This month we continue our series of interviews as Mid-America Union president Gary Thurber talks with Dr. Seth Pierce about his experiences.
What did you learn from your family about racism?
I’m the son of a pastor and I was always taught to treat everyone equally and with respect.
I had a grand uncle who was black and it was modeled in my family that we treat everyone equally. But there was never a sit-down talk to really explain what racism is, how it’s been a part of American life, and what others have experienced.
What do you think when you hear people say “I’m color blind”?
The first thing I hear is the intention of the comment. They are trying to say that they see everyone equally and they treat everyone the same. However, the impact of that statement is different because you have this social construct of race. And there are people who, because of their race, have gone through struggles and terrible suffering. Saying “I’m color blind” means “I don’t see that” and it erases that tie to their racial identity as a family and a community. The idea of colorblind racism is decades old and people who continue to use that statement have not really done the work to understand the issues. The intention may be equality, but the impact is erasure.
What’s the difference between prejudice and racism?
Any person of any color can be prejudiced and exhibit bullying behaviors. But racism is the combination of prejudice plus power—being in a position to create the laws and the policies that structure society. And historically, in terms of representation, it’s been predominantly white people who held that power. Yes, we’ve come a long way since Jim Crow laws and we should celebrate that. But that doesn’t mean we’ve eradicated racism. Even if I’m a conscientious white leader, I still have blind spots because I don’t know what it’s like to be a Person of Color. When we’re talking about developing equitable policy and practice, we need equitable representation.
What, in your view, is systematic racism?
Systemic racism is linked to the policies, laws, social norms and systems that we have in place, perhaps even with good intentions. But when I talk with colleagues and students who are People of Color, they point out that things aren’t working the same for everyone. As much progress as we’ve made, we’re still not there yet.
What do you see as some of the barriers to progress?
On the interpersonal level, we have trust issues. And part of that comes with the history. If you’ve been on the short end of the stick for a long time, it’s hard to trust that there will be meaningful conversations on race and prejudice. If you’re a person of color and you’ve been through painful experiences and trauma that are real and raw, and then you talk to a white friend who says it doesn’t exist, not only are you suffering from the results of systemic racism but now the person who you thought was your friend just denied your entire experience.
Anxiety is another big issue. White people have not generally been taught how to talk about racism and we are so nervous about saying the wrong thing and being thought of as a terrible person that we just don’t say anything at all. Then we’re not dealing with the problem.
Ignorance is also a barrier, especially willful ignorance. We need to be willing to sit and listen to other’s experiences without going on the defensive. We need to read books—not just watch YouTube videos—and do that hard work of sitting with the material and grappling on a deep level with the real issues.
As a professor, what do you see that is different with the younger generations?
Digital communication has given us easy access to all kinds of history and stories that have not been told in our textbooks and curated documents—things we didn’t even know existed. Have we ever apologized for these racist things? Are we just going to pretend they didn’t happen? How are we as a church addressing it? We are so polarized in this country that we may be hesitant to speak. But younger church members are less tolerant of that and more vocal in calling on their church to be proactive in dealing with this issue that is hurting the mission of the church.
What can we do more of as a church to promote healing and healthy dialogue?
First, just acknowledge that we still have issues. And then understand that our theology is not opposed to dealing with racism. When people say “just preach the gospel and don’t get into social justice” I know that they have not studied Revelation 14 and the three angels’ messages that include every race and nation and give instructions to come out of a system of exploitation. The third message is about worship and rest, which cannot truly happen in broken systems. We need to put the gospel and social justice in dialogue together.
What would you like to say to your fellow Caucasian church members?
There are several things, and I’m saying this to myself as well. We have to stop coding attempts to talk about racism as being Marxist or secular. We need to realize it’s a biblical issue, a gospel issue, a missional issue. We need to listen and learn.
We also need to toughen up a bit. We are so sensitive around this topic that we tend to go on the defensive and find ways to pick arguments apart instead of listening to others’ experiences. This is very slow, patient work. Dismantling racism involves getting good information, building intercultural relationships rooted in trust, and having those slow, understanding conversations.
Finally, we must realize that it’s our work to do this. We cannot go to a person of color and say, “Condense all your knowledge and lived experiences for me into five minutes and do it now, for free.” No, it’s on us to find the voices who have written and been published and to do the learning work.
What would you like to say to People of Color who might be reading this?
First, it’s important for Caucasians to apologize for the things that have minimized and silenced the voices of People of Color–the policies, the systems, the treatments from the interpersonal level to mass communications. We’ll get some theological chatter about not being personally responsible, but consider the prophet Daniel’s prayer. He had not done anything wrong, but he included himself when asking for forgiveness.
I also want to make a statement of solidarity by saying black lives matter. This is not aligning myself with a political party or ideology. It’s saying that certainly, all lives matter, but in this moment, this group of people is being treated as if their lives don’t matter as much.
What are some practical steps for the Adventist Church to take right now?
I threw this exact question out on my Twitter a while back and I’ll give you a summary of the suggestions. The biggest thing by far is investing in education. Pastors and teachers are not being adequately trained to have these necessary conversations in churches and classrooms. There needs to be very intentional effort to give them these tools.
Also, people mentioned the Sabbath school lessons. We want to talk about real issues of racism, sexism and other legal issues. We need concrete education on how to engage people and deal with these concerns.
A third area was creating offices of diversity and inclusion, not just for schools but for all entities of the church. It’s important to invest in creating these positions and not just assigning the task to someone who already has 13 other assignments on their plate, otherwise it’s not going to be done well. It has to be an area of speciality and passion.
Dr. Seth Pierce is an author, speaker and communication professor at Union College and the director of the communication program.