No issue in my life has confounded me more than that of race. More specifically, I’ve been confused by the idea of privilege. I had a clear understanding at a very young age that race does not impact a person’s worth. By contrast, I had no concept until the last 18 months that, in our world, a person’s race does determine one’s level of privilege in American society.
I believed that racism was an issue of the past, defined by the mistreatment of individuals, by individuals, based on the color of a person’s skin. The racism I was taught about in school- the fire hoses, police dogs, segregated schools and lynchings- has been reduced. But the flip side of the race coin has remained unchanged. If there is and has been a people group in America experiencing prejudice, then there is also a people group in America experiencing privilege. I am part of that people group.
My privilege doesn’t mean that things are handed to me. It simply means there are entire categories of concerns and barriers that I don’t need to think about or be aware of. A simple example is that no one has ever said that I’m either doing very well or very badly- for a white person. No one has ever had to wonder if I got a job or was accepted to a school because I was the best they could find to fill their Affirmative Action goals. My successes and failures have been measured on my personal merit, with no affiliation to the color of my skin, the intonation of my voice, or the texture of my hair.
It is easy for me to say this is wrong. It is easy for me to say this should be changed.
It is not easy for me to say that I should give up my privilege in order for this wrong to be righted and the change to be achieved. I am, without question, one of the most privileged people in America- perhaps the world. I’m a white, college educated, middle class male. I don’t know the first thing about being under-privileged. The real problem is that I was either never given the opportunity, or never took the opportunity, to learn the first thing about being privileged. I just thought I was normal.
I wish I didn’t have these convictions. I’d be so much happier if I could just plod along in my blissful ignorance of racial naiveté. I wish I could still believe that race didn’t matter and all people got to experience the equality they were created with. I wish I could accept that I lived in a nation that truly operated according to the principles of justice and fairness I was taught our nation was founded as a child. Truth be told, I realized that injustice and un-earned privilege for some existed long before I was willing to admit its truth, let alone acknowledge the ways I have leaned on that privilege in my own life. At last I surrender. I live in a world in which the game is rigged. I won a lottery that I didn’t even enter, which gave me a huge advantage.
I can’t un-hear the stories of people I care about being expected to prove either their innocence, their ability, or their competency because they look different than those in positions of authority. I have come to accept that it is not enough for me to “feel bad.” I can’t just share some liberal-leaning article on Facebook to con myself into believing that I have compassion for the disenfranchised. I understand that in order for racial (or ethnic, or gender, or religious, etc.) equality to be advanced, I must become purposeful about:
1) acknowledging my privilege
2) exploiting that privilege for the benefit of those without that same privilege.
3) surrendering my privilege on behalf of those who are treated differently than me.
I hate that conviction. Even as I acknowledge these things, I squirm at the cost and consequence.
I’m scared to give up whatever privilege I have because I feel insecure without it. I know that my privilege does not make life easy- even if it does make some things easier. I worry that if I began to act in ways that exploit or surrendered my privilege, I would miss out on opportunities. I want every advantage on my side I can get. I have believed the myth that my advantages come without a cost, but I choose to reject that myth and acknowledge that my willingness to accept advantage is no more than a willingness to accept the disadvantage of others. The single greatest driver of conviction for me is the devastating honesty of Philippians 2:1-11. If you’re not a Bible reading person, this is worth looking into. It may be the most accurate, beautiful, and idealistic picture of the Christian faith you’ll ever find.
I know that I’m making some bold claims. I also know that I’ve only reached the point at which I can acknowledge and own my small part of the problem. I’m beginning to gain a glimpse into what is mine to do, but I can’t honestly say what specific action is mine to take. The first step for me is to acknowledge to my friends who look and live most similar to me that I think we might be part of the problem. The solution doesn’t rest entirely with us- because we’re not the saviors just because we’re white. But the solution doesn’t exist apart from us either. The solution to injustice is only found in the drawing together of those who are different.
So, here I am. More aware than I was yesterday. Less certain of what to do. More convicted that I have a part to play in this story- and so do you.