Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease —by Jinny Batterson
The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally. Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.” During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage.
In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”
During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.
Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents? How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle? A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden. In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct:
“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”
Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.