It was in my final year of seminary in 1998 that I was introduced to the concept of white privilege. It was upsetting. White privilege was something I unknowlingly enjoyed because of the structural racism that existed in the United States. Hint: The racist structure still exists.
There are multiple forms of racism. The one that is the focus of this blog is structural racism. Structural racism is understood to be based on the fact that most of the positions of power and wealth in the United States are overwhelmingly occupied by white folks. That means that our economic system is racist. It is stacked in favor of white folks. For anyone to be racist, they have to be a member of the race that controls the majority of wealth and power. Therefore even though I might not make use of racial slurs, I am racist because I benefit from the privilege of being white in a system set up in favor of white folks.
I wasn't ready to accept that easily. I suspect that is true of white folks reading this. If that is true (it is) it means we have to change our thinking and it means that if we believe Jesus calls us to work for justice, then we are called to use our white privilege to work for structural change. We are called to educate ourselves as white folks so that we can repent from the sin of racism.
I resisted this new information back then by saying things like a black person had played the "race card" whenever racism was brought up in conversation by a black person. A similar statement of the resistant racist is "I have never owned slaves, my parents didn't own slaves, neither did my grandparents. Why can't black folks just get over something that happened over 150 years ago?"
I'd also found myself saying thigns like "I'm not racist I have black friends." If I was honest, black friends often were more like acquaintances that I knew from class or from having participated in sports with some black folks at the fitness center.
What I failed to realize is that while none of my immediate ancestors had owned slaves (I admit I have not researched whether three generations ago they did, but I suspect they did), I still benefited from the economic structure that was built on the backs of the ancestors of current day black folks.
What this means is that the current economic system reflects the reality that landowners from previous generations built up incredible wealth due to having the free labor of slaves. They purchased the slaves-but didn't pay them for work after the purchase. In other words the wealth established during the era of slavery has continued to be inherited by generations of white folks. In addition wealth has not been inherited by many black folks. When you start from zero wealth in a system that is stacked against black folks from the beginning, it becomes more of a challenge to pass on wealth.
"But I'm not wealthy" a person might say,"therefore I'm not racist". Or "I started with zero inheritance and have become wealthy". Being white helped that process.
Even though my inheritance equalled a color television set, a random assortment of furniture, and a lot of books, I still benefit from being white.
I am less likely to be incarerated by being white-therefore I can vote.
I have the privilege of not being watched in stores as a suspected thief becaues of my skin color.
I have never been pulled over for matching the description of a criminal (black skin) or what some of my black friends call "DWB" Driving While Black.
I do not wait longer at restaurants to be seated or served because of my skin color-hint:black folks often do.
I can get a cab in a city-ask Dr. Cornell West if that has been his experience.
The reality is that the experience of life in the United States from the perspective of a black person versus a white person is very different. Because I couldn't know what it was like to be black, I was largely unaware of how deeply racism was and still is embeeded in our nation. Having come to this awareness in that seminary class in 1998 began a slow process of repentance for me. It is ongoing.
Over the past 17 years I have become more aware of the extent of my white privilege. I am currently aware of the enormous resistance of white folks to even admit racism is still a problem. We often will not even admit that having white skin is an advantage of any kind. This comes from fear and ignorance.
"We have a black president, what else do those people want?" I've heard a parishioner say this. "We give them everything and they don't even work for it." I've heard a parishioner say this. Racial education hint: saying "those people" or "them" or "you people" is quite racially charged.
Folks racism is complex. It is ingrained in the fiber of our nation. It may never be eradicated. It is a problem within white and black culture. There is culpability within the black community that may contribute to white folks being hesitant to repent from racism, but I am not black so I can't speak to that. In addition the overall problem of racism is rooted in the unjust, and sinful practice of white folks enslaving black folks. We white folks are responsible for the beginning of the practice within the borders of the United States. Let's join in beginning a movement against an inheritance of evil.
I am white-and privileged. If all white folks admit that, it is a step in the right direction. It is a step toward repenting from racism. It is a beginning for all white folks to see racism, as a structuarl sin, and an individual sin from which we benefit.
God would have us work for justice for all races. Certainly all lives matter to God. For us to dismiss racism without honest self reflection for our part in it-even if in ignorant complicity-is a sin of ommission. Therefore I invite white folks to open our eyes, become educated about the different types of racism, and repent.
One small way we can do that is to make some actual black friends to establish meaningful lasting relationships. This will open up dialogue. This can help us have some difficult discussions where I pray we admit ignorance and seek to understand.
God will help us. Please join me in humble repentance and in seeking to practice the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ by learning about and repenting from racism.