The surprising impact of emotional intelligence on racism

July 15th, 2020

Emotional intelligence is a soft skill often prized in the world of interpersonal relationships. Can it be used as a tool to dismantle something as hard and ingrained as systemic racism? My answer is a resounding yes. In fact, I don’t think that the structures, beliefs and attitudes that form racism can be understood or addressed without it. In this article I am going to introduce you to the surprising impact emotional intelligence has on racism. And how your church can naturally expand both its emotional intelligence and its ability to impact racism.

First, let’s define racism. As I write elsewhere, racism is not so much about individual bias or prejudice as it is about systems and structures that reinforce racial bias. In the United States, racism grants extended rights and opportunities to whites while minimizing access of those same opportunities to people of color. Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, past president of the American Public Health Association asserts that racism negatively impacts every citizen, regardless of race, because it “saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

So how does emotional intelligence make an impact on this persistent problem? Let’s take a look at three key tenets of emotional intelligence: empathy, motivation and social skill. Then I’ll suggest how your church can tap into these tenets to address the sin of racism.

Emotional intelligence: Empathy

Empathy is the willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it must feel like to be them. Empathy cracks open the door of white denial of systemic racism. The long list of Black folks who have died due to police brutality, most recently George Floyd, has brought out a wave of empathy among people of every race. This empathy has found expression in innumerable forms of solidarity from demonstrations to protests to intensive studies to calls for defunding police and re-funding social safety nets.

How your church can tap into empathy

How can churches expand and harness the impact of empathy? Remind your people that empathy is a key teaching of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and of Paul: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Emotional intelligence: Motivation

Solidarity has led to an awakening. White people in particular are grappling with new understandings of the privilege they have been born into. And the extensive, if hidden, nature of this privilege. This burgeoning awareness (copies of How to be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility seem to be on permanent back order) is motivating people to educate themselves. People are learning how and why systemic racism has been perpetuated, a topic Gloria Browne-Marshall and I discuss in the launch of the Uncomfortable Conversation Series

How to motivate churches to impact racism

How can you motivate your church to address racism? First draw upon resources in the Bible that highlight the importance of doing good “in season and out of season.” This wealth of resources includes the story of Ruth, the story of Esther, the teachings of Leviticus, and the entire life and death of Jesus. Immersed in these teachings, dare to begin your own uncomfortable conversation. Also, join me for the next one on August 5, in which we talk about racism and health disparities.

Emotional intelligence: Social skill

No other component of emotional intelligence has more potential for positive impact than social skill. Social skill is the ability to motivate others to go in the direction you want them to go. Another term for this skill is leadership. As you expand your social skill you can draw others into a positive shared vision of the future, one that undoes racism.

Church, social skill and Dream Like Jesus®

How can church leaders tap into their own social skill? Learn how to dream like Jesus. Jesus exemplified the very best in social skill. He called disciples, trained apostles, and empowered all kinds of ordinary people to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the Kingdom.

Churches must wade into troubled waters to accomplish this. If you want harmony at the expense of uncomfortable conversations, you’re not alone. The fear of losing people or of “being too political” can give churches a good case of laryngitis. But it’s time to grow in courage.

Ethical not political

One last tip. Instead of thinking of dismantling racism as “too political,” consider the ethical nature of this quest. Dismantling racism manifests the Kingdom of God. It brings honor to people. It gives glory to God. It’s worth the effort.

Still not sure how to expand your emotional intelligence? Reach out to me. You are not alone.

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