultures in their midst.

    I hope I did not offend you with my comment; that was never my intention. I just felt like your post needed and deserved a more critical reading than it was receiving. Perhaps I have misunderstood you to some degree and you can correct me?

  10. In understanding racism, we have to recognize that by definition, the term racism presupposes the prejudiced and biased attitudes and behaviors of people in power, which have become institution-alized against those deemed ethnically and culturally different. Today we are not contending with overt expressions of white superiority complexes, but rather the more subtle, and just as dangerous, form of systemic prejudice against people of color (black people in particular).

    Anthony, I appreciate the way you have centered the issue of race and racism in a Christian context. I’m not sure the connection between race and theology has been addressed adequately since James Cone tackled the topic 30 years ago. We need voices to reinterpret the meaning of race in this day and time and I pray that God would continue to provide you with revelation on this important subject, for in the Kingdom of God, it is a matter of life (the new world) and death (the old world).

  11. To Kevin:

    Brother, I hear what you’re saying about Anthony’s identifying and signaling out of “European-American Christians” in regards to race-ism and normativity. However, I think your point — while very well intentioned — misses the larger point that “in the North American context” European-Americans dominate and do hold the Power within evangelicalism and even within the emerging church. So to call “all Christians” to examine themselves misses the point that Anthony is trying to make (or what I think he’s trying to make), which is that, in North America, European-American Christians — such as you and I, from what I can tell from your profile image — embody racism, “oftentimes unknowingly” (unconciously, uncritically, unintentionally) by the way we’ve enculturated Christianity in our “expression and practice.” In my opinion, Anthony is absolutely right on the money with this point, and the fact that minorities can hold personal prejudices against whites or other minorities doesn’t hold a candle to the issue Anthony is comfronting here. By seeking to “broaden” the conversation, your suggestion of leaving race out of the equation is unrealistic and naive. Trust me, Anthony is not being racist in this discussion. He loves the Church — black, white, red, brown, yellow, whatever. But in North America we have a very white church in power, and it needs to be critically analyzed. Anthony is speaking truth to power here, and it hurts to hear it but we need to listen.

    Steve K.

  12. Notice that many of our white brothers are trying to assess blame. “You are just as capable of being a racist as I am even though you are black”. Of course that is true, but it also missing the point. Steve (our other white brother) is closer to what Ant is banging on about. I just want to add that the definition of racism that Ant is talking about is not referring to something that is personal or intentional. It is structual and demonic, hence the term “principality’, and it is no doubt sin because it perverts God’s purposes and it misshapes God’s Church, and preaches another Gospel.

  13. When I was in graduate school at Kansas State University years ago, I had a friend named Ed from South Carolina. Ed talked funny. I asked what he was doing with his car. He said he was changing the “motor awl.” He said he came to KSU to go to “graduate schooo.” We would go to the restaurant and I would order pecan (pa-KAHN) pie and he would order “PEE-can” pie. I assured him that there were people who could help with his speech impediment so he could be “normal” like the rest of us.

    This raises an interesting question. How is it that people from New Jersey, South Carolina, and Minnesooota have accents and I don’t? The answer is, of course, that I do have an accent. But because everyone else here in the Midwest has the same one, I am unaware of it. We just experience at as “normal.” But guess who had the accent when I lived in Philly? Yous guessed it. Me.

    I think this is a great parallel to being a part of the majority culture. White culture is “normal.” All you others are exhibiting a “cultural accent.” So why can’t you all just be “normal” (read White). I don’t think that most racist outcomes by Whites emerge primarily from animosity but rather from not seeing our own cultural “accent” and how that impacts others. Numbers and a long history of privilege will do that to you.

    I think when White folk hear “racist,” they think of a menacing hateful person. Non-whites are more likely to interpret “racist” in terms of resulting outcomes (and rightfully so.) Michael Emerson writes about American being a “racialised” culture instead of a “racist” culture because White folk can’t get passed the perceived condemnation that they are hateful mean people to hear anything that comes after. “Racialised” is kind of like being hypnotized. You are blind to certain realities and need to “snap out of it.” When you suddenly are able to get a glimpse of the suffering you cause then you begin to see how “racist” things are.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Michael Kruse

  14. Kevin and Anthony, I’m not sure how, but I agree with you both. Or rather, I very much resonated deeply with the points you both have made in this discussion. You both seem to be sensitive, caring people who earnestly seek to do right and I’m happy to have garnered much to think about from both of you. Kevin, I especially agree with you (and, I admit, as an american caucasian who desperately seeks to Do No More Harm) about wishing to generalize as little as humanly possible in everything I say. Thank you for the reminder.

    Mr. Kruse, it’s minds like yours that will help this country out of our blindness. Thank you for your thoughts.

    This discussion is very good for me. I had never thought about racism in terms of having very different types.


  15. I live in a city with 5-8 black people and 10 -15 Indians. Maybe all of the 20 plus churches could rent these people so that we don’t feel racist.

    I live in a very white area, what am I do to.

  16. No I live in Carlisle, England. In the middle of no where. We aere a city of 85,000 people and up until 4 years ago. I never saw a Black person. I am from the US and have lived among many races my entire adult life. It is so bizzare living here. We have adopted our daughter from China and she is really out of place here.


  17. There are a lot of resources out there on funny living. It would take ages to study it all. What we’ve done is brought it all together, so that it’s all available here, in this one place.

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