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I’m not racist, but…

by on July 20, 2011

I’m not racist, and I bet you’re not either.


Or are we?


A number of people around the Sydney Diocese have started asking the question, What went wrong in the Georges River Region? That’s the region where we are, and where most immigrants arrive and settle in Sydney. It’s the area with the city’s highest levels of ethnic diversity. What went wrong for us here? Why did most of our churches get wiped out over the past 50 years?

Some fascinating research in the newspapers recently might have a part of the answer. I’ll give you a teaser, and the link if you want to read the article.


No-brainer ... studies have shown that when dealing with groups other than our own, the area most commonly activated in the brain is the amygdala - the region involved with emotions and fear.

No-brainer … studies have shown that when dealing with groups other than our own, the area most commonly activated in the brain is the amygdala – the region involved with emotions and fear.

Read more: Here


That looks like my brain to me…

I’d be interested to hear what you think.

From → General

  1. Great article! While i think racism is an important topic, i also think it’s important not to emphasize race over the other ways we discriminate against others without thinking (except where it’s clearly only race causing the problem). For instance, discrimination against immigrants to the US (even the discrimination of not wanting to get to know someone, as opposed to open hostility or fear) strikes me as based on some mix of cultural differences, language barriers, religion, ethnicity, and color. So racism (what i’d define as color and sometimes ethnicity discrimination) is only a part of the equation, and a small part for many people. Having never been to Australia, i can’t speak to the situation there with confidence, but i’m guess it’s similar since our cultures are similar in some key values.

    Also, this amygdala thing happens within families and marriages to some extent, if we get into a situation where we’re annoyed with someone we’re close to. Who’s inside your group kinda depends on who’s annoying you at the moment. My little brother may constantly annoy me and i may constantly look down my nose at him, yet when someone at school picks on him, suddenly blood is thick and i stand up for him, because he’s part of my group. Yet i still look back bitterly on a time when a popular friend of mine picked on my little brother, and i let it stand, because at the time being in her group mattered more to me than defending my brother. We see the same thing in the Luke article (great writing, by the way!), “The Romans oppress the Jews, and the Jews oppress their own.” We also see it in Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, where in the 70’s the Pakistanis oppressed the Bengalis and ended up massacring about 3 million of them, and now that the Bengalis have their own country, they persecute their ethnic minorities, their poor, basically anyone below them in power and esteem. It’s just human nature. I personally would discard the evolutionary theory from the article and instead propose that amygdala arousal and other process that happen when we encounter someone not of our group (whatever “our group” means to us at the moment) are given to us by God for our protection, but that our human condition (spefically, our deeply-routed, rampant pride and self-interest) has grossly warped these processes.

    All that to say, i think the amygdala thing is a great thing to know, but i get nervous sometimes when the discussion centers only on race, not because i’m racist (which i know i am a bit, unfortunately) but because there are so many ways in which we can NOT love one another, and racism gives us a good excuse to focus on one way and ignore other important ways that should be addressed. (I don’t think i’m actually arguing with you, just with the focus of the article.) Thoughts?

    • Dear Megan,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, sorry for the delayed response, I’ve been on holidays. Thanks too for your kind comments about our blog.

      I see from your facebook you’ve studied psych, so we particularly value your insights into this stuff.

      I think you’re exactly right about not confining the discussion to race and racism. It can be a label for oppressive people to hide behind: they’re not racist, so they’re the good guys, etc. No matter how they treat their wife/neighbours/employees/poor. You’re very perceptive to get nervous when race is the only focus.

      What you’ve identified is that the real issue is what is sometimes called ‘the other’. Anyone can be the other, at different times. I think of the ‘others’ as existing in rings around our personal centre. The further out they are, the more chance of us ‘othering’ them – treating them as less than human. It could be my wife, it could be the illegal immigrants taking all the jobs, or the Muslims. It doesn’t matter. Anyone can be ‘othered’ at any time. At least, that’s what I think you’re saying.

      I have a couple of thoughts, since you’re inviting them. First, I think the article is focussing on race, it’s just one article and focus is a good thing! It’s based on some research into responses to racial difference. As you know psych research needs to have focus (or parameters) to function. So I think it’s not a whole discussion, just one little pixel in a bigger picture. But I think it’s a helpful contribution, this race/amygdala thing. I don’t think the psych researchers are the people to have the real discussion actually. They can find out stuff, but I think the wider community needs to have the discussion about what it means, and how to respond. And I think the Christian community should be the best placed to contribute to that discussion.

      My other thought is about the church’s role in the discussion. I’ve grown up in an evangelical tradition where the real problems were considered to be the invisible ones, the ones existing in the ‘spiritual’ realm, (whatever that is!): guilt and God’s judgement and wrath. The problems in this world were symptoms of those ‘real’ problems. The place where real change was needed was in that invisible realm: sins forgiven, wrath transfered, judgement reversed (justification). This ‘salvation’ could all happen without any outward change at all, just through praying a prayer in your heart (though change should come later).

      With these priorities, the churches I grew up in found that the gospel of Jesus addressed primarily otherworldly or ‘spiritual’ issues. If it had any relevance for social issues, this was secondary, a spin-off effect of salvation, what we called ‘the fruit of the gospel, not the gospel itself.’

      With a gospel of this sort, our churches have found it difficult to achieve any sort of focus on the lesser problems, the ones going on in our world. These always seem like a distraction from the real issues. Hence the churches feel reluctant to engage with social issues, and have little to say when they do: it just isn’t their area of expertise. We know how to talk salvation, justification, faith, prayer and bible study. We don’t know how to talk injustice, racism, exclusion, hatred, the demonic. Or their opposites: justice etc. Our gospel just doesn’t seem to speak to these issues.

      So these discussions, when they do go on, go on with very little input from our evangelical churches. Which is a pity, because they’re the only ones likely to introduce biblical ideas into the discussion…

      Which, if I understand you rightly, is what you’re wanting to do.

  2. I think i see what you’re saying. I’d agree that an article needs a focus. I do get frustrated, though, when so many articles have the same focus, and the underlying issue is only sometimes implied and rarely explicit. I feel like society at large ends up missing the forest for one stand of trees. Happily, i think the church at large is getting better at entering well into the discussions you mentioned. Maybe one day future generations will listen to us in wonder about a time when the church didn’t enter so broadly into discussions that impact societies — that’d be nice. By then they’ll probably have other battles to fight, as new challenges will have emerged.

    I hope i can add to the discussion with my psych studies, but i’m really just starting, so in all likelihood i’m more adding the fervor of my own discovery than weighty experience-based wisdom.

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