Speaking of Ethnicity

Race relations in the United States is becoming a third rail topic. Better to discuss politics and religion than to suggest there might be ongoing patterns of systemic racism in some circles.

If social media is any indication, some groups seem to think that by even discussing racial differences, others are fomenting and accentuating racism.

In extreme cases this is true. However, in most cases, the people discussing racial issues are dealing with the real difference between the minority and majority experience in the United States.

The Myth of Color Blindness

One of the arguments against discussing race is the argument that society should be “color blind.” The term means that we should not consider the color of people’s skin when making evaluations of people and their work.

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license,  http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

I believe that most people engaged in discussions of race relations see “color blindness” as a desirable outcome in the long term. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, part of his dream is that people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Someday a future generation may reach that point.

Despite the desire to have a world in which skin color does not matter, that world does not exist now. We have a world in which ethnicity and skin color still do matter much more than they should.

At this point, there are some who will swoop down onto my argument like a vulture to point out certain statistics. What I’m speaking of here is more than just statistics—whether the statistics support certain percentages of killings by ethnicity or disparate academic outcomes.

I’m speaking of the observed reality that my middle-class, professional, African-American friends have on average been pulled over many more times than I have for no more apparent cause. I’m speaking of the reality of my own observations of minority males of color being treated differently than me by authorities even while we were both in uniform. I’m speaking of the internal impulse in my own mind to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance.

I like statistics (in fact they are a fun part of my job), but they don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a different story than reality.

To claim that skin color does not influence societal evaluations is foolish. It’s like a person ignoring an infection in a limb.

Our Wounded Reality

Imagine if you get a cut in your finger while working a dirty job. You ignore the pain and keep working. You tell your hand that it is OK and that it is just like your other uninjured hand. Both hands are equally valuable to you, therefore it should stop hurting. Meanwhile it gets infected. However, you don’t clean the wound or treat it. You tell your hand that the cut was inflicted a couple of days ago and that it hasn’t been cut recently, so it should stop aching. Slowly the infection may heal, if conditions are right. Or, quite possibly, ignoring the legitimate needs of your hand could cause the infection to spread and perhaps even blood poisoning to set in.

At best, the neglected hand heals itself but may scar significantly or take longer to fully heal due to the lack of medical care. At worst, the blood poisoning spreads and kills the individual with the injured hand. In both cases consequences could have been avoided by taking timely, appropriate action.

Few people would ignore an injured hand. Instead, most people react to a cut by getting first aid, keeping it clean, and treating the injured hand differently for a time. The common sense understanding is that the wounded hand may have different needs for a time.

There is wisdom in recognizing there is a difference between the hands and taking care of the wound.

Our contemporary reality of race relations is something like this analogy.[1]

The Reality of Injury

To provide just one example, African-Americans were economically and socially harmed by American society by being enslaved and later by unjust laws that were in place in the middle of the last century. There are enough evidences of ongoing negative racial bias that we need to accept that such bias continues to exist in some cases. (See: the alt-right movement)

There has been legitimate injury done that will necessarily take time to heal. It may also take focused attention to promote healing, which includes at least being free to talk about racial differences without being accused of fomenting division.

Until healing occurs, we need to recognize that there are differences in society between the experiences of people of different ethnicities. Stereotypes built on generations of observed behavior, depictions in entertainment media, and self-selected identities all impact the experience of people in the United States. It takes time to change these deeply seated societal ideas, but the first step is to recognize they exist. Someday we may be able to be “color blind,” but we aren’t there yet. In many cases we really aren’t that close.

Moving Toward Change

We should long for the day when ethnicity is a point of interesting difference, like discussing where people grew up and what their favorite home-cooked food is. However, the experience of racial minorities in the United States is often significantly different than that of the majority. If you want to know what sorts of differences exist, talk to a few minorities. Their experiences will be unique, but some common patterns will tend to emerge if the sample size is large enough.

Unless we address the injustice of some of those differences, the healing process will not progress very quickly. Unless people are free to explain what is wrong without being accused of hate and division, we can never have meaningful conversations.

We can certainly have meaningful discussions about the best ways to deal with our differences. There is no simple solution for undoing the intentional harm inflicted in and by previous generations. There is no single, easy method of eliminating the often obscure, but deeply seated biases of contemporary perceptions.

