Monday, October 23, 2006

On Prejudice - Unintentional and Non-malicious

Last night I was on a flight from Virginia after having spent the weekend with my good friends at Sovereign Grace Church in Chesapeake. While on the flight, I observed an interesting, even sobering occurrence of the unintentional, non-malicious racism and prejudice that lies in the heart of the best of us.

I was sitting in an exit row. Across the aisle was lady also sitting in an exit row seat. As the flight attendant was giving her rote lecture (it seems everything these attendants do is by rote, you know, like many of our liturgies) on the responsibilities of those sitting in the exit rows, the aforementioned lady expressed her discomfort with the possibility of having to be responsible for the exit door in the case of an emergency. She requested another seat. The flight attendant was eager to oblige her. Therefore, she quickly began to scan the seats nearby to identify a likely candidate for the switch. She noticed, directly in front of her, was a black gentleman sitting comfortably with two white women. Thinking him to be a prime candidate, she asked him, "Sir, are you traveling alone?" Immediately he responded, "No, I am traveling with her," pointing to the white lady directly to his right. Realizing her blunder, the attendant quickly moved on.

The couple seemed no worse for the wear. They grasped hands and comforted one another with the knowledge that they indeed were together. Immediately, however, I began to wonder if they felt the slightest offended, or if they felt embarrassed for the flight attendant. I found myself experiencing both emotions. You see, there were other men seated in similar proximity whom she could have asked. There were white couples and black couples. Obviously she was not interested in, nor did she hope to, split up a couple traveling together. Yet, I wondered why she assumed that the man she asked was not traveling with the woman next to him. Actually, it was obvious. She did not think that the black man and the white woman were together. She demonstrated what is too prevalent in our society, and even worse, too prevalent in the church. Her question was prejudiced and racist. No, it was not malicious. I do not believe it was intentionally discriminating. Rather it was the racism and prejudice that is just under the surface of most of us, having been so conditioned by a racialized society.

Upon hear her words; I said to myself, "Man, she is so wrong and how inappropriate a question." However, as I was thinking these thoughts, I was convicted in my own heart. I thought to myself, "Would I have asked a similar question in that situation? Did I in first looking at the couple assume they were together?" Unfortunately, the answers I honestly gave to myself were not satisfactory. The attendant was undoubtedly wrong in her approach. Yet, my sin was in thinking that I would have done better. My sin also was that I was not confident that my thinking has been so renewed by the grace and knowledge of Christ that I would have not seen that couple through the same prejudiced eyes. I can not say for certain that I no longer have unintentional, non-malicious prejudice and racism in my heart.

This lovely young couple probably is used to such things. And if they stay together, they undoubtedly will experience more. However, I am confident that they will not experience it again from that flight attendant. I believe she learned a lesson. I also hope no one ever experiences a similar behavior from me. I too learned a lesson - one I pray God does not allow me to forget.


Vikki said...

Shucks...I missed you again. This will be the second time you were in my neck of the woods. Did you preach or just visit?

I've been convicted of doing the same thing and the really ironic thing about is that I'm married to a caucasian. I know that nothing good dwells within my heart, and daily I need to cling to Christ to be in the world but not think like the world.

Tell your wife I said hello!

ajcarter said...

Hey Vikki,
It would have been great to meet you and your family. Yes, I did preach at the church.

Also, thanks for your personal, insightful, and encouraging words. I will let my wife know you said "hi."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if we should even consider what she did (or your own thoughts) as sinful. If it was not malicious, or intended to be racist - then what is the issue? While our society is "racialized" - there are aspects of this that I believe are not sinful. While our society has become more blended regarding marriage - is it still not true that the majority of cultures tend to marry their own and desire to do so? Is this wrong? No, it is natural.

E.g., When you considered a wife - did you say, should I marry a latino, asian, or caucasian? More than likely, it was only for sisters that your attraction was bent towards. Was that sin? No. I had dated many a white woman (most black) before I became a Christian and was married - but when it was time to consider - I wanted a sister...why? Because that was my culturalized bent. Now, if it was because I thought it to be sin to marry other than a sister - then my desires would have been in error.

So, if this woman applies this same thinking upon another couple - what is the harm if her intent isn't malicious or hateful? In this situation, only God knows what was truly going on in her heart. Anything else is presumption. Whatever happened to "love hopes all things"?

I think it is right that we examine ourselves and our motives in how we approach people of other cultures/nationalities and that we expose prejudice and injustice. But we have to be careful that we not try to find "racism" and prejudice under every rock and recogize that certain cultural norms shape our thinking which aren't inherently sinful. Cutural norms such as wanting to worship somewhere with a good gospel choir. Or white Christian denominational leadership understanding the need to have black leadership within black communities and so they find black mean to train and plant black churches verses primarily sending their own. (Huh?)

May sound like a stretch, but its the same "racialized" thinking that the stewardess applied.

ajcarter said...

Can we sin without it being malicious or intentional? Of course we can (see Lev. 4:22, also Num. 15). Therefore, it is not a stretch to suggest that we can exercise racism and prejudice in like manner.

The fact that we have a racialized society is not itself a sin. The fact that we have sinful human beings who have developed this racialized society makes sinful racial attitudes more prevalent and likely (one could even argue, inevitable).

The mistake the FA made was that she asked the wrong question. My sin was the self-righteous position of condemning her when I probably would have done the same thing.

My friend, it is obvious that you don't know me in even suggesting that I would look for racism or prejudice "under every rock." It is not racism and prejudice under rocks that concerns me. It is the racism and prejudice that lies in my heart - that lies in the heart of too many of us who have been conditioned by our society - that concerns me.

What the FA did was "profiling." In order to quickly solve her problem, she profiled that man and woman. Now while profiling may be a necessary thing in some law enforcement issues, it is not a good thing for those in the service industry to do. For they will inevitably unserve their clientele. I have been on the other end of profiling, and can testify that it is not a good feeling. Furthermore, it is a definite sin for those of us in Christian ministry (see James 2:1-8). But what minister has not had to repent of this?

These are among the pestilent peccadilloes that eat at our vineyard of righteousness. And if we are not careful, we will arise one day and fine that the fruit we had wished to harvest has already been devoured. And we will say, "An enemy has done this!" But the enemy will have come from within.

Anonymous said...


Could you please provide a working definition of "racism"? i think this would be helpful.


ajcarter said...

A definition of "racism" tends toward the subjective in our common discourse. Nevertheless, a simple definition could be: "Discrimination or prejudice against a person or people based on race." This definition admittedly is simplified. But then again this is only a blog :-).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post... I am finding that prejudice in our hearts is like peeling back the layers of an onion..there's just more and more- but very thin layers so that we barely notice it is even there. Our personal struggle right now is with the generation that has come before us. We have yet to summon the nerve to tell our parents that our daughter (their white grandaughter) is engaged to a black man. The sad part is, he is not a believer, but we suspect that will be secondary to them when the "white elephant" comes in the room! ( they have made their opinions clearly known). How do fine upstanding reformed Baptists defend this position? I just don't get it. I would love to see more dialogue on this topic.