It’s Not Your Fault, But It is Time to Own It – A Pastor/Mama’s Reflections on White Privilege

Liam the day I baptized him, Oct. 2012.

Liam the day I baptized him, Oct. 2012.

I learned about white privilege early. Before it was a thing people talked about, really. I grew up as a white kid in a largely black neighborhood, just across the river from Washington, D.C. I went to elementary school in Alexandria, VA, just a few years after integration was completed. I knew early on, without being able to express it in words, that I was treated differently from my peers of other skin tones. While I learned about the Great American Melting Pot, I saw and felt that it was not entirely true. It didn’t take great skill. I only had to look at the way things shook out at my school. While the demographic makeup of the school was 75% African-American, the gifted and talented program was overwhelmingly white. Out of 30 kids in the program my first year, only 7 were black. And while most of the teachers in the school were black, the teachers for the gifted program were white. I’ve spent a lot of years processing this since then, and I know that I read a lot into it. Maybe my classmates saw things differently. But looking back, I can’t help but feel that systematic injustice and white privilege were already a reality for me, even at age 10.

White privilege is a fact. I know it is an uncomfortable fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. And it’s time to be clear about that. Okay, it’s long (long long long) past time. Every time I see an incidence of white privilege, every time a black friend relates to me a story of having been passed over at the jewelry counter in favor of the white lady behind her, every time a black co-worker tells me he was followed around the store where we worked by the security guard because he was not in his uniform, every time I hear about yet another unarmed black man killed for walking while black, I have thought to myself that we need to speak out, that we need to act. But I have not known how, or I have been afraid to upset my parishioners, or I have felt that now was not the time.

But I can’t keep silent anymore. Because of Liam. Liam was born to Heather, my oldest friend, two years ago. He is of mixed race, but I know that the world will see him as black. The last time I saw Heather and Liam, she asked me a question that has made the news of Michael Brown the tipping point for my (publicly held) silence. If, God forbid, anything should ever happen to her, Heather asked if my husband and I would raise Liam. And without hesitation, I said yes. And then I thought I should probably ask my husband, and he, who is more and more a saint every day, replied, “I’m trying to think of a reason to say no, and I can’t.” And so we are named as Liam’s guardians, if ever the need should arise.

For obvious reasons, I pray hard that this will never, ever happen. But this week, I have been thinking about how, if it did, my husband and I would have to teach Liam how to be a black man. And how utterly ridiculous that sentence is. We have a son of our own. Our 7-year old Holden is already well on the way to becoming an intelligent, thoughtful, kind-hearted, generous man. And that is all I have to teach him. He is a blond-haired, blue-eyed white boy who will be a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man. He will have the advantage of assumed innocence in most circumstances. He will be able to wear his hair any way he chooses, to pick his clothing and his house and his car and his career and even his diction, without those choices being criminalized. If he chooses to take time off from work, people will assume he’s “finding himself.” If he decides not to marry his baby-mama some day, people will think he’s choosing an alternative lifestyle. If he for some reason decides to carry a semi-automatic weapon into Target, people will think he is practicing his 2nd amendment rights. Holden will almost never be automatically suspect. And we will never have to teach him how to be a “white” man. Because “white” is the default setting in our society.

Liam, on the other hand, has to be taught more. Just like Holden, Liam will learn how to be a man. That’s the same

Holden and Liam playing at the park this summer.

Holden and Liam playing at the park this summer.

whatever the race. So of course his mother is teaching him how to be an intelligent, thoughtful, kind-hearted, generous man, and we will do the same, if called on. But there is more that Liam has to learn. He has to learn how his choices in hairstyle, clothing, housing, car, career, and diction all affect the way others see him, and could be subject to jail or fines if he chooses the wrong thing. He has to learn that, even if he is supporting and living with his baby-mama, if they aren’t married, he may be seen as a “deadbeat dad” and confirmation of a stereotype. He will find his entrance into college called into question on the basis of quotas, and may have his time off between college and career seen as unemployment and laziness, even if he really is just “finding himself.” If he for some reason decides to carry a weapon, any weapon, even a toy weapon, into Target, or anywhere else, he has a greater chance of be thrown in jail or even shot before any questions are asked. He will almost always be automatically suspect. He will have to learn the posture of “hands up, don’t shoot.” And he will have to learn it early, because black male children are seen as “men” so much younger than white male children. While my biological son Holden will still be considered a child at age 12, his brother Liam will be subject to stop-and-search protocols in most large cities in the country. Liam will have to be taught how to be a man, and how to be a “black” man. And if I ignore it, I do so to his peril.

