Thursday, March 31, 2016

Firing Someone Doesn't Change Much

By now, most people in the Pittsburgh area have heard about the termination this week of Wendy Bell, a local news journalist for WTAE. If you’re like me, you have heard the news because of the reactions it generated, both in support of Bell and in support of the station firing her.

I do not, nor have I ever, watched local news, and I barely knew who Wendy Bell was before this week. So, I have no intention of debating whether she is a noble journalist who was simply misunderstood, or a racist whose true colors are finally showing. There are enough people doing that already. This is not a referendum on Bell or WTAE.

However, I have read Bell’s original post on Facebook that started this whole mess, and it unquestionably demonstrates white privilege and racist attitudes. This does not necessarily make Wendy Bell a hateful person or explicitly racist. She may have had the best of intentions. I will give her the benefit of the doubt that she did and does mean well.

But that doesn’t make it okay. This controversy sheds light on a problem in our culture, particularly in Western Pennsylvania where conversations on race are few and far between. A professor of mine from seminary often said, “There are no racist people. Only racist attitudes.” That has always stuck with me. It reminds me that even if I have the best of intentions, I still possess racist attitudes of which I am unaware. This is known as implicit bias – having attitudes or beliefs that operate below a conscious level, affecting our thoughts and actions without our awareness of it. It is these attitudes which must be addressed, and which are in some ways equally as problematic as explicit racism.

Wendy Bell, like me, benefits from white privilege. Wendy Bell, like me, isn’t always conscious of the implicit biases and racist attitudes she has. Wendy Bell, like me, continually needs anti-racism or sensitivity training. My hope is that Bell takes advantage of this situation to grow and mature as an individual.

As for WTAE, they could have used this controversy as an opportunity to address a systemic issue by requiring all their employees, including Bell, to engage in such training. Maybe they are, and maybe they terminated Bell because she refused to participate. I don’t know. What I do know is that firing Bell solves a public relations problem, but it won’t do anything to dismantle racism in WTAE’s workplace, our region, or our country.

This is one reason I am proud of my employer, the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. We take seriously our commitment to creating a culture of inclusiveness”, recognizing that “We are richer with diversity and we will continue to find ways to witness with full inclusion and the embracing of all our sisters and brothers of color.” Several years ago, we required all pastors to participate in a two-part Dismantling Racism training, and conference leadership has recently decided to require similar training for new pastors within their first year of service as a commissioned minister and provisional member. The conference also added a new staff position last year, a Coordinator of Diversity Development, to help “move the church forward in being racially inclusive of all persons as we seek to make disciples for the transformation of the world.”

Until we move beyond calling people racists or getting defensive when others call us racist, nothing will change. Until we acknowledge that we have implicit biases and work to overcome them, nothing will change. Until we begin to discuss about what is problematic in our language surrounding race, nothing will change. Attacks and counter-attacks draw headlines, and employee terminations have the veneer of taking a stand, but the real work lies beyond. Change begins with conversation, and continues with a commitment to changing ourselves from within. This is what God requires of us. Might this be a chance for the church to take the lead, changing and re-shaping the cultural discourse?