Refugees and Racism: Series

In the wake of yet another attack carried out by a Daesh supporter (this time in Orlando), the timing of this series on refugees and racism seems appropriate. I have seen two extreme reactions to such attacks, either 1) keep all Muslims out and resettle no refugees at all or 2) refugees have nothing to do with violent Islamic terrorism and most Muslims are peaceful. Both reactions are reductionistic and don't get to the source of our fears (or our adamant denial of them).

In this series on refugees and racism I want to do my best to explain the very complex origins of racism and why the combination of Islamic terrorism and the refugee crisis brings out the worst of racist sentiment in Western societies. Later, in parts 2 and 3 we'll discuss the difference between legitimate political action and societal racism, and we'll look specifically at how we should respond to the issues of refugees and racism.

The Origins of Racism

To say that this topic is extremely complex is a gross understatement. Many, many books have been written on the subjects of race and racism from multiple perspectives. However, I am going to attempt to give the nutshell version as a foundation for this series.

For most of human history the color of one's skin has not been a pressing issue. People rarely traveled from their own city or village and so rarely had the opportunity to encounter individuals who looked markedly different from themselves. Wars were fought between tribes and clans or what today we might call ethnic people groups. These groups are, by definition, distinct culturally and linguistically, and they would view themselves as different based on those factors, rather than their skin color.

It wasn't until the beginning of colonialism in the late 15th century (Columbus, Cortez, etc.) that an understanding of race based on skin color emerged. As Europeans spread in colonial conquest to every corner of the globe, they took their culture and religion with them. In fact, they used Christianity's Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) as a divine mandate to convert and "civilize" the "heathen." In a very short time it was commonly understood that God had created white civilizations to "save" black and brown ones through colonization and evangelization.

Even now, in the 21st century, after many former colonies have gained their independence as free states, this understanding of the white man's superiority permeates nearly every facet of Western life. An intentional reversing of that assumption is required if we are to move forward in the context of increasing globalization.

White Privilege

A key term in discussions of race and racism is white privilege. For those who may not be familiar with the term, let me briefly explain. Because of the history of colonialism we just discussed above and the profound effect it has on race relations to this day, anyone with European ancestry (and therefore, "white" skin) possesses a certain privilege which accompanies that whiteness. While someone (like myself) with white skin has a certain assumed value and potential in Western society, those with darker skin (immigrants, refugees, African Americans, etc.) constantly have to prove their worth and value in Western societies. Because colonialism put the white man "on top" so to speak, black and brown men and women have to work their way up from the bottom, even today.

Because I am American, I'll speak to my own cultural context, since that is what I know best. In the US, this concept of white privilege cannot be called a construction of academia when it plays itself out in our society every single day. When President Obama was elected in 2008 it was hailed as a historic moment. Why? Because he is black. But why was it so strange for a black man to be elected as our President? Maybe because in 2013 there had still only been 8 African American senators in all of US history. And why was that?

[bctt tweet="White privilege cannot be called a construction of academia when it plays itself out in our society every single day." username="refugee_review"]

Perhaps because only 42 percent of African Americans graduate from college, that is, if they attend college at all. Which is probably because college is expensive and the parents and grandparents of African American students cannot contribute to tuition fees because they grew up in a segregated country where their jobs paid only enough to feed their families and never enough to save for the future. And segregation was actually a significant improvement over slavery, when African Americans worked for nothing at all, which brings us all the way back to colonialism, which told us that white men were doing Africans a favor by enslaving them, forcing our culture upon them, and converting them to Christianity.

President Obama was born in 1961, but in order to become President of the United States he had to overcome a long history of assumed white superiority that began around 1492. White privilege refers to how much easier it may have been for Obama to become President if the only thing different about him was the color of his skin.

Refugees and Racism

So, what does all of this, the origins of racism and white privilege, have to do with refugees? Most refugees are not white. They come from countries that threw off the yoke of colonialism just a few short decades ago. Because of wars, religious tensions, natural disasters, and other tragedies, they are forced to flee their homes. Western countries, steeped in wealth and privilege, have the resources necessary to help, so we welcome a select few across our borders once they have passed rigorous tests for disease and political and religious fanaticism.

The vast majority of refugees, though overwhelmingly grateful for the new beginning they have been given, struggle to overcome discrimination and racial stereotypes based on the color of their skin. They join the ranks of African Americans and other minorities who must work their way up from the bottom rung that colonialism placed them on so many centuries ago. When one immigrant commits a horrible crime like what happened in Orlando, we are swift to lump all other refugees and immigrants with them. Yet, when a white American commits a horrible crime like what happened in Aurora or Columbine, we don't view all our white neighbors with the same suspicion. The history of colonialism and the reality of white privilege are played out in the context of immigration, causing refugees and racism to become inherently connected.

[bctt tweet="The majority of refugees in the West struggle to overcome racial stereotypes based on the color of their skin." username="refugee_review"]

Now, I realize some of you critical thinkers may be asking, "But what about terrorism? The shootings involving immigrants were terrorist attacks and those involving white Americans were just mentally ill individuals." I acknowledge your point, and we will address those questions in the next part of this series when we talk about the fine line between political action and racism. Until then, leave your feedback in the comments and let me know (kindly, please) what you think of white privilege, the origins of racism, and how they relate to how we think about refugees.

More reading on race and racism:

Race and Racism in the West by Paul Sweeney - An anthology used by many introductory college courses on racism and colonialism.

The Truth About Racism by Philip Asante - Specifically addresses the roles of Christianity and the theory of evolution in the history of racism.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - A recent and widely acclaimed book offering a personal perspective into the difficulties of overcoming discrimination and racial stereotyping.

Every People and Nation by J. Daniel Hays - A Biblical theology of race.

A podcast on the Theology of Race.

The best articles and essays on race and racism.

Image source: Wikipedia