By Jonah Smith-Bartlett
Aug 24, 2016
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a New York Times comment section.
“There is no such thing as white privilege. It’s something the liberal media created. Black people and white people have the same opportunities now. Stop being sheep and get over it.”
In response, I took on my own Facebook challenge. For one month I would post daily status updates regarding my own white privilege.
Once I had finished, I was asked to compile these observations.
They follow, for better or worse, verbatim:
For the next month, between now and August 18th… I am going to try and post one way in which I personally benefitted from white privilege. An exercise in self-examination.
Day 1 of examining white privilege in my life (July 18).
I talked a LOT of… smack… to my teachers in high school. I was occasionally labeled an idiot but never a threat.
Day 2 of examining white privilege in my life (July 19).
In the majority of cases- in the three institutions of higher learning that I attended, the theories, writings, philosophies, theologies, and thoughts of people who looked like me made up the syllabi of required courses.
The theories, writings, philosophies, theologies, and thoughts of people of color were taught in elective courses.
That is to say- I could choose to listen to the stories of people of color. I could also choose to keep them silent.
Day 3 of examining white privilege in my life (July 20).
For two years of my life I attended an elementary school that was likely 95% African-American. In the second grade, I was one of four white kids in my classroom. In the third grade, I was one of two.
We had regular substitute teachers at school who had an equally regular habit of disciplining kids by hitting them on their hands or legs with rulers. It was certainly never me and to the best of my recollection it was never any of us within that 5%.
My mother demanded to know why, in his own words, my principal (a white male) allowed this to take place. His words- as close to them as I can recall- “That’s the way that black kids understand discipline.”
Because of my skin color, even in the third grade I was already immune to institutionalized violence.
Day 4 of examining white privilege in my life (July 21).
Like many kids I liked to escape into a world of imagination- most often into a world of comic book superheroes. In that world, I would run faster than the speed of light, exhibit super strength, or fly high above the earth.
I used action figures and wore superhero-theme pajamas. Best of all, come Halloween, I could find a costume and transform into Captain America, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, or the Flash.
There were no Black Panther costumes. No Cyborg. Black Lightning, Luke Cage, Storm, or Falcon.
For Halloween, black kids had to double down on secret identities. Before they could pretend to fly they had to first pretend that they were white.
Day 5 of examining white privilege in my life (July 22).
When I was in 10th grade my class read (or, rather we were supposed to read) Thomas More’s “Utopia”. It was then up to my class to divide into groups and decide upon a “section of society or daily life”. These included things like education, foreign relations, employment, and religion. Then the assignment was to examine them in our own lives and propose a “utopian” version.
Staying true to my tenth grade self I chose “daily life” and focused almost entirely on meals. It was mostly about getting all the major food groups and buying fresh foods.
GOOD FOOD made for a GOOD DAILY LIFE and a GOOD DAILY LIFE made for a GOOD UTOPIA. As per my reputation I thought I’d just give the easy answer.
It wasn’t until my first year in seminary that I learned about “food deserts” created in low-income and primarily minority neighborhoods around the city.
And then I realized that my “easy answer” about food was in response to a question that too many people had not yet been asked.
Day 6 of examining white privilege in my life (July 23).
I moved a lot as a kid and became somewhat of a cultural magnet- picking up a couple habits of phrases from everywhere I lived.
Thanks to my few years in the south, I still find myself using the words “sir” and “ma’am”.
I say it because it’s charming- or at least I like to think so. It often catches New Yorkers off guard.
I say it to show people (especially youth) that I am taking the things that they share with me very seriously. “Sir and ma’am” for gravitas.
I once thought it was good for flirting. Seemed chivalrous and endearing. Exceptional manners could make up for deficiencies elsewhere in my game.
For me, “sir” and “ma’am” indicates charm, respect, and endearment.
Not ONCE did it indicate subservience.
Not ONCE did it indicate fear.
Day 7 of examining white privilege in my life (July 24).
I was required to read American history textbooks in high school and occasionally I did. The common phrase- I wish I knew then what I know now is wholly applicable.
