Our church in north Minneapolis is talking about racism during Lent. We use the Holden Village liturgy and in the middle of the Wednesday night service we have conversation at our tables where we share a meal together before the service. This conversation is hard, necessary, at times awkward – and real. I had the privilege of facilitating one of these conversations. What follows are some of the thoughts I presented at the beginning of the conversation and some of my takeaways from the experience.
It’s Lent – and we’re used to giving up things like candy, pop and other items we “like” as part of our fasting during Lent. But Pope Francis, who is asking people to travel outside the box in their faith journeys, had a different idea about what folks should give up for Lent in 2016. He wants people to give up indifference for Lent. He said in his recent Lenten letter that”[i]n this body there is no room for indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts. For whoever is of Christ, belongs to one body, and in him we cannot be indifferent to one another. ‘If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all parts share its joy.'(1 Cor. 12:26).” Christopher Hale, Executive Director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, added “[w]hen we fast from this indifference, we can begin to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to love again. . . If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder ‘fast’ is required.”
It’s Lent in the year 2016 – and there is an indifference to white privilege in America. It’s in our fabric. A part of me can’t believe that in 2016 we’re actually talking about “white privilege.” And another part of me can’t believe that we’re not talking about it. What is “white privilege?”
In a well known article back in 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and became one of the first white persons to actually write about something people of color had described for years as how whites benefit from unearned privileges people of another skin color are simply not afforded in life. She likens white privilege to an invisible, weightless knapsack of assets and resources that she was given just because she was born white in her time and place in United States history.
McIntosh writes that the obliviousness about white advantage is kept strongly inculcated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. She writes: “Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”
I then asked folks to start the conversation at the tables, asking how they have experienced or seen white privilege, and what did that feel like. Does it look like Flint where black children have been poisoned by lead in the drinking water? When I go to a department store to buy pants, as a white male I’m only thinking about if they will have the size and color I’m looking to buy. But the black college professor who calls my law office asks me, with both an anger and sadness in his voice, when will he ever be able to go to a department store without being followed by the white sales clerk to be sure he did not steal anything- because he’s black. White privilege also looks like that.
I then invited those present to also discuss what they might do to change hearts with respect to such indifference. And so we started. And we shared, together.
I learned we’re all at different places in this journey. I learned how exhausted my black brothers and sisters have become trying to educate and inform those of us who are white what their world is like 24/7 in a country steeped in white privilege. I am grateful they have not given up trying to educate me.
We heard stories of white people remaining silent while witnessing white privilege at the expense of people of color. Those of us who are white get to choose if or how we engage. White people can choose to be indifferent. People of color don’t enjoy that same privilege. When we as whites don’t speak out in our communities (churches, schools, politics and elsewhere) when we witness white privilege, our silence is making a powerful statement that what happened was alright. And it’s not. Our silence perpetuates white privilege. During the Civil Rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr. said “in the end, it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.”
I learned how whites don’t have to worry about whether educational opportunities will be available to them. I learned of a criminal justice system where there is a huge discrepancy in bail, charging and sentencing between whites and people of color, not to mention “driving while black.”
At the end of the service I realized how much those of us who are white just don’t know and have yet to learn about white privilege and what people of color live with every day in America. I learned again how much listening with an open heart matters. There was also a commitment to continue the dialogue on white privilege and racism – and that fills my heart with joy. I am grateful for this beloved community that welcomes me in all my brokenness and provides a safe space for these difficult conversations to take place, face to face, child of God, to child of God.
My hope is there can be more of these types of conversations on race and white privilege in our churches and communities across the country. Can we afford not to?