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Jul  2016 12
Bamboo and the Perniciousness of Racism

Some years ago, a previous owner of our home planted bamboo in the backyard. The family loved the South Seas, and they apparently wanted a small bamboo area in one corner of the yard (to go along with expensive but not-our-taste South Pacific-themed wallpapers in the house). 

The problem is they did not plant clumping bamboo. Typical bamboo, which is what they did plant, is a terribly invasive plant. A bamboo forest took over the perimeter on two sizes of our yard and pushed into the yards of neighbors on three sides. Cheri and I began to cut and smother bamboo this spring. Eradicating it will take an enormous amount of effort. 

bamboo rhizomeBamboo is invasive and difficult to kill because it is a rhizome. The entire bamboo forest shares a common root system. During its active growing season, I cut down new up-shoots 10 feet from where you see other stalks. The root runs underground, shoots down, and then in a week can grow six feet up. And, as I said, eradicating it will take an enormous amount of attention and effort. 

White racism is the rhizome of American life. Our nation fought a civil war that left 600,000 dead. A century later, we passed laws that overturned Jim Crow. After another 40 years, we elected a black president. 

But for all the stalks of this heinous rhizome of white racism that have been severed over time, we’ve not exposed, cut, and killed the roots of this problem. And, as is the case with bamboo, until we get the roots we will not be free of America’s original sin. 

Racism differs from mere prejudice. Everyone is prejudiced. We pre-judge persons and situations as we go through the day, taking what we know and extrapolating or applying that knowledge to who and what is in front of us. 

Racism requires prejudice but also power, an imbalance of power, and a narrative that justifies that imbalance. That power imbalance and the narrative are elements that empower racism.  

As a Christian, I am a member of a faith group that tells a particular narrative about God, creation, and humankind. When I meet people or reflect on public life, I am interested in narratives, in the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we tell each other about why things are as they are, and how things should be.  

Based on the demographics Facebook gives on who clicks on the seminary’s Facebook page, lots of you grew up as I did, with a narrative of the United States that was an expression of the racism rhizome. 

I am certain that in public schools when we “studied” the Declaration of Independence, we did not dig into the “merciless Indian savages” line listed among the grievances the colonists had with the King. 

We did not give more than passing notice to the Trail of Tears. And we did not learn about or assess the narratives of racism. In other words, we dealt little with the ways European Americans killed off Native Americans, reducing them from 100 percent of the population to one percent, as Euro-Americans overtook the land and created the category “white” in order to determine who had full rights and who did not.  

A whitewashed, unchallenged story of American goodness and rightness is a story of white supremacy, an evidence of a pernicious rhizome. 

The rhizome of racism has arguably done more than doctrinal controversies to divide Christian church life in the U.S. The U.S. is not a Christian nation but Christians are still a majority of the nation, which is what makes racism all the more disheartening. 

If Christians worked to dig up and out the rhizome, one would think racism would at least be much less powerful than it is. But white Christian churches have not dug out the roots. 

The book I referenced in my previous blog shows the opposite, in fact; through image, word, and song, we white Christians have ignored and assumed rather than worked to dig up racism.  

I know there are plenty of exceptions to this judgment, there are individuals and institutions that have dedicated themselves to eradicating racism. But the evidences around us of racism’s power, even its increasing power, are indicators either that white Christians are not doing enough, or that the rhizome is beyond our power to kill. At the present, I still hope the former is the case. But my hope is also shaky. 

At a recent meeting of accredited seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, executive director Dan Aleshire gave an impassioned speech regarding race and our schools. While Dan noted that many of us are addressing matters of race somewhere in the curriculum, there is so much more that seminaries need to do in order to help dismantle white supremacy. 

Phillips Seminary, which I serve, is one of those schools where faculty members are addressing race in the curriculum. But we need to do it more explicitly, and we need to do more. 

We, the seminary’s teachers and students, need to dig into the white racism rhizome, expose its roots, disempower its narrative, dig it out, and replant a different narrative.  

We, Christians and Americans, need a narrative regarding race more consistent both with the Gospel and with the “self-evident truth” that all of us are created equal and endowed with rights that governments must protect but cannot take away. 


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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