When I had just turned 18, I got on a Greyhound bus in Spokane and took the long trip to Sewanee, Tennessee, to attend the University of the South. I was born and raised in Pullman, and this was a grand adventure.
I was stunned when I arrived in Tennessee to see the overt discrimination against African Americans, and remarked to a professor that I had never seen such racism before. That professor gently asked, “There are no reservations in the West?” This was the start of my personal journey into learning about prejudice, discrimination and systemic racism.
For many years, racism has been discussed as an individual matter: “That person is a racist.” This misses the deeper reality that while an individual might have a prejudice against people for a variety of reasons, racism is also concerned with the structure and systems in place that benefit one group of people and deny another. When we talk about racism, those who understand it only as an individual action might get upset and say, “But I am not a racist.”
When we can understand that racism is also, even chiefly, about structural and systemic policies and practices, each of us can look at how we fit into those policies and practices and realize that this issue is not about how I personally “feel” about others, but how our society treats all of us.
Recently, Rob McCann of Catholic Charities spoke about his journey with confronting the deep racism in our country, and the church’s complicity in that racism. He has been attacked for this. I am grateful that he has written, and support his words, and encourage all who believe that he is incorrect to look deep into their hearts, and to actually study the issue.
If we grew up in this country, we grew up in a nation that has structures that have benefited those who are classified as “white.” This classification has changed over the years, but it has always been one that comes with more privileges than others. To be “privileged” by being classified “white” does not meant that you had an easy life, it simply means that the structures and systems as a whole are arranged to benefit those who are “white” over those who are not.
We make a mistake when we think only in individual terms. Individual prejudices and biases, which we all have, are not the same thing as systemic racism, which is a system of power. When we find ourselves quick to condemn and judge what a person says about racism because of feeling personally attacked, that is the time to step back and examine why we feel that way, seek to understand what inside is giving rise to those feelings.
For too long, people who are white have either ignored or denied the systems in place that have advantaged us, and disadvantaged people of color. If you think that statement is wrong, I invite you to study systemic racism, I would be happy to engage in this ongoing work with you, for my own work of being more fully anti-racist is not (and never will be) over.
As the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, I acknowledge my own church’s complicity in the sin of racism, our benefit from the structures that privileged people who are white, and our own need to repent and atone. I pledge continue to assist in the church’s work to repent and atone for this sin.
As a follower of Jesus, I am called into a life that includes self-examination and repentance. Repentance is not simply saying, “I am sorry.” It is to turn to a new direction, to amend my life. On the community level, this means acknowledging the systems and structures which for 400 years have been set up to privilege people who are white over people of color.
This reality does not necessarily mean that I am personally prejudice against people of color, but it does mean that I, and everyone living in this country, lives in the midst of deep and systemic racism. To face that truth with clarity and honesty is the right, and righteous, thing to do. Mr. McCann invites all of us to that work. Rather that criticize, let us join him, for the sake of the soul of our country.
The Right Reverend Gretchen Rehberg is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.
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