“Racism is a sin problem, not a skin problem.” Have you heard this statement? I recently saw it on Mike Huckabee’s extraordinarily problematic Twitter timeline last week during the democratic debate, but would you believe I have heard people say it in real life since then? Yep, it seems to be an increasingly common proclamation that America doesn’t have a skin problem, just a sin one. Well, I’d like to offer some breaking news for Christians:
Racism is both a sin problem and a skin problem.
And I thought we should talk about that. So here are my thoughts on why this statement is both nonsensical and problematic.
1. I do not understand how folks believe they can admit to racism, but deny what racism is built on. This is the nonsensical part. If we are going to agree that racism is a sin, what exactly do we think the sin is based on? Did we change the source of racism? Is racism no longer constructed around race? Did I miss the memo? Are we really now asserting that racism, though a sin, actually does not involve race? Friends, having a skin problem is the sin problem. And our skin problem is well-documented in American history and our current realities of racial disparities. Pick a system: health, education, homeownership, wealth, criminal justice, environmental justice, voting access, jobs, wages… you will find America’s sin problem manifesting itself along the lines of skin color. So let’s stop pretending that “sin problems” and “skin problems” are somehow mutually exclusive when talking about racism.
2. The second problematic messaging around this statement is that it is used to temper the conversation on race rather than amplify it. For Christians, since when do we make ourselves comfortable with having a sin problem? Last time I checked, we are supposed to be actively addressing our “sin problems.” I mean, are we applying this statement to everything? “I know this married couple is not being faithful, but don’t worry; adultery is just a sin problem.” Is that how this goes now? No? I didn’t think so. This cannot be a comforting statement — we only have a sin problem, that’s all. NOPE. Any admission that racism is a sin problem should immediately spur us into action. We could begin with lamentation, confession and repentance for starters.
3. This statement has two purposes. The first is to cloak the violence of racism. By even suggesting that racism isn’t a “skin problem” immediately makes racism abstract. It erases the violent effects racism has on a specific population — people of color. If there is no racial skin problem, then there also aren’t people with skin whose lives are deeply effected by racism. We must reject the desire to make racism intangible, abstract, vague. Racism has drawn the lines of life and death, wealth and survival, rights and inequity, opportunity and oppression for the entire history of the United States of America. That cannot be erased.
4. And its second purpose is to lead to the conclusion that the only remedy for our “sin problem” is self-prescribed spiritual action. So we should pray and come together and be unified and seek reconciliation. But because there is no skin problem — no victims, no violence, no effects from the evil of racism — we do not have to call for justice. The statement is used to so spiritualize racism that we are no longer required to work against it in any practical ways. We have so much work to do as Christians. Part of that work is spiritual for sure, but there are also ways of existing in the world that ought to reflect our commitment to stop sinning, to stop racism.
So, the next time someone says this, you let them know you do take the sin of racism seriously. So seriously that dismissing it, minimizing it and neglecting to work against it isn’t an option for you.
Austin Channing Brown is a Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison for Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.) by day and a writer by night. She is passionate about the work of racial justice and reconciliation, especially as modeled and led by women. This first appeared on her blog, austinchanning.com.
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