Book excerpt taken from Color-Courageous Discipleship: Follow Jesus, Dismantle Racism, and Build Beloved Community. (Waterbrook, November 2022) Permission available upon request.
Like the ancient Greeks, we tend to envision ourselves as a tabula rasa—a “blank slate.” We like to think that we embark on new learning experiences with a neutral mindset: objective, clear-eyed, and level-headed. Unfortunately, this blank slate concept is more pagan than Christian.
Our human nature—tainted by sin—inclines us toward error from the get-go. What’s more, over time, our minds are further shaped by the sinful patterns of a broken world. That’s why the Scriptures insist: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
When it comes to race, what does it mean to renew our minds? I am convinced that one important way to renew our minds when it comes to race is to uproot unconscious bias. A greater deterrent to biblical equity today than conscious bias may be unconscious bias. A gargantuan gap persists between our intentions and the actual impact that we are having on the world. Somehow, people who have the best of intentions when it comes to race are still fostering racial inequity. How can this be?
Unpacking unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) can help us come to terms with our confounding racial contradictions. Yet unpacking unconscious bias also requires courage. Why? Because it’s never fun to look into a mirror and not like what you see looking back! What helps me is to remember that we are all susceptible to unconscious biases, regardless of race. In fact, it’s quite common for people of color to experience unconscious bias even toward their own racial group—which I discovered, to my chagrin, was true of me.
I serve as a leader for the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination known for its multiethnic commitment. One of my most treasured Covenant experiences is the Journey to Mosaic (J2M), a bus tour that travels to sites of civil rights significance for multiple racial groups.
On my own Journey to Mosaic, our first stop was the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall in Seattle where we listened to one woman’s experience in a World War II Japanese internment camp. At the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma, I heard for the first time about the Chinese Exclusion Act. And I will never forget my first visit to a Native American reservation, the Yakama Nation of Toppenish. There, we stood at an unmarked burial ground and commemorated the Indigenous people who perished as they resisted European encroachment.
But my most pivotal growth moment occurred during our final debrief session. Someone broached the topic of racial inequity in Black communities, and cringeworthy thoughts like these automatically welled up in me: Well, I wish it weren’t true, but Black communities are plagued with Black-on-Black crime. Mass incarceration is the sad but obvious result. It’s our own fault. I kept most of these thoughts to myself, but in the group conversation that followed, some of these very ideas were addressed head-on—and unmasked as unhelpful and misleading.
That night, I began to realize for the first time the depths of my unconscious bias—toward my own community. The Lord placed a mirror before me and I discovered the truth. Although I thought I was looking good, I was actually clothed with the dirty rags of unconscious bias. In fact, my bias had a name: attribution error. I was attributing blame in lopsided ways; I was predisposed to blame a person for their plight rather than also reasonably take that person’s situation into account. It is because of attribution error that our human tendency is to blame the victim and overlook the victimizer; to blame the oppressed and overlook the oppressive circumstances; to blame a community’s culture and overlook the community’s history.
When looking at a predominantly Black community riddled with poverty and crime, some might quietly harbor thoughts like these: Black people must not be as smart or hardworking as others. The fact that more Black people are criminal than others is sad but true. I wonder what it is about Black culture that keeps them in the gutter. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, these people need to get their act together. These assessments are all characterized by attribution error, and they do very little to get at the root causes of our society’s challenges so we could find effective solutions.
Color-courageous disciples seek to ask more constructive questions: What is leading to such high levels of crime and despair? How might the system itself be failing this community, even unintentionally? What resources are needed for empowerment, growth, and healing? When it comes to crime, what would it look like to take a more restorative—rather than punitive—approach? For that matter, are these citizens being fairly convicted and sentenced to begin with? Why don’t more people care about questions like these? And how can I be part of the solution?
Now, an important caveat: I am certainly not arguing that individuals or communities should never take responsibility for their actions. What I am calling for—and, more important, what the Scriptures seem to call for—is both truth and amazing grace. Unconscious bias inclines us to attribute blame in fallacious, legalistic, and coldly detached ways—not an ideal approach for a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The Bible addresses unconscious bias, too, albeit in different terms. In the story of the man born blind, the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus bluntly rebuked them, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me” (John 9:1–5).
Jesus did two intriguing things with this response. First, he pushed back on the disciples’ attribution error, rebuking their tendency to blame the victim. Second, he challenged them to get to work.
Here is my paraphrase: When you see a person or a community suffering, it’s not time to play the blame game. It is time for you to wake up, collaborate with God, and get to work.
Even in a story where the individual has clearly sinned—like the woman caught in adultery—Jesus’s response was beautifully balanced (John 8:1–11). Did this woman deserve death according to Jewish law? Yes, she did (Deuteronomy 22:22). Nevertheless, Jesus did a curious and unexpected thing: he drew attention not to the woman’s overt sin, but rather to her accusers’ covert sin—their judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and pride. While acknowledging the woman’s sin, Jesus declined to condemn her. Instead, he gently and graciously encouraged her toward repentance and life.
When it comes to race, we are called to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our minds]” (Romans 12:2).
There is a level, of course, at which uprooting our unconscious bias is impossible. The whole idea is that our bias is unconscious. However, that does not mean it’s altogether undetectable or unchangeable. In Christ, we have reason to hope for the transformation of even our most stubborn biases when we both commit to practices that have been proven to counteract racial bias and surrender to the transformational power of the Holy Spirit within us (Romans 8:1–2).
Excerpted from Color-Courageous Discipleship by Michelle T. Sanchez. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle T. Sanchez. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.