This summer, I have been seeking to grow in my understanding of racism; to examine my own life in an ongoing, life-long process of repentance and belief, or, turning away from a particular outlook and pressing into a new one. To help me, I have been reading (and lining up yet-to-read) and listening in on conversations. I have sought to learn from female and male voices; UK-based and US-based and other global voices; Christian, Muslim, and secular voices; written and spoken voices—all while recognising that this is a life-long challenge, not a summer-long challenge.
I’ve just finished Ibram X. Kendi's How to be an Anti-racist. I would strongly recommend it, as being both helpful and hopeful. In marked contrast to much of the noise around this cultural moment, Kendi is unwaveringly honest about the complexity of the issue at hand (including about his own dishonesty). Though he wouldn’t use the terms, Kendi models an ongoing practice of what Jesus calls “repent and believe”—and the often painful or embarrassing moments of revelation that move us on from one stage in our journey to the next.
Kendi contends that the root of racism is what he terms powerful self-interest (I would also use the terms selfishness and self-centredness) which enacts racist policies and then creates racist ideas to justify itself. This, in contrast to the view that racist ideas result in racist policies which result in racist power. And while human beings in every age have known powerful self-interest, Kendi contends that racism, as we see it today, is only around 400 years old, an expression of modernity, conjoined from birth with economics. While humanity is not going to rid ourselves of self-interest, racism is not inevitable.
One of the key learnings for me is Kendi’s recognition that you cannot change hearts and minds in order to change bad policies that are, ultimately, killing us all. That approach is too abstract; and there is too great a sense of fear at what we will lose. Instead, we need to change policies (which requires taking opportunities to challenge, and to shape and test and refine and assess and repeat-the-process, policies). Hearts and minds will follow.
For me, so much of this book, written from a secular outlook, chimes with the gospel. With the repeated challenge and invitation throughout scripture from genesis to revelation to embrace the stranger, to reject othering—and to reject making others invisible in a false post-other-ing. With the repeated challenge to put to death our desire to be at the centre—to die to self—and to live for others, preferring them over ourselves. With the call to repent and believe, again and again and again. With the body politic and economic of the kingdom of heaven as an alternative society in the midst of the world, however (inevitably) imperfect it may be. And all in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am grateful for Ibram X. Kendi’s voice.