I blogged about the controversy surrounding the deadlyvipers.org site a couple of days ago. There has been a lot of good commentary (here for example), and I’ve learned a bit more about the nature of racism through this process. As I watched the drama unfold, first with Soong-Chan pointing out the DV site on twitter, then his blogs that included the back and forth email exchange with the authors, and then the assessment of the situation by so many people in the blogosphere, I was left with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling. I wondered, “Did this have to be public? Wouldn’t this have been better resolved by Soong-Chan contacting the authors directly and then working with them on a solution?” It felt bad to expose someone else’s sin so publicly.
But as I’ve processed it, I believe that Soong-Chan’s response was essentially right, and that issues like these need to be dealt with in a public matter because racism is primarily a systemic evil and not a personal one.
I think the best way to understand this is to adopt counseling lingo here. In family systems theory the person who has problems, the one who comes to a counselor for help, is called the identified patient. Parents may bring a child in for counseling because she is acting out in school. A spouse may come in for counselling because he is stressed out and exhausted from the toll his marriage is taking on him. A woman may come in and complain about anxiety. In each of these cases, the family system’s counsellor will look at the system in which the individual resides. They will recognize that the maladies this person is manifesting are a product of the system not some isolated, independent individual. The system is sick, and not necessarily the identified patient.
The child may be struggling in school because her parents’ marriage is falling apart. The spouse may be exhausted in his marriage because he takes on all the responsibility in the family — he’s not sick, he’s too healthy! The woman may be struggling with anxiety because of the way she relates to her mother who struggled in her relationship with her own mother. Her solution will be found in standing up to her mom and not necessarily in trying to calm down when she’s in stressful situations. In each of these cases, the sick person has been formed by the interconnected relationships he or she has. Fixing the person is virtually impossible without changing the system. Fixing the system is what really matters.
Racism is really a sickness of a system, and ‘the racist’ is the identified patient. American culture is racially sick. When two white males do something racially ignorant like what happened with this deadlyvipers incident, they are the identified patients. Their sin is a reflection of the sickness of the overall system. The issue isn’t so much with them as it is with the system in which we all live.
So, when Soong-Chan goes public with email correspondence and he writes blog posts that link to their books and criticizes their videos, he can do it as one who is challenging the system. It’s not really about the two guys. He’s not out to show what big jerks they are, because they aren’t (at least it seems like they aren’t). They were just ignorant and unaware. They are like the teenage girls who gossip about their friends because that’s the way they see mom talk about her friends. The girls are steeped in a way of relating and they don’t even know that they are hurting other people when they casually bring up someone’s foibles to their friends on the phone.
This way of thinking about racism is helpful for me because I’ve done things that are racist in the past. If I would have gotten called out like this, it would have been very hurtful. Being called a racist is just about the worst thing that you can call a person, and if it happens to you the first thing I imagine you want to do is deny it. You want to justify your behaviour. You want to explain that you don’t really think white people are better than everyone else.
But if we see racism as a systemic sin, this changes the guilt level. It’s still a matter of ignorance, but the problem is really with the system. The system is sick and my racial sin makes me the identified patient. I’m reflecting the sickness of the system. So if I say or do something unintentionally racist and someone points it out to me, I can confess my sin knowing that it’s an issue of ignorance not ontological deficiency. I can also allow my screw up to fuel a desire to change the system. I don’t want other people to make a similar mistake and perpetuate the pain of racial insensitivity. Seeing racism as a sickness of the system and the racially insensitive person (the racist) as the identified patient seems to make confession and dialogue easier. And dialogue is our best hope for changing the system for the future.