Dismantling racism starts with being transformed by a renewing of the mind. Our actions flow from our thoughts, as Rom. 12:2 suggests. Until we change the way we think, we remain stuck in racist patterns.
Mind-renewing thoughts can take many years to take root. Nearly 20 years ago, three Mennonite writers defined racism in terms that are just now becoming widely understood.
In Set Free: A Journey Toward Solidarity Against Racism (Herald Press, 2001), Iris de León-Hartshorn, Tobin Miller Shearer and Regina Shands Stoltzfus compared racism to an iceberg.
White people, they wrote, need to recognize that the privilege they have is racist. Racism is not simply doing bad things to people of color. Overt racist actions are just the tip of the iceberg — and easy enough to avoid, so that white people consider themselves “not racist” if they don’t commit them.
All the while, the bulk of racism — white privilege and power — lies below the surface, unnoticed by those who benefit from it.
In the last few weeks, as a movement for racial justice has spread around the world, the once-radical concept of white privilege is being thought of and spoken about.
Protests against the killing of black people by police have done more than expose the dangers people of color face at the hands of law enforcement. Outrage at police violence has opened the door to conversations about systemic racism — how white privilege causes inequality in housing, economic opportunities, education and health care.
Some white people are beginning to think of racism differently. More now recognize the existence of the iceberg of white privilege. They’ve begun to understand that avoiding the iceberg’s tip of racist words and actions doesn’t make them antiracist.
“Antiracism” is not a new word in Mennonite Church USA. But people didn’t necessarily embrace it. De León-Hartshorn, who now serves MC USA as associate executive director for operations, told MWR on June 16 that she remembers when people called her “militant” for talking about white privilege and the importance of being antiracist. Now those ideas have entered the mainstream. The message is finally getting through. There is a long way to go.
As white people learn to reject the racist lie that white privilege doesn’t exist, they are looking for ways to translate new thoughts into new actions. When people come to de León-Hartshorn for counsel on getting involved in antiracism, their ideas include forming book clubs and building relationships with people of color. While these aren’t bad ideas, she says in an article on the MC USA website, they don’t create systemic change. For book clubs, she suggests adding action steps. For those who want to build relationships, she urges joining with organizations led by people of color to work on issues of racism.
MC USA’s new Justice Fund is a way to support congregations doing the work of dismantling racism. The fund answers a call in a June 3 statement by the African American Mennonite Association to “let compassion become action” because “our neighbors . . . are tired and hurting and dying.”
The AAMA statement notes the spiritual cost of racial oppression: “Racism and injustice cripple the soul of the offended and oppressed [and] corrupt the soul of the privileged oppressors.” An antiracist awakening will help repair damaged souls.