Do I want to improve? To change for the better? To become the best version of myself?
Do I want to be transformed?
Well, maybe not. That sounds like there might be something wrong with the way I am now. I’m open to a few tweaks, though.
But then I remember what Paul wrote to the Romans: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2, NIV).
The apostle says if I want to follow Jesus I need to make big changes. I should think and act differently enough that others would say I’ve been transformed.
If I resolved to obey this word of Scripture, what worldly pattern might I turn away from?
I might try not to conform to racism.
Good thought, I tell myself, except this wouldn’t be a transformation. Because I’m already antiracist. Right?
Can you identify with this line of thought? A lot of white people like me deny our complicity in systemic racism. We doubt that we benefit from white privilege or that it exists at all.
When the topic of racism comes up, white people tend to get defensive. We’ve been conditioned to think we already know everything we need to know about it.
We think we have all the answers, and some of them are: 1) racism is someone else’s fault; 2) white privilege doesn’t benefit me; 3) white supremacy culture got stamped out years ago.
I’ve decided to cast aside those answers and consider that my whiteness makes certain realities of racial inequality hard for me to see.
As I try to become more antiracist, I think the starting point is to suppress the urge to get defensive.
Learning to recognize white supremacy culture has been a challenge.
I was surprised to hear that the characteristics of white supremacy culture include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, objectivity, claiming the right to be comfortable and thinking that progress means “bigger and more.”
I could have argued about whether these are specifically white behaviors. I could have denied that I behave in these ways. But this would have meant I was unwilling even to improve, much less transform.
For example: perfectionism. I couldn’t resist debating it. Perfection is always the goal, I said. (We strive for an error-free magazine!)
I learned perfectionism is different from striving for excellence. Perfectionism is dishonest, because it demands we show only the flawless version of ourselves — like churchgoers who think we have to make a good impression on Sunday morning. Perfectionism dehumanizes people because, in the mind of a perfectionist, mistakes are personal, reflecting badly on the person who made them.
I learned that antidotes to perfectionism include developing a culture of appreciation, where mistakes become opportunities for learning.
Perfectionism may be only one small part of the big picture of white supremacy. But it illustrates the point that unhealthy and unjust ways of thinking and acting — behaviors linked to racial hierarchies — are deeply ingrained and invisible unless we learn to notice them.
Just as I need transformation, so do our churches, if we hope to heal the wounds of racism and reflect humanity’s beautiful diversity.
In Mennonite Church USA, “transformation” was the term often applied to the denomination’s founding a little over 20 years ago. The goal was to set aside old divisions and discover forward-looking purposes.
Today we are expanding the vision of what kind of transformation the church needs. If white supremacy culture says progress means “bigger and more,” we can redefine what kind of “more” we want to be: more racially diverse, inclusive, equal — imperfect but improving, in many small ways that add up to something big.
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