"From 'Not Racist' to 'Anti-Racist'" by Zachary Helton
Isaiah 58:1-2a, 3b-12
Shout out, don’t hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the People of God their sins. Day after day they say they seek me and claim they delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the Spirit of their God!
But look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers! Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist! Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? To make a show of religious ritual,
while leaving your hearts untouched? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
No. This is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke!
Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and do not to hide yourself from your own kin! Then, and only then, your light will break forth like the dawn, and the work of healing can begin; your vindication shall go before you, the Divine Love shall be your rear guard. Then you will seek God, and God will be found; you will cry for help, and God will say, Here I am!
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of broken communities!
Jacob, a seminary student in his early twenties, sat beneath the florescent lights of the burger joint. He was waiting for Anthony. Unconsciously, he took the small bundle of plastic cutlery in front of him, and began shredding little pieces off his napkin. Jacob was in the third week of an eight-week internship with Ridgecrest, a small, multiethnic church with a local reputation for making waves. While an internship was a seminary requirement, Jacob decided he wanted to seize the opportunity to go somewhere that made him uncomfortable – to learn how churches could speak to some of the most polarizing issues in the country. In just three weeks, he’s been challenged to re-consider women’s equity, preconceived notions about reproductive rights, and the urgency of environmental stewardship, and this week, he planned to take a hard look at the role the church could play in the fight against racism.
With a soft clang, the bell over the doorframe rang. It brought him back into the moment. He looked up from his shredding and recognized Anthony walk in. He waved to a waiter he knew, and then spotted Jacob, making his way over. Anthony was an associate pastor at Ridgecrest. Formally, he oversaw liturgy, formation, and community engagement, though Jacob suspected the job description had a tendency to shift depending on what Anthony felt needed his attention. A Black man in his early-forties, Anthony had joined the church staff many years ago because of its reputation for social justice. When he learned what Jacob was trying to do, Anthony had enthusiastically offered to give him a primer on this particular conversation.
Jacob stood as Anthony came over and gave him a hug. “Jacob!” he greeted. “Hey!” They’d really only met three weeks prior, but Jacob went along with the hug anyway.
They sat back down on the red, patched vinyl cushions of the booth, which let out an exhausted huff. They made small talk about seminary while scanning the short menu. Finally, the waiter came over and they placed their order.
“Okay,” Anthony said after they’d handed the menus over. He rubbed his hands together and he looked at Jacob over his narrow glasses. “So, we’re talking about racism, the church, and the struggle for justice, yes?”
“Right,” Jacob said. “More specifically, like, what can we do? What have you seen the church actually do that made a difference? That took Jesus’ call to love people seriously?”
Anthony nodded and leaned back. “Right, right,” he said. “Good question!” He thought for a second, seeming to deliberate about how best to get into this.
“Look, Jacob,” he started, leaning back in. “Have you ever heard of the ‘Magical Negro’?”
Jacob opened his mouth, but no words came out. Did Anthony just say negro? he asked himself. Was that something one could say in the twenty first century? “Um, no, I haven’t,” he finally made himself say, suddenly feeling more uncomfortable than he’d anticipated.
Anthony, however, was unencumbered. “Okay, well, ‘The Magical Negro’ is what you’d call a trope in American movies. It’s the wise, patient old Black person who shows up in the White-centered narrative to help the well-intentioned White person learn something on their warm and fuzzy journey of self-discovery. That’s their sole purpose. Think Uncle Remus, Bagger Vance… pretty much anything Morgan Freeman, see what I’m saying?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said, knowing the character well, but never having heard them named, and certainly never heard them named in terms of racism. Anthony went on. “The reason I bring this up, is because White folks have been consuming these stories, with this kind of character, for a really long time, which often leads them to think it’s the job of the Black magi to somehow show up and help figure everything out and feel good about themselves, you see where I’m going?”
Jacob wasn’t sure. He was as uncomfortable with Anthony’s use of the phrase White folks as he had been by Magical Negro. “Not really,” he admitted.
“That’s okay,” Anthony said. “Here’s what I’m trying to say. I’m not the ‘Magical Negro.’ I want you to see up front that I’m not stepping into your White story to help you, I’m inviting you to be a character in a Black story, to win you over to my fight for justice. You understand?”
