Jan 192014 27 Responses

What a White Man Knows About Racism


That’s what a white man knows about racism.

A friend warned me about writing about this topic. “Beware of the kickback,” he said. Kickback. Think about the kickback I might face: someone might make a rude comment, they might make a mean Facebook comment, they might unfriend me. The scenarios of possible “kickbacks” shows how little I know about racism. Imagine telling the Little Rock Nine that I might have someone say something rude to me. Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in a Birmingham jail feeling sorry for me because someone might unfriend me.

I might have heard about racism. I might know some facts having read a few stories. But I don’t know racism. I haven’t experienced it.

When I hear the word “police,” my first two thoughts are “They protect me” and “They were a good band.” It doesn’t cross my mind that they could profile me or be scared of me or do me harm.

When something doesn’t go my way, I might think someone has it out for me, but it never crosses my mind it could be because of the color of my skin.

Even when I experience a person who does not like me because of the color of my skin, it is just an isolated incident and I have enough opportunities that it cannot define me.

I don’t know racism and if you are white, neither do you.

I don’t care:

  • which side of the tracks you grew up on or what school you went to
  • how many friends you have or what you’ve heard
  • if you’ve experienced reverse racism or failed to get something some time because of your race

You don’t know racism.

Neither do I.

Because I know nothing about racism, I have two choices:

1. State my opinion based on assumptions


2. Shut up and listen.

You already know which one is better, don’t you?

I grew up in the town in which I now pastor. Growing up on the right side of the tracks (the opposite side from which my Dad was born), I was never aware of the presence of racism. We played sports with people of all races; I never heard my parents say a negative word of someone of another race. And my conservative, retired-military grandfather was happy when America elected its first black President. To me, racism wasn’t present in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Until I began to ask. After spending three years in Birmingham, AL, I returned to my hometown with a different perspective. Instead of assuming that my experience defined everyone’s experience, I began to ask others about their stories. What I heard was radically different from what I had experienced.

  • Church members couldn’t go into the homes of other church members.
  • Public greetings were given to hide private threats and jokes.
  • All children were loved as long as they didn’t date children of another race.

Not only was racism not absent from my childhood, it was still present in ways I never imagined. None of this would have been known unless I asked.

Even by asking, I don’t have a full picture of what has, and still continues, to take place. Yet by asking, I have a better understanding.

This is our great need today.

Obviously we need to stop speaking from ignorance. Stop assuming we know. Stop drawing false conclusions. And stop boldly proclaiming our opinions as though we are authorities on the topic. We need to shut up.

But it’s not enough to shut up. While it is better than speaking from our ignorance, we can’t stop there. We must also listen. We must build relationships, ask questions, attempt to understand what the experiences of others have been. To assume we know is foolish and destructive. It can give us a confidence we do not deserve. To ask shows humility and gives us the opportunity to learn.

Far too often, we do the former more than the latter. We assume we know what it is like. We draw false conclusions based on our assumptions. And we boldly proclaim our opinions as though we are deep authorities on the topic.

Ironically, assuming knowledge gives us more courage to speak and less opportunity to learn. We will know less but speak more. However, if we understand our ignorance, stop talking, start listening, and learn from the stories of others, we will know more, but speak less. (For an example of considering an issue from another perspective, read What If Trayvon Martin Was My Son?)

This is possible for anyone, but it is easier for a Christian. The Gospel continually calls us toward empathy, compassion, and trying to see life through the eyes of another. It quickly reveals our desperate need for forgiveness and prepares us to see faults within ourselves which we didn’t know existed.

This is another gift Christianity can bring to the world. This may be why it took a preacher to create true societal change. It’s why preachers should continue to involve themselves in societal change. It’s why all of us should stop talking and start listening.

What does a white man know about racism? I know that I don’t know. And because I don’t know about racism, I need to listen.

27 Responses to What a White Man Knows About Racism
  1. […] A criticism of Richard Sherman based on race has zero merit. Just don’t go there. The Internet... steven-hill.me/juststoptalking
  2. stevebrawner Reply


  3. dennyneff Reply

    Two of my family members are in inter-racial marriages (black/white). Young people today don’t seem to have as much of a problem with race as older people do. However, if you say I don’t know racism and can’t know racism because I’m white, how then can I be blamed for wrong (not hateful) behavior or saying the wrong thing, you know what I mean? There will never be inroads into the resolution of racism as a national problem until all sides are willing to engage in this discussion. So who blinks? Who starts?

    I’d like to debate this. I may show my ignorance, but I have some thoughts on this topic.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      It’s a good thought Denny. Maybe I need to clarify my point. We can know of it, be aware of it, but not fully understand the unique nature of it because we haven’t been the objects of cultural racism. Yet there are links we have from our experience. I would love to hear what you have experienced in and out of the church as a man who uses a wheelchair. What are some things which have happened which I wouldn’t even be aware of?

