An Exchange on Racism

An Exchange on Racism

Several weeks ago, our Acting Principal (Roland De Vries) reached out to Sandra Scarlett (a recent graduate of the College) to ask if she would be willing to write something to help the community of The Presbyterian College think about and respond to racism. In an email exchange, Sandra posed a provocative but helpful question: “Are there any allies in the College who are able or will be brave enough to share their point of view?” This question was asked in the shared realization that the burden of responding to racism is often, unfairly, placed back on the shoulders of people of colour themselves. While Roland is not sure he merits the label of ally, or is subject to risk in the way many others are, it made sense that he should initiate an exchange by writing from his own point of view, inviting Sandra to respond. Here, then, is one small piece of dialogue (with an initiating piece by Roland De Vries and a responding piece by Sandra Scarlett). We trust this is just the beginning of our conversations on racism at the College.

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The Problem with Silence, by Roland De Vries

The Presbyterian College has been hesitant, historically, about wading into debates on social or political issues. That changed several weeks ago when the College made a public statement on racism. That statement (found here) was offered after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was made, also, in the light of the widespread protests that have followed. It was a moment when the College administration decided that silence was no longer an option.

When it comes to social and political issues, I confess that my own impulse is toward public silence. Even in the face of the ongoing, widespread protests against anti-Black racism, part of me preferred silence. Not because I am unconcerned about the racism in our culture (as I have told myself). Rather, a significant part of me has felt I should just get on with faithfully relating to students and colleagues and friends who are people of colour. We should simply seek to embody the compassion and justice of Christ together.

In the back of my mind have also been the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:1. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” I’ve thought about this text particularly in relation to white brothers and sisters who have made public statements and comments in opposition to racism (on social media or otherwise) over recent weeks. My sense is that it is often much easier to perform our anti-racism than to actually live it or embody it. Hence Jesus’ comment: “Never mind parading your goodness; just get on with living well.”

But I’ve realized there is a serious problem here. The problem is that my public silence means complicity with systemic racism. Even more honestly: I’m another of those good, middle class white folks who hasn’t taken seriously the extent to which I’m embedded in and part of a society that is shaped by racism. This is to say nothing of prejudicial attitudes that may lie not too far below the surface of my own self. In other words, silence means a refusal to acknowledge the full extent of racism, and a refusal to do what I might in confronting it.

It has become clear to me (far too belatedly) that not speaking publicly is complicity because it entails a failure to speak against the racism that leads to disproportional arrest and incarceration rates for Black and Indigenous peoples, lower rates of post-secondary completion, restricted employment opportunities and lack of representation among elected officials (among many other issues). I may be doing my best to live well in relation to Black sisters and brothers but that does little to address these wide and systemic issues.

I land here with two tensions. The first is the tension between silence and speaking out. If I speak out, there is every possibility that it will be a mere performance of anti-racism (I’m enough of a Calvinist to know that my best works are touched by sin). But if I don’t speak out then I express continuing complicity with systemic racism. Which means there is no choice but to speak – I must learn to say what needs to be said, though this is a task I am only beginning to learn.

And there is a second tension, between my personal life and the life I live as a member of a wider community. I am doing my best to love and serve my friends and colleagues and students – all of them, inclusive of persons of colour. I want to be faithful in love, embodying the unity to which Christ points us and which is our reality in him. But that love must also be expressed in a less personal, more systematic way – in the sense of advocating for public and institutional policies that advance justice and equality. A failure of such participation is nothing more than a failure of love.

It’s obvious for me to say this, but I will still do so: I don’t have anything to teach anyone here. Rather, I have much to learn. I pray for grace to continue learning and speaking.

Questioning Silence, by Sandra Scarlett

As a Black woman, for too many years, I too have also struggled with keeping silent or speaking out regarding systemic and individual racism. I always felt that if I spoke out, I would be reprimanded, lose my job (a very good and well paid job), or not be taken seriously. However, after personally encountering systematic and individual racism, I made it my responsibility to speak out rather than keep silent. Over the years, my motto has been to help people who are different than I to understand who I am and who Black people are through open and constructive conversation.

Although this has been quite challenging, because nobody wants to be told that their actions are racist, I have made it my duty to deal with systematic and individual racism by educating individuals, one on one, who have demonstrated racism, in a loving and caring way.

Recently, I witnessed, on social media, what happened to George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man, who was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota during an arrest. I found myself constantly reflecting on the situation. I said to myself “enough is enough. This is not acceptable.” No matter what a person’s skin color, He/ she is created in God’s image, and nobody should be treated the way George Floyd was treated.

As the weeks went by, the idea of remaining silent rested heavily on my heart, I asked myself another question. What more can I do to bring about awareness to systematic and individual racism? Mostly importantly, what would Jesus do?

When Jesus was on the Earth, He made a huge impact on people’s life, societal values, and a hurting world. Jesus also spoke out against injustice, when it was necessary. In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan man who helped a wounded Jew. There was tension between the Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Yet, the Samaritan looked beyond the political tension and showed compassion and empathy to a Jew. The Samaritan did not let the Jew die on the road. The Samaritan stopped what he was doing, noticed the man’s pain, and went out of his way to help.

Jesus told his followers “go and do likewise.” One way we as a society can help bring awareness to systematic and individual racism is to place ourselves in someone else’s pain. As I placed myself in George Floyd’s pain, I realized that I cannot remain silent. I can no longer stay in my comfort zone and hope that it will eventually go away. I need to continue to speak out against systematic and individual racism. I realized that if healing and restoration will take place, I need to act, by speaking out.

One thing that I appreciated about my journey at the Presbyterian College was that I felt included and accepted. I, personally, did not encounter systemic or individual racism, especially being a black woman from another denomination. I was encouraged to be me and to share who I am with the College. And for this, I will forever be grateful.

I encourage the College to continue to empower the students no matter who they are, and to always remember Whose they are. All people are children of the Most High God, created in His image. Moreover, I also encourage the College to lend their voices by speaking out against Systemic and individual racism, when necessary.

Blessings,

Sandra Scarlett

 

 

 

 

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