Nowhere was this more applicable than the brief American History course study of the Civil Rights Movement. Medgar Evers was erased. Bayard Rustin was erased. Rosa Parks was one-dimensional. Malcolm was minimized and I was left with the white boy’s version of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Civil Rights Movement was a chapter, no more emphasized or studied than the War of 1812. On page 218 was the Bus Boycott. By 220, “I Have a Dream” was summarized. On 221, King was lost in Memphis. There was a quiz on Friday.
The white boy’s King was a pacifist but also a pacifier. He was the great reconciler. He was a patriot who fixed those bloopers of the Founding Fathers. He was Selma but not Vietnam. He was the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” but not “Why We Can’t Wait”. He was gentle. He was the kind of guy with whom you would share a beer and talk about the bad old days.
He wasn’t Moses who pointed toward the Promised Land. He was the Joshua who got us there.
The biggest appeasement… or the biggest falsehood… was that this face… this prophet… of the Civil Rights movement completed the struggle.
The King that people of color needed to hear and needed to know was watered down for the white majority of us so as to be swallowed with ease. But in reality King didn’t just want the end of segregation but a peaceable Kingdom which he knew, before his martyrdom, was still a long way off.
King wasn’t a quote for a meme that says just peace and love but not justice and anger.
King died for what he believed and if he didn’t die he would quite likely still be alive today and if he were still alive today he would be burning with righteous indignation. He would be marching.
And the Civil Rights movement didn’t end on page 221 of the American History textbook.
It’s still going on today.
Day 8 of examining white privilege in my life (July 25).
Strange debates took place amongst my peers in middle school around affirmative action. White people, so went the one side of the general argument, achieved what they achieved by virtue of hard work. If people of color worked hard as well, they would have no problem reaching the same employment status.
People of color can be successful all on their own.
All by themselves.
Just like us.
My grandfather Gene Bartlett was a Reverend, scholar, author, and President of Colgate Rochester Divinity School.
My father David was a homiletics (preaching) professor at Union Seminary in Richmond where I would later attend and receive a Master in Arts and Theological Studies.
My father was also the Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament and Homiletics at Yale Divinity School where years later I would attend on scholarship and receive my Master of Divinity.
My first theology professor is one of my closest friends and mentors. Our families spent summers together at the beach in North Carolina.
I spent one Christmas Eve sharing drinks with a renowned Old Testament scholar.
My long time family friend and favorite person with whom to share breakfast at the Pantry in New Haven, Connecticut guided me through the ordination process.
Throughout my middle and high school life my dinner table would feature guests who were foremost thinkers, scholars, professors, and practitioners in their fields. They knew my face and my name.
My late grandfather was and my father is an exceptional preacher, speaker, caretaker, and minister.
I am now serving as a minister at a highly esteemed church outside New York City.
This is the first time that I have ever made my personal history into a list of credentials because I find it both humbling and slightly embarrassing.
It is also the first time that I have made my personal history into a list of credentials because no one ever asked. Because they assumed, I suppose, that the white kid could do it all by himself.
Day 9 of examining white privilege in my life (July 26).
For better or worse I tuned in to the Republican National Convention last week. For better or worse I was intrigued by the themes of the night that were, not in this order, “Make America Work Again”, “Make America First Again”, “Make America One Again”, and “Make America Safe Again.”
I was intrigued especially by this last- “Safe”, which was introduced first on Monday evening.
I sat in front of my television in my nice Mamaroneck home with the windows open for a breeze after a hot day and, when I muted the television during commercial breaks, I heard the sound of silence that is the late night hum of my neighborhood.
I predicted the talking points before it began. They were talking points of foreign policy or of acts of terror that breached our shores. The instability in the Middle East, Benghazi, Libya, refugees who had dodged a screening process. And of course the great fear of Radical Islamic Terrorism (“we call it like it is”, said again and again). From ISIS to the Boston Marathon, to 9/11, to Omar Mateen and the Orlando Nightclub.
