Confession of a Racist: Mens Rea, Blameworthiness, and Racism
As a white male, it sometimes feels like the conversation about race and racism has been rejuvenated in an era of social media, #blacklivesmatter, Donald Trump, neo-white nationalist pride, news about politicians dressing in black-face when they were in school, etc. Many of my friends and neighbors, however, are likely to find that belief infuriating; racism didn’t go away and come back. It has been a constant in the past, and it will continue to be a constant in the future as well.
But there are some interesting dynamics in the use of the term “racism” playing in the public square. There seems to be an effort, amongst some, to parse the difference between acting racist and being racist. Blaut (1992) asserted that there are cultural biases of European superiority: something that is not, “in most cases, propogated [sic] by people whom we would want to label ‘racists'” (para. 20). Blaut’s position seems to parse the difference between people who operate in environments of racial bias, and those who intend to do so.
In the Democratic Primary debates on June 27, 2019, Harris began a parley with Biden with the phrase, “I do not believe you are a racist…” before describing how hurtful it was to hear Biden “talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country” (Time Staff, 2019). In the same debate, Williamson also wanted to defend the average American; “I do not believe–I do not believe that the average American is a racist. But the average American is woefully undereducated about the history of race in the United States” (Time Staff, 2019). These defenses of Biden – or the average American – were posited in stark contrast to Sanders’ assertion that “the American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist” (Time Staff, 2019), or Buttigeieg’s explanation that, for communities of color, systemic racist policing has resulted in “a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.” (Time Staff, 2019)
In 2019, Ilhan Omar was accused of implying that Israel and its supporters “tricked” (hypnotized) the world into supporting its agenda in 2012. Her response to these accusations including the following tweet: “It’s now apparent to me that I spent lots of energy putting my 2012 tweet in context and little energy is [sic] disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive” (Omar, 2019; emphasis mine).
The semantic quality of intent, or willfulness, seems to be an important feature of distinguishing acting racist and being racist. Being racist is an offensive accusation, whereas acting racist is attributable to systemic issues in the culture around us. I may not always be aware of how my cultural biases, use of tropes or language, or personal privilege contributes to a larger contex of injustice. In those instances, I am less blameworthy (and potentially immune from accusations of being a racist) than if I am accused of having known. If I have mens rea, I am being a racist.
I think it is time for a radically different conversation. Rather than parsing out the differences between acting and being, I think we need a culture of confession that calls upon the mercy and healing from our neighbors. I believe those of us who act racist need to stop with the parsing. Instead, we need to confess that, regardless of mens rea, we are blameworthy. We are a part of the system. Moreover, we need the compassion and forgiveness of our neighbors, and the gratitude that emanates from living in that forgiveness.
In short, I am a racist.
I am a misogynist. I am a homophobe. I am a classist. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. Sometimes it is because I am an unwitting part of a language, of a culture, or of a power-group. Sometimes I am weak, or lazy, and don’t try hard enough to check my biases. Even if I don’t intentionally harm my neighbors, I harm my neighbors.
Here’s part two of that confession; I brazenly, boldly, and unabashedly ask for mercy. I demand of my neighbor the forgiveness and opportunity to be better that I have been. When I act like the racist that I am, I ask my neighbors to give me another chance (on top of the millions of other chances you’ve given me) to repent and try again. It’s a lot to ask: it’s too much to ask. I don’t deserve it, but I need it. And I’ll probably need it again later.
Part three of that confession is that I will live in gratitude. I know – I KNOW – that folks have forgiven me, most of the time even when I didn’t ask for it (or know that I should have asked for it). I know that women whom I have interrupted in meetings have said, “I forgive him, he doesn’t know he does that.” I know that people who’ve heard a joke or slur from me have said to themselves, “I forgive him, but I wish he knew that hurt.” I know it’s happened in so many instances that I don’t know about.
If we can confess, and forgive, one another in a perpetual cycle of mercy, compassion, and gratitude, perhaps we can stop spuriously defending ourselves on the basis of mens rea, and instead accept the mercy that, quite frankly, has been offered us before we knew we needed it.
Each time I pray, I ask Christ for forgiveness. Frankly, sometimes I have to ask for forgiveness for things I knew were wrong when I did them. I live in a practice of asking for mercy, and receiving it, and knowing I belong to Him in spite of my mistakes. I am not righteous; rather, I belong the One who holds a crown of righteousness in trust for me.
For those of us who call upon His forgiveness, asking forgiveness of our neighbors need not be a novel practice for us. We know what it means to live in the Gospel. We know what it means to ask for mercy, and to believe that “there is now no condemnation.” So why, in the name of all that is holy, do we expect to be held blameless when we are bigots? We have an opportunity to show the world around us what it means to live in confession, mercy, and gratitude. And unless we do, how will the rest of the world ever know what it means?
Blaut, J. M. (1992). “The theory of cultural racism.” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 23, 289-299. Retrieved from: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/racism.htm
Omar, I. (2019, January 21). “That statement came in the context of the Gaza War.” Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/IlhanMN/status/1087580652231446528
Time Staff (2019, June 28). “Here’s what the candidates said during Thursday’s dramatic Democratic Presidential Debate.” Time.com. Retrieved from https://time.com/5616518/2020-democratic-debate-night-2-transcript/