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Confessions of an accidental racist

As a white, Protestant, upper middle class male who grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, I did not pay attention to race for most of my life. Instead, I made friends based mainly on personality and similar class schedules.

Many of the people I knew came from a variety of ancestries and belonged to many different cultures but this was mostly an accident. Because I paid very little attention to the racial ancestry of my friends or people in general, I believed everyone was, more or less, like me.

Then a young man was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting and subsequent events revealed a deep anger many in our nation feel, an anger that centers on unequal treatment because of one’s race. And because of my ignorance about racism, I cannot fully make sense of this anger.

In my limited experience, people of different races did not seem radically different from myself and, as far as I could tell, they were not treated differently. All the middle-class kids got along well at my mostly rich, mostly white schools. On the surface, the differences between me and my friend who was a fourth generation Asian-American were almost negligible. We ate the same food, believed the same things, and had the same viewpoints. If I described her to you, I would not lead with her ethnicity. It might not even come up.

This kind of racial insensitivity is a luxury. Because nothing forced me to face the cruel restrictions of systemic racism or the identity-crushing looks of social racism, I have fallen a step behind. Often I forget that racism exists. Most of my conversations are not about being culturally marginalized. Generally, racism only appears as a second or third rate concern that affects me in an indirect way, like the strength of our financial sector.

This ignorance severely limits my ability to talk about issues involving race. I do not know what to do with the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. In a very real sense, I am color blind. I lack the physical light receptors to rightly perceive reality around me. My eyes need help to re-interpret how they see those who are different than me.

My inability to understand the rage surrounding the shooting in Ferguson is troubling. At the very least, I think of it as my responsibility to try and see like those who see better than I can. But maybe the problem of racism extends beyond an issue of vision. What if it originates in the heart?

A young man was killed and a mother lost a son.  Even with my eyes closed, my heart goes out to that family and to the police officers and their families. Every human death feels like a tragedy and though I mourn with the community, I do not know how to interact with the complex problem of racism in my community or in my country.

But I do know you bring grieving people food and hold their hand while they cry. In this way at least, I can start to understand the pain and some of the rage felt by those across the country. It is a first step. I still do not know what a person who is negatively affected by racism feels. But I know what it feels like to lose someone. So now, hopefully, I can start to learn more about those who are marginalized and shed some of my racial ignorance .

Your Turn.  Post a Comment

  1. Sarah Schwartz

    Very well said. Bravo, Conrad. September 2, 2014

  2. jerry lewis

    confessing ignorance is not taking action September 2, 2014

  3. Chase Andre

    I admire your humility, Conrad. Thanks for modeling that for us. May we all learn to take that first step as well. September 3, 2014

  4. Tyler Davis

    I don't quite understand why you speak about choosing friends based on personality as if it's a bad thing. This is exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his dream of seeing people "judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Why is it not enough to empathize with the family of Michael Brown on a human level? Doing this does not make you a racist. Is there a race issue? Yes. But we must not let the world cloud the true reality. it's a sin issue. Only the blood of Jesus will wash it from the hearts of those who are tainted by it. September 3, 2014

  5. Jason Brown

    The kind of honesty here is fundamental to beginning these very important conversations about race at Biola.

    Thanks for writing this, Conrad. September 3, 2014

  6. Cody Nord

    Tyler, I think Conrad's point with that statement must be interpreted by the statement, "This kind of racial insensitivity is a luxury". He is not trying to say that picking friends solely on personality and proximity is bad. I think we would all agree that picking a friend based on their skin color is or falls dangerously close to tokenism.

    His point, I think, is that while in one sense this is good (he himself isn't racist) it has blinded him to the fact that in another sense he just might actually be racist. Not the "I hate a certain race" racist, but the "I allow/play into/don't take action against a racist system" racist.

    You're right though, it is a sin issue. I think Conrad is confessing that his sin, is not being able to fully see how others experience this world and how radically different it is for them. He was satisfied with his own experience of race, and now has more open eyes to the fact that not everyone experiences race the same way and this is a problem. MLK's dream isn't finished when you or I choose friends based solely on personality. It is fulfilled when all people choose friends that way. I think that won't be fully fulfilled until Jesus returns, but that doesn't mean we don't try, that we don't fight for it. September 3, 2014

  7. Karina Rosales

    Interesting read! In a way, I can agree with some of his sentiments. I too never made friends based on skin color. In fact, looking back I've always had a very diverse group of friends. I attribute this to growing up throughout the LA County in Southern California, where the "melting pot" very much exists.