The usual suspects that, I admit, do induce a certain amount of fear in me even as I enjoy the sound of silence that is the late night hum of my neighborhood.
Late at night I turned on my iPod of the technologically Jurassic Age of 2008.
I listened to Nina Simone.
I heard “Strange Fruit”.
I faced head on the imagery of “Strange Fruit” and it didn’t take long to hear in Nina’s voice a grim yet powerful desperation that never lost relevance.
That heard “Make America Safe Again” and had to question-
“When Was America Ever Safe in the First Place?”
A desperation… a fear… not rooted in foreign policy but a desperation and fear that (mal)nourished the roots of the trees of neighborhoods of people of color a proverbial stone’s throw from my front doorstep.
Strange fruit like Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant. Trees so burdened by black bodies that at any moment those branches must snap.
Yet on MY front lawn- the robins bounce and the squirrels leap throughout the Tree of Life from one limb to the next. From my assured safety of today to my assured safety of tomorrow.
Day 10 of examining white privilege in my life (July 27).
An exercise in brevity of words with exhaustive consequence.
As long as I can remember, my parents told me two things.
God created me.
I am loved for exactly the person I am.
As long as I can remember, society agreed.
Day 11 of examining white privilege in my life (July 28).
There were years when I was more aspirational in my fashion, especially in the days when I consistently listened to (and lived by the code of) the Clash.
Fans of the Clash… and punks in general… didn’t make a whole lot of headway into standard clothing stores and so we did what made the most sense.
We made our way to the Salvation Army thrift stores.
I bought shirts from old gas stations and put “Black Flag” patches where it once said “Valvoline”.
I bought t-shirts and painted things like “Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Mommy’s Little Monster”.
I bought an army jacket and painted the back with the names of bands.
I bought red suspenders that went with my checkered chef pants.
I bought thick-rimmed sunglasses and popped out the lenses to get the Waldo look.
I needed to make sure that I was ready for the next show because, as I knew, the “look” along with the sound and the politics made the punk rocker.
The Thrift Store was purposefully built in a low-income predominantly black neighborhood with a high need for affordable clothing and supplies.
It had recently extended its hours of operation to allow time for working parents in the neighborhood to shop for their kids.
It was sustained by donations and it was very obvious during the weeks when donations ran thin.
All the donations were checked for quality.
Because every person who came to buy clothing there deserved the same dignity as any person who could afford to shop one mile uptown.
Half of my wardrobe came from that store.
I looked great at the next Billy Bragg show.
Day 12 of examining white privilege in my life (July 29).
I have read Ralph Ellison and never been The Invisible Man.
I’ve read Maya Angelou without knowing the inside of a cage.
And Baldwin and Walker and Morrison and Hughes and Hurston.
And DuBois and Giovanni and Haley and Wright.
And Hansberry and Mosley and Brooks and James Weldon Johnson.
And Butler and Baraka and Bambara and soon enough many more to come.
I can love their characters without ever knowing their conflict.
Day 13 of examining white privilege in my life (July 30).
I listen to Curtis Mayfield but never question “the choice of color”.
I sing Sam Cooke without the deep plea for a “change gonna come”.
And Tupac and Mahalia and Chuck D and Marvin and Donnie.
And Otis and Michael and Odetta and Gil Scott-Heron.
And Lauryn and Erykah and KRS-One and Talib Kweli.
And Nas and Nina and Stevie and soon enough many more to come.
I can love black song without knowing black soul.
Day 14 of examining white privilege in my life (July 31).
My band, the Ex-Patriots, has been in existence since I was a sophomore in college.
Lovely sounds of mandolin, fiddle, and tin whistle.
Above them are lyrics- traditional and my own- of a little violence and a lot of vice.
Not once has anyone said anything to me.
Not once, I have to believe, have I been judged on those words.
Replace the mandolin with a beat.
The fiddle with hype.
The whistle with rap.
My color for another.
And don’t touch the words.
I know the story would be different.
