How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race

For my friend stranded in the unlit parking lot, fearing the black man who ultimately came to her aid revealed her unconscious bias based on skin color and stereotypes. For her, and for many whites racism is commonly understood as prejudicial attitudes and behaviors grounded in a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities. My friend is a good person for whom the term “racist” would seem entirely inappropriate. But that sudden awareness of her unconscious bias led to a profound and humbling sense of guilt. 

But for Kamau Bobbs, ordered to keep his hands on the wheel during a routine traffic stop, racism is more than just prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. He experiences it systemically in the common structures of everyday life that make the world unfair and unsafe for blacks, and that experience leads to a deep and chronic sense of humiliation and fear.

How we think and talk about racism is largely determined by the color of our skin, and our experience of living in that skin. Most whites understand racism primarily as prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. But most blacks experience racism primarily as systemic or systems-wide discrimination and injustice.

The fourth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas phrased this axiom another way: “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Aquinas suggested that we receive and perceive things not as they are, but as we are. Whatever we communicate to another person can only be received by that person insofar as he or she is able to understand it. This is why it can be so difficult to talk with a tourist from a foreign country, for example, or with a newborn infant, or your Golden Retriever, or your teenager. Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. 

From “A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion” by Mark Feldmeir – Chalice Press