“Oh,” Jacob said. “Yeah, I think so.” He hadn’t realized how much this had been about him – a story about him being useful and knowing things and feeling good about himself. He suddenly felt a little more humble. He could tell that Anthony was kind, but that didn’t mean he was going to pull punches. He was, however, growing more and more uncomfortable with how Anthony was using the words White and Black. It made him squirm. It seemed to general.
“I’ve got to say,” Jacob eased in, “I’m feeling kind of uncomfortable at how you’re using the terms ‘White folks’ and ‘Black folks’ so generally. Aren’t you kind of painting everyone into broad categories? Surely you’re not talking about all white people. What if you grew up poor, or in a Black community?”
Anthony was nodding along. “You’re saying using such broad categories doesn’t respect everyone’s unique experience, right? It seems disrespectful both ways.”
“Right,” Jacob said, curious.
“Okay, well, first, you’re right, everyone has their own individual experience… but second, in the big picture conversation on racism, what we’re exploring is group patterns. We all have unique experiences, but they don’t discount group patterns. You can say ‘I grew up poor!’ or ‘I’m from an Italian family!’ but you alsogrew up White. A poor white person. An Italian white person. It’s both/and. Your experience, unique though it was, falls under the greater umbrella of being White. Same thing with Black people. I might’ve come from a middle-class family or have gotten a seminary education, but those are both under the umbrella of being Black. They don’t discount the group patterns that still play out on the macro, umbrella level. We’ve got to look at those head on. There are differences in how we’re treated by law enforcement, in how frequently we get the healthcare we need… in how, when you got a scratch at school, you could be reasonably certain they’d have a band-aid that matched your skin color, right?”
That messed with Jacob’s head. Anthony was right. He’d never noticed that before. “Right,” he said, wrapping his mind around what Anthony had said. He was about to say something else when the food arrived. The burgers in their red baskets smelled incredible. They got situated, and before Jacob could bring up his concern, Anthony said, “Okay, so having said that, you want to talk about what the church can do, yes?”
“Right,” Jacob said, re-centering and reaching for the ketchup. He decided he’d hold on to his unease for a bit and bring it up later.
“Well,” Anthony said. “There’s a lot the church could say and do about justice. We’ve got a rich story about being one in Christ, about loosing bonds of oppression and whatnot… but generally speaking, I think we’d be in a better place if churches could stop seeing themselves as warriors for the cause for a minute and take a look at themselves – root out the racism in their own thinking.”
“Well, sure,” Jacob said, holding his cheeseburger. “I know there are a lot of racist churches, but I’m talking about a church like Ridgecrest. Like, a more progressive church that’s not racist.”
Anthony smiled. “Oh yeah,” he said, “So am I. Sometimes progressives, in church or in politics, are the worst. They do the most damage. The problem is that most folks think they aren’t racist, and they spend a lot of time talking about that, so they don’t spend any time actually paying attention to the ways they perpetuate a racist system.”
Jacob laughed. “It sounds like you’re saying I could be, like, a sleeper cell racist. I could be racist without even knowing it.” He wiped grease off of his fingers. Anthony, however, didn’t laugh. He kept his patient smile. “Yes. That is almost exactly what I’m saying.”
Jacob furrowed his eyebrows. “Well, hang on,” he said, feeling a twinge of defensiveness again. “I mean, that’s not fair. I’m not a r…” he caught himself and leaned in a bit. “I’m not a racist,” he finished quietly.
Anthony leaned in and matched his volume. “Except,” he said, “there’s no such thing as a not racist.” He leaned back up, leaving Jacob confused. “Let’s talk about it this way,” Anthony started. “We believe we’re walking around in a certain story about racism, and in that story, there are two characters: The Racist and The Not Racist.
“First, you’ve got The Racist. They’re the ones wearing white hoods and scratching ‘No Coloreds’ onto cardboard signs. The bad guys, right?
“Then you’ve got The Not Racist. Oh, they’re the ones who treat everyone politely, because skin color doesn’t matter to them. They don’t commit hate crimes, they celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
“According to this story, as long as you’re not racist, then the world gets better. Slowly but surely. The racists die off or have hallmark changes of heart, and eventually we wind up in a post-racial utopia. Some say we’re already there, right?” He paused to take a bite. “But Jacob, this story, it isn’t real.”
“What do you mean not real?” Jacob asked, confused.