Day 15 of examining white privilege in my life (August 1).
Can’t stop watching the news…
Almost every political speech seems to point toward American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism- the idea that we as a nation deeply value life, liberty, and democracy.
The American exceptionalism of the Founding Fathers.
The American exceptionalism of this nation today.
There’s a lot of truth there.
That’s my history.
I am truly moved by it.
But there’s also a great exception to that exceptionalism.
The vision of 1776 was created, cultivated, and sustained by people of color who were once bought as property… once segregated… still systemically oppressed.
Of course that doesn’t lend itself well to prime slot speeches before they drop the balloons.
So I get to hear my version.
Day 16 of examining white privilege in my life (August 2).
A Note to My Fellow Travelers.
We who are white have, above all, the privilege to stay silent.
But as the old adage rightly goes- silence is deafening.
Writing daily about privilege- from Halloween costumes to food deserts to access to higher education to music and literature and film to political speeches… to all those things unjustly distributed according to pigment has been an exhausting task. And it has been — from one day to the next — insightful, rewarding, overwhelming, self-incriminating, reflective, enlightening, empowering, and futile. What has become a less popular adage- “if you are tired talking about it, imagine what it is like to live it.”
We who are white have, above all, the privilege to stay silent.
Yet I don’t really have that privilege. I have a black best friend. And I have a black goddaughter and black godson. And she has recently taken her first steps. And he will soon enough. And they need to know that their godfather walks with her every step of the way, especially over the hurdles.
We who are white feel, above all, the privilege to stay silent.
Yet most of us don’t really have that privilege.
Not if we claim ourselves to be Christian. Or humanist. Or a pragmatist. Or wise to the ways of the world. Or bought into the American dream. Or bought into equality or justice or peace or harmony or hope. Not if we find ourselves in a pulpit, a classroom, a conversation, a relationship. Not if we have the power of social media.
We can read James Baldwin. We can read Ralph Ellison. We can read Alice Walker. We can read Maya Angelou. We can read Richard Wright. But we can get away without it.
We can listen to gospel, soul, Motown, rap, hip-hop. But we can get away without it.
We can put King on a pedestal. Or Rustin. Or Malcolm. We can nod our heads to the sermons of Shuttlesworth or Abernathy. We can grieve Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland or Eric Garner. We can sign off on Tubman on the twenty dollar bill. We can applaud Rosa Parks. We can delve into womanism. We can honor Jackie Robinson and LeBron James and, even better, Paul Robeson and Howard Thurman. We can vote for Barack Obama and check a box. But we can get away without it.
We have inherent power in our minds, bodies, and souls. But we don’t have to speak, march, or dignify.
In two weeks I’ve learned that I don’t know enough.
In two weeks I’ve learned that I demand a lifetime to learn.
In the depth of not fully understanding I offer a plea.
Don’t be silent. We can’t afford silence.
We can’t afford to chase prosperity at the expense of solidarity.
We can’t afford apathy toward suffering.
We can’t afford to dodge hard conversations.
We can’t afford to excuse ourselves.
But we can get away with it.
I lack the advice to offer the “how”. But you’re smarter than I am.
Across this country only one word is good enough. And that word is “enough”.
Day 17 of examining white privilege in my life (August 3).
Collecting and Sporting Hoodies:
My punk rock collection- black Dead Kennedys hoodie, black Descendants “Milo Goes to College” hoodie, black Dropkick Murphys “Do or Die” hoodie, black Social Distortion “Mommy’s Little Monster” hoodie, black The Clash “Straight to Hell” hoodie.
“I like wearing hoodies, but my mom doesn’t like it because she fears for her son’s life.” -17 year old African-American activist David Thete
My superhero collection- red Flash hoodie, green Green Lantern hoodie.
“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” –Geraldo Rivera
My miscellaneous collection- green Oakland Athletics hoodie, gray Oakland Athletics hoodie, gray “Shamrock the Block” hoodie, gray YG hoodie, brown Mr. Zog’s hoodie, green Richmond hoodie.
