What I Learned about Race from Urbana 15

Mark Charles pursues racial reconciliation through education about history. He is of Dutch American and Navajo descent and brings this perspective to his work. During Urbana 15, we were able to sit down with him to hear a bit more about the seminar he was giving. We used much of what he said in an interview that appeared in Urbana Today, but he left us with so much to chew on that we couldn’t fit it all into the article.

Like this quote:

I’m fairly convinced a majority of America is not explicitly racist. But what most don’t understand is that when you live in an environment that is systemically racist, anti-racism actually has very little to do with your personal racist views. Anti-racism is about your willingness to change the system. So you may not be explicitly racist, but if you’re not trying to change the system that benefits you, you’re not being anti-racist either.

Or this one:

White America literally justifies itself with the Declaration of Independence; that’s their saving grace. And so when you point out that that’s a systemically racist declaration, people don’t know what to do with it—when you remind them that this is what our Constitution actually says: it excludes Natives, it doesn’t even mention women, it counts African slaves as three-fifths of a person. And even the amendment used to correct that (the 14th Amendment) which gave citizenship to anyone born here—that amendment didn’t apply to Natives because we weren’t under the jurisdiction of the government.

It had been a while since I read the Declaration of Independence, so I went back and read it again. If I had ever learned that our Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages,” I had forgotten it. As a White American, it’s too easy for me to have selective amnesia. I’m not often confronted with the unsavory parts of our country’s history because (for the most part) those dark blots in our past have served to maintain the status quo. And the status quo often exists to benefit me.

The structures, systems, and statutes that have allowed for slavery, internment camps, and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples were put in place by people like me. Some of these systems have explicit racism at their inception, but many are racist out of the ignorance and apathy that festers when those in charge don’t intentionally seek the benefit of the minority in the margin.

The structures, systems, and statutes that have allowed for slavery, internment camps, and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples were put in place by people like me. Some of these systems have explicit racism at their inception, but many are racist out of the ignorance and apathy that festers when those in charge don’t intentionally seek the benefit of the minority in the margin.

Where the Declaration of Independence gets it wrong, however, Scripture gets it right. The Bible is our foundation, our basis for how we view every other person around us as well as ourselves. The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the way Jesus and the early church treated women (John 12:1-8; Acts 18), and countless other passages illustrate God’s value for every person.

Listening to Mark Charles and Michelle Higgins and others, I’m learning that the way forward is not just for those in power to do better at being in power. I was never meant to be an arbiter of dignity. I am not the one who gets to decide who counts as a full person. These are burdens I was never meant to bear. And when I take these roles upon myself, I traumatize others, but I also traumatize myself. When anyone, powerful or powerless, acts outside of the bounds of God’s definitions, all are damaged. No one gets out clean when anyone tries to usurp God.

Four Steps for Moving Forward

Since we are all broken, the solution must be arrived at together. We must learn to listen to each other, admit our mistakes, and develop a common, amnesia-free memory.

  1. Start by revisiting the history of your ethnic group(s) with eyes to see ways your ancestors have treated others as anything less than equals. We must remember our own dark history and incorporate it into our common consciousness. And we have to do this if we are going to treat each other with the dignity God has already showered on us in creating us in his own image. We cannot work for healing for the future without working together to acknowledge the ways the wrongs of the past continue wounding us today.
  2. Take advantage of any opportunities to be in the same physical space with people who are different from you. Once there, take a risk and have some actual interaction with them. Be willing to make mistakes and to be mistaken, but don’t let it stop there.
  3. Get engaged and stay engaged. Nothing is quite so harmful as apathy. Do not limit your engagement to only that which you assume to be acceptable. It is vital that we bring all of ourselves to the table, especially when we don’t see eye to eye. But make sure to come to the table ready to listen—really listen—not just speak. It is okay to be angry, but do not sin in your anger (Ephesians 4:26) by minimizing the dignity of others. 
  4. The next time (God forbid) harm comes to someone because of their ethnicity, humbly respond with empathy and compassion first. Begin by acknowledging that harm hurts, regardless of whatever other details may become known later.

If we are to be about God’s mission, we must approach others (domestically and abroad) with a foundation of dignity for all without exception—especially when that makes us uncomfortable and challenges the status quo. Or, as Michelle Higgins said, “We must rehearse the justice of equality right here on this shore before we export racism.” We must do this work if the God we’re following is the God of love and justice revealed in Scripture.

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Here is a brief video from Mark Charles that explains the "Doctrine of Discovery" that paved the way for atrocities against Native Americans: https://youtu.be/N3oc84aLC-Q

I have also been focusing on how alike we are when I see those around me who are 'different' from me. It doesn't have to be another race; it could be stature, body build, weight, dress, actions, speech, or any other differentiation. I specifically remind myself that these are all miracle creations of God and deserve my respect and acceptance. Being a conduit for positive change is thematic for this blog and well stated.

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