Combating Racism: Touch and Tell

by Richard A. Hoehn

Dr. Hoehn is associate professor of church in society at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 3, 1982, p. 238. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission .  Current articles and subscription information can be found at  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Many political leaders are symbolically turning their backs on the moral problems of the day, creating a climate which lends legitimation to prejudice, hate and worse. We have a long road to travel.

Among the arguments for and against school busing, we do not hear much about the fundamental issue of racial alienation. We hear that busing is expensive. The rides seem long. Children are dragged out of their neighborhoods. The test scores of blacks don’t improve. And some white children’s idealistic beliefs about equality are shattered in the realities of the multiracial classroom.

From the other side we hear that blacks are achieving better on tests. Many -- maybe most -- of the kids in interracial schools get along quite well together; the bad incidents make news, but good ones are more the norm. And, it is pointed out, any strategy aimed at overcoming centuries of slavery and discrimination is bound to create inconvenience and expense. The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education was rendered less than 30 years ago; discrimination has lasted for over 300.

Much of the public debate takes shape around the perceived goals of busing, translated into slogans. “Busing for racial balance” has a negative tone. Who wants to go to that much trouble just to put children into a perfect checkerboard classroom? The issue of test scores sometimes seems to come down to a matter of whom one wants to believe; there is evidence on both sides. And, as we know, certain savvy teachers are able to teach toward the tests, thus skewing the results even of sound research surveys.

It once was said that the goal of busing was to force school boards to upgrade all-black schools which were getting academic leftovers. It does seem that in most cities -- a few great metropolises excepted -- much positive reapportionment has occurred. Total equality has not followed, but then anyone who thought it would was a bit naïve. Busing is a limited-focus strategy, and it cannot eliminate all of the long-term effects of racism. But if it even levels out the distribution of quality education a bit, it is a resounding success.

Beyond the measurable educational goals and benefits, some people were convinced that busing served a humanitarian purpose. In the 1950s and ‘60s it was believed that prejudice could be minimized if white and black children were placed together in the same classroom. There they could directly experience one another’s humanity. A frequent concomitant of this belief was the idea that children are born innocent, without prejudice. Daily encounter with one another on a routine basis would undercut the racist views widely held in the culture.

My research suggests that the first of these humanitarian ideas was right, the second probably wrong. It does help to touch bodies of other races, to be close enough that the other person’s intrinsic humanity can be experienced fully. But, I suspect, we also have ever from our youngest days a proclivity to fear that which is perceived as strange, including persons of differing colors, features and cultures. We are not born prejudiced, but we do have some natural tendencies toward estrangement which lend themselves readily to racist stances.

The physical encounter, or at least the proximity which would make it possible, helped crack old prejudices. A white teen-ager was assigned a black roommate at a youth convention. When she woke up in the morning and rolled over to bump into a black body in bed beside her, her consciousness was jolted into awareness that this body was just like her own. In some other cases physical proximity alone was enough to change perception: “She sat just in front of me, and I knew I could reach out and touch her hair.” “I suppose the seventh grade was a key grade for me, because I can remember being in a class sitting behind a black person for the first time. Blacks and whites were together in physical education too. You dressed together; you exercised together.”

And then there was the white fellow who recalled the first black he had met years before. As it happened, the black’s father was a wealthy doctor in the suburb of a northern city. The son had no dialect that could be associated with blackness. Yet the white experienced him as different, strange.

We experience other people and things as “like us” or “not like us.” The more unlike they are, the more they occasion a sort of disquiet or anxiety. To use a ridiculous example, let’s imagine that a tribe of beings has just broken through the underside of the unexplored depths of the Carlsbad Caverns. Their viscera are external to their skeletons; tiny eyes stick out all over; blue worms wiggle where we expect hair. We would be afraid. Our skin would crawl. Until we had had enough contact to establish that they were within a range of what we regard as human, we would find it easy to treat them as animals or things. One beneficial contribution of science fiction is the repeated portrayal of humanoids becoming friends with all sorts of fantastic creatures, such as a super-intelligent six-foot praying mantis which laughs by clicking its mandibles.

The differences between blacks and whites are not nearly as dramatic as between humans and our Carlsbad carnivores. But physical differences, such as race or a handicap, become reinforced by social perceptions, which in turn create larger spaces between people.

This experience of like and unlike is rooted in and mediated by our experience of our own bodies. The center points of our existence, our bodies orient us to up and down, here and there. When we are sick, clouds seem to form over the whole city. When we are white, black seems a bit strange, alien to our own experience of our own body. This feeling can be accentuated through differences in features and hair. Similar differences are also perceived by blacks who have lived in totally black enclaves, though this type of existence is exceedingly rare in American society. The strangeness is more pervasive among whites because of the insulated nature of their lives.

Our own bodies set subliminal norms against which we measure and judge other persons as older or younger, acceptable or unacceptable. These norms structure our ways of relating to people who are similar to or different from us. This structuring is subtle, elusive and at gut level.

