It used to be OK to say that you “don’t see color,” and that the shade of someone’s skin didn’t matter to you. If you say this now, and you’re part of a racial majority, you’re often charged with being “privileged.” This type of rhetoric is really unfortunate, because it devalues individuals. It lumps people together by skin color and assumes you have certain attitudes and beliefs about other people’s skin color. When people say they don’t see color, what is the spirit behind what they’re saying, and why is there such backlash? And then as Christians, how can the gospel message bring about racial unity in our churches and community?
Recently I was talking to my buddy at work about race and “seeing color.” He’s a Mexican guy, and I’m a white guy. Do I see color? Am I aware that he’s Mexican? Of course. But before I get too far…I can’t stand calling myself “white” and him “Mexican.” It oversimplifies our ancestry, labels us and devalues who we are as individuals, and turns a minor aspect of who we are into major person defining status. Those are outward descriptors of what we look like, and maybe where we come from, but they’re not who we are.
This isn’t an easy topic to write about, because it’s so divisive. We all bring in our preconceived beliefs, and we get worked up really quick. There’s even some that would say because of my skin color, this isn’t even a topic I should talk about. It’s really disheartening that our discourse has reached a point where the opinions and concerns of some are dismissed solely because of their skin color. But despite all that, this is my attempt to elevate the discussion beyond stereotypes, and explore how my following Jesus gives me a different perspective on race.
I see race, just as I see gender, and height, and bad haircuts. To say one doesn’t see color just isn’t true. The real issue is whether or not color matters, and how do we respond to differences and love others like Jesus?
Responding to Racial Differences
I’ve been friends with this guy at work for nearly 15 years. While we both see color, that’s not what we primarily see. My friend and I don’t ignore the fact that we have different ethnic backgrounds. It gets acknowledged every now and then, but it’s simply not that important. Our friendship is built on qualities that matter in much more significant ways, like mutual respect for each other, our spiritual views, and our love of family. The fact that we have different ancestry means very little in our relationship, because relationships don’t derive value from superficial qualities.
When you’re dating, one of the first things you notice is someone’s physical appearance. Are you physically attracted to them, or is that not what you thought your dream date would look like? This isn’t always a deal breaker, but it’s one of the first observations we make. But even if the person is the perfect physical specimen that you’ve dreamed about, that’s not enough to sustain a deeply meaningful relationship. There has to be a personality that you fall in love with, and common values that you agree on and want to build a family around. We might acknowledge beauty, or a lack of beauty, but no healthy relationship is built on beauty. That’s all surface level. None of it matters in any deeply significant way.
Race on the other hand carries a lot of baggage. The way that people groups have been treated in the past, are spoken about in the present, and the absolutely worthless stereotyping of all sorts of people make color a hot topic. It can’t be pushed aside as easily as other physical characteristics, even though it should be.
White Privilege and Dismissing the Individual
Our different skin color might indicate that we’ve had different experiences, but our skin color doesn’t make either one of us more or less made in the image of God. This friend at work did have a significantly different upbringing than I did in a few ways. His family was poorer than the family I grew up in, and he’s told me about several occasions where he felt discriminated against for his skin color. At the same time, we had similar religious upbringings, and a similar value was placed on family. This friend and I have been able to foster a great relationship and he’s never had to ask me to check my white privilege.
It’s important that we listen to people and understand their story, because the experiences we have influence who we are. It’s also important that we don’t stereotype large groups of people and assume that skin color is an indicator of experience. Lebron James’ kids will have vastly different experiences than my own kids, and it’s not because of skin color. Our life experiences are shaped by our family structure, socioeconomics, religious values, the choices we make throughout life, and the choices that our family of origin has made. To simplify the experiences of entire groups of people based on their skin color dismisses the uniqueness of each individual.
If the term “white privilege” was only used to remind people that we have different experiences, I’d agree with that in principle. The problem is that white privilege is used as a club to dismiss people, and dole out shame on an entire group based on their skin color. My friend doesn’t have to ask me to set aside my “privilege” so that I can begin to understand where he’s coming from. I can still value who he is, his experiences, and his uniqueness, even though we have a different past.
Throwing “white privilege” at people to try and solve racial divisions is a terrible way to achieve racial reconciliation. Stereotyping by skin color, ignoring the value of individual people created in God’s image, and then pitting people against each other isn’t about understanding experience. It increases division, points fingers, and blames people for things out of their control. This doesn’t bring people of different backgrounds closer together, but instead divides them. It doesn’t find common ground or mutual respect, and assumes that white people must be sufficiently shamed to understand and love other people.
The Gospel is Sufficient
Christians don’t need to lob grenades like white privilege at each other, because the life-changing reality of the gospel is more than sufficient. Going to scripture and realizing that Christ died for all colors of people should define our understanding of racial reconciliation, not secular attempts to shame and demean people.
‘I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.Romans 1:14-16 NIV
The power of God brings salvation, to everyone who believes. It is Jesus Christ dying in our place and redeeming us that gives us any hope of being reconciled to him. Christ came for everyone, just as Paul is obligated to Greeks and non-Greeks, to Jews and to Gentiles. The power of the gospel, and understanding that our brokenness is only healed by Jesus Christ is more than sufficient to achieve racial reconciliation. Our need of a Savior should humble us to admit our faults and repent of our sins. That crosses all ethnic lines. Jesus made a way forward for everyone, and all other paths forward fall woefully short.
When we start to understand that Christ came for people of all tribes and nations (Revelation 7:9), then we can start to love people of all colors like he does. That doesn’t mean Christians are perfect, but it is the gospel message and the love of Jesus that should inform our actions and attitudes towards others, whether they are believers or not.
Our primary understanding of racial reconciliation and valuing others should come first from our relationship with Jesus. “White privilege,” or any other secular rallying cry that claims to have the answer, will always be a poor replacement for the gospel. The Church already has all the tools it needs for people of different colors and backgrounds to reconcile and thrive. It might take hard work, important conversations, and repentance, but the life changing news of the gospel is more than sufficient.