Humility is valuing others above myself.
This means learning to truly see and hear the experiences of my colleagues and students – their gifts, contributions, hopes and pain.
Humility, in respect to racism, means undoing the high view of whiteness, even if the lingering effects of white supremacy are unintentional. And it is unintentional since none of us would call ourselves white supremacists.
However, we continue to hire white colleagues and leaders and we create and work within all-white leadership teams (at multiple levels of administration). This reflects an implicit belief we know enough in our whiteness to get the job done.
White supremacy is not only seen in confederate flags and police brutality; it is just as much a part of our symbols like “family” or “community” without seeing there is only whiteness making the decisions.
We say this is just “how things are,” that it is just “normal” organizational struggle, but it is hurtful to our Black colleagues at best, and exclusive and exploitative as well.
For example, research shows cultural taxation of Black faculty hinders promotion and tenure – decisions usually made by white colleagues.
We have long-held beliefs and practices that whiteness is normative, and it reinforces the opposite, that blackness is beneath us.
As horrific as that sounds today, that is the American social and political reality that our nation was built on.
That is the systemic racism of white supremacy (which is so much more than individual acts of prejudicial hatred).
It is the practice of our churches (see Jemar Tisby), in our economy (Ibram X. Kendi), education system (Beverly Daniel Tatum) and criminal justice system (Bryan Stephenson).
Whiteness was created over and above blackness to justify slavery, created again with Jim Crow segregation and violence, again for mass incarceration and the death penalty, and created over and over again in other forms of exploitation and violence against Black people that continue to shape our nation.
Whiteness has been created again most recently in an effort to “Make America Great Again” by the self-appointed “law and order” president.
The creation of race and racist systems have been the primary acts of white supremacy. All it takes now to perpetuate the system and culture of white supremacy is good white people living as non-racists.
The system runs on its own to sustain the power of racial difference. Only acts of explicit antiracism can undo the damage we have done. And explicit antiracism is rooted in a call to humility.
The opposite of white supremacy, a belief system with origins and well-established practices in American Christianity, is found in the practice of cultural humility.
Cultural humility is a formal, professional framework used in physical and mental health care fields, such as social work.
In 1998, Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia created it by adding a self-reflective and lifelong learning approach to the multicultural, cultural competence model of medical education.
From their perspective, we seek not only to learn about another’s culture, but to start with an examination of our own beliefs, identities, values and practices.
I cannot imagine a more faithful response to the white supremacy that has dominated our nation’s past and present.
White people created racism out of their belief in white supremacy, and we still play Jesus in trying to right the wrongs of our nation. We live out a God complex in our efforts to serve others, to pity the plight of our neighbor.
We assume we are fine, so we focus on what we can do for others. That seems like a fine response at face value. And it is how I have approached most of my years of professional social work and ministry.
I have “helped” to provide resources, relief and charity in our missions and ministries on the one hand and practiced relocation and reconciliation as principles of Christian community development, where I can be a presence for good, in the work of healing and wholeness (because of my presence?) on the other.
Humility may have been a guide in my work at times, but it was not the foundation of my approach. As a Christian virtue, humility is best described by Philippians 2:3-8.
It is the ability and willingness to value others above ourselves. It is not looking to our own interests but to the interests of the others. It is an obedience to God even unto death.
How might this virtue help us turn around on the moving walkway of racism created by our white supremacy?
Rather than living in the bias that as a white person I can make decisions for others, it invites decentering whiteness and putting Black voices above our own.
It is bypassing our interests as white stakeholders and gatekeepers of white institutions. It is looking and listening for the interests of our black peers, colleagues and neighbors.
It is recognizing the untold lives and deaths of millions of Black men, women and children in the 400 years of racism in this country and imagining a christocentric obedience where we lay down our lives when Black bodies are being threatened.
Dean and professor of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.