Interview: Jemar Tisby: Three Words Should Guide Our Pursuit of Racial Justice

Written by on June 10, 2021

In his 2019 book The Color of Compromise, author and speaker Jemar Tisby offered a comprehensive account of the relationship between American Christianity and racism. But understanding that history leads to the inevitable question: What now? Events like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have placed questions of racial justice front and center, spurring many Christians to ask what it means to reckon with racism in their own lives and in the lives of their churches. Tisby takes up these topics in his follow-up book How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice. Myles Werntz, director of Baptist studies and associate professor of theology at Abilene christian University, spoke with Tisby about the next steps on this journey.

You note in the foreword of How to Fight Racism that this book is an extended meditation on the last chapter of The Color of Compromise, where you help readers process what they’ve read and invite them to do something with the historical knowledge they’ve received. How does this new book build on what went before?

This book comes from two places. First, it comes from the urgency that I felt about the need to take antiracist action. It’s funny: I thought that How to Fight Racism would be the first book I wrote, because I was eager to get to the “Let’s do something about racism” part. I’m very grateful that I wrote The Color of Compromise first, however, because I think it sets up what the issues of racism are so that we can come up with better solutions.

But the second impetus was that whenever I speak or teach about racism, the most frequent question I get is “What do we do?” I love this question because it shows that people are seeing that racism isn’t just a past question but a present one, and it also shows that they want to be part of the solution. And so, in response, I would typically give a scattershot answer about specific actions people could take, with no rhyme or reason. But I got the sense that this wasn’t leading to any actual action.

So, several years ago, I began to develop the framework of the book—the ARC of racial justice, which stands for Awareness, Relationship, and Commitment—to provide a more cohesive approach to racial justice in general.

With so much attention being paid right now to structural dimensions of racism, why was it so important for you to emphasize the relational aspects of pursuing racial justice?

From a theological perspective, Christians understand that all reconciliation is relational, and this is the reason for the incarnation: God becoming human to reconcile humankind to God. But even from a sociological perspective, all reconciliation runs through relationships.

In their book Divided by Faith, Michael O. Emerson and christian Smith show that white evangelicals—who tend to be highly individualistic—come to understand the structural and systemic aspects of racism through relationships. This helps them to put flesh and blood on data and statistics that they might otherwise dismiss.

Many evangelicals approach questions of race through Scripture alone. How do you begin a conversation about other dynamics of racism that aren’t captured in this kind of approach?

We would first need to understand that all theological interpretation is contextual, that we all bring specific priorities to the text based on our own histories and social location. In this sense, there’s no such that as “pure biblical interpretation.” All our interpretation is shaped by our histories. This isn’t to say there are no timeless truths or universal principles, but it is to say that even the questions we ask are going to vary across people groups and across time periods.

If this is true, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that different groups—white people and Black people—approach the text with different priorities. And if you’ve only ever been exposed to one group’s priorities with respect to Scripture, then it becomes easy to see how another group’s priorities could be perceived as wrong or inferior or “politicized.” So, we need to study theology and to read Scripture in community, so that we are approaching the text in a broad manner that helps us see truths not available to us before.

In white churches and theologies, there’s a heavier emphasis on the New Testament, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters—and this is all good and true. But in Black christian traditions, there’s an emphasis on Exodus, on the liberation of the people of God from slavery, and on appeals for justice from the prophets. Neither emphasis is wrong, of course, but we’re more apt to remember both when we read God’s Word in community.

You write that these relationships—whether inside or outside of church—need to be characterized by “humility, not utility.” In other words, they aren’t tools for white people to become less racist, but rather the context where real change can occur. Can you give a real-life example of what this looks like?

In my life, the white men who I would consider real and true friends have all initiated the relationship. They’ve all taken the risk of stepping outside their social comfort zone to proactively initiate a friendship with me. The example that I write about in the book is a guy I met in Greek class in seminary, who literally walked up and asked if I wanted to grab a drink. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

There’s a sense in which we make this way too complicated. We can’t just go around collecting friends based on demographics. So one question to ask is “Would I be friends with this person if we never talked about race?” This forces us to ask whether or not this is a purely transactional relationship.

One practice you encourage for white Christians—adults and entire families alike—is exploring your own racial identity. What kind of resources would you recommend, particularly for parents wanting to help their kids to understand race?

