Sunday, January 13, 2008

Racist or racism?

Being a "racist" has to do with intentionality it seems to me. It is the demeaning or discriminatory actions or words used against those of a different ethnic origin BECAUSE of a belief that the offending ethnic group is truly inferior. I've known a few genuine "racists" in my time. One I remember did not believe African-Americans had souls. He believed they were just an animal. A different level of animal than the garden variety..but just animal nonetheless. This was a family member of mine. He's been gone a long time and is missed. However, his influence in this regards, is not missed at all.

But "racism" can be words said or actions done unintentionally that offend because of their historical/geographical connectedness to words or actions that have been used by racists. It could be as simple as a failure to comprehend what is/ has been viewed as a demeaning word/action toward a particular minority group. Therefore it may be that only an African-American can truly say what is racism from their perspective. The same is true of the American Indian, Asians, and even Caucasians who have the misfortune of being viewed as inferior and tabbed as "White Trailer Trash." It is something like the old statement.."You would just have to have been there" to fully comprehend.

The human race is truly fallen and racism will always be an issue in that fallenness. But when Grace is real we become sensitive to what is demeaning and offensive to others, not because they demand it, but because we "must needs go through Samaria" to relate to all people as surely as Jesus did.

I'm aware there is..and should be..a consensus that free speech values take precedent over limiting the harm caused by use of words that may be offensive. Thus, we tolerate certain kinds of people, even racists, who cannot be Graced-people if I understand scripture and loving the brethren thing, because of our cherished freedom of speech. Too many Americans have died to protect that freedom of speech to give it up because someone is offended by another's words. There are limits to be shouting 'fire' in a theatre..but free speech is our heritage at a great price.

But as citizens of "another country," graced people will be more concerned than most with what is offensive to others. Again..not controlled by others.. but controlled by a desire to life out the reality of Christ to our fallen world. It is with this in mind that I write what I am writing. I'm not speaking about any single person's failure or defending another though I will perhaps be thought of as doing both. I'm doing neither. I understand that thinking, but, I write personal e-mails to anyone that I might have a personal offense with over any blog controversy and I've done that several times in the past few months.

I'm addressing my thoughts about a bigger issue we all must give thought to it would seem to me. We are not "racists" but "racism" can creep into our words or actions unintentionally but creep in nonetheless. It is with this in mind that I am going to point out how some words can be seen as a slip into "racism" though I might argue as to my intention. I'll give that list in a moment.

To illustrate. A few years of our deacons who is African-American and loves me deeply and I him.. asked to speak with me after a Sunday morning message. That morning in the message I had told of witnessing to a young African-American woman who was a groupie with a Pro-football team and was with them as they departed an airport where I was awaiting my flight. I moved to the young lady and began sharing the gospel. It was a profitable sharing time. I told the story. The deacon suggested there might be a bit of racism involved in the telling of my story. I disagreed. I'm not a "racist" I said. He agreed. "You're not" he said. That's why he was speaking with me. The deacon asked me if I would have said she was Caucasian had she, in fact, been white. I knew immediately what he was saying. I apologized. Two college students had stopped to listen [one African-American one Anglo] and the white student took up my cause with passion mentioning that were one to hear a police report the race would be mentioned. The deacon quietly said to the African-American student.."tell him." The young student said.."you can argue all you want but to me it was racism." Did I mean racism to be present? Absolutely not. Was it? An African-American said it was. I learned that day the lesson I'm attempting to pass on in this post.

I'm not debating whether those were innocent words of mine and I meant nothing racial by them. Of course they were innocent. To me. But to someone else? It is much like when I went to Indonesia for the IMB and was instructed to never cross my legs with the sole of my shoe facing someone. It is an extreme offense to that ethnic group. So I refrained from what is thought of differently by me. If we are to minister to people or just to live out the Christian life in certain areas of our society we had better become sensitive to certain words that carry an atmosphere with them of which we may not be fully aware. Now that list. I will limit myself to food words for this post. [I admit to a slight difference here. The leg crossing was simply cultural..the mentioning of the race of the girl was implicit racism meaning I associated her with color though I do not think of Caucasians in like manner.]

On second thought..I have chosen to NOT present
the list. No one is involved in this decision except
me. I trust the post will make sense anyway. Use
your imagination if you can. [though I don't think
that is adequate at all] I will simply say a sample of
those words would be...
wheat thin/cornbread/marshmallow/bean dip
and the corresponding meaning given to them by
bigoted people that we don't relate to at all.

