How does race work?

Jan 27, 2015 by

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Chances are you aren’t blatantly racist.

I wouldn’t give much of my time if you tried to convince me I was.

But does race still work in unique and particular ways to affect how we see and experience the world? Absolutely. We have all been socialized by certain ideas and perceptions regarding race. It’s unavoidable. Thus experts today such as Michael Emerson, author of Divided by Faith, speak of racialization rather than racism. Which simply put, is how race works; the effects of “race” being played out in social, public and cultural life. (I wrote more about it in a post Renaming Racism.)

All of us — loving Christians and hateful xenophobes alike — are racialized. We are all affected by how “race” works in our world and how it heightens as well as hinders our perceptions. For instance, I grew up in an “all are welcome here” kind of church. We meant it and lived it; but were 100 percent white. Which didn’t mean we were, or are, racist. It did mean our shared life together — our theology, worship styles, potluck food, ways of disagreeing, ways of playing together, etc. — was racialized.

Here’s a couple more examples to clarify racialization, and to distinguish it from blatant racism.

Selma/American Sniper

Selma/American Sniper

A friend from church recently went to watch the film Selma. He arrived early and watched in a packed auditorium that was roughly 90 percent black. While waiting to get in, he walked past a line of several hundred queued up to see the new release American Sniper. This line was almost entirely white.

Two films. Two particular casts with particular crews. Which created two audiences.

It would be patently false to suggest that those watching American Sniper were racist simply because of their viewing preferences. Absurd even. Or at least as absurd as suggesting that the all-black audience were also racist for wanting to see a film celebrating Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

But were each of those audiences racialized? I’m suggesting they were. Particularly the white audience, who are privileged to live and work in a “white default world.” Again, not racist, but effected by how race works in and among our cultures.

Here’s a friendlier example. My 7 year-old wanted to see Selma and I refused on the grounds it’s too emotionally disturbing (I wept through most of it!). I told others 9 to 11 was appropriate. But when I asked a pastor friend who serves a black congregation he quickly said, “Five. Six if they’re sensitive. It’s just our story.”

The difference between 5 and 9 is the difference racialization makes in black and white communities. No racism anywhere. But racialization lurking everywhere.

Finally, my 4 year-old loves princesses. She likes Disney’s book Beautiful Brides (it’s already problematic, I know) about seven brides getting married. Five are white, Jasmine is Arab, and Tiana is black.

Tiana

Tiana

Which story is told last? The story of Tiana and Naveen of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (I hadn’t heard of it either, it tanked at the box office). Which story is the shortest, by half the page count? Tiana and Naveen. Which is the only story which includes a kiss? The story of Tiana and Naveen. Which story is illustrated without a party, or any loving family or cheering friends present, but instead a dreary swamp with animals? Tiana and Naveen.

My daughter is not a racist to like this book. And, while I don’t know any of them, chances are those who produced this book aren’t closet members of the KKK trying to indoctrinate our children with hate. But producers and consumers alike (of American Sniper, Selma, and Beautiful Brides) are being racialized in very particular and potentially harmful ways.

I once made the statement that I’d never even met a racist. And some of you were kind enough to out yourselves as being willfully so. But for the rest of us – the majority of us — we aren’t consciously racist. But we are products of racialization.

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and writes at blog.chron.com, where this post originally appeared. He tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook


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  • Stephen Johnson

    Thanks for sharing. Language is important and it may be that the term racist has become counter productive because of the images it brings to mind. I am not sure I like the term radicalization but I believe the time has come to use a word like marginalization (still not perfect but you get the idea) to the way society treats minority communities today.

    Looking at the age where you suggest radicalization begins is it your belief that the exposure begins at school or in a broader sense of society that begins around that age?

    One point of correction. Jasmine would be an Arab princess rather than an Indian one.

    • Martin Troyer

      Stephen,
      Jasmine is indeed an Arab prince, thanks for the correction.
      One clarification: I and others use the term “racialization” rather than “radicalization” as you printed. Racial-ization mingles race with both marginalization and socialization. You might say that racialization is how some are marginalized based on race through socialization, rather than blatant acts of over prejudice.

      As I have come to understand it kids – all kids – are socialized in all settings and relationships, which clearly includes media, entertainment, marketing, church, family, etc….

      Thank you for the dialogue!

      • Stephen Johnson

        While speed reading generally benefits me occasionally I miss word subtle changes. Thanks for clarifying. As I mentioned language is important. I do however wonder if even a word with race as the base may still promote negative reactions when working to initiate positive change. While many in the church and society may be “Racially Tone Deaf” (unable to recognize today’s racial impacts) I believe change requires educating in a manner that introduces these concepts without introducing offense.

        I am not gifted at finding the right word(s) but I do believe that positive change will require redefining the language used.

        Thanks again for sharing.

        • Martin Troyer

          Stephen,
          You and I agree completely. I will say that the introduction of “racialization” into the dialogue is academia’s attempt to do exactly what you express. It might not get the job done, but it has certainly been a “soft landing” for many folks I’ve engaged in ways that traditional language would have restricted. So anecdotally, its worked for me. Which is not to say a word with even greater neutrality wouldn’t be yet again more accessible. Thanks.