Christian Living

Unknowing Racist

Branden Henry

The issue of inter-racial marriage has been getting a lot of press in Christian circles lately, which has got me thinking, ‘Why is this such a critical issue?’. I’d like to write from my point of view: the view of a recovering racist.

Some Church History

I grew up without overt or bigoted comments or statements about other ethnicities. Nothing I heard as a child caused me to think of others with contempt or disdain.  In fact, I grew up without thinking anything of those from a different race. I didn’t get to know an African-American on a first name basis until I took my first job in the Arkansas Delta.  I call this an unknowing racism, because I really didn’t know that racism was an issue for me; I hadn’t experienced other ethnicities yet.

[Tweet “I call this an unknowing racism, because I really didn’t know that racism was an issue for me.”]

As I’ve been digging into this I can actually remember only one thing that consciously impacted my decisions regarding a different ethnicity.  Sadly, but not surprisingly, it came from church.

My church was small and conservative, filled with kind and pleasant folks.  The minister had his Doctorate and spoke pointedly about Scripture.  It’s probably obvious by now, but it was an all-white congregation with a wide age range.  What I distinctly remember hearing about race was that we, as whites, should not be “unequally yoked together” with those of another race, particularly blacks.  This would most often lead to a discussion about what it would do to the children, how it would invoke unnecessary harm on the family, and other statements wrapped in a thin veil of concern for the welfare of others.  Anyone with an inkling of an ability to read Scripture abruptly notices the fallacy in interpreting this passage from 2 Corinthians 6:14, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that the racism I learned was one of separation, not out of bigotry or hate. I was told that this conviction honors God.  This seems so far beyond anything that assumes stereotypes or lives out of fear, which can be disproved and shaken when one encounters folks from another race.  This sets racism in a core place, a place that seeks above all else to honor and obey God.  This is so much harder to change, particularly if its the consensus of that day’s spiritual climate.

[Tweet “The racism I learned was one of separation, not out of bigotry or hate.”]

What Interracial Marriage Can Represent

Which brings me back to interracial marriage.  The church, at least the breed of church I grew up in (which is much more widespread than you might think), has done incredible and lasting harm to God’s kingdom by preaching for generations that races should be separate in marriage.  The conversation about interracial marriage pushes hard against this hidden and covert racism, and essentially forces the issue of what it means to be the Body of Christ.  It dispels the myth so long held that separation honors God, and points towards the truth that Christ came to unify mankind together in God through himself.

To be honest, I don’t know how to end this with some witty or thought provoking comment.  I’m disgusted and grieved as I read what I’ve written.  Tears of deep sadness drop as I realize how much I’ve missed through this learned separation.  My only hope is in my God’s forgiveness and his continued work in my own heart, as well as the heart of the South, my home.  In His great kindness he has already given me deep bonds of friendship and affection for those of a race I didn’t know until my mid-20’s.

[Tweet “My only hope is in my God’s forgiveness, his work in my heart, as well as the South, my home.”]

My challenge for those who read this comes from Paul in the book of Ephesians:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-4).

As you keep conversing, forging new bonds, seeking truth, and pushing against your own unknown racism, ask yourself if you are living and working according to this passage.

How are you seeking to forge new relationships that require bearing a cost, particularly at a cost to your former ways of thinking about race?

4 thoughts on “Unknowing Racist

  1. Trillia


    This is what I thought you meant. Let me tell you, there probably isn’t a person in this world who doesn’t do this to some degree or another. History, what we watch and read, how we’ve been taught, etc. all influence our assumptions. How wonderful that you want the gospel to be so richly in you that even your first thoughts would be Philippians 4:8. I pray that would be so for you and for me. Be encouraged that you are at least aware that this temptation is near. I look forward to Heaven when we will no longer be tempted to sin. Until then, I pray your press on and receive God’s grace. Thank you for reading and for your willingness to correspond with me. God bless you! – Trillia

  2. Matthew

    Hey Trilla,

    Thanks for your comment; I really appreciate your thoughtful insight. I apologize for the lack of clarity regarding my comment. I can’t really figure out a way to explain what I mean (mostly since it deals with thoughts more than actions), but I think some examples might communicate what I mean.

    1) If I see a man come into my workplace (fast casual foodservice) who is dressed well, my internal monologue generally is the same: “He looks good in that suit [or what have you].” But that thought can differ in tone. For a white man, the tone of that thought is one of respect. For a black man, the tone of my thoughts tends toward surprise that he is dressed well, as if I’m assuming that he has come from a disadvantaged place and made something of himself.

    2) In one of the middle school classes that I substituted for last year, there was a girl who I assumed, upon her walking in, would be a good student. She ended up being the worst in the class. I was reflecting later, trying to figure out why I had immediately assumed with no evidence that she would be well-behaved. I quickly realized that my assumption was based solely on the fact that she was white.

    In both of these examples, my thoughts about a person were based on assumptions I made due to the color of their skin. I know this is wrong, and I know that God has made every person in his image, regardless of the color of their skin. When I catch myself making assumptions like this, I immediately assert the truth of God in my mind. But I’m not satisfied with that. I don’t want to have to correct my thoughts when I make assumptions based on race. I want the truth to be embedded so deeply in my heart that that truth is what I assume. In other words, I want my inclination to be toward believing the truth rather than the lie.

    I suppose that this really hits a question that has a much broader application than race: how do we, as Christians, take our belief of God and the Gospel (and their implications) continually deeper such that we are inclined more toward believing the truth of Scripture and less toward believing the lies of sin?

  3. Trillia

    Hi Matthew,

    I was trying to figure out what you mean by
    influences…I’m imagining maybe when you walk by a black man at night
    in a grocery store you might hold your keys closer to you…maybe a fear
    reaction from the assumptions and influences of your past? Regardless, I
    think much of our hate of one another can be rooted out by studying
    creation and God’s work of redemption. It’s amazing how creative God is.
    But learning that we are all created equally and of the exact same
    value (in His image) and that we are all saved and washed by the blood
    of Christ equally and all brothers and sisters in Christ…these are
    mind-blowing truths. The gospel is amazing. And even when you come upon
    someone who is not a Christian–they are still made in God’s same image
    as you. Anyways, those are simply some quick thoughts this morning I had
    as I read your comment. Blessings to you. Thanks for your humility. –

  4. Matthew

    Mmm. Well put. I know that I didn’t begin to realize how deeply (but covertly) racist I was until I was 21 or so (I’m in my mid-20s now). I also realized both how deep it is and how… under the radar it is. It manifests less as cognizant thoughts and more as influences upon thoughts, if that makes sense. And that means that it’s very difficult to fight and root out, because I am sometimes completely unaware that I’m having those influences. Any thoughts from other recovering racists?

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