It’s been just a few days since a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Michael Brown, a black unarmed teenager, was shot and killed on August 9, 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.
I don’t have much to say about any of this that hasn’t already been said or written. I think there’s enough people who have followed this case much more carefully who have more respectable opinions than I do. I think you should read their thoughts. I think you should ask questions and seek out and find out what you think based on the information released.
But I have learned one major point about myself through Ferguson. I have realized that no matter how much I have believed and want to believe that “white privilege” doesn’t exist, that it’s a dated and foreign concept, that I live in a society where opportunity sees no color, gender, religious affiliation, etc., I do have “privilege” just for being white. I have opportunities because of the color of my skin and I’ve not had to feel the personal affects of deeply painful parts of this country’s history because I am white. I am treated differently. And I am uncomfortable outside of my white race. But I am trying to embrace what’s uncomfortable.
It’s true that I have worked hard. It’s true I studied hard. It’s true I’ve been in some really hard places and experienced ugly things that not many, if any, of my “white” friends can relate to. I have often thought that experience-wise, I’d identify more with some black culture. I’ve half joked that I should have been born black, that I’d fit better in a different race than my own.
It’s true that I find a different type of solidarity in a non-white church and prefer that to a predominantly white church. It’s true that I don’t love white christian music and that I know many talented non white instrumentalists, but there seem to be proportionately more instrumentally talented musicians in white culture in America than other races.
I have white friends. I have black friends. I have hispanic and latino and asian/indian, and yes, even Texan friends (because we all know Texas has it’s own brand of people). I never considered myself racist or racially biased. But what I am finding is that I am. And it unnerves me.
I currently go to church in a neighborhood of Boston that has a high crime rate. I lived in this neighborhood too. We didn’t walk home after dark. The summer was the worst. You would hear gun shots and teen fights from bed most weeks. I shut my windows before it got dark or else the smell of pot would waft in. It was a weekly occurrence to find condoms near our house entrance. Sometimes, I would stay in my car if I came home after dark and there was a man walking near my house. I would lock the car door and pretend to be on the phone. Sometimes we’d call home ahead of time and ask a roommate to leave the first door unlocked (quick entrance, less key maneuvering). I was one of a few whites living in a predominately black neighborhood.
Seems like a safe plan right? I mean people regularly carry whistles and mase where I lived. Seems like the obvious thing to do would be to sit tight until it was safe to exit car AND enter house. But one day, I found myself getting out of the car when I could clearly see a guy walking near my house. He was a white guy. That was my first indicator that I am not “free” or “clean” from this racial issue, this “second standards” issue. I felt innately insecure in the dark with an unknown black man but not necessarily with a white man.
This has repeatedly jarred me as I’ve encountered the same feeling in myself, the same second standards, over and over again. I recently left a church that happened to be run by white people. I am not in a church that is a “black” church. There are white people and other races present too, but the lead pastor and most of the core team is black. I’m never sure how others feel about me being there.
I’m not sure what’s okay in this new church culture. Is it okay for me to hold a black baby? Will she recognize I’m white and cry? Is it okay for me to comment on a black woman’s new weave or braids or hair style? Can I touch it? Can I ask if it’s her hair? What if I say “is that real hair?” Because sometimes I get nervous and ask that too. How do I comment? How do I encourage? What do I say? I’m not sure how I feel about being hugged and kissed in church. Is it rude if I back away from that? Is that expected of me? I’ve never heard hip hop in church until now. Is it okay for me to move to it? Am I comfortable moving to it? Will I be looked at funny or mocked because I’m white?
Is it even okay for me to use “black” instead of African American? What if you aren’t American or identify as something besides African? I don’t know these things.
I am finding I am more comfortable greeting some white people in the church than new black people. I naturally navigate to whites. I lose my words sometimes with black people. I don’t know what to ask or say all the time. I don’t know any white friends who grew up doing “step” or jump rope competitions or hop scotch. I even eat different types of foods. I know how white people dress, eat, and often, even argue. I don’t know how black people do. I don’t know what’s culturally, socially accepted or valued or esteemed or desired. I don’t know what’s not. I went to an african baptism once, with native dress. I had no clue what to do.
Please be gracious in my attempts. I may fumble with words or say things that you think are rude, but please know I am trying.
In some ways it’s felt like a strange white identity struggle. But it’s the good kind of struggle. I believe the gospel means to wreck my cultural and racial identity. Being a unified Body, a unified Church, is really hard. It means I have to be willing to admit what I don’t know in order to start to understand and ask the right questions. I may have some experiences that don’t fit in my white “privilege” race, but I don’t know what it’s like to be black either, or indian, or chinese, or latino.
I didn’t grow up with my race and cultural identity being ostracized. In fact, I grew up with little awareness of my race and cultural identity. I am still unsure of what mine is.
I don’t have relatives who were slaves. I didn’t have to fight for equal education or access to other resources. I never wanted my skin to be lighter or darker in order to have more access to these resources. I don’t have ancestors who feared lynching or beatings or starvation or rape because of the color of their skin. I did not grow up with a heavy cultural awareness or appreciation for my race. I don’t even have strong national pride. But maybe that’s indicator enough. I grew up knowing little of slavery or the hangings that some black friends of mine did. I don’t know enough about black heritage and black culture. But I should know more. I want to know more.
Realizing what I don’t know and actively being in places to learn is the only way to really begin to understand, to ask questions, and live this gospel life alongside my black brothers and sisters. They have a rich cultural and racial identity. They have every reason to question what happened in Ferguson. It goes much deeper than Ferguson. It goes much deeper than my thin white culture & “privilege” understands. But I want to understand. The gospel calls me out from my comfort, from my perceptions and understandings, and beckons me to forsake them and fight what’s countercultural to me. This is the good kind of struggle.
This is a gospel struggle.