“If you’re 17 with a hoodie on, watch out for the neighborhood watcher.
If you at the right neighborhood at the wrong time-
This might be your last call to your girlfriend when shots fire.
Man I fear for you, if you 17.
My solids collection- red hoodie, orange hoodie, green hoodie, three blue hoodies, one black hoodie.
“My son was not committing any crimes. Our son is your son … It’s not about [a] black-and-white thing; it’s just about a right-and-wrong thing.” -Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin
I was once stopped in the street and asked where I purchased my Green Lantern hoodie.
Day 18 of examining white privilege in my life (August 4).
A chapter also known as “The Best of Intentions”.
An administrator in one of my prior institutions of education once emailed me to ask if I would like to part of a group photographed for marketing materials. Photos of studying, learning in a classroom, or enjoying the appropriate social aspects of the community.
He said, perhaps jokingly, that he was checking first with the best and brightest.
Of course I obliged and, as this seemed very important, I wore the color that I was told went best with my features. Kelly green.
There were probably eight of us when we met outside the library.
The administrator who was doubling as the photographer repeated the “best and brightest comment” from his email, which I thoroughly appreciated.
Another student, who was African-American and certainly a better student than I was, called out- “And the tokens!”
I could be lovingly honored without being lovingly used.
Day 19 of examining white privilege in my life (August 5).
An initial thought that I had earlier today with some disappointment:
I have had some minimal backlash for talking about race and white privilege for twenty days.
Initial thought rewritten with privileged words capitalized:
I have had SOME MINIMAL backlash for TALKING about race and white privilege for TWENTY DAYS.
Day 20 of examining white privilege in my life (August 6).
This is something my parents taught me but was also drilled into me in Divinity School:
It is essential that we who are white can hear, learn, and grow from the stories of people of color. It is important that we read the work of people of color. And hear those theologies. And listen to the music. And experience the art.
Not just Alice Walker or James Cone or Beyonce.
People of color in our communities.
Nothing can come from hearing the voices and the testimonies of people not-like-us except enrichment and astounding grace.
At Divinity School we called this commandment (because — we should make no mistake — it is a commandment)- “making sure everyone has a voice at the table”.
We have the ability and the duty to make sure all people of color in our communities have a voice at the table.
But we have to also remember, even in 2016, it was people like me who had the privilege to choose what that table looked like. And the chance to arrange the house. And the opportunity to design the neighborhood.
Day 21 of examining white privilege in my life (August 7).
Favorite Summer Activities as a Child:
Baseball and basketball.
Baseball and basketball video games.
Running around the neighborhood pretending to be (depending on the year) a cowboy, a detective, a knight, a member of the Justice League, a Thundercat, a taxi driver, an astronaut, a Minnesota Viking, Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride”.
Staying out late- flashlight tag or catching fireflies.
Imitating American Gladiators and professional wrestlers.
Imagining that I never had to go to school again until I had to go to school again.
I didn’t see Labor Day as honoring working people… it was a signal that I’d have to go back to homework.
In 2014, the American Psychological Association published the results of a study on race, youth, and innocence.
Two short quotes:
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”
To shorthand the short quotes:
We’ve made childhood a privilege.
Day 22 of examining white privilege in my life (August 8).
Back to Basics.
My basic and rightful demand for dignity was never dismissed as a “political issue”.
… Everybody is tired of talking about political issues …
Day 23 of examining white privilege in my life (August 9).
During my first week of college, I came back to school after a trip to the 24-Hour Wal-Mart and ran into my freshman orientation leader Erin (much respect, wherever you may be).
I was likely doing my best to put on a brave face.
Five hundred miles from home seemed like a good idea when I sent out the applications eight months prior.
After pointing to the bags that were filled with various snacks, various cheap clothing items, and a host of cleaning supplies that would certainly never be used,…
Erin said- “You’re already good at this”.
And- a “savvy college student”.
The truth of the matter was that I was joining her (as she joined with her orientation leader two years before) in a long-esteemed way of life.
