But you don’t need a lecture from me and I’m not up for delivering one, anyway. I can quote you statistics all day long and if you don’t buy into white privilige, I won’t change your mind. As angry as I am, as heartbroken as I am, I realize that the Amos text on justice is but empty words on this morning of lament. They are out of place on this heavy morning.
Instead, I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to practice that wholehearted discipleship thing I talk so much about and I’m going to be vulnerable. One of the new co-moderators of our denomination issued a challenge to pastors this week. She wrote:
Okay, white family. Let me talk to you right quick…
For those of you who ask “How long?” or “How many times must this happen?” I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.
White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need anymore of those. It’s confession time.
So I’ll confess.
I’m white. My great grandfather came over from Germany around 1905, so Im pretty sure that my family never participated in Amercian slavery. This is one of the great lies I’ve bought into. I often let that fact that my family is a recent arrival cover over the truth that my family benefits daily from the infrastructure, the economy and the culture this country built literally on the backs of slaves. I lie to myself about how I benefit from the legacy of slavery and the continued degradation of African Americans and people of color in this country. And so, I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice. As much as I wish that I wasn’t. I am so thoroughly privileged that, in the words of Jan Edmonton, I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time. Though, I’ll tell you this, moving to little village in 2008 really helped open my eyes to that privilege. I’ll talk about that some more in just a minute.
My first memory of being aware of race and the differences between whites and blacks was this awkward moment in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was my son’s age…about 5 or so. I was there with my brother, who was three, and we were eating cereal. Frosted Flakes.. I can still remember the pattern of the bowl and the taste of the cereal. My grandmother was going on a rant about how she used to call black people one (awful name) and then she had to call them (another awful name) and then (another awful name) and now she was being told she couldn’t even call them negroes. And she was offended. Like it was black people’s fault that they hadn’t consulted with her before they decided to fight back against the racist and terrorist labels that society used to put them in their place. That’s not the terrible part of the story, though. The terrible part is that no one corrected her, confronted her or even really disagreed with her.
Friends, I’ve been witness to some variation of that story hundreds of times in my life – where someone in a room full of white people will say something racist or degrading and no one has the courage to confront. We roll our eyes and look down at our desk and maybe we silently judge, but we let that racism live and breath and roam at will through the room.
Living in Little Village and being surrounded by people of color has been a reality check for me. Now, when I’m surrounded by white people, I notice the way our very language is steeped in white supremacy so much more. I’ve also been forced to confront the fact that I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume: I am not afraid of the police. I assume that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light and that being killed by the cops isn’t even in the realm of possibility. I assume that when I walk into a fancy department store on Michigan Avenue, that I belong there and I expect that I won’t be tailed by security. I’m poor – I don’t belong in those stores! But I still expect to belong. I assume that I can get a loan if I need it and just the fact that I did get a loan (with my credit score!) in Little Village in 2008, when many of my Mexican neighbors were either being foreclosed on, evicted or turned down for a loan, demonstrates that my assumptions are right. I love my neighborhood and its one of the places I could afford to live in 2008 but the fact that I’m there is an example of Amelia and I benefiting from a racist system.
I assume that when I call the police, they will come. I also assume that when they come, they will actually help and that I won’t end up over the hood of their car, getting my pockets turned out. I’ve seen that happen to my neighbors too many times to count. One night, a neighbor of mine who has a real grudge against the gangs got shot. He is very confrontational and he has these two huge pitbulls and he will frequently walk right up to the guys with the guns and confront them. I really admire him. One night in the middle of winter, we heard him yelling and his dogs going crazy and then we heard what must have been ten shots. It was the middle of the night and I thought, they just killed Sheldon! I threw clothes and a hoodie on and ran down the block. He was standing on the corner, hand bleeding, screaming, they shot me! They shot me! Not long after that cops starting rolling past us real slow and he kept trying to flag them down. Not one would stop. Until, that it, I lowered my hood and they saw the white face. Then a cop stopped and got out. I can’t pretend like that doesn’t happen. Not anymore.
So what do we do? We hear all the time that we should pray but that isn’t enough. Not for me.
First, I think we can start the hard work of admitting to our own privilege. We can start by no longer being silent when we hear white supremacy at work. We can start by acknowledging our own complicity in the racist systems that hold us all captive. For my skeptics out there – this doesn’t mean that we are all bad people. On the contrary, I try really hard to be a good person and I think I am a fundamentally decent human being…but I benefit from bad systems, I contribute to bad systems, I have been socialized and indoctrinated into a racist system. We need to learn to live in the tension between those two realities.
Starting in September, I will be asking the session to read Waking Up White with me and I want to invite any of you who would like to join us to do so. Watch my blog and the Chimes for more information on that in the weeks to come.
For my white folk out there, you need to talk about race with other white people. We need to take the stigma out of this conversation and we need to deal with our own fragility. This is our work to do and no one else.
This is the work we need to do…we will change the world when we learn to change ourselves. Our political leaders have failed us for too long on this issue and perhaps this is a place the church can lead. If we, with a common calling, a common baptism and a common savior, can learn to have these hard conversations, if we can be the change we want to see in the world, then maybe we can actually change the world. Or, at the very least, we can be faithful neighbors to one another. This is holy work. Thank you for letting me confess to you today. Let us pray…