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Faith and Values: How to constructively talk about racism in our society

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (COLIN MULVANY)
By Paul Graves For The Spokesman-Review

When it comes to the hot and hostile topic of racism, how can I talk so another person will listen? Maybe more important, how can I listen so another person will talk?

A month ago, I joined a virtual group of other pastors to study the self-challenging book “White Fragility.” Author Robin DiAngelo has a very welcome skill of confronting racism in white people in ways that reduce our defensiveness about being defensive about racism.

One of the central truths Dr. DiAngelo identifies in her book is found in how she describes the racial “Good-Bad Binary” in moral terms: racist = bad, not racist = good.

But it’s a false choice.

All of us, regardless of color (including white) – and moral character – hold prejudices of one kind or another. We are all affected by living in a society when our history has been so deeply impacted, even grounded, by racism. To transform our roles in that history, we need humility to admit our roles and courage to change our roles.

Some of us pastors ask this: How do we engage in thoughtful, helpful, conversation with persons who are determined to deny they are – in any way – racist right along with the rest of us?

Recently, I stood on the edge of overhearing a man make two dismissive, mocking remarks about his having “white privilege.” I said nothing. I disappointed myself in my silence.

I want to ask him a question and don’t mean to be hostile: “Why is it important to you that you mock the white privilege you have?” Perhaps someday we can talk non-defensively enough so we are both willing to listen below each other’s verbal surface.

One of the louder controversial slogans today that divides people is “Black Lives Matter.” Watching the news or hearing people wherever throwing that phrase around makes me want to shout: “You scream so loudly I can’t hear your heart!”

And isn’t it what moves our heart that most often drives our mouths? For some years, I’ve seen Richard Rohr’s wisdom in a simple declaration: “When you don’t transform your pain, you will always transmit it.” Think about that if you’re humble enough and courageous enough to confront your own place in the complexities of racism.

Some kind of pain (or fear?) triggers our more obvious emotional responses to racism. But whatever the words, my/your place in racism can quickly devolve into our mocking denial of having any part in the systemic morass we label racism.

Consider a few more wisdom-nuggets from Rohr if you’re still up to exploring your heart in regard to racism. These are two of the eight core principles from Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation.

My added comments might help me reflect on these principles. But you do best to reflect on your own or with someone you trust to be honest with you:

Principle No. 3: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” (Oppositional energy only creates more of the same. You really know this if you’re a parent!)

Principle No. 8: “We do not think our way into a new way of living; but we live our way into a new way of thinking.” (Practice over theory, doing over talking, etc.)

Yet thinking has its place. Please don’t speak your talking points about BLM and racism until you can humbly, courageously confront your self-examined thinking points about racism.

Please ponder this question before you react emotionally to it: If you can’t easily consider that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ are you really able to say that ‘All Lives Matter’?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at

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