Last Saturday in Charlottesville VA groups of right wing white supremacists marched with tiki torches and button down shirts, chanting nazi slogans. They were met by young college students, by lines of clergy singing hymns, by counter protesters who came to say that the lives of people of color do in fact matter. And in an act that certainly looks like terrorism one of those far right demonstrators plowed his car into a group who had come to resist, killing one and injuring at least nineteen.
And I got mad. I got mad not because I was surprised, but because I wasn’t. No one who has been paying attention could have been surprised, it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when. And it’s our fault, as a country. If you are a person of color in America you already know this, and you don’t need to read what I have to say. But if like me you were born with light skin, especially if you were born in the bubble of the North, even more the rural North then please, read on. Because there are things that we need to talk about.
By we I mean white America. Let’s set some ground rules first. I know that you aren’t a member of the KKK. Very few are. You have never owned a slave, and you are probably young enough to have never taken a vacation to the South and seen a segregated drinking fountain. That doesn’t mean this isn’t your fight, or your problem. That doesn’t mean that you and I aren’t the ones who have to solve it.
Let’s start with why we’re here. America is a racist nation. That’s hard to type, and I’m betting it’s hard to read, but we’ve got to start saying hard stuff. We were founded on the principle that the land you are standing on was free for the taking, that it had been destined for European settlement. Manifest destiny didn’t include the native peoples who were already there. It didn’t include the slaves who were shipped over to make wealth for their white owners. It was for the white settlers who swept across this continent. Now most of them weren’t evil people. Most of them were just oblivious. Maybe they didn’t even know that native people had been cleared out ahead of them by the US military. Maybe they didn’t know that these people were herded into reservations, or exterminated wholesale. Maybe they knew but figured they couldn’t change anything.
It started there. It continued with slavery. We fought a war over the right of some states to keep owning other people legal. When the brutal practice of slavery ended nice Northern children were taught that was that. Until it wasn’t, and the civil rights movement swept the country (but mostly the South), but then we were assured it was done. Black and brown and white were all equal and all had access to the American dream. Neat and clean!
Y’all I said it: I never owned a slave! I get it. You weren’t born rich, and you’ve worked hard as hell for what you have. So when someone calls you privileged your hackles rise. But it’s true. You and I have inherited the structures and institutions that built this nation, and those structures are at their very foundation racist. That does not make you evil, it does not make you bad. It does make you privileged. Science tells us that me quoting stats at you won’t actually change your mind. Perversely, being shown facts that contradict our opinions just further entrenches our opinions. So I won’t quote facts, you can find them if you like. And they’re damning.
Instead, I’ll tell you a story. I lived and worked for a few years in the proud, and deeply troubled city of Waco, Texas. I loved Waco, and I loved her people. But I knew the fear that black neighbors had for the police. I learned about the disturbingly recent history of lynching in that place, and of economic injustice that still persisted. One day I was pulled over by the Waco Police Department. As I rolled down my window the first words from the police officer’s mouth when he saw me were ”I’m sorry ma’am.”
“I’m sorry ma’am.” I did all the things in that stop that black people are told they can’t do. I argued with the cop (he’d pulled me over to fulfill a quota and he and I both knew it.) I argued with a police officer. I honestly got mad at him. He never touched his gun. He never stopped apologizing. He didn’t pull me out of the car when I demanded to see the dash board footage. He did not arrest me. He blushed profusely. He apologized. He wrote me the quota filling ticket he had to write, handed it to me with an apology and a hope I had a good day and slunk back to his car.
I can assure you no black person pulled over in Waco had that experience.
I can drive my nice car in my nice neighborhood and not be pulled over because I look suspicious, my black neighbors in their BMW? They can’t. I’ve never had to explain to a police officer that I was jogging in my own neighborhood, not casing homes. But my black neighbors have.
That’s privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean I haven’t had to work hard for things in my life. Privilege simply means that I did not start in the negative because of my skin. I never owned slaves, but I still benefit from the systems of wealth of those who did. I still benefit from the generations before me who had opportunities that my black brothers and sister’s ancestors didn’t have. I still benefit from the societal assumptions about white women that my black sisters don’t enjoy. And those things are not neutral. They matter.
In the Episcopal church, where I am a priest, we confess our corporate sins each week. We use very specific words, asking for forgiveness for things done, and left undone. In another wording we ask forgiveness for those things we have done, and those things done on our behalf. That second one? That’s the sin of white privilege and racism. We don’t have to do anything, it has already been done on our behalf. But we can do something to end it.
So please hear me. I am not saying that you as a white person have ever done a single thing wrong (though you probably have). But you have still benefited from evil that was done generations ago, just by your birth. That evil remains embedded in our systems of education, health care, criminal justice, and the economy. Those things were all done on your behalf and no matter how hard you worked, you worked less hard than you would have without them. Your black brother or sister most certainly had to work harder.
And this will never end until we own it. Until those of us who benefit from white privilege (or male privilege, or straight privilege, but those are other topics) own it, and work ourselves to dismantle it. It is not the job of Black Lives Matter to fix the racist systems in our society. They are doing their job, they are say aloud what we need to hear: that their lives should matter but don’t yet within our world. It is our job to build a new world for all our children. To do that we have to first look our racist past and present full in the face.
We have to own it. And we have to want something different for future generations. Time will not heal these wounds. We thought time would solve things before World War II, and the nazis killed millions. We thought time would heal wounds after slavery was abolished, but generations lived in fear of lynching, and struggled under heavy burdens of oppression. We thought it after the Civil Rights Act was passed and racism just became less overt, more oblique.
It’s still there. In the school to prison pipeline, in enormous disparities in black health and life expectancy, in arrest rates, and conviction rates, and severity of punishment. The real question is, what do we do?
So first, this is going to be uncomfortable for many of us. Because the first thing we need to do is listen. We need to listen to those who have suffered under oppression and racism for their entire lives. We need to listen to them and believe them.
And then? Speak up. When your Uncle makes the off color joke, let him know that isn’t OK. When your friend or cousin makes a comment using a racial slur, stop them and tell them you believe that the people they have just disparaged have value, that they are made in the image of God. And keep speaking up. With the elderly guy at church, or the woman in your book group. Keep saying it. It will be uncomfortable. It might make you unpopular.
But the lives of black people, Jewish people, LGBTQ people, native people, are all worth more than our comfort.
It is past time that we looked our past full in the face and owned it, and that we began to work together to build a better future for ourselves and our children.
(Art credit: “Yo Mama’s Pieta,” a photo by Renee Cox, as seen in “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” a film by Thomas Allen Harris.)