  4. Helena Reply

    Dear Kevin- I’m white but know about racism since I’m Jewish! NO group of people have experienced more persecution then The Jews. If we as Jews have been able (by G-d’s grace) to still flourish AND succeed, there’s no reason blacks, Indians etc have any real excuse to not succeed themselves.
    Be blessed-
    Shalom- Helena

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Helena, I have no doubt about the history of Jewish persecution. I am pretty confident that a Jewish American in today’s world would not understand the level of racism which other races face today.

  5. Kerry Reply

    I hear complaints about President Obama several times a day, every day at my job from customers and some co-workers. Some are different political views, but there is no doubt there are more mean and negative comments because he is black. I’ve heard president bashing during each person and term, but nothing compares to the last few years. His wife gets it too. It makes me sick and I’m white, I can’t imagine how black Americans feel. It does seem to come from the older generation (even older than me) so I keep thinking there is hope for the future. As it’s been said, we’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Kerry, You make a great point. It is difficult on an individual level to figure if someone’s complaints are political in nature or racial in nature. There is no doubt that many complaints have been the latter. I have seen it a lot.

  6. B W Clark Reply

    I really liked this article. It moves me to ask your opinion on a debate my wife, a Co-pastor & I have been having.

    I oversee a clothing ministry in our church. Our customers are mostly white but a large number are black and a few are Latino. My volunteer staff are all white (as our large church is about 98% white). I have considered asking one or two black individuals to come volunteer because they are black in a sincere effort to better reach out to the people with whom we serve. My Co-pastor thinks it’s fine. My wife on the other hand disagrees. She is a Special Ed teacher in an inner-city school where the staff & student body are 50/50. She thinks it would not be looked upon favorably by the individuals I’m considering asking. I’m curious as to your opinion in light of your article.

    BTW, though I’m a 40-something white guy, my wife & I are adoptive parents to a Hispanic sibling group of four -plus our two natural children. We sometimes need to discuss or deal with racism & our children in their/our lives with the people around town though not necessarily to the same degree as others.

  7. Shane Reply

    Pretty good article. I did have to smile at the idea that Christianity makes it somehow easier for people to listen rather than speak. While not the cause of our racism, the church is a societal institution which has fostered and helped sustain the problem. It’s not merely coincidence that the older generation is much more highly represented in church and as noted above, prone to overt racism.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Shane, that implies the younger generation doesn’t have it’s own issues. I do think the teachings of Jesus make it easier for people to listen when compared to other worldviews.

  8. Jeremy Reply

    I have to wonder what the point of listening is, if because of the color of my skin I cannot understand. You imply many times over in this piece that racism can only be understood if experienced. Otherwise, it is unknowable beyond its strictly academic sense. If this is true, then why should we listen, if we cannot understand until we have ourselves experienced it firsthand? This piece further implies that racism is a one way street, that only white men and women are capable of racist thoughts, speech, and action. This is no doubt a popular perspective, but by no means is it true. Anyone who believes this is, dare I say, kind of racist, as it suggests that one group of people is by nature inferior to another. The implication, again, is that racism is simply a part of the Anglo condition. Is something only understandable, then, if it is experienced? If this is the case, then we should stop teaching in our churches about the suffering of Christ, the Apostles, the martyrs, etc. because, after all, we have not experienced it. We may, in your own words, “know some facts… and a few stories,” but because we have not experienced crucifixion, we cannot understand it, and because we have not ourselves died for the sins of others, we cannot understand or know why Christ died for ours. If we cannot know this, then our salvation – yours, mine, and all others for all time – are fraudulent. Surely this is not true, though.

    So, to sum up, the idea that white people have no say in matters of racism, that we are to simply keep our mouths shut, is quite ignorant and truly a cop out. Racism, like all hate, is a result of the corruption of the soul. It is an outward expression of inward sin, and this is area in which all men and women of all races, ethnicity, religion, and time are tied together. We all know racism, because we all know sin. We may not know what makes one man hate (or fear) another based on the color of his skin, nor may we know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of this, but we all know sin, and we all know where the mind and the soul goes when we choose to sin. We, therefore, all understand racism, because we all have experienced sin.

    This, of course, leads to the glaring fallacy in the discussion on racism, which is that we are trying to go after the sin, rather than the heart that sins. When fighting a fire, one must extinguish it at its source, and not go after the flame itself. However, to say that one cannot put out a fire because one has never been burned, or because one has never before fought or started a fire, is just silly.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Jeremy, I would say that I’m not saying what you say I’m saying. I’m sorry for the confusion, but most of the conclusions you have come to are not things I would agree with.

  9. Mike Reply

    You don’t know everyone’s story. So you don’t know what they know about racism. No matter the color of their skin.

    Having never walked a day in the shoes of their life who are you to tell them they no nothing about racism?

    You know your experience and can (and should) only speak from that experience. Being white does not give you the authority to speak on behalf of the entire white American population.