“What I mean is,” Anthony reiterated, “According to that story, racism is just when one person does something hateful to someone from a different race, right? So as long as we’re nice, we can’t be racist! In reality, racism isn’t really so much about individuals and their prejudice, it’s about the systems made by a collective, more subtle and insidious prejudice. The education system, the criminal justice system, the banking system… these structures disproportionately benefit Whites over Blacks. I say the story isn’t true, because you can be as nice to Black people as you want to, but those systems aren’t going to change.”
This was familiar, and now that they were talking about it, Jacob realized that was really more what he wanted to talk about. “Right,” he said. “So, what can the church do to fix the racist systems?”
“Well,” Anthony said, taking a drink of his Pepsi (they didn’t have Coke), “before we can even talk about that, I think we need to start with a bigger, more nuanced story – one that doesn’t just fit people into these false categories or let them off the hook so easily. Instead of two characters, this bigger story has three: The Segregationist, The Assimilationist, and The Anti-Racist.”
“The Segregationist, The Assimilate… what?” Jacob tried to repeat. “The Segregationist, The Assimilationist, and The Anti-Racist,” Anthony reiterated.
“Here, let’s walk through them. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.
“First, there’s The Segregationist.” He grabbed the mustard from the side of the table and put it down between them. “Like the racist, in the other story, this one’s easy to spot. Everyone agrees they’re racist. They’re flying confederate flags and using racial slurs. They believe in the supremacy of White people, and they’ll say so. They believe that all other races are irreconcilably unclean and should be put in their (segregated) place. They’re racist in their individual actions and at the same time work towards a racist system, one that works for Whites, but not people of color. That’s the Segregationist.
“Second, there’s The Assimilationist.” He took the ketchup from the condiment caddy, putting it next to the mustard. “This one is more palatable. They don’t seem to be racist, because they don’t go around talking about race or telling off color jokes. They believe that Blacks really should be included… with a condition. They believe Blacks should be included as long as they can behave like White people – as long as they can assimilate. If their speech was more white, their clothes, their culture… then they’ll be less threatening and more ‘civilized,’ more like us. They see Black-ness are inferior, but fixable. See the problem? There’s still a white supremacy, they’re just nicer about it. They’re not racist in their individual actions, but they do contribute to a racist system, one that works for Whites, but not people of color. That’s the Assimilationist.
“And finally, there’s the third character. The Anti-Racist.” Reaching over, Anthony didn’t grab another condiment, but the salt, placing it in front of the other two.
“The Anti-Racist is totally different, because they don’t put White-ness as the standard for success. They see differences in appearance and culture, but they’re not worse just because they’re different. No hierarchy. They’re ‘equal in their divergences.’ They also opens them up to see that on a macro level, Blacks and Whites are treated differently, so they actively work to fight that. They’re not racist in their individual actions, and they actively work to dismantle any system that is not equitable for all. That’s the Anti-Racist. You following?”
Jacob nodded, pointing at the two condiments and the salt. “The Segregationist, The Assimilationist, and The Anti-Racist.”
“That’s it.” Anthony said, putting them back in the caddy. “But let’s talk real life for a minute, okay? Let’s take police brutality. In this bigger story of race, The Assimilationist is going to watch the news and say ‘Yes, the officer used too much force, and that’s wrong, but the victim was also at fault! If they’d just spoken more clearly and followed the officer’s instructions, they wouldn’t be in danger!’ In other words, if they’d just be less threatening, less like a criminal, they’d be fine. Nothing wrong with the system. That’s the Assimilationist.
“But then, there’s the Anti-Racist, and they know about ‘the talk.’”
“The talk?” Jacob asked.
“The talk,” Anthony nodded, “and not the sex talk! I’m talking about the talk every Black parent has with their teenager, regardless of their socioeconomic status, where they sit down and explain that whenever they’re pulled over, they need to put their hands on the dashboard and avoid sudden movements. They have this talk, generation to generation, because they know that no matter how much money they have, no matter how upstanding they are, police have always seen their skin as a threat and have reacted more fearfully and aggressively.”
“Wait,” Jacob interrupted, “that’s a thing?”
“Oh you bet it’s a thing,” Anthony said, serious as a heart attack. “See, Jacob, there’s a whole Assimilationist history that tries to blame Black behavior for economic and social inequalities. Famous anti-slavery and civil rights leaders have tried to advocate for ‘uplift suasion,’ saying if Black people could just lift themselves up and act with dignity, then public perception would change! But it never does. What happened instead was when a Black person made it, somehow finagled their way into the American dream, got a degree, became president – America would look at them like exceptions to the rule. For Blacks, negativity is generalized while positivity is a unique case. For Whites, it’s the opposite.