So I ask you, because I honestly don’t have an answer: how do I do this? How do I teach both of my sons that they are

Look at how this beautiful boy grows!

Look at how this beautiful boy grows!

beloved children of the living God? That God came into the world to live and die for them, and to take away their shame and their fear? That the only identity they have is in the grounding of love? And then, how do I turn around and teach one of them that fear may not rule him as regards his soul, but it sure as hell rules his daily living? How do I teach them both that the only thing that owns them is the love of God and that God loves not only them but each and every person they meet; and then turn around and teach one of them that he will be treated by many people, and most especially by the system that governs his life, as if God does not love him? As if he were not worthy?

This is the truth. And I know that many of us white folks would rather not go into it. We would like to see reconciliation. We would like to see peace and happiness and good community relations. But the thing is, reconciliation is going to require some truth-speaking. If we cannot look at this thing head-on, if we are afraid of the conversation, then it will continue to rule us. In my tradition, we call this sin, and we are called on to repent. And repentance, like reconciliation, requires facing some hard truths.

So let’s face it: we are afraid. We are defensive and ashamed and, God bless us, just plain ignorant. Many of us live in places where we are not confronted by this reality. Or we think we do. Many of my neighbors in Washington, MO, think that this is a St. Louis problem, not a problem for our little town. We look at our own lives and think, I don’t have it so great. What white privilege? And our guilt and shame shut us down, and we refuse to even begin the conversation. So at the risk of sounding like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, I want to say this: “It’s not your fault.” It’s not. This is a system that we inherited, because it has roots hundreds of years old. It’s not your fault. And it is not about you specifically. When the issue of race comes up, you don’t have to get defensive and claim that you’re not privileged because you don’t live a charmed life either. It’s not your fault, and it’s not about you. It is so much bigger than you and so much bigger than me. It is a system, a cultural reality, an undercurrent to every aspect of American life. But the truth is, though it is not your fault, this reality affects you, it affects us, no matter where we live. And until we begin to own it, it will own us.

So it’s time to start speaking the truth. It’s time to start owning the reality of white privilege. Because the only thing that should own us is Love.

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The Fierce Urgency of Now – Reflections on MLK

I was not raised a Christian, and the last thing that I ever imagined myself doing for a career, was being a Christian pastor. I was brought up in a secular humanist home, and raised with the ideals of equality and justice as the guiding principles of our family. One of the main reasons that my family was not a church-going family, was because of my father. He was born in 1945, in Prattville, Al., just 12 miles north of Montgomery. He turned 10 in October of 1955, 2 months after the death of Emmett Till, and 2 months before Rosa Parks refused to submit to the indignity of giving up her seat on the bus. I do not know the full story of how that year of the Montgomery bus boycott affected my father, but I do know this: one of the reasons that he and I never went to church, was because in his mind, the church that he was raised in had been complicit in the racism, the segregation, the hatred, and the violence that he was surrounded with as a child. God, he knew, somehow instinctively, God did not condone this behavior. But the church did. And he was not interested in buying what they were selling.

In 1977, my parents divorced, and my mother, who is from North Carolina, moved back South. My father and I stayed in the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked for the federal government. That year, he made about $6000. He could not possibly afford to stay in our home in a modest working class white neighborhood of Alexandria, VA. We moved. With the help of government subsidies and urban renewal programs, he bought a small townhome in the predominately African-American Del Rey neighborhood of Alexandria. He didn’t move there to make a statement. He didn’t move there to make trouble. He moved there because it was affordable, and it was close to where he worked, so he could be home quickly if I needed him.

Even if you are unfamiliar with Alexandria, VA, you probably know the film Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington. That was my high school. In fact, the main character, Herman Boone, was my 9th grade gym teacher, though unfortunately he did not look anything like Denzel Washington. If he had, I might have liked gym class a whole lot better. In any case, I started 2nd grade, just 5 or 6 years after desegregation, at an elementary school that was 75% black. We had assemblies with speakers like Kim Fields (you remember Tootie?) – she was only 2 years older than us, and she rollerskated down the aisle of the auditorium! And when Jesse Jackson came to give his “I Am Somebody” speech, it was like a church revival!

All of this background is to say, that I was blissfully ignorant of racial tensions for the first many years of my life. I lived in an integrated neighborhood, had friends of many races, including Latino and Asian immigrants who went to my school. When I saw the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about the Great American Melting Pot, I thought it was true. America was a melting pot, and it was possible that we could all get along, no matter what our background.

