Race and the unconscious

By Martin L. Smith

I read with fascination recently the account of an experiment studying interactions between white and black Americans. In the first phase researchers set up individual conversations between African Americans and whites, and the African Americans recorded their impressions. Then the researchers divided the white participants into two groups. The first had made their racism obvious through their insulting tone. The second had conversed respectfully. A second round of conversations took place, and the researchers immediately subjected all the white participants to a set of cognitive tests in private. The results were very interesting. Most of the white participants who pleased the African Americans by their respectful behavior did far worse in these cognitive tests than those who had not been nice! However, if the tests were administered again an hour later the discrepancy in the results between the two groups disappeared.

The researchers propose this explanation: most of the white folk who were behaving respectfully to the African Americans were having to devote a huge amount of energy to the unconscious process of censoring their actual negative impulses. So much so, that it took the brain an hour or so to recover equilibrium and restore normal service to all its functions. The racist whites made no bones about the contempt they entertained for blacks, so their brains weren’t overtaxed at all when they talked with them.

Surely, these are the kind of explorations that should most fascinate and challenge Christians like ourselves. After all we inherit thousands of years of meditation on human experience, and scripture itself is a rich resource of reflection about the conviction that reliance on outer behavior alone to judge the condition of the heart is sheer folly. God is the one that sees through, sees into, sees behind the appearances many human beings can keep up. Episcopalians should be specially concerned since, generally speaking, we entertain a rather Anglo-Saxon devotion to good manners and correct appearances. Our standards of respectful behavior are fairly high, and when we embrace enthusiastically all sorts of slogans about inclusiveness and equality it can easily seem—at least to the white majority—that the work of purging the church of racism has been almost achieved. Actually, though the worst outrages might have diminished, the real work has only started. There is a vast difference between the ability to perform as if we regard one another as equals and relationships based on a far more profound change: conversion, what the prophetic tradition of scripture calls getting a new heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, and a new Spirit.

Primarily because I am in an interracial partnership I’m keenly aware that it is a matter of conversion not cosmetics. Before I moved to Washington, I had taken the excellent anti-racism training our Church offers. I had been on the board of a non-profit dedicated to supporting inner-city youth, mainly black. I’d thought it had registered when black friends told me that they had come to expect on average about ten put downs a day from white folk. I could talk about the unearned privileges of being white. But it was only by actually being taken into friendships, into social networks, by many African Americans, and embarking on a partnership with an African American, that I really started exploring the reality of racism, beginning with my own. Of course, I could behave with superb manners to black folk, but what good were these if they successfully masked engrained attitudes, ways I was wired? Thus started a spiritual adventure of unlearning, rewiring, facing fears, listening for things I had never heard, sensing things I had never realized, jettisoning things I had thought were part of the fabric of reality and now know to be obscene deceptions.

The protocols of political correctness are worse than useless if they merely make people more adept in censoring inner negativity. They can deter us from dealing with the endemic affliction of the heart, our very brains that wired themselves to correspond to society’s perversions and made themselves recruits for reinforcing and transmitting them. Instead, we should be digging deep wells into our scriptural spirituality that really does insist that in order for a person to be in Christ, in order for there to be a new creation, the old has to pass away. Our polite, predominantly middle class religious culture doesn’t find the radical language of Paul to its taste at all, but I have never been more profoundly convinced that there we must stop avoiding his robust language about the pain involved in separating ourselves from the prerogatives of power: “I have been crucified with Christ.” And those of us who have enjoyed the majority’s unearned privileges need the insight that our built in sense of superiority can’t be just adjusted or ameliorated. It needs crucifying for our new humanity to emerge from within.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C.

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