“The truth is, the Anti-Racist knows that there are incentivized systems that find ways to profit from the oppression of Black people, and use whatever ideologies of White supremacy they need to justify it. That’s not just, and it’s not because of anything Black people did. Knowing that, the Anti-Racist is willing to stand up, to put their neck on the line, and say ‘It’s not Black-ness that must change, it’s the implicit biases and discrimination of the systems and their unjust policies!’ They are willing to stand up and say ‘Get to the heart of it, and dismantle the racist systems!’ You see the difference?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “You’re saying The Assimilationist might think they’re not racist because they’re nice, but they’re actually working out of and supporting a racist system that hurts people of color?”
“That’s it,” Anthony nodded. “And that makes sense, because they’re usually the ones benefiting from the status quo – holding the power and privilege. It’s working out for them. So nothing’s going to change without anti-racists interrupting the systems with direct action, demanding immediate justice. No justice, no peace!” He sat back and let out a low laugh. “Historically, White people haven’t like that very much. It makes them uncomfortable. They say ‘You’re going too fast! You’re making too many waves! Change will come!’ and they stay lukewarm, neutral, and nice in their conversations with Blacks, leaving the systems untouched.
“You know, MLK called The Assimilationist ‘the White Moderate,’ and Jacob,” he leaned in, “he said that they were a greater stumbling block on the road to Black freedom than The Segregationist Klansman!”
Jacob clarified. “So you’re saying than unless you are an Anti-Racist, you are, by definition, a Racist?”
Anthony nodded. “That’s it.”
Jacob thought about this. He thought about what Anthony had said earlier about Band-aids matching his skin color, the currents and systems he was caught up in that were so much bigger than him, things he’d never noticed. Just by living his life, just in his neutrality, he realized he’d been unknowingly upholding a whole system that was hurting people.
“So,” Anthony interrupted his thoughts. “If we leave behind the Racist/Not-Racist story, where would you say you are in this new story of race?”
Staring at the Formica table between them, Jacob tried to find the courage and humility to confess. “I guess,” he started, “In the story you’re telling, I’d be an assimilationist. And that means you were right – I am a racist.”
“Okay, first,” Anthony said, smiling, “you’re not going to want to shout that. People can hear you.” This made Jacob laugh a little, breaking the tension. “Second,” Anthony went on, “it’s humbling work to see yourself as a part of this story. Most people are scared to accept that they’re a part of a racist system because they think it makes them somehow bad, but friend, it’s just the water you were born swimming in. It’s the system you were socialized into. It’s not your fault. However, now that you can see yourself more clearly, you can also see where you want to go. Don’t be satisfied anymore with being a Not Racist, that’s not real. Figure out how to be an Anti-Racist.
“You asked how the church could speak most faithfully to racism, and I think it’s the same thing. You’ve got to have the courage and humility to drop the defensiveness and confess – to see yourself in the story and the story in yourself. Like Isaiah said, start by rooting out the idols and injustice from our own congregation, by removing the yoke from among ourselves. Then your dawn shall break from on high! Then, that’s when the grace comes in. That’s when we can start calling ourselves agents of healing, repairers of the breach, restorers of broken communities! Then you can start actually making a difference in anti-racist work. Dismantling racism starts within our walls, and right there,” he pointed up at Jacob, “in your head. That’s where the fight starts.” It was about time to go, and they could both sense it. Glancing at the neon clock over the counter, Anthony said, “I hate to break this up, but it’s past one. I’ve got to head back to the church.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” Jacob said. “I think I need a minute.”
Anthony chuckled, standing and leaving a generous tip on the table. They made some more small talk as they walked to their cars, and then went their different ways. As he drove home, Jacob thought about the “bigger story” Anthony had told. Anthony’s voice rang again in his ears again. “It’s in your head,” the voice echoed. “That’s where the fight starts.” People of God, let us find ourselves in the story. Let us commit to the work of anti-racism without reserve. Let us seek and embody the equitable, peaceable Kindom of God that is, always and forever, as close as our own breath. Amen.
Bray, Melvin. Better: Waking up to Who We Could Be. Chalice Press, 2017.
Brown, Brené. Brené with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist. Accessed 3 June 2020.
DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. 2017.