    • Trey Medley Reply

      But I can see, pretty definitively, that if you are white and live in America (or Europe) that you do not really understand racism the same way a black person does. People do not see you from a long way off and profile you to the extent that they do a black person. People do not tend to blame any failure as a failure of your race, the way they do a black person. There was also not a systemic effort in the history of the country to first treat you as chattle for 150 years (yes before we were even a nation) and then sustain that systemic attack for another 110 years at an institutional, legal level to the point that it has become engrained in many people’s minds.

      Speaking as I white man, I really resonated with this. I grew up in Houston, TX. I thought that racism, while it still existed, was by and large very minimal, confined to small groups, and not all that big of a deal. Then I, too, lived in Birmingham for 3 years. I was smacked in the face with it so many times that I couldn’t help but see it other places. It is not always as overt, but it is persistent throughout the US. So yeah, if you are white and male and live in America, you really do not understand the level of racism experienced by those who are black or African American.

  10. Kevin A. Thompson Reply

    A few thoughts: The main point of the post is that we should listen and learn. I doubt that is ever bad advice. Also, even if I experience reverse racism, it can only define the individual or group of individuals doing the act. There has never been a time in America in which someone like me would have experienced systemic racism or a scenario where a majority can hinder my life in every way. Sadly, that is the story for many people of color. As I watch documentaries on the 1960s and listen to my friends who lived through it, I do not have the experience or ability to even fathom what that must have been like. Mike is right, I do not know everyone’s story. Yet I do know America’s story. And I know that know white person can speak with personal authority on the topic of systemic racism within America because we have not experienced it. So, I listen and learn.

  11. […] I don’t know what it’s like to be a minority. None. See: What a White Man Knows About Ra... steven-hill.me/black-history
  12. […] See: What a White Man Knows about Racism […]... steven-hill.me/flag
  13. Linda Reply

    If by “know” you mean experience being on the receiving end personally then I agree that I “know” nothing. But if by “know” you mean have personal knowledge of its existencethen I disagree. I have knowledge of it because my father was racist. I grew up in the north east in the 70s/80s. My best friend was from Puerto Rico…I had school friends who were black…. I knew from having personal relationships with my friends who were minorities that those things my father would say weren’t true…they were out of ignorance because he didn’t have personal relationships with minorities. Even to this day he says racist comments but not in front of my children because I told him if he starting talking like that in front of my children, he wouldn’t see my children. I wonder if the north east has less racism that the south or midwest. I may have to ask.

  14. Ashley Reply

    As a white person, I can tell you I have definitely experienced racism. I use to be trash talked by the Hispanics who world throw open water bottles at me on the school bus. I use to get called “white girl” by the blacks and shoved against walls. I know firsthand that racism is dished out by not just one race, but all races. The race card is played to often in this country. Blacks are not the only race who have and do suffer. Think about the Jews? The only reason I live in America is because Hitler scared my great great grandma who fled to the US. Now the Jews have some real suffering history. Yet they don’t sit around victimising themselves. Stop being the victim. Stop talking about how racist white people are. White Jews have had it hard too….

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Ashley, I have little doubt that you have had bad experiences with people. My question would be, have you systematically been discriminated against because of your skin color by a power system you could not influence. This isn’t about hurt feelings; it is about systematic oppression.

  15. Mike Reply

    I do agree with you on that fact that a white person doesn’t know racism compared to black person from the 60s and earlier. But what race really has unless you lived in that era. Most of my friends were black growing up. I wasn’t giving any better privileges because I was white. We had all the same opportunities to better our lives. I had black friends that wasn’t aloud to have me come in because I was white. They knew why, they heard the storiers, but it didn’t change there mind being friends with me. Matter of fact they thought it was crazy and would make jokes about it to make me feel comfortable. If they would have lived during that Era then I’m sure things would have been different.

  16. Sally Reply

    Ok background story…I am a white woman who grew up in an interracial family. My mother married a black man (my daddy) when I was 4 and I have mixed siblings. We grew up in predominantly if not all black neighborhoods and I went to an all black high school. Although you are correct I may not be racially profiled by sight at a distance. I have experienced racism throughout my life. I have experienced it from both the “white” and the “black” people throughout my life. My mom was always concerned with how my siblings were treated due to their ethnicity but thought I was ok. She never realized until I was older and had a heart to heart talk with her about the trials I faced. I was ostracized by the majority of the white kids because I had a “black”family and faced many ordeals and had many fights because I was the “white” girl in the neighborhood. Needless to say it has scarred me in ways but it has also made me the strong woman b I am today. So while I may not have experienced every aspect of racism, I have experienced many of them. I think that until the world learns to live ” color blind” there will always be racism of one fashion or another. I hope I live to see a day when we all can live harmoniously.

  17. […] first is still controversial because racism is deeply rooted in the human condition and has a long h... kevinathompson.com/sexual-harassment
  18. […] We have to ask why. (See: What a White Man Knows About Racism) […]... kevinathompson.com/question-for-my-baptist-friends

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