I was breaking away from home and travelling upward and onward into adulthood.
The game was how to stretch a dollar and everyone was playing it.
People are still playing it but far more than college students are people who need food, clothes, furniture, books, toys, for their loved ones.
Also heard, not from Erin:
Wal-Mart is ghetto.
People who shop at Wal-Mart are ghetto.
They look like they buy their clothes from Wal-Mart….
Which is ghetto.
And yes, “ghetto” is absolutely a racial and absolutely a derogatory term.
People who shop at Wal-Mart are ghetto.
Except people like me.
Day 24 of examining white privilege in my life (August 10).
When I worked at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond, there was a girl in the first grade named Shaniqua. Her father was a police officer. She was an only child. She liked art and writing and recess and lunch but not gym or library.
My full name is Jonah Kenyon Smith-Bartlett.
The Jonah part, chosen by my parents, is Biblical. Kenyon is the passing on of my grandmother’s maiden name. And Elizabeth and I hyphenated Smith and Bartlett because both our last names, and the family histories that come with them, are incredibly important.
There wasn’t a letter in my name that wasn’t chosen without real, painstaking deliberation. There isn’t a meaningless syllable. Every consonant is important and every vowel is vital. There is purpose to my name- signalling my individuality, celebrating my tradition, and having a claim upon me by people and communities who love me.
Other kids in that first grade classroom were- Donyell, Malasia, Shaquasia, Dashard, Imani, Yolanda, Orlando, Keeon, Kevon… and Jonathan, Timothy, and Justin.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard white people joke about the names of people of color… back to the days of Anfernee Hardaway. I admit that I’ve made that mistake too.
But somehow the name that always comes up in those jokes… the stereotypical name… is Shaniqua.
Who was a first grader who liked art and writing and recess and lunch but not gym or library. And her father was a sheriff. And her mother named her. Every sound, syllable, consonant that would celebrate who she is and who she would soon someday become.
But there will be a lot of laughs first.
White privilege is having Anglicized names be “normal” names.
Day 25 of examining white privilege in my life (August 11).
I love my job.
I love it for a number of reasons.
The youth with whom I work are amazing, bright, questioning, caring.
The pastoral staff and administration are dedicated and thoughtful. The congregation is dedicated to mission… not just trips…
but systemic change, prison ministries, programs for women coming out of prison, ongoing relationships with communities not like our own.
The congregation is not afraid of difficult conversations.
Beyond that they are a community that holds each other in deep respect, care, and tenderness.
I am also the beneficiary of a “free pulpit”, even if it that word isn’t used.
I am safe there.
I’m sure that the people in the congregation don’t always agree with my thoughts but they always welcome them and I am blessed to have those relationships.
I am unafraid to discuss theology but also poverty, injustice, gender, sexuality…
And the messages are thematic, because the faith is thematic…
I recognize that these themes-
Grace, Love, Justice, and Liberation-
have been themes of movements for racial equality, reconciliation, and empowerment
for far longer than I have been alive.
I recognize that my themes from the free pulpit in the predominantly white Protestant church are often met with hope and joy.
I recognize that their themes… from the protest lines of people who are black and the front lines of people of color… are often met with animosity and fear.
Day 26 of examining white privilege in my life (August 12).
I hardly did anything in the world of academics that was worth applauding during high school.
I was a good college student. I didn’t work particularly hard but buckled down when the exams came. Otherwise I was racking up scoring records on Madden football.
I was nowhere close to the valedictorian… the words “nowhere close” can’t be emphasized enough.
Still, I did what I had to do, and I robed up for those two graduations. I wore sunscreen both times. I forgot to drink water before the hot day event in high school but remedied that for round two. So, fully robed and fully hydrated I kicked back for the commencement speeches and honest to God…
They were all about me.
Not literally, of course. I failed earth science in ninth grade just because you know why not?
They were all about me.
Because they were all about- you’ve earned your degree!
And now you can do anything!
What you’ve learned here will guide you in every aspect of your life.