However, until people are allowed to have open, charitable conversations about the existence of differences because of ethnicity, society will be unable to move to the next phase of healing.

[1] The analogy obviously breaks down at some point. I am not inferring that racial minorities are somehow infected limbs that should be removed from society. Quite the reverse. I am hopeful that this analogy will illustrate the interconnectedness of society and the value in promoting social healing for overall health. Just as one does not blame the hand for being wounded, we should not blame minorities for past ills inflicted by society.

Social Media Use and the Christian

One of the main limitations of electronic communication is the lack of tone. This means that e-mails between people who are generally unfamiliar with each other have a strong potential to be misread and misinterpreted.

It is no mystery that losing the facial expressions, body language that you get with a face to face conversation. Even the cue of a tone of voice is missing from electronic communication. These make communicating electronically a perpetual danger.

Consider the simple student-professor interaction. A student asks a question via e-mail, which is clearly outlined in the syllabus. The professor has a few choices. The first is to carefully answer the question, eating up valuable time and (perhaps) enabling the inattentiveness that is at the root of the student’s problem. 

A second choice is to simply write back, “It’s in the syllabus.” This is exactly the truth, but the e-mail lacks the gracious tone of voice that communicates to the student that, while they are important as a person made in the image of God, they need to demonstrate the life skills of doing due diligence before pestering someone. Instead, this has the strong potential to be received by the student as a harsh message, which is, most of the time, not warranted or intended.

The Dangers of Facebook Debates

E-mail, at least, offers opportunities for expanding and contextualizing responses.  So do platforms like Facebook. Still, Facebook has its own dangers.

The prime concern with Facebook debates is that you are essentially holding a conversation across the room. This works when you are telling someone you think their puppy is cute or congratulations on getting married. However, when you are explaining a nuanced political point there will be, inevitably, someone who isn’t aware of the context that is listening and misinterpreting the conversation.

In this manner, pieces of a discussion that are assumed but not spoken may lead someone with a different worldview to draw significant conclusions. If terms are not defined, it may lead someone to believe something about the discussion or its participants that just isn’t true. It may be, too, that the relationship between the readers allows a tone to be assumed, instead of expressed. However, since the debate is being read by those outside the circle, it may misrepresent the nature of the argument. Consider the following:

Person 1: “Aaron Rogers is the best quarterback ever.”
Person 2: “You’re an idiot, Joe Montana is better by a mile, just like I’ve always said.”

This conversation may be nothing but chatter between friends, but to the third person who is unaware of the joviality, this may seem harsh. 

Now imagine if the conversation is about an important topic, like an upcoming Supreme Court decision or a theological topic. The public nature of such debates makes them dangerous for maintaining gracious Christian tone.

The Risk of Twitter Exchanges

A greater danger for Christians in the electronic world lies in the abbreviated exchanges that take place on Twitter.

The lack of expressiveness and context in many forums, like e-mail and Facebook, can be overcome by being verbose. Sometimes people overcome it by using emoticons, but I am opposed to those on principle. :-)

On Twitter, however, you get 140 characters. You couldn’t even order a meal in 140 characters. How can you expect to make a convincing argument in that space?  More significantly, how can you hope to communicate your point with grace in that short a span?

Here, again, the conversation taking place in a public space without even the protections of various nuanced privacy settings. As the trolling that takes place when a conference uses a hashtag to collect tweets demonstrates, there are a lot of people with too much time on their hands that are more than glad to be nasty to someone else just for fun.

Additionally, once something is posted on Twitter, there are numerous bots that catalog tweets, sometimes just for the purpose of internet shaming. Suddenly a relatively innocuous tweet you made about a marriage conference can be posted on a website, labeled (with your avatar) as hate speech, because you spoke positively about someone’s presentation. Even if you delete the tweet, those sentiments may be available for an internet eternity.

What this latter example illustrates is that Twitter allows the reader to provide his or her own context. This should make use consider what the appropriate use of Twitter really is.

It should also make us think carefully about how we treat other people’s tweets. If we expect a modicum of grace for our tweets, we should grant the same to others, even those with whom we strongly disagree.

There is certainly more to be discussed about the use of social media as Christians. I’m interested in reading your comments below and continuing this very important conversation.

Note: This post (and perhaps some to follow) have been spurred on by an ongoing conversation with my friend, Sam Morris (@samorris8) who is the social media guru for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.