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Racial Paranoia and Small Groups

October 11, 2016 | | Small Groups, Connectional Ministries | Small Groups, Race

About a year ago I had the pleasure of speaking with John L. Jackson Jr., Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Dubbed the “world’s leading authority on social change” Jackson authored the book Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, (Basic Civitas Books, 2008) and Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money and Religion (Atria books, 2014). We discussed our need to have impolite conversations in the Church so that we can make more disciples for Christ. He commented, “The issue isn’t that we are not talking about things enough, but that we are not talking about them well.” I agree.

How can we talk about race well? We first need to be willing to focus on becoming good listeners and learners that ask good questions, as opposed to aiming to do the teaching ourselves. This requires the humility Paul exhorts us to foster in Ephesians 4:2-7. Humility is an attitude that recognizes the worth and the value of other people and of learning from them. Humility is essential for unity. When we learn from one another, we can grow together.

These are conversations of the heart. As tenders of the heart, we, the Church, need to step out of our fears and the tug of political correctness and lead these conversations. We need to be exhibiting more candor and more engagement. As Jackson said to me, “You (the Church) don’t want to be in the discussion if you can’t be the most generous person in the discussion. We have to be willing to enter the discussion without the mentality of trying to win.” Amen.

Where can we start the conversation? We can start by giving safe space for talking and listening about race and very real issues surrounding race. Conversations of the heart are different than discussions that civil rights and policy activists train and lead. Church small groups can be a wonderful place to introduce and carefully structure such conversations and listening sessions that explore the topics of race and the subtleties of racism including Jackson’s ideas of:

  • De cardio racism: Jackson says, “De cardio racism is about what the law can’t touch, what won’t be easily proved or disproved, what can’t be simply criminalized and deemed unconstitutional. It is a racism that is most terrifying because it is hidden, secret, papered over with public niceties and politically correct jargon.”  While we’ve done a very good job since the 60s of demonizing overt, explicit racist talk, de cardio racism is a more nuanced reality that refers to racism that is no longer shared publicly yet still exists within people’s hearts. It results from people feeling things about people of other races they will never admit (sometimes, not even to themselves). It includes minority defiance and anger that are responses to disingenuous white acquiescence to political correctness that sometimes happens, but sometimes does not and is hard to prove. Such de cardio racism leads to racial paranoia.
  • Racial Paranoia: Jackson states that racial paranoia is “distrustful conjecture about purposeful race-based maliciousness and the “benign neglect” of racial indifference.” In other words, if we cannot be sure if someone is a racist simply based on our interactions with them, we have to look between the lines. Is this someone on the up and up or are they just telling me what they think I want to hear in a politically correct environment? On the flip side, we can no longer feel confident that we are not being suspected of harboring malicious racist thoughts and intentions, whether that be true or not. Racial paranoia refers to the rampant fears people harbor about other groups potentially hating or mistreating them.
  • Racial segregation: Most people’s most intimate social circles and networks are decidedly racially segregated.When people go back to the safety of their homes, the dinner table, the sanctity of friends, often these are mono-racial spaces. Racial paranoia flourishes because we anticipate or imagine that even though people aren’t comfortable saying some of the worst versions of what they harbor in their heart of hearts out in the public sphere, they might still have these homogeneous, segregated spaces back home where they do let their guard down and say things they would never say in mixed company.

Combating de cardio racism and racial paranoia demands admitting that they exist and allowing people to express their racial fears out in the open, no matter how seemingly unwarranted or intuited. Let’s get honest; we live in a world where people often don’t trust across racial lines, no matter how uncomfortable they feel about making that fact known in mixed company.

How are our small groups in Greater New Jersey tackling these topics? What are your experiences and ideas for leading such discussions? What is the challenge for you to lead such open heart to heart conversation about race issues? What would be helpful? Could you see using the Creating Safe Spaces for Sacred Conversations training we did at the 2016 GNJ Bishop’s Convocation for this topic? Let me hear from you.