Then one day, I was walking to the store a couple blocks over to get something for my dad, I don’t remember what, and I passed one of the neighborhood girls. She was a few years older than me, but we had played together, especially when we were younger. Her grandmother lived next door to us, and used to babysit me sometimes. This day, she was outside with a friend of hers, they were probably in 8th grade, I was in maybe 5th, and I smiled at her, and called her by name, and said hi. And she said, “What are you looking at, white girl?” I was confused. Maybe I had done something to upset her? When I got home, I told my dad about it, and he gave me “the talk.” He explained to me what I had never understood before, that race means something, not because it really means something, but because we, our society, has decided it does. And he taught me how to be careful, and how to be kind, and how to be compassionate. And most of all, he taught me that I could never know another person’s story until I asked, and that everyone, no matter what they look like, deserves the chance to tell it.

Not everyone in the room probably knows about “the talk.” Or when they hear that phrase, they only think of the birds and the bees. But the fact is that most black folks have “the talk” with their kids at some point in their lives, often way too young. Because an African-American parent, in addition to keeping their kids fed and healthy and loved and educated, also has to keep their kids safe. And part of keeping their kids safe is having “the talk.” Explaining to them that, because of the color of their skin, the world is not as easy to navigate as it is for their white friends. Explaining to them that what they wear and how they talk matters more to their safety than it does for a white kid their age. Teaching them how to avert their eyes, how to make themselves look smaller and meeker, not to wear hoodies, where to drive. A parent of an African-American child, especially of an African-American son, has to teach them somehow that, while they are a wonderful, strong, beautiful person with incredible gifts to offer to the world, the world will not see them that way, simply because of the color of their skin. It is not a conversation that anyone wants to have. It is really not a conversation that anyone should have to have. But I think it is time for it to become a conversation that we all have. Every one of us.

Because all of us need to start naming the racism in our culture, placing it in the spotlight, and letting it be known. White, black, latino, asian, all of us. We need to have this talk with our kids, with our parents, with our cousins and aunts and uncles, with our friends and our neighbors. We need to have this talk in our schools, in our churches, in our town halls. We need to have this talk in the media and around our dinner tables. To ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to let others teach our children about racism, is the same thing as saying that it is okay with us, that we don’t mind the way things are, or that we have already been defeated by it. We need to share the responsibility, name the evil, and teach our children peace.

And we have the gift of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy as a starting point. We have his writings, like the Letter from Birmingham Jail. We have his speeches, like the I Have a Dream speech. And we have his life, lived out of love, lived toward freedom. And I have spent time over the years studying and listening to them all. I have listened because in my 75% black elementary school, 100% of the students in the gifted program came from white families; because my daughter’s godmother gets ignored at the counter in jewelry stores; because my best friend since I was 5 had a black son this year. I have listened because I am a preacher, and I want to learn how to preach; because I am a Christian, and I need to be preached to; because I am a leader, and I want to learn how to lead toward the Beloved Community. I have listened because I am a white woman in a white world and I want to learn how to be change; because the dream has not yet come true; because I am a mother. And I have begun to have “the talk.”

What I want for my children is that they learn these dreams.

What I want for my community is that we dream these dreams.

What I want for my church is that we speak these dreams.

What I want for my nation is that we live these dreams.

And so I turn to Dr. King once again, and I find that he has shown us the way. He led by example, and taught us how to have this conversation, how to have the talk together.

First of all, be kind. Speak of the wrongs that you see, name them, bring them into the light, examine them, and call them wrong. But don’t badmouth those who do them. Have compassion for them, because they are victims, too. They are victims of hatred and of fear, and you can love them because they, too, are God’s children. Martin Luther, for whom Dr. King was named, wrote that “Thou shalt not bear false witness” means that we do not lie about, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the best possible way.” Luther would have been proud of his namesake.

When I was in seminary, I met a woman who worked with Dr. King in the early 1960s. She told of a meeting where they trying to figure out how to win Robert Kennedy’s support. As they talked, she said, the meeting became a Kennedy bashing session. Finally, Dr. King stood up and told the room, “This meeting is over until you can give me a list of Kennedy’s good qualities.” And he left. He would not stand for slander or defamation, even if they were true. What he wanted to focus on was the other person’s humanity, their positive qualities. He knew what it was like to be dehumanized. He knew that the spirit of the racist is held captive, that hatred of others eats away at one’s humanity. He knew that when you demonize, you become a demon; when you victimize, you become a victim; when you allow hate to guide you, you lose sight of love, and bit by bit, your soul is torn apart. He would not have it. He would not speak it himself, and he would not be a party to it in others. “Come back when you can give me a list of his good qualities.”

