Sans Cilice


White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Response #1

UPDATE–>: Originally, I had intended to write a series of posts in response to MLK’s assertion that “life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”. Upon further reflection though, I think that continuing to post responses is unproductive and sort of grossly self-congratulatory. I will leave this first (and only written) response up because I think it is worth reading and was written genuinely in response to the question of what I do for others. An important clarification though: when I site my verbal protest of acquaintances’ remarks as something I do for others, I do not mean that such protests are motivated by some sort of charitable spirit. In actuality, I think they are motivated by a mix of disgust, anger and discomfort. What I mean is that the outcome of protesting such remarks has greater benefit to others than it does to me (unless I am responding to misogyny or another prejudice that is directly hurtful to my own identity.) <–UPDATE END

To continue on MLK: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

1. I call out other people’s racist (and sexist and homophobic, etc.) bull-shit, regardless of whether they are my close colleagues, loose acquaintances, good friends or family members. This is a small action that makes a subtle but real difference. Many people believe in speaking out against things that they don’t support, in the abstract, but few bother to speak up about things they find unjust on a smaller more personal scale. Obviously this action does not immediately or directly make anyone’s life better. It’s not a terribly flashy form of activism, but, especially in the work place it makes a real difference by promoting greater awareness of racism (and homophobia, sexism and religious/ethnic intolerance) in it’s more discrete forms. The benefit of greater awareness in the work place is not that it makes the newly aware individual a better or less-culpable person– in fact, in instances like these, I’m really not all that concerned with redeeming that person’s well-being or moral standing.

Awareness is important because it decreases the likelihood that the person in question will  make the work place uncomfortable for people of color (or gays, or women, or Muslims, etc.) by uttering witless or overtly racist remarks. For minorities– or women– in the work place to be accepted and respected and to be given due credit,  it is obviously necessary for those in power to remove their hurtful prejudices and to assign value to human capital without bias. However,  it is equally integral to minorities’ (and women’s) success that they/we feel welcome in environments which were previously inhospitable such that they/we have the confidence needed to succeed. While I am not quick to draw many parallels between the distinctive hardships of women and blacks, I think such parallels are useful when discussing workplace scenarios. I know that, as a woman, I act more confidently, more powerfully, and am more proactive when I am not around people who unwittingly utter sexist remarks. Such remarks are not just distracting and hurtful; they make me question the speaker’s ability to understand me and appreciate my contributions in other scenarios, thereby making me less inclined to interact with them, and less inclined to assert myself. If I found myself in an consistently sexist workplace, I imagine that I would not want to stay there very long, and if I did resign myself to staying, I find it hard to imagine that I would perform as well as I would in an environment free of indications of lingering sexist attitudes.

It’s frequently assumed that employees (or family members, or friends) who call others out for making racist/sexist statements are “too sensitive” or “easily offended.” Perhaps sometimes this is true. In my experience though, the goal of calling out someone’s offensive statement is rarely to get an apology for your offended self. Neither is it to police others’ morality as if you are making them a better person. I am always disgusted at discretely racist remarks, but I am rarely personally offended or upset. I call them out not because I am hurt, but because I hope that no one else will be. The goal is to foster an environment in which all feel sufficiently comfortable and confident to perform to their highest standards.


8 Responses

  1. Virginian Episcopalian says:

    Holding ourselves and others accountable is not a trivial matter and, in my view, critical to creating a work or living environment in which all can excel and reach their full potential. Jesus said: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) If the purpose of Christianity is to help us become more like Jesus, it is our responsibility to approach the racist, the sexist and all others acting in unkind or inappropriately and assist them in addressing their shortcomings.

  2. Sans Cilice says:

    I completely agree that holding our actions (including lack of action) accountable to our beliefs is not a trivial matter. While my many of my own views are in accordance with many Judeo/Christian (and even Islamic)beliefs, it is not their religious provenance that sustains or encourages my support. Instead, I believe in the principles of equality and kindness because my life experiences confirm that said principles create a society more desirable than one founded on oppression and malice.

    • Virginian Episcopalian says:

      I agree heartily that the principles of equality and kindness are absolutely fundamental for society to operate effectively. Those principles, however, are not natural to the human condition and it is only when placed into context with belief in something greater than ourselves that we are drawn into an appreciation of what is fair, what is equal and what is kind. Without a belief in a higher being, be it Buddha, Allah or Jesus, human-kind would evolve to a state of anarchy where everyone was looking out only for themselves. Isn’t that in part how slavery became accepted? Farmers looking out for their well being ahead of those of others whom they ‘purchased’ on the open market? Organized religion in Great Britain and later in the US played a significant role in highlighting the injustice of that practice which lead to its eradication. Without belief in something greater than us, call it religion or spiritual beliefs, I’m not confident that equality or kindness would be very common in today’s society.

