Inklings of Truth


What Are You Anyway?

By Audrey Stallsmith

Recent events in New Orleans have raised accusations of racism. It’s probably unjustified in this instance, since the delayed response seems to have been due to the sort of bureaucratic bungling that plagues all of us.

But racism itself is a real enough problem. I’ve experienced a bit of it myself since--although my ancestry is mostly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic--my dark hair and eyes make me appear as if I could be something else. A curious fellow student once asked me, "What are you anyway?" More amused than offended, I was tempted to reply, "Human, the last time I checked!"

Once, when accompanied by a Native American friend, I actually had a shopkeeper lock a door in my face. But I imagine he took us to be Travelers, the American version of gypsies. (We've heard that there may be a Native American woman somewhere in my mother's bloodline, though we've never been able to verify that. It might explain my somewhat ethnic look!)

The problem of unequal treatment is not limited to race. Tests have proved that we favor people who appear young, healthy, rich, and attractive, and accord much less respect to the elderly, handicapped, poor, plain, and obese. Fortunately, as C. S. Lewis puts it in Christian Behavior, "God doesn’t look at outsides." As is proved by the fact that Rahab and Ruth both show up in the line of Christ, God has always been more concerned about people’s faith than their nationality.

Prejudice is wrong for several reasons. It’s a form of judging, since it makes generalized assumptions about those it denigrates. And it also proves that our priorities are skewed, when we respect some people--and "diss" others--for all the wrong reasons. "Dear brothers," as James writes, "how can you claim that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. . .if you show favoritism to rich people and look down on poor people? Judging a man by his wealth shows that your are guided by wrong motives." (James 2:1 & 4 LB)

I suspect our bias springs mostly from fear. The elderly, handicapped, poor, plain, and obese remind us that we’re all going to belong to at least one of those groups--more likely most of them--at some point or another! The young, healthy, rich, and beautiful, on the other hand, are all of the things we think we would like to be but never quite attain. While other races are intimidating just because they’re different.

Since the unfamiliar scares us, the compulsion is, as Madeleine L’Engle comments in Walking on Water, "to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit." In other words, it’s our own feelings of inadequacy that cause us to put other people down.

But those of us who call ourselves Christians are simply not allowed to do it. As Helmut Thielicke makes clear in Life Can Begin Again, "Every person is ultimately a thought of God." Thus, "The despiser of men," as Dietrich Bonhoeffer concludes in Ethics, "despises what God has loved."

In a book called Blink, Malcolm Gladwell addresses racism along with several other topics. His main contention is that many of the decisions we make are not reached by careful thought, but by a more subconscious, split-second, summing up.

This can be, as Gladwell points out, a good thing, since we don’t always have time for reasoning. And our subconscious often seems to sense things that our conscious mind doesn’t.

But tests have proved that the subconscious also tends to be racist. So fear will sometimes ignite latent bias in police officers or soldiers who have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. In emergencies--when a person is freezing to death, for example--the body will shut down what it considers the less necessary parts in order to sustain life. In the same way, Gladwell points out, when a brain is flooded with adrenaline parts of it shut down.

As a result, the threatened person becomes temporarily autistic, unable to correctly read the visual clues that usually hint how another person is or isn’t responding to us. So, deprived of its analytic processes, the panicked brain often reverts to its instinctive reaction of distrusting anyone who is different.

This can be alleviated somewhat. Well-trained policemen and soldiers, who are required to undergo many simulated emergencies, produce less adrenaline when confronted with the real thing. So they are usually able to think more clearly and respond more appropriately than do those who are less experienced.

I expect the key to ending racism and the other related "isms" is more exposure to all kinds of other people. Our subconscious has, like our conscious mind, less of a problem with the familiar. Political correctness can, I’m afraid, backfire by making all of us a little too self-conscious around people of other races, the handicapped, etc--simply out of fear that we will be thought prejudiced!

But, once we’ve known people long enough, we see their personalities rather than their appearance. Then we’re better able to relax around them. "To love," as L’Engle finished her earlier assertion, "is to call by name." In other words, we have separated the person we love from any category.

So maybe we need to ask ourselves what that student asked me. "What are we anyway?" Are we still so insecure, despite God’s acceptance of us, that we need to assert some illusory control over others to feel better about ourselves? Even if we’ve progressed as far as tolerance, that is--according to Scripture--not good enough. If we don’t love, we’re not His.

As for those of us who belong to the denigrated groups--or simply look like we do!--we also have to love those who make hasty judgements about us. We can only do that by remembering the simple fact that Jeff VanVonderen states in Tired of Trying to Measure Up. "The person who shamed you has no power to decide anything about you. Only God can decide."