We can argue all day as to what we meant when we used them, but, to the one they have been used against, my intended meaning will never pass muster. It is this sensitivity that we must never lose. And, I must say, this list is NOT exhaustive. [One site addressing such matters has a list of over 350 words and meanings.] my list is simply to illustrate my point. I think it does that. Also, my desire is NOT make a list at all, but, to open us up to the possibility that our intention may not be the overriding issue in communication. It may be that what someone hears us say is what real communication is all about.

This is not a pretty world we live in but as salt and light we can change things and preserve a modicum of respect when we reveal an openness to others and their hurts. This certainly enhances our gospel message and casts a bright light on our Christ in whom there is "neither Jew not Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free." Just people.

Paul Burleson


Bob Cleveland said...


Two sides to this thing, I think; the speaker and the hearer.

Race may be more emotionally charged than baldness or age or fatness, but they're sort of in the same arena. We innocently say things that may reflect on some group or other .. hey ... I'm in several of those groups, myself ... and I suppose we always ought to be careful what we say.

As a believer, I want to be careful not to offend anybody, but I'm a sinful bag of garbage that the housekeeper wants to hang onto anyway, so I know I'm going to mess up despite my best efforts. And I'm dead serious about best efforts.

I dare say your deacon friend was not speaking to you from a position of having been insulted, but was being a true friend and offering constructive counsel.

It's been said that a perfectly safe airplane won't fly. I think the same's true with speech. The only perfectly safe speech is silence, but airplanes weren't built to just sit on the tarmac, either.

I take great comfort in Proverbs 16. God weighs my motives, and He promises that if my ways please Him, I'll find peace with my fellow man.

That's what I'm shooting for.

Chuck Andrews said...

Hey Paul

Great post. I remember being there when you preached that message and our good friend approached you. At the time, I would have argued that there was no racism in the illustration you gave. As I was telling my wife about it, she corrected my way of thinking (the Lord uses her often to do that). Her simple statement was, ‘Did identifying her race add anything necessary to the story? Could the words ‘African-American’ have been left out and the illustration, still, have been just as effective?’

At 50 years of age, I have lived, as an Anglo, my entire life in an environment where my ‘race’, ‘skin color’, and ‘accent’ have been in the majority. Estela and I will celebrate 30 years of marriage on April 16, 2008. She has lived her entire life, as a Hispanic, in an environment where her ‘race’, ‘skin color’ and ‘accent’ have been in the minority.

Though I love her more than my own life, have lived, at least partly, in-lawed into a Hispanic culture for 30 years, and though we have reared 3 children together (twin girls who look more Anglo and a son who looks more Hispanic), I have come to an experiential knowledge that I cannot, in all reality, identify, with empathy, the sensitivity she has to prejudices. I have lived in a culture where there are prejudices. She has lived under those prejudices. All I can do is try to understand when it happens and seek forgiveness if I’m the cause of the offense.

In Luke 4 Jesus identified a part of His own ministry, as Isaiah had prophesied, “TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED.” Yes, the ultimate oppression is sin, but, I agree with you, if we want to reach all people groups we must be willing to sincerely identify racism, strive for understanding, seek forgiveness and speak reconciliation to the oppressed and the oppressor.


PS Ready for breakfast or just coffee when you’re available.

Paul Burleson said...


I fit all three of the mentioned categories. :)

You are correct that the deacon approached me as a friend. That was a real blessing to me. And as I desire is not that no one be offended..that is nigh on to impossible. My desire is that I will carefully weigh any offense that especially pertains to race [and I could add gender] so my ability to genuinely life out Christ is not hindered nor the gospel.

Our motives are the ONLY thing that matters ultimately if I understand the Bema correctly. But because I'm often unaware of my own heart..I want to be careful to examine anything someone says IS offensive.. particularly in regards to race and gender.

Since the scripture reveals all walls are torn down by the Cross work of Christ, I don't want to erect any walls of my own with my language. I don't think that desire demands perfection..just openness. It is that which is what I hope I addressed in this post.

By the way..welcome home. I trust your rested and :)


Why am I not surprised you completely understand what this Anglo is trying to say. In fact, were the truth known, you could/should say it because it would be said better. I DO remember you being there that day and I remember our discussion/learning time at our next staff meeting because of it. As you opened me up to the fact I had a ways to go. [If you recall..I was proud of the fact I considered myself free of racism until that day. Boy did I have some things to learn. Still do.]

Paul Burleson said...


Make that "you're" and I'll plead tiredness from a twelve hour car trip to Austin Texas in a forty-eight hour span. [I know..excuses..excuses.]

traveller said...