First, I think it’s important to become familiar with the concept of racial identity development, which I get into in the book, because then you can name the stage at which you or your children are in. We begin from a very early age to notice difference: height, skin color, age. But whenever children notice skin color, we tend to get very nervous, anxious that our children shouldn’t be talking about race at all. And this nervousness leads to a very unhelpful notion of colorblindness. We want to help our children see diversity as an asset. A good rule of thumb here is early and often.

When you talk to white audiences about exploring their racial identity, what is the general response?

It’s typically been one of either surprise or denial, because white people have been largely socialized to not think of themselves in terms of ethnicity: It’s other people who have a race. Part of the way racism functions is that it says that white is standard, central, and normal; because this standard of whiteness becomes the norm, it can seem like only other people have a race. And so, it can be shocking or even angering to people to hear that they have a race as well. When you’re white in a white-supremacist society, you don’t interact with that feature of yourself in the same way that members of minority groups do.

In The Color of Compromise, you encourage readers “to go beyond the doors of the church, and into society where so much of racism exists.” In what ways, though, are the practices you describe in How to Fight Racism relevant to churches themselves?

The church is part of society, and so if the society changes, it affects the church. What we’ve seen historically is that society typically leads the way for the church with respect to racial inclusion and not the other way around.

What we think of as “church” most of the time is an event and a place—something which occurs on Sunday morning at a location. But that’s a fraction of your life, and so much of what happens around race and needs to change about race is happening during the week. And so, by taking these practices into public first, it will change the church, but perhaps not as the first movement.

One of the practices you emphasize is the recovering of racial histories, not just of the places where we live but of our churches as well. How do these histories help advance the work of racial justice today?

You can fit it within the ARC framework as part of the awareness that is needed before much other work can be done. Many churches are either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge publicly the role which race has played in their founding or in the ongoing practices or policies of the church. These things simply need to be excavated in most cases. Only then can you go about the relational work, asking what reconciliation means in light of a particular church’s past.

One mistake churches constantly make here is that when they realize this lamentable history, their first reaction is “What do we do going forward?” I think the first reaction should be looking back at the hurt and harm and asking what we can do to make it right. That could be apologizing to members who left because of racism; it could be reaching out and reestablishing contact with people who had once been turned away.

But then we have to move to commitment: It’s not enough to study this or to say we’re sorry we have to ask what repair looks like on a larger level. It could be supporting Black churches and pastors; it could be instituting policies in church life, such that racism is a matter of church discipline, complete with a process for hearing grievances and addressing issues.

These are difficult practices for many ministers, particularly when there isn’t much precedent for talking about race in church. How would you advise ministers who are trying to introduce regular habits of lament and confession, both for sins of the past and injustices in the present?

I can’t tell you how many people, after reading some of the arguments in The Color of Compromise, wrote me and said, “I just didn’t know.” So the history is particularly potent here. But you can’t begin by throwing data and statistics at people; these can be argued or dismissed or denied. But it’s not so easy to do this with personal stories and testimony.

I encourage pastors to share their racial justice testimonies. If there was a point at which you knew racial justice had to be a priority in your own life, how did that happen? There’s no guarantee you’ll get a hearing, but it’s harder to dismiss a personal story.

From there, move to the Bible. It’s a mistake to assume that people know what the Bible says about ethnicity and difference. And don’t just do this as a sermon series! Incorporate it into Bible studies and Sunday school, in sermon illustrations and themes, in the new members’ class, on the website. The Bible’s answer to racism needs to be as ubiquitous as racism is in our society.

And then we move to history, in the most local ways possible—talking about this city, this place. Only then can we move to the bigger picture which social science or data presents us. But you have to start locally and with personal testimony.

In the book, you argue that the work of fighting racism can’t be limited to our personal lives and our churches; it has to affect all the settings in which we find ourselves. For those of us involved in education, our first instinct is to read more or learn more, but what else can be done to help this work take root?

We have to understand that organizations operate on the basis of policies which promote racial equity or inequity. And so, we have to do more than the thing which educated folks do, which is to have a book study. Yes, do the book study, but offer a few weeks on the other side to process what you’ve read and to talk about concrete next steps.

We also need more attention given to accountability, to making sure our institutions are offering more than

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