by Anna Kate McWhorter, Staff Writer
As the holy family of God, we are called to have the hard conversations. We each have a lot of growing to do, but that growth will not happen if we shy away from the discussions that make us feel icky. In the past couple of weeks, I have found myself in conversations with other students who have noted their own discomfort with conversations regarding race. In light of these conversations and the powerful panel discussion held on the removal of the Confederate flag, here is a quick crash-course in white privilege for my fellow white folk…
The Driver and the Cyclist
One of the best illustrations I know about this is the comparison of a driver and a cyclist. A driver may hit some potholes; she may have to pay for some repairs here and there, but is generally more protected than the cyclist. Hence, she will never be able to fully understand the experience of the cyclist. The cyclist is far more vulnerable to the elements than the driver (due to windshield wipers, heat, air conditioning, a roof). The person on the bike feels the splash of a mud puddle, inhales exhaust fumes. The cyclist can be run off the road without you, in your car, ever noticing. The driver is aware of sharing lanes with people on bikes, but the cyclist has to maintain a heightened sense of awareness in order to survive. The cyclist must yield to the driver in many cases. Both commuters are carrying on with their way of life, attempting to do the best they can to arrive at their destination, but the driver’s journey is considerably easier.
What does systemic racism actually look like?
Our criminal justice system is only one small piece of what institutionalized racism looks like in our country, but it is perhaps one of the most alarming examples. While people of color only comprise about 30% of the population in the United States, they make up 60% of the prison population. One in three black males born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison. Part of what’s so striking in these numbers is that these disparities don’t come up because people of color are necessarily more likely to be committing crimes. Five times as many white folks report using illicit drugs than black folks; however, white people are ten times less likely to go to prison for such crimes. On average, African Americans spend as much time in prison for drug crimes as whites do for violent crimes. Well over 500 people have been killed by law enforcement officers so far in 2015, with black Americans twice as likely to die.
Acknowledging White Privilege ≠ White Guilt
Conversations surrounding racial injustice and oppression are not intended to make you feel guilty. If you feel like you are being attacked in such a conversation, it may very well be that there is a miscommunication at hand. (For example: the phrase “black lives matter” makes some people uncomfortable. The misunderstanding at hand: saying that black lives matter is not the same as saying that other lives don’t matter. It’s simply a reminder that our country in particular needs to hear). If you are a white person feeling unsettled in a conversation about race or racial oppression or the many issues involved in the complicated mess of injustice, that is a good thing. Feeling uncomfortable is part of the process of unlearning oppressive behaviors. No, you were not around when slavery was going on. Maybe none of your ancestors were either. But systemic, institutionalized racism is still alive and well in our society today, and you directly benefit from it.
White Privilege in the Classroom
Why is it important to critically engage with—and perhaps even openly criticize—texts written by white male theologians? Because in many cases, those are the only voices we grew up reading, or read now. Because so many other voices have been silenced throughout human history, or deemed less than in the recording of that history. This does not mean that there is no space for white people to have a voice in such conversations. It does mean that you need to be aware of how much you are speaking. Pay attention to power dynamics. Have only white people been speaking since class started? Then maybe it’s time for you to sit back and listen for a while.
As people of faith, we are called to be the love of Christ in situations such as these. (Let us remember that while we are called to comfort the afflicted, we are equally required to afflict the comfortable). If we want to call ourselves white allies to the cause of racial justice, we need to learn to be open—even if not fully comfortable—with conversations about race. And many times that will mean simply listening to our brothers and sisters of color.
Finally, let me be clear: I do not have the authority on this topic. If we want to critically engage with issues of race, we need to be talking to people who don’t look like us. To borrow the sentiment of organizer and activist James Ian Tyson…I am white; therefore, I am typically given the loudest voice in the room, which is probably why I’m talking right now, and probably why you should go read what some other people have to say instead…
- Anything written by James Baldwin, bell hooks, or Audre Lorde
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil by W.E.B. du Bois
- eBook version available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15210/15210-h/15210-h.htm
- Black Girl Dangerous (Mia McKenzie): http://www.blackgirldangerous.org
- “I, Racist” by John Metta: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-metta/i-racist_b_7770652.html
- Plain Jane Activism (Mae Suramek): http://plainjaneactivism.blogspot.com
(Statistics listed come from The Guardian, the NAACP, and Dr. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow).
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.