Excellent post. I think as a follower of Jesus we should always be sensitive to how our words will be heard. We can still be direct and clear while remaining sensitive to the other person.

Interestingly, for me, it is my international travels that have made me more sensitive to those in my own culture. Sometimes we miss the fact the USA is already a multi-cultured society. And, cultures take on many forms and shapes beyond purely ethnicity.

Thank you again for a well-worded, clear, unoffensive, culturally sensitive post. :-)

Paul Burleson said...


Thanks for stopping by. I believe my experience overseas in ministry has helped my struggle with this as it has you. But I believe it is the younger generation that final raised the curtain for me.

I recall one young woman who was relating the incidents of a wedding she assisted in as a bridesmaid. In the telling of it she described the flowers, dresses, tuxes, the young men and women, [her friends] and every detail to the delight of my wife and me.

Then she brought out pictures. The young man who escorted her was African-American. I innocently and off-handedly said.."you didn't mention your escort was black." I'll never forget her answer. She said, with not a trace of putdown or offense but with just a questioning look on her face "what has that got to do with anything?"

Great question. What the answer is had escaped me. "Nothing."

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thank you for this post.

Paul Burleson said...


Thank you for being you.

traveller said...


I agree with your response to my comment. I am very much encouraged by how I see our young people are blind to color and ethnicity as well as other differences. This is one type of blindness that is healthy. They more nearly see people as image bearers of God in need of redemption just like themselves, and me.

Psalmist said...


My admiration for you grows with every blog entry I read here. Thank you for teaching us all.

What a difference from those who rant against "political correctness" when confronted about thoughtlessness in their speech, and refuse to learn or change!

Paul Burleson said...


I appreciate the words. I also believe this may be the first time you've commented here or my memory is failing me. Either could be the case, but, I'm glad to have you stop by. Do it again.

I do think Christians generally fail to get the racism that can be present in conversation. It has taken me getting over being more concerned with my intention in saying things..which is my natural default position for things being discussed..than with being concerned with what is being heard when I am saying something.

I've discovered that to build real relationships with good communication you have to be more concerned with what is being heard by the one with whom you're communicating than what you are intending to say. That is hard for me. It seems to be hard for most of us. But hard or has to be learned to build genuine relationships.

WOW...comliment me and you get another post. :)

Alan Stoddard said...

Hey Paul,

I just ran across this post. Good stuff. It makes us think and for those willing to cross the line, dialogue.

I think the definition of "racism" could be done on levels. I'm not sure. For example, I think what you said in the pulpit was "insensitive" and could be considered racial by someone who didn't know you. Racism, I believe, is born out of what a person is in his or her character. Racism to me is born out of consistent practice and attitude. I believe every culture sets itself up for this mistake. For example, we joke about race and culture in a positive way trying to understand differences, but in the end we only hurt ourselves and the situation of race relations. We all laugh about what we will later be offended by.

Thanks for speaking up about the issue of race. We need to stop it at every turn.

Paul Burleson said...


I think you are right about the levels thing. But I have to say, knowing me wouldn't have mattered about what I said that day in the pulpit. The one who called me on it knew mw better than most and well enough to talk to me about it.

He was right too. It was racism. Perhaps on the lowest scale of things racism..but racism none-the-less. The fact that I didn't mean it AS a racist thing doesn't matter to my way of thinking now. It was what it was.

Let me explain my thinking this way. I don't hold to racism in any form consciously. I hate it. It smacks of the enemy to me. Every thing Satanic. I've performed inter-racial marriages with no second thought because both were believers. I'm not racially biased consciously.

But..If I'm honest with myself when called on that incident..I would not have mentioned her race at all if she had been any race but African-American. If she had been Chinese and I mentioned it that would have revealed the same thing in me. I didn't see her APART from her race.. or I saw her RACE as primary. Either way..had she been WHITE I wouldn't even have thought of mentioning her race. It is that simple level that I wasn't aware of..IN ME..until that day. I don't want that..IN ME.

Then..communication is basically..NOT what you mean...BUT.. what people hear you say. My deacon friend heard me and heard me correctly. It was not what I intended but it was what was there whether intended or not.

Alan, you're right again about the need for dialogue on things like this. Thanks for being a part of it.

Psalmist said...

Thanks, Paul. I've commented a couple of times before, but it's been quite a while ago.

Very good point about what's most important in communication. Ultimately, what is heard is what gets dealt with, regardless of the intention. When there's grace extended (as there was for you) and where there's a genuinely humble spirit (again, as there was with you), growth and agape love can increase. Praise God!

Paul Burleson said...


Thanks again. I enjoyed the moment I took at your blog.