The tools that you have been given here at this institution are the same tools that were used by those who came before you to build the whole world and maybe… sure… the stars in the sky.
They were all about me.
I was once told by a black classmate that graduation speeches… from kindergarten to her doctoral degree at an Ivy League school… were never written for her.
For me graduation was the final hurdle. For her it was just the first few steps of a much harder race.
Day 27 of examining white privilege in my life (August 13).
One of the most powerful experiences of my work are mission trips.
Sixteen mission trips down with one on the horizon.
All but one of these service trips took the form of working in communities of people of color.
The few days (hours) before was packing up to leave the house for a week. Safety goggles, safety gloves, work boots, water bottle, something to wear that’s warm, something to wear that’s cool. A bible. And a round trip ticket that I would place in the middle of a Philip Roth book that I wouldn’t really have the time to read.
The work was important and the fellowship was powerful.
But, I think, the most relevant part was hearing those stories- of poverty in those communities, issues with drugs, violence, no access to daily needs. Neighborhoods of people of color where the results of natural disasters still weren’t relieved.
It was putting names to faces.
And narratives to bodies.
And experiences to the entirety of beings.
So race couldn’t be a faceless conversation.
Now you know people who suffer because of race (speaking to myself and all).
You understand your privilege and you, hopefully, find a way that you might be a part of the struggle.
That you might, even, be a part of the solution.
The lasting icon of the trip wasn’t the gloves, boots, or bible. It was the round trip ticket stuck in the Roth novel.
Just as quickly as I could immerse myself into the living testimonies of systemic racism, I could get right back out.
Day 28 of examining white privilege in my life (August 14).
In the fellowship room of my home church in Oakland, California there hung a framed picture called “Black Jesus”.
It didn’t take much more time to realize that for most of the modern depictions this was not the case. In illustrated Children’s Bibles, there was white Jesus. In art museums- paintings of white Jesus. At the Catholic church which I attended in Salvador, Brazil, a city that is ninety-nine person African-Brazilian, there was white Jesus on the walls.
Almost all scholars and historians concede (or vehemently exclaim) that Jesus was a person of color.
There are a multitude of answers as to “why” but I believe the most compelling and most accurate is this- the image of the white Christ was the last gasp of imperialism, the depiction, through Christ, of the empire.
The white savior complex taken to its fullest and most literal embodiment- the body of the Savior is the color of the master, the oppressor, and the exclusive majority. The Son of God who releases you at the end of the story is white.
I have the privilege of a Jesus who looks like me.
But we can’t have radical love without radical reality.
And the reality plays out so well. It plays out so familiar. So recognizable.
The most transcendent of black bodies was innocent, was killed, was deeply grieved by a mother who would forever be defined by loss.
This is white privilege at its cruelest point.
And our privilege, furthermore, is the claim that since the past cannot be undone, the future cannot be changed.
Sometimes the church cannot just be about an individual’s salvation. It can be the agent of transformation, the righter of wrongs, and the center of confessions of centuries past.
The other option is more children frightened by the shepherd because of the color of skin.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Day 29 of examining white privilege in my life (August 15).
I was always trusted by the parents of my friends until I proved myself not-so-worthy of that trust.
Day 30 of examining white privilege in my life (August 16).
When I live on a street named after a white man, or see a face like mine on a stamp- I always assume it is an honor and not a concession.
If a candidate or public figure visits my neighborhood, I wouldn’t wonder if they would have come if it weren’t for the cameras and the photo ops.
When someone says that I am articulate, I count that as a win. It is not a word associated with surprise. It reflects on me and only me.
There are no clothes that I own that would signify me as dangerous or threatening or up-to-no-good.
There is no tragedy in my past or family’s past that people would tell me to “just get over”.
There was always that one food at dinner that I didn’t like. It was usually a vegetable. Mushrooms and olives were the worst. Always one tough food in an otherwise great meal. It made my stomach sick and my head ache and all I wanted was to eat the good stuff and get back to whatever I was doing to put off the night’s homework.
