Last December, I had the amazing opportunity to go to InterVarsity’s missions conference called Urbana (though it doesn’t take place in Urbana, IL anymore). And while I would love to tell you about all the incredible things I learned there, today I only want to talk about a specific issue: privilege and racial relations in the US.
Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on this topic by any means, so I will speak only on what I feel I have authority to speak on. But I can’t be silent. Because people are dying. And I know that me writing these few hundred words won’t do much, but I can’t just sit back, not talk about it, and not care about this. Michelle Higgins fiercely asserted at the conference, “Inactivism is not hate. But it is not love.”
Privilege. It’s a nasty thing, and extraordinarily tricky. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but privilege gifts blindness to those who have it. It’s like covering a dead body with perfume in hopes that that will mask the putrid smell of death.Here’s an example. Two weeks ago, a black woman was shot and killed by police in San Francisco, and I only know that because I went looking for it. Did I see anything on facebook, anything on twitter? No. Because it’s not an issue I personally deal with, I didn’t even know it happened.
We fiercely, continuously spray the perfume on. When dozens of Europeans are killed, we all publicly mourn, but when almost the exact same number of people are killed in Turkey a week before, no one bats an eye. Except for the people who care about Turkey, me being one of them. But I’m totally in the wrong here too. I care about Turkey because I was born there, and I lived there, not because I intentionally sought out the problems of the rest of the world. I am not good at keeping up with the global problems. I prefer to shield my eyes and only read about bacteria, social issues, and theology. I used to blame the problem on the media covering the sympathetic issues more, but it’s also me. The bombings in Turkey were an eye-opening experience for me, because it showed me how I only care about the people and places that are close to my heart. And man, is that uncomfortable.
I want to say that black suffering in our country is not my story. And in most senses, it’s not. I am not the one who has to worry that my skin color will keep me from getting a job when I am completely qualified. I am not the one who has to worry about my little brother being sentenced to death (whether intentionally or not) because of our skin color. That is not my story, and it is not my place to come in and tell you that story. My story is one of privilege. I almost certainly don’t know the depths of my privilege. My story is that my ancestors came to this country on the Mayflower (I’m so white; I know!), almost certainly abused the Native Americans who already lived here, and later slaves from Africa and the West Indies, all people with families, hopes, and dreams. The role of the persecutor is in my blood, and that is painful to think about. Of course I am not defined by what my ancestors did, but it is still feeds into of the privilege that is a part of my story.
Systematic racism exists in our country today. I’m not saying that because I myself have judged it to be so, but because I have listened to the stories of people who have faced injustice and discrimination. So, let’s all decide to take the blindfolds off, to stop using our privilege as an excuse for ignorance. Don’t say what is or isn’t racist when you haven’t checked the privilege that is clouding your view. It’s not your story, so learn to be comfortable in your ignorance (and strive to educate yourself, of course–my point is that you will never be completely knowledgeable on this, because you don’t have to live through it). Learn to be comfortable in what makes you uncomfortable instead of in complacency. I started this blog post a week ago, but I’ve refrained from posting it because of how uncomfortable it makes me. But I’m finally posting it because it’s important to talk about this.
So we’re privileged. Now what? Now we listen. Now we learn. There’s so much for us to learn, to just pay attention to in the first place. It’s interesting because in December of 2014 I wrote a post pretty similar to this one, saying: “I have privilege, I don’t pay attention to racial relations, I should listen, etc.” But I didn’t do a good job with that. I didn’t seek out opportunities to learn more, and I became comfortable with complacency. So hopefully I’ll do better this time. I actually think I already am making progress, which is exciting. Either way, I’ve done enough talking.