I don’t know.
I don’t know because I’ve realized how very blind to it I am.
Three years ago or so, Doug and I sat at dinner with five friends. We were lingering over a post-dessert conversation at the end of a long workweek.
Between them, these friends are terribly high achieving and extremely interesting, not to mention very engaged in deploying their gifts toward the edification of the world around them.
To sum them up in resume form, just from what I know based on casual conversation, I can tell you that –
One went to boarding school.
One grew up in the city as an immigrant and got a scholarship to college.
Three are coaches with multiple state championships under their belts.
One is a PhD.
One is an attorney.
Two are teachers, at least one of whom manages a class size of 40+ on a regular basis.
Two are entrepreneurs.
One is a step-parent.
One is an author.
One grew up in the Midwest and left.
One grew up in Clarkston and stayed.
One is a Bulldog.
One is a Seminole.
One is a millennial.
All of them love teenagers, their family, and mybackyard chickens.
They are my friends. Casual friends. Back porch friends.
And they are also African-American.
So this night, Doug and I sat with them, winding the evening down. The dinner party for the cross-country team that three of them coached slowly turned into a grown-up chat after the teenagers had gone home.
There was much laughter. A lot of proverbial elbowing the others’ ribs.
But there was something else. Something truly mind-blowing for me.
As Doug and I walked back up to our house after we said our goodbyes, we looked at each other and asked, “Have you ever been a part of a conversation like that?” We both agreed. “No. Never.”
As the evening had faded, our forward thinking, educated, just-like-us-in-so-many ways friends had discussed the severe and pressing problem they faced: race.
Not as it related to them. Not really, anyways.
It was about the students they loved.
These students, many of them, were African. And soon would be absorbed into the American culture that would only understand them to be African-American…black men and women entering college or making their way into the workforce.
My friends – these teachers and lovers of students – were discussing how they were doing their level best to prepare the students for the realities of race in America. Students from Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, and all over Africa, had landed in Clarkston as refugees…largely unaware of the race “issue” in this country. My friends discussed and even lamented how challenging it was to teach the students that, despite the vows to the contrary, all is not equal in this great country. To teach them how to successfully navigate the challenges of failed or failing systems that are poisoned by racial bias. How to be black in America and to do so with dignity, with promise, and with safety.
Doug and I looked at each other, shocked at what we’d overheard. Never in our lives had we had discussions with our teenagers (or any teenagers we love) to prepare them to be “white in America.” No thought of that reality needing any explanation, any caution, any thought about treading lightly or not treading at all. Not once. In all of our adult life, race has never been the thing in an adult conversation that caused us all to nod our heads in assent, knowing “just how you feel.” You don’t “feel” white in America. At least I don’t. I just am white. No feelings attached.
Not so for my friends.
The strong thread of “we must prepare them to navigate this reality” ran through a conversation inhabited by men and women from different states, different economic backgrounds, different educational experiences, and different genders. Nevertheless, all five of my friends know personally and deeply that there is an endemic problem – no matter where they come from or what other kinds of privilege they have experienced along the way.
What is white privilege? I really don’t know. But sometimes I return to an analogy from a blog I read a long time ago. The author said that white privilege is analogous to driving a car on a system of roads designed for car-drivers and that being anything but white is like trying to ride a bicycle on the same roads. Most car drivers aren’t “trying” to mow over, crowd out, speed past, or overlook the existence of the bike rider. It’s just the reality of the system. But it’s dangerous, slow, and extraordinarily frustrating to the bike rider.
I, Karen, may not be “racist” in my opinions or my actions. But I exist in a system that caters to me. My whole life – my past, my present, and my future – has been and likely will be navigable, obvious, and relatively safe. If I want to care for my neighbors, especially those of a different race, I would do well to recognize and try to repair the injustices of the system. I would do well to recognize, listen, yield, and give space. I would do well to slow down and understand enough to “feel” my whiteness.
I would do well to talk to the teenagers I love about what it means to be white in America…how to carry their reality as graciously and well as my thoughtful backyard-dinner-party friends want to teach their students to carry their racial reality.
How does faith fit here? More ways that I know, to be sure. But, Jesus was a brown, poor, provincial man on the wrong side of religious systems and political systems. Being crossways with these systems cost Him His very life. His human “otherness” was a very real issue for him.
He was also the Immanuel-God. The God with us. He walked with us and showed us what it means to humbly walk with the “other.” Racism and systemic injustice is not a new problem, but it’s the path of His experience and His example. A path He gives us grace to fumble through. We won’t get it right, but now seems like the right time to embark on the path of humble understanding.
Charlottesville is indicative of so much. So much I really do not even begin to understand.
But I can tell you that as much as I don’t understand my privilege, I have seen that it is real. In this town, where I’m a minority, I see that systems really ARE broken. Racism really IS still an everyday problem. There is still MUCH work to be done.
How to move forward?
Probably over dinner. With a friend. Of a different race, religion, or ethnicity.
And a conversation.
About what the roads are like. And how to work together to make them better.