How many times have we heard somebody say, “I’m not a racist, but…”? Calling somebody a racist can be a term of abuse in itself. It is an insult. The trouble is, that there are obviously degrees of racism, but the term “racist” is an absolute term. If we call a dog, “a dog” then that creature is either a dog or not at – there is no in between. Calling another a racist implies that the person is 100% racist. But it may just mean we consider their racism is worse than our own. And so, I will not call anybody a racist, but I will explore some of the aspects of racism.
Racism is a subtle thing. It involves our thoughts, our attitudes, our words and our actions.
Racism has been around for thousands of years. It was there in the Roman Empire as Romans obviously thought themselves superior to the people they conquered. In fact all empires have existed because people thought themselves superior to the peoples around. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols and more recently the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all formed empires based on a sense of superiority.
Racism has created wars, and caused people groups to be conquered, subjugated and enslaved. It has caused riots, Civil War and mass murder. People thought to be inferior have been treated as slaves, subject to prejudice, prevented from advancement in careers and subject to abuse in many forms.
It is not just, “white” people who have been guilty of racism. One only has to think of Idi Amin expelling the Indian population from Uganda, the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka to realise that racial tension is a global problem.
It is only in more recent times that racism has become unacceptable, and rightly so. British soldiers in the days of the British Empire did not consider themselves racists, but now we would be very ashamed of some of their actions. In today’s society we are very aware of any thoughts, attitudes, words and actions which may be considered racist.
When I was young, I loved geography. I had a map of the world, much of it coloured red as large areas of the world were part of, or had recently been a part of, the British Empire. I was brought up to be proud of being British and the attitudes of my parents and grandparents generation had an effect on me and shaped my own attitudes. I honestly thought that British people were superior to other people living around the world!
My parents would never have thought of themselves as being racist. In fact they had a keen interest in the work of missionaries in other countries. I remember hearing stories of little black children being chased by witch doctors, of white people ending up in a cannibals pot and of people bowing down to idols of wood and stone. A missionary returning from Africa horrified a church congregation – telling us that the locals wanted to take over the running of the church!
On the positive side, these things gave me an interest in the world, and a desire to seek justice for people living in other countries. But I had a lot to unlearn and changing my own attitudes was a long and sometimes painful process.
Thoughts, Attitudes, Words and Actions
- Our thoughts. What is the first thing that comes into our minds when we see a person with different colour skin to ourselves? We can reject negative thoughts immediately, but if we allow them to fester, those thoughts will inevitably affect our attitudes, words and actions.
- Our attitudes can be affected. This can mean that thinking of people who live, “over there” as being different and inferior to ourselves,
- Our Words. The words we speak can be very offensive and damaging to other people. Some words, in themselves are obviously offensive, and often meant to be offensive. Other words can develop connotations over time which means that we need to avoid them. I’m not advocating political correctness for the sake of it; but if our words damage other people and cause their self-worth to be affected then they are best avoided.
- Our actions. Ultimately our thoughts, attitudes and words effect our actions. This can result in discrimination, treating others as second-class human beings or even being unwilling to respond to an appeal when people are suffering in other parts of the world.
I guess that probably everybody alive in the world today, of all nations, sometimes struggles with racist thoughts or attitudes. Wrong attitudes can only be changed as we face up to them. I envy our young people of today, living in a world where racism is considered unacceptable.
Is there hope? Yes, I think there is. We need to embrace the biblical commandment to, “love our neighbour as ourselves“. We need to understand that our neighbours include people with other coloured skins, people of other tribes or people groups, people with different cultures and religions and treat everyone as human beings, made in the image of God.