I have a confession to make: I used to think that white supremacy was passé. Yes, I knew that racism was still rampant in our country – I could probably even have held my own in a discussion on the effects of systemic racism on public education and incarceration rates. But I genuinely thought that the era of public, socially acceptable racism had ended with Jim Crow, or soon after. I, unlike so many Americans who knew better, was surprised at Donald Trump’s political success because I thought that the KKK and other white supremacist groups had become fringe movements with no real support, deserving of derision and little else.
I’m sorry. That was evidence of my privilege – I benefit from the luxury of not having to pay attention and recognize the problem. After Charlottesville, I no longer have that excuse.
As a white person, I don’t enjoy talking about privilege. In fact, I hate everything about it – I despise being associated in any way with the legacy of slavery, racism, or injustice of any kind, and acknowledging it makes me very uncomfortable. But I can’t escape it. Privilege is as fundamental to my existence as… well, the color of my skin. It doesn’t matter whether my ancestors owned slaves or farmed potatoes in Ireland; I still benefit, have always benefitted, from the systems put in place to privilege people who look like me.
White privilege means that until now, I got to assume that my “wokeness” could be implicit; that I could skate by on nodding in agreement with the right people and sharing other people’s writing on my Facebook page; that occasionally objecting to problematic policy issues, such as the Muslim ban, was enough to do my civic duty of speaking truth to whoever was willing to read it; even the fact that I study Arabic and postcolonial studies seemed to contribute to my general public acknowledgement of or even a stance on the issues at stake. I was aware of the problem. I wasn’t racist. I thought I was “woke.” But I never felt the need to say much explicitly. It was never going to affect me even if I didn’t.
I’m sorry. That is also evidence of my privilege – I benefit from the choice of whether or not to enter into the discussion at all. And too often, I have chosen not to.
White privilege takes away what moral high ground I might have once thought I had. I belong to a group of people known for their history of exploitation and perpetuating injustice, whether I like it or not, and I follow a God who is determinedly and unequivocally on the side of the oppressed even while he wants to save the oppressor. No one likes seeing themselves on the side of the oppressor, but we would be wise to remember that there is no value in gaining a world of social and economic and political advantage if it costs us our very souls. And it will, if it makes us forget our own brokenness and keeps us from doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly.
The thing is, the fact that I don’t like my privilege will not make it go away. There are a lot of unpleasant truths that I have had to come to terms with (that God somehow allows evil to exist, that vegetables are good for me and I should eat them more, that my French thesis will not write itself), and this is one more: I possess (will always possess) white privilege, and it’s not fair. Confession: Most days, I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that I possess this privilege and I have no idea what to do with it. I am paralyzed.
So, just in case anyone was in doubt of where I stand, I’m going to quote Stephen Colbert: “Nazis are bad. The KKK? I’m not a fan.” I’m so proud of my church for this statement, which I’ve excerpted below, issued this past Sunday in response to the events in Charlottesville (and I’m not even just biased because my dad wrote most of it):
As a church we denounce and condemn racism and white nationalism. We call them what they are: sin! Claims of racial superiority are an assault on God’s glory and the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are responsible for great crimes against his creation and have no place in his church.
And we have to confess that all too often, people who hold these views claim a place in the church, and even if we don’t agree with them, many of us have taken the easy path of remaining silent. We fail to call it sin, and our inaction adds still more weight to the burdens of people who have to wonder every day if they are even welcome here. We need to repent of that, and call it sin, and acknowledge our own sin for not standing against it.
We know that in Christ there is no distinction, that every nation, tribe, people, and language will one day be together before the throne, because we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism – this multifaceted movement is evil. To elevate one kind of person over another is nothing short of an assault on the image of God and inherent dignity existing in every single human being, and an affront to the character and purposes of the God who literally died to redeem his people. I am not going to let it slide again.
Here’s a confession (you thought the title was just a gimmick, didn’t you?): I still sometimes think racist thoughts.
Here’s another: Sometimes I start to view “wokeness” as a level to be reached on my liberal sticker chart, or some kind of absolution for my whiteness, as much as a true desire for justice. Sometimes I’d rather have the woke designation than actually fight the good fight for its own sake or for the love of my brothers and sisters of color. Would I keep fighting even if no one ever acknowledged how woke I was?
And another: With every step I take towards social awareness and allyship in this unjust world and privilege-ridden landscape, I look up and see anew how much farther I still have to go. I often wonder if I will ever arrive, and if it’s still worth the effort if I never do. Or maybe “wokeness” isn’t a destination so much as an active hope to be better. But I can’t let that become an excuse not to try.