My parents would be good at compromise and we often ended at “just one more big bite and you can be done.”
So I took one big bite and left the table.
After the next one I will have fulfilled my promise to examine these privileges for a month.
Just one more bite.
Then I have the privilege to leave it behind me.
Concluding (Writing About) White Privilege
I had, or perhaps still have, a process to create empathy. Growing up as I child, I don’t remember any truth of the world stronger than my parents’ deep love for me. Despite the fact that it was unquestioned, it was frequently stated. It did not demand to be a requited love but there was no force in the world that could stop it from being just that. From cradle to this afternoon, it has only grown. It firmly held the closest thing that I had to religious certainty- that if anything in creation really could move mountains, it was the love of my parents.
With that love, of course, came both great joy and sorrow. I am fortunate to say that there was much more of the former than the latter.
When I can’t find empathy for another person, for whatever reason, I turn back to the love of my parents.
And I assume that this person- different from me, foreign to me, even the few but frequent antagonists in my story- has that love in their life too. I think, because I must, that all these people were once held in loving arms.
The parents, grandparents, and loved ones of children of color have been weeping for so long.
In that image- the beloved child of color- was my greatest motivation for doing, what was at the end of the day, a task both daunting in its emotional strain and feeble in its effect in the grand scheme of things.
In thirty days I made honest and introspective claims about white privilege in my life though none of them were world-shaking. It started with the easiest, simplest thesis- “I can never fully understand the struggle of people of color”. And a tidal wave from there:
Under-represented. Under-represented in the media. Under-represented in the classroom. Under-represented in the pulpit. Under-represented in the public square. Black culture is a culture that white people envy and thus embrace even as we too often fail to embrace its creators and sustainers.Question: Why is it that Johnny Cash can write odes to drugs and murder but Tupac should be silenced? Question: Why should Martin Luther King Jr. be silenced? Because, make no mistake about it, if the King you know does not make you profoundly uncomfortable, then he has been silenced. Here are some claims for your mis-edification: The clothes you wear lay bare your true character. As does the place you shop. As does the name you give your child (who, certainly, you hold close). End claims. More questions. Is it a race to see how quickly we can turn a victim into a perpetrator? It is a race to see how quickly we can turn black children into “no longer a minor”? Is it a race to see how quickly we can sweep centuries of history under the rug? Filing under best of intentions- “Unless you are Native American, you are an immigrant”. A sentiment aiming for progress at the expense of a muted narrative and many bodies drowned as they crossed the Atlantic. One more question, though. Almost forgot this one. Is it possible for me to wear my Cavs yellow alternate LeBron jersey and not really care about public education in the inner city? Lmk, thanks. Music! It’s still “we shall overcome SOMEDAY”. Pete Seeger, God rest his soul, did not change those lyrics. More importantly, the forty-fourth president did not change those lyrics. Nor did he conclude “A Change is Gonna Come” because yep, it came. Nope, it didn’t. To the Christians– is “Go Down Moses” in your hymnal? Is “Lift Every Voice and Sing”? To the secularists– can you still defend the humanity around the theology? Almost forgot- Jesus was an incarnation of dark pigmentation. Feel free to steal that phrase, a permission never granted to Elvis. Patriotic quote! “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” That was James Baldwin. Did you read James Baldwin in high school? Shakespeare? Odds are on Shakespeare 100–1. Current events (as if these weren’t all current events)! Do you hear “Black Lives Matter” and toss out the words “reverse racism”? Can you name one instance of systemic racism against white people? What are you doing later? Want to watch “Gods of Egypt?” I’d like some escapism from YouTube dash cam videos. Can we #neverforget #emmett #medgar #malcolm #tamir #eric #sandra #oscar #on-and-on-and-on-and-on?
I’d recommend anyone to write about privilege. It was a hugely helpful task for me. Expect backlash. But expect solidarity and gratitude as well.
White friends, you can write about privilege without guilt.
But you can never claim innocence by way of silence.
If you don’t say a word, the weeping will continue.
And the month concluded.