“I’m Not Racist”: On Scorning Rebuke

“I’m not racist!” The words instinctively leapt from my mouth the way one might throw up their arms to block a punch. Self-defense – as if I could project my protest as a kind of shield to ward off the blame. How could they attack my intentions when my heart was pure? If only they knew me! I felt unfairly typed and misunderstood.

But I’ve since learned that I was the one who misunderstood. I didn’t understand that my words and actions carried implications of which I was ignorant. I didn’t understand that my intentions were not the only piece of the puzzle. I didn’t understand that I am caught up in a system that privileges white skin, and that even if I personally didn’t feel racist, that didn’t absolve me of responsibility for the way my words could wound. I could have learned that sooner if I hadn’t been so quick to protect myself. But the moment I put up that shield with my words, I refused to listen and I refused to learn. And as I closed my heart to wisdom, I took a step down the path of the fool.

Proverbs has a lot to say about discipline and rebuke. And strangely, as it turns out, rebuke isn’t just for the fool. It’s also for the wise, as this proverb reminds us: “Do not rebuke scoffers, otherwise they will hate you; rebuke the wise, and they will love you” (Prov. 9:8). Reflecting on this passage, wisdom scholar William Brown writes, “Here the defining character trait of the wise is the capacity to receive correction with a collegial sense of appreciation. An individual’s willingness to accept correction gratefully is itself a mark of wisdom…Only the wise know most clearly that wisdom is their gain even at the cost of self-certainty and pride” (Brown, Wisdom’s Wonder, 56).

Wisdom isn’t about being right. It’s not about being smart. It’s less about getting an A and more about learning from an F. It’s about being humble and teachable. The wise never “make it” – they are never beyond learning, never beyond correction. The wise are not those who have achieved Wisdom, but rather those who are in constant pursuit of her. In a paradoxical way, the ones who most nearly approach Wisdom are those who know they are not even close.

My natural tendency is to become ashamed, angry, and self-defensive when I receive criticism or rebuke. My foolishness shows. But the one seeking Wisdom embraces criticism as a teacher and is not afraid, because for her, knowledge is about love and growth – not competition. She has no need to hunker down and hide, nor defend herself to preserve her dignity, because she knows Wisdom loves her (Prov. 8:17) and will embrace her even in the embarrassment of the moment of rebuke. Her confidence comes not from her reputation, but from the inner strength that comes from the knowledge that she is growing. As John Dewey wrote, immaturity is not a lack, but rather a positive sign that growth is possible. So the one seeking Wisdom receives rebuke like a plant receives rain, letting it strengthen her roots in love. She embraces it like a beloved mentor that can show her the way. If she can let down her walls and draw close to it, she may find that it lovingly whispers in her ear the secrets of Wisdom.

There is much to learn in a rebuke: about ourselves, about others, about language, about faith, about the wounds of the world and how we can play a part in their healing. There is, first, the action that gave rise to the rebuke. What did we do or say? What was our mood, our tone, our motive? Second, there is the rebuke itself. What does it teach us about ourselves and how we can grow? What does it tell us about the way our action was received? Then there is the person who gave it. Why did they give it? What do we learn about them? How are they hurting – even if we didn’t intend to cause it? And how can we help to heal it? Fourth, there is our knee-jerk reaction to it. What did we feel, and where in our body did we feel it? Why was it so gosh-darn painful – and what does that show us about ourselves, our unmet needs, our deepest fears? These emotional depths – which we prefer to leave unplumbed – have riches to share with us, if we’re brave enough to enter into them.

Most of us don’t want to be thought of as racist. But when someone points out to us that our words or actions had connotations we didn’t intend, we must be careful not to scorn the rebuke and become a fool. To prove that we’re not racist, we want to cry, “I’m not racist!” – but then we’ve turned the focus back on ourselves and missed the point. Insisting on our innocence doesn’t make us innocent; if anything, it shows that we’re more concerned to defend ourselves to our black sisters and brothers, than to defend them against racism. As educator bell hooks reminds us, anti-racism consists in practicing it regardless of whether we receive approval for it. And so, when someone rebukes us for racial insensitivity, the most anti-racist thing to do is not to protest, but rather to listen and learn. It’s also the wise thing to do, because we cannot learn while we are busy protesting our innocence. We can only learn when we make ourselves vulnerable to the educative wound of rebuke.

When we scorn rebuke, we do ourselves no favors. We think that we’re protecting ourselves when we insist on our rightness, on our righteousness. But then we discover that it was no enemy rebuking us – it was Wisdom knocking on our door with a bag of rubies and a bottle of fine wine, inviting us to her feast.

And we turned her away.

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