Because our-own bodies establish a frame of reference through which we experience the bodies of other persons, we have trouble relating to someone whose face consists of ragged layers of scar tissue. A maker of prosthetic devices has described how his office waiting room would clear out in five minutes whenever a certain patient came in -- a woman who had had surgical removal of her nose, one eye, with its eyelid and socket, part of her forehead and right cheek. Her face triggered anxiety and gut-level repulsion -- more than the other patients could bear. We have trouble figuring out how to relate to someone whose body is folded into a wheelchair; whose limbs are interleaved with wires, pulleys, levers, tubes and pumps.

Part of that anxiety is generated simply out of an encounter with the unfamiliar. But, in the case of race and physical deformity, another part stems from something more fundamental than novelty. It is rooted in our embodiment and in the consequent subliminal perception that bodies that are significantly “other” are alien. This alienation is a natural part of existence; that is, it belongs in the typically expectable repertoire of ordinary people in everyday life. Hence, our bodies and our normal social (in)experience leave us, insofar as we remain physically separated from one another, with fertile soil for the seeds of racism.

Children speak of people with black faces. The encounter is face to face, highly visible, and based on physical appearance. White children want to touch blacks’ hair, and yet are afraid to. Many whites experience blacks -- and the darker the skin the more it is true -- as having a body which is different from their own. They may also be prejudiced against brown-skinned Hispanics, but the differences are not quite so dramatic. Conversely, when those same whites become socially concerned, they are more attracted to the black cause partly because the drama of skin color can elicit more sympathy.

This sense of alienness provides a subtle, bodily experienced frame of reference within which it becomes easy to construct and perpetuate stereotypes. People will, of course, construct stereotypes with or without these differences. But the differences add a subliminal gut-level dimension to social perceptions. It was not terribly difficult for generations of whites to define blacks as so fundamentally alien as to be considered subhuman. In Germany the perceived physical differences between Aryan and Jew heightened other factors, and so lent an extra push toward genocide. Touching the body is a small but significant limited-coverage insurance policy against genocide.

Thus, it is important for humanitarian reasons alone -- even if no measurable benefits could be tallied -- that busing continue. Whites and blacks inhabit a common planet, and the possibility of doing so in peace and with justice begins with soccer on the sandlot. Some will still learn to hate each other. But so long as bodies are touched in casual exchanges, one crucial sensate element of strangeness will be removed.

Along with touching the body, we have to tell the story. “Tell me the old, old story” in this case means that we need continually to repeat the history of discrimination and connect that history with the social effects which linger today. That story, first of all, has to contain an interpretation that includes class and culture as well as race.

White children who are having a hard time in first encounters with blacks are often also dealing with a different class for the first time, as well as with people whose socialization is slightly different from their own. Those white children need to become informed about other cultures in America so that their disposition toward racial anxiety will not be reinforced by additional extrinsic factors. Predominantly white colleges and seminaries need to require minority studies along with basic grammar. The grammar of human living is as important as the linguistic structures we use to describe it.

As part of our mutually told story we might admit that busing is expensive, but so are the long-term effects of racism. Moreover, it is the public sector that is being asked to pay for those buses, drivers and gasoline, but it was the private sector that predominantly reaped financial benefits from slavery and discrimination. Cheap wages resulted in more profit per item produced, and thus made possible the accumulation of large land holdings and fantastic fortunes. It is true that some of the savings created by cheap labor were passed along to the public in terms of lower prices. But when I contemplate the homes, cars, boats and airplanes owned by the rich, it always seems that, no matter what is said about “fair return,” their return was far out of proportion to that of the people who invested their bodies in lifelong labor. The private sector profits and the public sector pays.

The story has to include the reminder that racism remains subtle and pervasive in our modern society. There is talk about the new racism. However, it is not, I suspect, really new, but the old-time variety redivivus. People who lifted their beer steins high celebrating the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., are still alive. Some persons are newly learning to be racists, but the great reservoir is composed of people who lacked social support for expressing the racism they had held all along. The antiracists had made it seem immoral to give vent to racist sentiments. Now there are new channels for the legitimation of hate.

Item: This past spring, my older son, who is white, was attending a private church-related university and invited a black woman student to a fraternity dance. She was not poor; she flew 250 miles to go home to get her hair done for the weekend. He rented a tux, and mentioned in passing to the fellow with whom they were double-dating that his date was black. Four fraternity brothers showed up in his dorm room to tell him that he was welcome at the dance (they were trying to recruit him to membership) but that she was not. He took her out to dinner instead.

Item: Two graduates of a conservative seminary, neither of whom is currently in the pastoral ministry, recently invited me to go sailing with them. As darkness settled and they sipped wine, they lost some of their normal inhibitions and started talking about “niggers.” They had remarked that they even knew a few good ones before I closed down the conversation by mentioning how much I love my young biracial son.

The ethos which the New Right and the present administration at the same time reflect and help create has formed a climate in which it is acceptable to say the things some people have long felt but were not comfortable expressing aloud. Most of those comments are being made behind the backs of the minority people. I can recall working in a steel mill years ago where a similar sort of thing would happen. When the black maintenance man came up to the control booth, the white operators would chat with him in a friendly way about fishing and work. When he left, they felt free to express their racism.

Many political leaders are symbolically turning their backs on the moral problems of the day, creating a climate which lends legitimation to prejudice, hate and worse. We have a long road to travel; and as we go, we must continue to touch one another’s bodies and tell our stories.