Secondly, fear is the tool of the enemy.

Throughout the Scriptures, we hear stories of people placing fear above love – for fear of the desert, the Israelites were ready to go back to Egypt; for fear of losing his wealth, the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus; for fear of the Emperor, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. But Jesus did not allow his own fear to rule him. Though he was afraid, though he prayed until he bled, begging God to take this cup from him, still he went to the cross, for love. It was love that led him to Jerusalem, love that led him to the cross, and love the broke through the bonds of death on Easter morning. And love is what needs to guide our conversation. Love that is the ground of forgiveness, the root of reconciliation, the heart of the coming kin-dom.

Finally, for those of us who are people of faith, while we root this conversation, this talk, in our faith, we do not need to use our faith as a weapon. This is not a time to evangelize, at least not in the common sense of the word. Instead, this is a moment to demonstrate to others what we know we have received, love, acceptance, forgiveness, acceptance. Like Dr. King, our language may be the language of Scripture. After all, every speech he ever gave was grounded in Scripture, whether he was speaking in a church or in a public square. And yet, it was done so gently, so kindly, and so beautifully, that as a non-Christian, I never knew it. All those years growing up, all those times that I heard him speak, and I never once felt like he had beat me over the head with the Word of God. Believe me, I have heard plenty of other preachers who preach from Scripture, and when you walked away, you thought that you had been bludgeoned by a Bible. But for Dr. King, the Word of God was a part of the way he thought, the way he spoke, the way he lived. It was infused into his work the way that the scent of magnolia infuses the air in early summer. So that, when I was 28, sitting in church on Pentecost, it was his words that I heard ringing in my ears as I heard the words of Scripture, “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” And it was as if he had wrapped up a gift for me, and delivered it to my doorstep. It was a gift of grace, in which he made the words of faith come suddenly alive. It invited me into faith in a way that few preachers ever have. Over thirty years after his death.

It is a gift that we can share with others as we use the language of faith to shine a light on racism and hatred.

Finally, while there are certainly many other things that we can take from the legacy of Dr. King into our national conversation, I want to reassert “the fierce urgency of now.”

4 years ago today, I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and I had “the talk” with my daughter. She was almost 7 at the time. We had traveled to DC to attend the first inauguration of an African-American President. And she, who still to this day describes new friends and acquaintances simply by skin tone and hair texture, not by ancestral homeland or racial categories, she wanted to know why we had driven 20 hours in the freezing cold, and why we were standing out there with all those people, and why we were crying with joy and hugging strangers. And I had to explain to her the horror of human sin, the history of human failing, the brokenness of the world. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. And it is even harder to tell her that this struggle is not over. That we still have so far to go, that we still have not achieved the dream that Dr. King shared on those steps. That the fierce urgency of now has not diminished with time. That we are still a divided society, and that we still demonize and dehumanize one another in the name of fear, in the name of power, in the name of economic gain, and God forgive us, in the name of God’s own self. That we are still so busy justifying ourselves that we fail to testify to love. That we still, to use Dr. King’s words, drink from “the cup of bitterness and hatred” rather than standing on “the high plane of dignity & discipline.”

We are a society that is divided, by color, by class, by ideology, by religion. We are divided by lines we can see, and by lines that we cannot see. But these divisions are of our own making, and they can be unmade. These chains have been forged by human hands, and can be broken. Following in the footsteps of Dr. King, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and recognize the possibilities of God’s promised and preferred future. Through our words and actions, through our conversations and relationships, we can embrace the fierce urgency of now; seek the good in our neighbors and in our adversaries; find the human face of love in even the most twisted face of hate; and teach our children to speak out of the power that they have inherited, out of the pages of justice and freedom found in their own faith traditions. We need to have the conversations; the talks that scare us and make us cringe and shrink, because that is the only way to overcome our fear, to bring light into dark places. It is our responsibility and our privilege, it is the gift that has been given to us, we Christians believe, by a savior who would give his life for the world, but it is not the domain of Christians alone. It was that gift that gave Martin Luther King, Jr., the strength and the courage to begin a conversation that had only ever been had in fear and hatred.

It is a gift that he shared with us, the dream that he dreamed for us: to let love drive out hate, speaking truth to power, clearly and proudly, knowing that we can overcome fear, hatred, and all darkness, knowing that we shall overcome.

Together.