From The Pastor’s Desk
Power and Privilege of Whiteness
As I write this article, the nation is embroiled in protests and demonstrations over the killing of innocent black lives even as a global pandemic continues. There are demands for reform, defunding police, and generally a call for white America to wake up to the unresolved issues of race and inequality in our country. I am intentional about the use of the word white because for everyone else there has never been a time they were not aware of these unresolved issues.
We have heard the refrain and seen the hashtag “Black Lives Matter.” We have heard other refrains too, perhaps had other thoughts ourselves about how “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” While these responses are true, they entirely miss the point of the movement and what is happening right now. No one contests that All Lives Matter or that Blue Lives Matter; but the reason people say Black Lives Matter is because the truth is they have not mattered enough for over 400 years. This has been contested and the pain of all of this is that it is a deep part of our lives, not just a chapter in our history, but a very present problem in American society today.
I debated long and hard if I should even write this article, if this was the place to wade into such a heavy topic given the constraints of space and time. However, it is a topic that demands attention. Sure, we have statements against discrimination and most of us as white Americans believe we are not part of the problem because we would never consider ourselves “racist” in the first place. But therein lies the problem – our inability to recognize the power and privilege that our whiteness affords us whether we are aware of it or not, and how this is part of systemic issues related to race and inequality. Let me illustrate with a story.
Two young fish go for a swim as fish do. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, the older fish says to the younger fish, “Good morning kids, how’s the water?” The younger fish swim on a bit and eventually one looks at the other and says, “what the heck is water?”
They live in it; they swim in it; it is inside of them; it surrounds them; their lives depend upon it, yet they don’t have a clue. They are ignorant of it. It’s almost as if it’s so close it’s invisible. One wonders if a fish would only realize what water is once a fish has been taken out of the water. Once they have been taken out of the water, they would realize that their life depended on the water. Maybe they would not realize that until it happens.
What the heck is water? What the heck is whiteness?
Whiteness is invisible to me, because as a white person, it is what I have been brought up with. I live and move and have my being within it. It is so much a part of me and around me that I find it very difficult to even see it. Yet, my life up to this point has traded on it, benefited from it beyond what I could ever imagine. In other words, I swim, not just in water I am ignorant of, but I swim with the current.
My skin color never works against me. The thought never crosses my mind that it would. When I go to a bank, I am never having a conversation at any level in which others would use my skin color against me. If I want to rent an apartment, I can be sure the color of my skin is not going to work against me. Because of the color of my skin, I am never asked to speak on behalf of other whites, ever. I can choose to eat where I like, be entertained where I like, go on vacation wherever I like – never fearing that I will be excluded or mistreated because of the color of my skin. So, in a whole lot of areas – more than I am aware, I benefit beyond my wildest dreams and all in the presence of others who in the very same system struggle to breathe.
I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty. “White guilt” gets us nowhere. Social change cannot come from personal guilt which seeks to alleviate one’s own pain by doing or saying something that will cause the one who has experienced injustice to absolve us and release us from responsibility. Rather, we need to have hard conversations about our privilege as white Americans and accept responsibility for making change. We need to understand why privilege exists, not just admit that it exists. Then we must do the hard work of restorative justice and reconciliation. To be sure, this isn’t about dispensing a little bit of the overflow of our white privilege; it’s is about listening, giving priority to the voices most impacted by injustice, and then being willing to take action against injustice in every place that it exists.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I pray that this can be the beginning of a conversation for each of us to consider how power and privilege affects not just our lives, but all lives directly and indirectly. May God grant us courage to listen, to pray, and to act in the way of justice, healing, truth-telling, accountability, and love.
With you on the journey,
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." - Nelson Mandela