All week I’ve been mulling over how to approach writing about the important matters of racism that are prevalent matters of discussion in this particular stage of the religio-political apocalypse. And then a friend sent me an unhealthy meme about racial injustice that one of their friends had posted, and I knew it was time to talk about how exactly Christian Nice, toxic positivity, and the enactment and enablement of racism intersect to suppress and admonish those who stand up against injustice toward a healthier world for us all.
As always, I’ll be approaching this topic from my standpoint as a communication scholar studying stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I’ve previously written a whole series on the toxic sides of Christian nice starting here. I’ve previously discussed how it connects to racism here, here and here. I’ve discussed how it enables covert abuse and authoritarianism here.
This article addresses how a specific meme highlights and extends our understanding of how Christian nice enables and in fact enacts racism via socialized gaslighting. (I talked about socialized gaslighting in connection with sexism here.)
Specifically, my goal in this article is to show why black people and their allies are likely to see the last line of the message claiming to have “nothing but love for all” as incongruous disconfirming communication that minimizes problems that cost black lives in order to preserve the meme author’s sense of righteousness (i.e., making it a racist statement). Because the argument abuses the language of spirituality, this meme also qualifies as spiritual abuse. This analysis is offered in hopes of helping people understand, avoid and speak up against these kinds of unhealthy rhetoric.
Goals and Disclaimers:
I don’t expect what I say here to be perfect, but it is grounded in what I know along those lines—most of which I have learned from others (that’s how expertise works!). As a white person, what I’m saying here is meant to continue the conversation about race at a time when the meme I’m discussing is seeking to tamp it down. I’m in no way expecting what I say here to be comprehensive. I AM hoping that you will stick with me through a difficult topic.
So let’s get into it.
The Text of the (Extremely Toxic) Meme
Here’s the text of the meme I received (I’ll unwrap the nature of the toxicity in the rest of the article):
“This is America….
“We have a virus…but 99% of those who contract it will survive.
“We have some racists…but 99.95% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racial bone in their body.
“We have some bad cops…but 99.995% of the law enforcement personnel you encounter would risk their lives to save yours.
“If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you’ll see.
“As for me…I choose to see the good in people…my heart is full…
“I’ve got nothing but love for all of you….”
Unwrapping the “Christian Nice” Toxicity of this Statement
Okay, so to start, I’m not sure for sure whether the person who shared this would have identified as a Christian, but this meme fits really well with a lot of the dynamics I’d been raised with in Christian (White People) Nice.
To be fair, my people weren’t quite THIS toxically positive about the world (and currently are not either). And yet, this is only a more extreme version of what I’d been raised with.
Getting Into the Layers of Toxicity
So what do I see, as a scholar of rhetoric and stress, trauma, and conflict communication, when I look at this statement?
- The Glorification of Conflict Avoidance and Toxic Positivity as “Love”: I see, for one, a very specific view of love as conflict avoidance being presented as the only moral form of spirituality—at least insofar as this meme is concerned.
How do I get there? These words: “If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you’ll see. As for me, I choose to see the good in people…my heart is full… I’ve got nothing but love for all of you…”
In other words, the meme equates looking away from “evil” (which is incredibly vaguely defined) with the highest form of good—in the words of the meme, “love.” And, specifically, it also associates it specifically with being “color blind”—as though that were a good thing.
Why is this literally unhealthy for people, as per communication studies concepts? Well, conflict studies tend to classify avoidance as a “lose-lose” form of conflict management when it comes to relationship building, and for good reason.
That’s because if you stuff down problems, people tend to build up resentments that lead to an erosion of trust. As I’ve discussed before, this leads to a situation called “cordial hypocrisy,” in which trust is simulated but not real.
Stress and trauma research shows us that stuffed down problems can work on our bodies just like gangrene, causing us and/or others ill-health. If “Love does no harm to its neighbor,” as the Bible tells us, those who follow the Bible or just don’t want to hurt people in general should beware of messages that tell us that avoidance of conflict is somehow the best thing.
THIS is why toxic positivity is called toxic—because it leads to cordial hypocrisy, that leads to genuine harms, either for the person practicing it, for others, or for both. Assuming that the person that posted this was white, the harm is really likely more for others than for this person—but the person could still be harming themselves as well, if they know deep down that they are in conflict with their values in spouting such dreck.
The problem with “colorblindness,” of course, is an extension of the same problems conflict avoidance in relationships on a systemic racism level. In short, colorblindness pretends there are no existing systemic inequities among those with different skin colors, and that those inequities don’t create pain and trauma for the disadvantaged people. Ignoring this problem is like leaving gangrene untreated.
If you keep ignoring these things as a white person, it may possibly be a win for you—but is definitely a loss for African Americans and other black people. And it’s only a win for you if you don’t actually care about that. (Sarcasm alert: I’ll be honest—when I write that, I’m not exactly feeling the love in that description somehow.)
- Painting Confronting Injustice as a Devil Term: As I’ve discussed in previous articles, this glorification of avoidance as the greatest good equates those who point out and fight injustice as a devil term, or something to be fought at all costs.
In an era where “crackdowns against racism protests” are frequent phrases in news articles, this kind of rhetoric both enables and enacts racism and authoritarianism. (I talked about the contours of this problem more here, here and here.)