  3. Ben says:

    There is nothing wrong with noting a specific moment in history when people of faith acted courageously and selflessly to fight iniquity. On an individual level, faith has obviously influenced many people to do good in the world, and for that, we should be grateful. But likewise, we could cite examples of times when people of faith committed acts of malice, xenophobia, hatred, or selfishness, or when they have caused suffering and death (for example, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, 9/11, the recent shellacking of Gaza, and of course, every aspect of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade).

    Now, I’m not one of those people who wants to blame Christianity for the Inquisition, or Judaism for the bombing of Gaza, or Islam for 9/11. There’s little point to such blame games. Maybe the decision by Jewish leadership in Israel to perpetrate a highly immoral blockade of aid into Gaza in the aftermath of the recent bombing campaign there is related to some quality of Judaism, or faith more generally. I doubt it. Maybe if the political leadership in 15th century Spain had been atheist, they wouldn’t have tortured so many Jews. I doubt that as well. Maybe if Al-Qaeda were a Marxist organization instead of an Islamic one, the twin towers would still stand today. But that seems wrong as well. I think that these perpetrators of evil are just people, often people under great political and personal strain, who responded with great cowardice to the specific challenges they faced. They were presented moral tests, and they failed. They didn’t fail because of – or in spite of – their faith. They just failed. Blame the believer (who commits acts of evil), not the faith.

    The flip side of that coin is that I also can’t give a faith, or faith in general, credit for the good actions of the faithful. Certainly it is true that Christians were active in abolitionist movements, and again, we should be grateful for the role that Christians had in ending slavery. But we shouldn’t ignore the contributions of atheists and agnostics to the abolition movement, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Ingersoll in the United States, and John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in England. The kindness and selflessness of an atheist is worth just as much as the kindness of selflessness of a believer. Good and evil transcends belief system. Faith/faithless is not a moral distinction. The countless evil acts committed by the faithful should make this apparent. (As an aside, I think the amount of good committed by the faithful is just as strong an argument against those, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who would point to the evil acts of faithful men as evidence that we must do away with faith.)

    While we may disagree about the moral relevance of the faithful/faithless distinction, I am glad to see that we seem to agree with Dr. King on the moral importance of selflessness, against those (like Ayn Rand) who claim with a straight face that selfishness is a moral good.

    However, I cannot agree with the contention, which you stated as a fact, that the principles of equality and kindness are not natural to the human condition. Many species show kindness (most often seen in the relationship between mothers and their young), and many social structures within the animal kingdom (the kinship system of lions, for example) show at least as much egalitarianism as human societies. Seeing as humans also show kindness and also organize themselves with varying degrees of equality, why would we assume that this isn’t a natural mode of coexistence? Any contention that these principles are not natural to humans seems to require evidence. Of course, many faiths, including Christian faiths, contend that it is only through faith in a higher being that humans can access morally good principles such as selflessness or kindness, but if you need faith to accept the arguments of faith, then faith’s contention is not terrible persuasive. The very word “faith” implies this – that reason alone is not sufficient to have a full relationship with the higher being. That’s why it is my opinion that when one is expressing tenets that are based in faith and not reason, those tenets should be prefaced by “I believe”. That way we don’t run the risk of offending someone by implying that their lack of faith in a higher being precludes them from simple human decency, kindness, and a belief in equality.

  4. Sans Cilice says:

    Wow, thanks Ben! What a rich response to VirginiaEpiscopalian’s thoughts. For a bit of clarification though, I wouldn’t say I was offended by VirginiaEpiscopalian’s claim that “without belief in something greater than us, call it religion or spiritual beliefs, I’m not confident that equality or kindness would be very common in today’s society.” I agree that playing tit-for-tat about whether religion is more responsible for the good or the bad of history is futile, so I’m not going to respond to VE’s assertion that a religious or spiritual beliefs are responsible for the humane aspects of society.

    What I do take issue with though, is VirginiaEpiscopalian’s simultaneous use of Christian scripture as “proof” of our responsibility to treat others fairly, while simultaneously accepting other religions but not atheism. As an atheist, my views are supported by an compelling textual cannon (which may include Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Michael Harrington, Vandana Shiva, Richard Rorty, Sandra Harding and and Rachel Carson, among others.) Members of non-Christian religions also champion the nearly universal tenets of equality and kindness by siting non-Christian texts which contain ideas and recommendations that might not be unpalatable to VirginiaEpiscopalian, just like my atheism is. I am still unconvinced as to why believing in christ/god or having more ‘spirituality’ would make me a better more ethically acting person if my atheist definition of ethical action is identical to Christianity’s definition of ethical action.