    The difference for me would be the fact that I am 100% Hispanic. My father's family is Mexican, and my mother and grandparents are immigrants from Guatemala. On their side of the family I am not only first generation American, but I am also the first to graduate from a University. In a very real sense, I am their "American Dream."

    What I will say is that, especially at Biola (where, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a predominantly Caucasian crowd), A lot of things are made to be a big deal for no real reason. I remember when all that "controversy" surrounding the Jesus mural was taking place. Many of my friends assumed that I didn't like it because it was a "white Jesus," and that I must have found it offensive, since the ethnic minorities on campus had a rather loud voice over the matter.

    That couldn't have been more wrong.

    I loved the Jesus mural (and still do!). In 2005 when I first visited the campus with my mom, we both stood at its feet in awe. We were moved by what it represented (the Word became flesh), and I was excited to be part of a community centered upon Jesus. The shade of beige on my Savior's skin didn't matter to me... why should it?

    We are all one body, striving for the same purpose. Let's not let race affect that cause. After all, didn't we all come from the same two people? September 3, 2014

  8. Stephanie Lindo

    I feel like you said you realize that racism and white priveledge exists. But, you will love people instead of taking steps to learn in what ways people are discriminated against. It's admitting ignorance with no intent to step out of your comfort zone to learn more. Biola has many different outlets to learn about these issues and discuss them. Sending them some food isn't enlightning yourself it's getting rid of your guilt. It should be deeper than that. Biola hosts and annual conference on Racial Reconcilliation, attend it. It's been hosted by Biola since 1996. Go to it inform yourself. Because accidental racism is still racism. Also ignorance isn't an excuse an excuse for bad behavior. If you kill someone you can't say, "Oh, I didnt know murder was wrong." It's easy to walk blind of your racist acts. It's hard to address that and work on yourself. You are privileged enough to live in a world where you can live your whole life blind to this issue. But, why live ignorant especially when you attend a school which is stimulating a conversation about this very topic on a regular basis. It leaves you without any real excuse. People from different states travel to Biola every year for this very conversation. Engange in it so you can understand the rage. Instead of giving a pacifier to the angry. September 4, 2014

  9. Annah Pritchett

    Stephanie, I'm confused at the "you" statements in your comment. I hope they weren't directed at Conrad. If you read him as a man pleased with his own ignorance and handing out tips to all the other ignorant people on how to wash themselves free of guilt, I'm afraid you have sorely missed his intention.

    I don't think Conrad wants to make food for people so he doesn't have to feel guilty, rather he is starting the necessary conversation (One that you yourself agree needs to be talked about) about that sneaky sort of racism that is unintentional or accidental.

    He goes on to say that the best way to combat this sort of racism is to recognize that it exists in yourself and then to find the people hurt by it and love them as best you can.

    For the Brown family this love would be manifested in grieving alongside them. For others it will be asking to hear their story, others would prefer an outright apology, and others would feel most loved if they could bring their friends who struggle with racism to a racial reconciliation conference.

    This article asks us to humbly recognize the sin we may not know we have slipped into and it then encourages us to answer our accidental racism by loving well. Conrad's thoughts light a fire under readers, they do not pacify us. September 4, 2014

  10. Josh Kristianto

    I wonder if racial preference in dating is a form of racism? I've heard of some Asian girls who date white-only. As an Asian guy, that offends me more than it hurts my feelings.

    But I empathize with Conrad in several respects. I feel like I grew up racially blind, not seeing my friends as any different from me whether they were black, white, Asian or Hispanic. I've always thought race discussions were archaic and unprogressive. In many ways, I think they are still. But as I've grown in my understanding of the world, I do find value in talks about race and see how impactful they can be in changing perception. As an Asian-American, I have come across racially-charged statements that people direct at me. It's an odd experience for me; I thought we've grown more enlightened by now. But there's work to be done still. September 18, 2014

  11. Brett Jackson

    No offense, but I was surprised by the 'I am white' perspective. If that is the writer in the photo, he looks Asian or Hispanic to me. And he says that he didn't think about 'race' previously, but he calls himself white (a race term). What does he mean by 'race,' I have to ask. Is 'race' for nonwhites, and whites have no 'race.' I'm perplexed. October 23, 2014

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