Say SomethingCommon Good
We’ve all been there – the family dinner table, a friend’s braai; when someone we know and probably like, says something racist or prejudiced that stops us dead in our tracks. What do you do? What do you say?
As an NGO that works in spaces and places affected by the legacies of injustice, inequality, race and division we are regularly grappling with hard questions related to the consequences of our past. Even as a racially diverse organisation, we are constantly learning how to respectfully and meaningfully engage and relate to one another in a way that is loving, kind and respectful. And as we each grow as individuals in this space, many of us find ourselves having challenging conversations with friends and family members.
There are a couple of questions that we have found come up again and again, particularly as white people become more aware of the realities of the past and the present. We selected 4 of these frequently asked questions and asked our colleague Nokukhanya Mncwabe for her views on them. Khanya works in our Early Life team. She also serves on the Social Justice team at our Rondebosch AM congregation of Common Ground Church.
Q 1: What is my responsibility as a Christ follower to stand up to or confront racist comments or ideas from friends and family?
It’s a really good question and speaks very clearly to the fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and upsetting those who are close to us. As a Christ follower, it is easier, because of the platform or position we engage from, to point out the inconsistencies and discrepancies between what someone professes to believe and their conduct. It’s not about being aggressive, calling someone out in a confrontational manner, or passing judgement necessarily; but rather drawing awareness to the incongruity of their stance. It’s a very important responsibility for all Christ-followers because we are typically more responsive to the opinions of those closest to us. So, you’re more likely to be willing to enter into a process of introspection and to mull over the possibility of change when you are lovingly and meaningfully engaged by someone close to you.
Q 2: How should I respond to a friend or family member who makes a remark I feel is racist?
People often aren’t aware of their prejudices so I would propose taking them through a process of appreciative enquiry* where you place them in the position of the person against whom they hold particular prejudices. Ask them prompting questions to get them to a place of recognising how it feels to turn their gaze inwards on themselves. For example: if they are a young person or a woman – get them to recognise how and where they experience prejudice or discrimination in their daily life. By doing this you help them recognise the arbitrary nature of prejudice and I think make it more personally resonant.
I think it’s also about enlightenment. So, help them to understand the more structural and institutional forms of oppression and how these have a tendency to lead to generational discrimination and the holding back of a people en masse.
Q 3: My parents are racists, they don’t mean to be, but it’s how they grew up. How do I go about correcting them without causing a fight?
For me it’s about shining a light into your parents’ thinking in a way that still honours them. I suggest starting from the premise that they have raised you to be a loving, responsible civic-minded human being, and in that spirit, draw attention to where their thoughts or prejudices may stem from. Then locate these thoughts or prejudices within a contemporary context so that they can see that the overarching normative ethical and political infrastructure that led them to hold these particular views has been shown to be deeply problematic and ethically unsound. So, I think it’s about helping them get to a place where they can perceive your empathy for their deeply held conviction but they can also appreciate that it is not a RIGHT position or ideology to hold. And then I think it’s also about speaking to the generational transference of privilege and knowledge. So, speak about your hopes and aspirations for your children and the role you envisage they as grandparents will play to ensure they contribute positively into the lives of their grandchildren in a way that does not place them in a position of opposition to people who are different to themselves.
Q 4: The first 3 questions address issues on a personal/individual level, what are your thoughts on the advantage The Church has when Christ-followers join together in addressing/speaking/responding to the legacies and spirit of Apartheid which is still so evident in our City and Country?
God is a God of Justice. Not only does He have a heart for justice but it runs through all that he does. In the gospels, we see Jesus tackling injustice in quite overt ways. We also see him having a heart of compassion (not just charity) towards those who are downtrodden and oppressed – prioritising their physical restoration through healing or giving a voice to those on the margins. I think part of it is also recognising that the gospel affirms the admission of all into the body of Christ through the same process and criteria and so it’s very much about us all – Jew or gentile – being grafted into the body of Christ. That for me speaks very much to the fact that there is no hierarchy of persons: the invitation is extended to all; God receives us all and has the same heart and aspirations for all of his Children.
I believe that when Christ-followers join together to respond to the legacies and spirit of Apartheid they cannot remain unchanged. Walking out justice is profoundly humbling: it opens our eyes to suffering (our own and others’), inclines our hearts to repentance, compels us to seek to be reconciled with one another, and affirms our true identity in Christ. The Church thus has the potential to be the light of the world and city on the hill described in Matthew 5:14-16; serving to penetrate into and transform culture for God’s glory
Editors note: Click here to read a personal reflection piece of what it is like to stand up to racism
* Appreciative Inquiry is a way of being and seeing. It is both a worldview and a process for facilitating positive change in human systems, e.g., organizations, groups, and communities. Its assumption is simple: Every human system has something that works right–things that give it life when it is vital, effective, and successful. AI begins by identifying this positive core and connecting to it in ways that heighten energy, sharpen vision, and inspire action for change.