During the past month, in the context of protests for racial justice and police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I have come across an interesting meme several times on social media:
White supremacists use the Bible to justify their racism. Problem is, there are no white people in the Bible.
True, but I did not know that until I was at least in high school. The Jesus I grew up with was white, his Dad was an old white guy with a beard, and the Holy Spirit was a white bird. Jesus’ disciples were white, and every character in the “Children’s Bible” of my childhood was white.
This seemed perfectly normal, because virtually everyone in my life, from my extended family to my small northern New England town, was white. According to Ancestry.com, my heritage on both sides of my family is blindingly white. Scandinavian (mostly Swedish) on my mother’s side, and largely English and Welsh on my father’s side, with a bit of Scottish, Irish, and Belgian thrown in. I was hoping at least for a few outlier percentages of heritage at least from southern Europe, but no such luck. You don’t get any whiter than I am.
The only non-white person I knew until I went to college was an African-American guy who was one year ahead of me in high school, the best player on our pitiful football team, and I only knew him slightly. My first non-white friend was two doors down the dormitory hall during my freshman year at college. I was taught from my earliest memories to respect everyone, to treat everybody as equally important because they were equally important to God. My only knowledge of the history and continuing presence of racism in this country was intellectual and indirect, through books, movies, and current events.
I grew up during the sixties, learned to admire Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, worked hard to keep racist language out of my vocabulary, intolerance from my actions, and truly believed, especially given my white roots, that I not only talked the talk but walked the walk successfully when it came to matters of inclusion. Said the right things, didn’t say the wrong things. But even as I earned a PhD and started teaching philosophy, I found myself in largely white classrooms at predominately white colleges and universities. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after an experience at Walmart, of all places, that I began to realize just how much I did not know and how much work I had to do.
If I truly lived according to my occasionally expressed principles, I would never shop at Walmart. For reasons too numerous to list, Walmart represents many of the worst features of American capitalism. But there are many items that Jeanne and I regularly purchase at Walmart, items that we could get at any number of other retail establishments. So why do we go to Walmart? Because it’s convenient and its cheaper. Principles be damned, apparently—I guess there’s an American capitalist in me after all.
On this particular day, after I purchased my items there was an employee checking the bags of those leaving the store for the parking lot—something that Jeanne and I both find annoying and yet another reason to hate Walmart. There was a Hispanic family in front of me and an African-American guy behind me. After checking the receipt of the family in front of me to make sure everything was accounted for, the Walmart employee at the door (an older white guy) said “You’re good” and waved me through. I said “No, either you check everybody or you check nobody.” Checking my receipt, he admitted, “you’re right.” In the parking lot afterward, the guy who had been in line behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said “Thanks, man–that was nice.”
This was not a typical thing for me to do; I often float through my days less aware than I should be. At Walmart, my awareness usually is only high enough to show the employee my receipt if she or he insists and get the hell out of there. But this time I noticed something and, contrary to my nature, said something about it. “Good for me,” I congratulated myself as I drove home. But over time, I couldn’t get the experience out of my head. For one of the first times in my life, even as a progressive liberal with all of the right attitudes and things to say about racial injustice and inequality, I had become aware of white privilege.
Over the past several semesters, I have started the ‘Race” unit in my ethics course with this simple story. Although the student body and faculty at my college has become far more diverse over the twenty-five years I have taught there (currently the student body is about 18% non-white), the majority of my students still come from upper-middle-class to wealthy white backgrounds, with twelve years of Catholic parochial school education behind them. White privilege is an appropriate place to begin.
White privilege—I confess that although I read about it frequently and have intellectually affirmed that it exists for a long time, in practical terms I have been virtually blind to it for most of my life. My Walmart experience was an epiphany—and it often serves the same purpose for my white students, as they begin to think about their own experiences. One student remembers that time when a security guard followed his non-white friend throughout a store, while he was left alone. Another student remembers the time when, strolling through a familiar neighborhood with a person of color, she heard car doors locking for the first time in her life as she and her friend walked by. The time when the one non-white student in a class was asked to give the “Black” perspective on the issue being discussed. All of a sudden, what has been “normal” begins to look slightly different.
My Walmart experience has, not surprisingly, also caused me to reconsider my commitment to following Jesus. Despite the intellectual and religious knots certain white Christians twist themselves into attempting to keep a semblance of their faith in tact while embracing their privilege and specialness, there is nothing in the gospels that specifies such surface level characteristics as even worthy of our notice as we seek to bring the love and inclusiveness of Jesus into the world. Recognizing that the world I’m trying to do this in is often fractured by and infected with discrimination and intolerance should be a reminder of just how important, difficult, and radical the message of the gospels actually is.
Human beings are naturally wired biologically to be tribal, to define ourselves in terms of who is most like us, and particularly in terms of those who are least like us—even if the differences in play are superficial and random. By random luck of the draw, I happen to be white in a culture and country that has systematically favored people who look like me for centuries, in ways that have become structurally embedded in how our society operates at its core. Dismantling these structures requires far more than simply “not being racist.” It requires recognizing, first, that I am the recipient of favor and privilege every day I walk out the door, just because of the color of my skin.
Next, it requires a new dedication to listening rather than pontificating, to standing with rather than platitudes, and to participating in the creation of a world in which I am no longer privileged because of the color of my skin. I cannot fully enter into the rage, anger, and thirst for justice that has been so palpable as a driving force in the demonstrations, protests, and riots of the past few weeks, because I will never know what it is like to live in fear in situations in which I have never had to fear, to struggle to open doors that have never been closed to me, or to swim against a tide that I have floated on top of my whole life simply because I am white.
I saw a young white woman, roughly the age of my students, holding a sign at one of the protests recently. She was wearing a mask and seeking (sort of) to socially distance from the three or four other young white women standing around her. Her sign expressed something that many of my white students have expressed during discussions of white privilege in my ethics classes.
I understand that I will never understand. But I stand with you.