“I’m not racist, but. . .” Test yourself. See if you can honestly repeat this sentence without the ‘but.’ I know I can’t. I don’t know where my immediate and wordless response to certain cultures comes from. If it was inherited, what might be called legacy racism, I could understand it better, but I can recall nothing like that in my immediate family. Further back, who knows? Maybe it’s a sub-conscious hangover from the White Australia policy that was only removed from the Constitution in 1973.
Racism in one or more of its ugly manifestations is always in the news. Racially motivated killings at a black church in the US point to an ongoing problem in American society. Closer to home Aboriginal football players seem to be vilified for no other reason than their colour. Further back still, after World War 2 a whole generation of children of immigrant parents were called the kinds of ugly and demeaning names that we still hear today whenever fights erupt. And whatever the words our Prime Minister uses to wrap up his push to ‘stop the boats’, it seems like blatant racism to me.
If we are to believe our own hype, most Australians consider themselves open and friendly and decidedly non-racist. Tourists think so, but permanent newcomers are not so sure. A lot of our racism is casual – jokes that demean another race, making us feel uncomfortable even as we snigger, insults that are out of our mouths before we can hold them back, the sweeping breadth of discriminatory remarks heard in public places, derrogrity comments on the so-called privacy of Facebook.
This compulsion to close ranks and keep out people who don’t look like us or subscribe to our cherished beliefs, whatever they are, is a very old human problem. Jesus lived in a society that despised and shunned the people of Samaria, partly for their partly pagan ancestry and their imperfect adherence to the Jewish religion. If you lived in Galilee and wanted to visit Judea then it meant that you either had to travel through Samaria or detour through the lands on the other side of the Jordan River to keep your racial and religious purity.
Jesus handled that racism in his own gently challenging way. Instead of bypassing Samaria on his way to Galilee he walked over its mountains and through its towns. Samaria and one on its citizens was the subject of his best known story – the Good Samaritan. He had a wonderful theological discussion with a sassy unnamed woman in a Samaritan village even if the disciples were scandalised, we still thrill to that interaction and its wonderful water imagery.
As a follower of Christ I can’t ignore the racism I recognise in myself. It’s there! But I can meet its challenge with a gracious acceptance of difference. I am reminded of a recent incident when I upended a cup of coffee all over the café table and down into my lap. Two black clad Muslim women at the next table reached over with handfuls of tissues, covering my embarrassment with ‘been there, done that’ smiles and words. A small gesture in the Good Samaritan tradition, and more valuable for me than a demonstration’s worth of No Racism banners.
For a slightly different look at racism read Women Stories, a Gospel reflection for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. You’ll find it on the Connexions page.