- Sacrificing (Mostly Black) Humans at the Altar of Avoidance: Interestingly, this meme does not mount the prevalent “all lives matter” defense, which is particularly interesting considering the meme author claims to have “love” in their heart for all.
On the contrary, this meme author, by reducing lives lost to statistics (and small statistics—never mind that they are largely wrong statistics), both minimizes the death and dysfunction caused to real humans and simultaneously presents them as a sort of necessary sacrifice, presumably in order for the person to maintain her illusion that he or she is somehow righteous and loving.
And by starting out by minimizing the numbers of those dying from COVID-19, particularly, black lives and pain are minimized. As this is a disease that has been affecting black Americans at a much higher rate than white Americans, this seemingly “unracial” opening statistic is anything but.
And the fact that the statistics build to increasingly minimize the valid concerns black people have about racism and police brutality in this country ought to be concerning.
Again, none of that unpacking makes me trust that the meme author genuinely has love in their heart for all, or even remotely grieves these deaths that are so glibly spoken of.
- The Idea that “Good People” Can’t Be Racist: The phrase “not a racial bone in their body” particularly stands out in this regard.
The bone metaphor is particularly striking to me, because it equates “being a racist” with an identity marker that can’t be changed—a part of one’s body.
If racism would have to be such a deep-seated thing that it would require major surgery in order to change it, then surely it is unkind (and, in fact, evil) to ask someone to change it, right?
This meme, then, assumes that evil such as racism or injustice is rare, identity-based, and not a behavior that could be changed. It also assumes it is assigned to particular individuals rather than systems.
The idea that someone could be both well-meaning and enable and enact racist behaviors and systems is really opposite of the idea here—which is strikingly similar to Hitler’s concept that particular bloodlines were “pure” whereas others were “impure.” (That’s right—this meme is coming awfully close to enacting Nazi ideology here. Great job, eh?)
The problem, of course, is that even unhealthy ideologies can creep their way into our identities to the point where we can feel shame if we are confronted with the facts that we are unjust to others in how our words, attitudes, and behaviors stem from them.
I talked about how I had so far internalized “family values” rhetoric that I felt shame when I needed to get divorced here. That same kind of thing can happen with socialized racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all sorts of other toxic things we unconsciously internalize—things that hurt ourselves and others, but especially others.
But unlike being born with a particularly dark skin, racist attitudes and behaviors are not something we are born with. They are not an inherent part of identity. Like my beliefs about divorce, they can be changed. It may feel painful to go through the process, but again, I was taught that the best kind of love involves not harming others—and that changed attitudes and behavior was something we were called to do when we sought to communicate love to others (most in the Judeo-Christian traditions call that repentance).
- The Assumption that Good Police Officers’ Intentions Mean They Won’t Do Bad Things: That whole line about how police officers would lay down their lives for you evokes this idea for me. The implication there is that people who would risk their lives to save yours, and that those same people surely wouldn’t hurt others under any circumstance.
The thing with this is that there’s a whole famous series of psychology experiments that were done after WWII and the Holocaust to try and understand why and how the Holocaust happened. They found that people will do all sorts of nasty things when put into positions of power, or when they are asked to do unethical things to hurt others, or to follow the crowd. You can look them up if you like—but the point is that prison guards down to police officers down to ordinary people have been universally shown to do terrible things really really easily.
In other words, people can easily fall into behaviors that are highly unethical, including those we would societally consider evil. While some people are extreme narcissists who don’t feel bad when they hurt others to help themselves, ordinary people can also be easily prone to these things, especially when socialized into cultures that unhealthily encourage attitudes that people—and especially some groups of people more than others—need to be punished.
It’s clear that whether or not police officers individually are “good people,” they are vulnerable to hurting people. The same is true with those who perceive themselves as “not having a racial bone in their body.”
Just Scratching the Surface of the Unhealthy Rhetoric Here
I could go on and on—there’s a ton that could be unpacked here. The point, though, is that this meme, in its hyperbole, exposes the unhealthy ways that toxic positivity and Christian nice, in glorifying the minimization of real problems, may both enable and enact racist behaviors.
After all, if you’re a white person telling black people that what we’re seeing regarding police misconduct is largely impossible because you as a white person believe it to be impossible, then that’s not just unloving but racist.
How the Meme Goes Against Jesus’ Message
Furthermore, from the perspective of one who was raised with Jesus’ parables about how it was worth spending time to find a single lost sheep or coin or whatever, these arguments about how the majority of things are “just fine” so we should act as though there are no problems simply isn’t theologically consistent with the message of Jesus.
Bad Logic + Bad Ethics=Not Actually Loving
The whole meme is just terrible logic, and terrible ethics in addition to putting forth false statistics. In short, the message here is not remotely one that communicates love. It communicates what I’ve said before we communication scholars call incongruous disconfirming communication to those who were born with dark-toned skin and those who stick up for them. (In other words, communication that says one thing but undermines that message at the same time.)
This Meme Actively Causes Harm
By taking the side of toxic positivity and minimizing the concerns of those who are pointing at existing real problems, this kind of rhetoric causes great harm. I hope this article has given you the tools to understand and work against such rhetoric when confronted with it, whether out there in the world or within yourselves.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap, including racism wherever we find it, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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