    Lastly, VirginiaEpiscopalian suggests that I am not motivated by something greater than myself. This is a misunderstanding. I am motivated by the immense collective needs of my society and community and the world at large.

  5. Virginian Episcopalian says:

    Dear Ben and San Cilice,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I believe I may not have been clear enough in explaining myself in my earlier response. I agree that much good in many parts of the world has been performed by individuals with no religious affiliation or belief as well as with the fact that a faith belief is NOT necessary for humans to do good altruistic works. My point was more that the principles of loving others with no expectation of return, giving freely from what you have for others that you do not know, being kind for kindness sake taught in spiritual communities provide a perspective. That perspective is important whether you have a faith belief or not; and it has an impact on one’s thought process. Just as in art or music, the contrast brings out the detail in a painting or melody, so too the principles of selflessness taught in faith-based organizations, whether organized religions or other organizations, provides a catalyst or frame of reference from which one can base decisions on issues.

    Does it form the only basis for one’s decisions? Absolutely not and people of faith fail to follow the principles taught by their faith on a daily basis. We’re human and broken individuals. Having a faith belief doesn’t mean in any way that you are going to be a good person any more than NOT believing in God means that you aren’t a kind, giving and selfless person. Many monstrosities have been performed in the name of God. I don’t deny this fact.

    If your parents had not had a faith belief themselves, however, would your thinking on this topic be different than it is today? None of us know, but it is a fact that your foundation in attending church, being exposed to faith-based principles taught in your school training as well as the principles of social justice emulated in your family life have had an significant impact on who you are and how you address decisions. You can’t separate the ingredients of the cake once it’s baked. We are who we are and our experiences form the basis for our actions, whether we are atheist, agnostic, Christian, Moslem, or Jewish.

    My point wasn’t that you needed to be a God-fearing, faith-based person to be principled and altruistic in your conduct. It was more that the principles of faith based communities contribute to the fabric of decisions people make and without those principles, whether we believe in God or not, the decisions humans make would be much different.

  6. Sans Cilice says:

    “You can’t separate the ingredients of the cake once it’s baked.” 🙂 great phrase.

    I agree that the principles of faith based communities influence the decisions made by people within the community regardless of their faith. However, this truth doesn’t convince me that without the principles of faith based communities “the decisions humans make would be much different.” I think that many of the values/practices/preferences within faith based communities have as much to do with other social factors as they do with faith.

    For instance, throughout European history Catholic nuns have run clinics and hospitals to address the needs of the starving, war-weary or diseased citizens. Though they understand their motivation through their own personal religion, the problem they address is not a specifically religious problem; it is a social problem of public health and/or an economic problem of uneven distribution. If the nuns were not compelled by their religion to address such problems, the problems would still exist and would most definitely be addressed by secular efforts. Because I agree that you can’t separate the ingredients once you’ve baked a cake, whether you’re talking about an individual, a community or a society, I don’t think it’s reasonable to give primacy to the principles of faith when discussing the complex decisions of individuals within a realistically complex community.

  7. Virginian Episcopalian says:

    “I think that many of the values/practices/preferences within faith based communities have as much to do with other social factors as they do with faith.”
    I absolutely agree that many of the practices within faith-based communities (such as the nun run hospitals in Europe) have as much to do with what is happening in their immediately vicinity! It’s a ‘stimulus-response’ process. There aren’t too many (if any?) faith-based soup kitchens in Beverly Hills…that’s not the stimulus there so a soup kitchen response would not be appropriate. Is there a need in Beverly Hills? Sure but it’s not that one! Why did the European nuns start the hospitals or feel a need to provide that service to the community? Were the nuns the only ones who saw the need? Absolutely not! Were the nuns in a better financial position to build a hospital in their community? None of the nuns I have known (raised as a Roman Catholic and 8 years of parochial schools as my experience base) have had financial independence like that! Was the actions taken by the nuns, in part, because the secular community did not rise to the cause to take on the needs of the community driven by their Christian values of love, compassion and generosity? Hmmm?! Neither of us know but we can speculate on both sides of the discussion. Are their more faith-based soup kitchens in major cities in the US today than secular based soup kitchens? I haven’t done the research but I’d bet a dime that there are are more faith-based ones! Why might that be? I’ll do some research and see what I can find out. Great discussion…thanks!

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