Letter to the Editor: Dr. Trudy Holmes-Caines

Recently I read The Clocktower article “The forgotten meaning of racism” (published Oct. 11) and the comments on defending public statements as not being racist. I understand why many people find the use of the terms racist and racism to be overdone in today’s climate where everyone seems to have something to say.

However, I do think it’s important to have some discussion about what those terms mean and why individuals may think it appropriate to use them. Definitions of racism can become fairly complex as the issues of race, ethnicity, power differentials, bigotry, prejudice and similar concepts are involved. Some basic points are important for everyone to understand.

Racism involves thinking of or behaving differently toward an individual simply because of race (skin color and physical characteristics) and/or ethnic identity (cultural/racial overlay).

An individual can think and express racist ideas without intending to be racist. We all absorb beliefs and expectations from the world we grow up in. Those beliefs and expectations become a part of how we see and interpret the world. They form the implicit biases we have and express.

Just because someone didn’t intend to be racist doesn’t mean that what they say or do isn’t racist. In addition, ignorance and racism have probably always been connected. If someone is ignorant about biased race judgements, or the inappropriate comments they make, that doesn’t mean the comments aren’t racist.

The person who the comments affect is likely to experience the comments much more personally and powerfully.

Simply citing facts and figures isn’t racist, but facts and figures are usually cited in a context. Why were they cited? What point was being made? What judgements were being made or suggested?

Recently, some statistics were cited in a presentation in my class. The numbers seemed to reflect negatively on the African American community and my students seemed concerned about stating them. The presentation of the statistics is a neutral point.

It so happens that a lot of data is collected using racial group distinctions. It may be useful to the data collectors or consumers to collect it in this way. But skin color and racial physical characteristics don’t make people into anything. When white people in any region are poor, no one thinks it’s because of their whiteness. Racial characteristics don’t cause people to be lazy, aggressive or anything else.

Consumers of data need to remember this, and they need to stop using such data to inappropriately denigrate groups of people.

Trying to understand another person’s experience and point of view would help people understand when what they’re saying is inappropriate. The problem is most people think about what they personally find offensive or destructive, and speak from there. Instead, think about this: If you don’t have a life history of people taking things away from you, of people assuming that you’re dangerous or unintelligent, of people assuming that you’re greedy or lazy, of others insulting you because of how you look, then you don’t know what it feels like to hear more words that revive those feelings of hurt and anxiety. You think it’s nothing. Then you judge others when they react.

Stop and try to imagine what a lifetime of those painful experiences might be like before opening your mouth. In trying to prevent people from using those race words to react, you can be denying their lived experience. An experience that you know nothing about.

Finally, Christ calls us to bear one another’s burdens. He calls us to love others the way he loves. That kind of love seeks to lift people up. With that kind of love, when someone cries out in pain we look for ways to help remove the pain. We seek to understand the pain so we can provide resources and support to those experiencing it. If we caused the pain, we seek out Divine help to guide us in changing our behavior.

Dr. Trudy Holmes-Caines is a professor of psychology.