Saturday, May 10, 2014

We learn to be racist

Just who was Jesus?  

It’s a question that commands a lot of attention, and engenders a whole lot of heated debate.  While I have read scholarly books on the topic, I rather like a comedic set of arguments that attempts to define Jesus in terms of racial stereotypes.

It does not matter whether you believe in Jesus or not, these sometimes irreverent arguments challenge us to see an image of divinity in all people, and to acknowledge, respect and cherish the innate dignity of others.

Quoting from these anonymous arguments, Jesus was black because he called everyone brother; he liked Gospel; and, he couldn’t get a fair trial. But, there are three equally good arguments that he was aboriginal: he was at peace with nature; he ate a lot fish; and, he talked about the Great Spirit. Then again, there are three equally good arguments that he was Italian: he talked with his hands; he had wine with his meals; and, he used olive oil. 

Racism in sport
Two recent incidents of racism in sport  - the offensive comments of Los Angeles Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling, against blacks, and an alarming number of racist tweets against PK Sabban of the Montreal Canadiens following his overtime goal against the Boston Bruins - provide striking examples of the inability of some people to accept others who differ from themselves.

While these incidents have sparked discussion about the prevalence of racism in pro-sports, and have drawn attention to racism in the NCAA, which Billy Hawkins, professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, dubs the “new plantation”, racism is definitely not limited to the sporting arena. 

and in Canadian history
Consider the legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada.   The very creation of the residential school system was an expression of the concept ‘the white man’s burden’, which held that the white man was a superior being responsible for the management of non-whites. All too frequently, this attitude of racial superiority resulted in terrible abuses to First Nations children as we are learning from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up four years of hearings in late April of this year.

Racism perpetuates itself
None of us are born with racist views. We learn them, whether at home, in our social circles or elsewhere in our culture.

As an adolescent growing up in the late 1960’s, I had an early lesson in the perpetuation of racism that made racism much more real to me than the violent images on television coming out of the southern United States.

My older sisters were members of “Up with People”, a movement of young people that promoted racial equality through music.  Our hometown was pretty much white, and when a visiting choir from the States came to perform, some families were reluctant to billet the black teens, which was strangely ironic. My mother was indignant that race was an issue in placing these kids, and volunteered to take two black billets.

That night at the supper table, we talked about prejudice, including the prejudice that existed against Italians, and the derogatory term “wop” that cut deeply, and angered my Italian father and grandfather, who were both Canadian citizens. We did not talk about the prejudice against aboriginal people; while Canadians watched the civil rights movement unfold to the south, the majority of us were oblivious of the destructive systemic racism in our own country.

That conversation left an indelible impression on my developing character and sense of morality. The message that night was clear. People are people. There is no such thing as the “other”; we are sisters and brothers of one human family.

While my parents used the moment of welcoming two billets into our home to instill respect for the “other” in their daughters, I could have learned a very different lesson that night had I been sitting somewhere else, like in a hockey arena, listening to adults around me jeer at a skilled NHL player for being black.

So, just who was Jesus?  He is any person who is marginalized, ridiculed or abused.  

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