Fresh off the heels of a brief but head spinning two-day visit to Ferguson, Missouri I had the sweet opportunity to share my reflections through a sermon with my good friends at Denver Community Church last Sunday. Much of my sermon centered on my personal experiences of insecurity and awkwardness surrounding the issue of race and how Ferguson powerfully underscored the reality of my privileged position as a white middle-class American male.
As I was sharing I could see and sense that I was touching on something very fragile for the majority white audience. Many of the responses by those who approached me to chat after the sermon were understandably charged with a variety of emotions. With tear-rimmed eyes many folks were noticeably anxious to let me know the range of feelings they experienced from what I shared.
Approaching the issue of white-privilege during this particular season among a white-privileged community seems to conjure up the atmosphere of a middle school dance. When the conversation begins, there are those who scoot to the periphery of the room. They subtly bob their head to the music, drink a soda, while making small talk about their least favorite teachers. And then there’s the group that jumps quickly to the dance floor, either taking themselves too seriously or awkwardly laughing at each other while giving their best shot at making an impression.
The issue of systemic racism and the invitation to respond to our white-privilege is nothing short of disorienting invoking all sorts of reactions. In the intensity of our disorientation I tend to feel afraid and insecure often leading me to overcompensate to make myself feel better.
When it comes to confronting these tensions surfaced by the events of Ferguson, NYC, Cleveland, etc. etc. etc. here are four common remarks that reveal my overcompensations…
- "I’m colorblind. We’re all the same."
Like so many of our thoughts and remarks there are good intentions behind it, nevertheless it’s an oppressive idea…
It’s oppressive to God’s creation. Human beings – all images of God - were created distinctly different from one another for good reason. Race is a powerfully beautiful aspect of God’s artistic design. When we claim to be colorblind it’s as if we try to add our own touches to a Rembrandt painting with a Sharpie.
It’s oppressive to the powerless, voiceless, struggling ones who are reminded everyday that they do not have the same opportunities as the white majority. Imagine saying "We're all the same" in the presence of a black mother who desperately fears for her young son's life whenever he decides to head to the park or convenience store.
Rather than colorblindness, let’s be prayerfully open and honest about our differences. Guided by the Spirit, we will learn to appreciate the differences and along the way we’ll expand and enhance our theology as we see the distinctions of those made in God’s image.
- "I'm an ally... an advocate... I'm on their side."
In the tv series, The Office, Michael Scott bought himself a “World’s Best Boss” coffee mug. Self-appointed titles of ally or advocate is a bit like that. I know so many of us desire to be a helpful trustworthy ally in this movement but let’s hold off on claiming that title for ourselves and allow the other to bestow it on us. I recognize that far too often I’ve jumped to naming myself a friend or ally to appease my own guilt, insecurity, and fears as it relates to the struggle and oppression of the other.
- "I'm certainly not a racist."
Whenever the idea of racism comes up how quick am I to pipe up and wash my hands of the filth? Often, I’ve denied possessing any traces of racism on myself due to the unbearable tension – like a hot potato that needs to be handed off as quickly as possible.
I’m learning I need to sit prayerfully in the consideration of my own personal contributions to the sickness of institutionalized racism.
Again, can I sit with the reality of difference? Do I see the beauty in the distinct racial preferences and practices of culture? Sometimes I don’t see it. And even more than not seeing it, I honestly wonder if sometimes I resent that they don’t do things my way. It’s that quiet resentment that breeds a subtle form of racism.
I think we all do this. The question becomes can we enter into cross-cultural relationships in which we can talk about our resentments and repent of our prejudices?
- "I just want to know the facts."
Our hope is that the judicial system would pursue the facts. But we’re seeing that what our judicial system and popular media sources call “just the facts” can be grossly prejudiced based on politics, power, and preference. Often, it’s in our personal opinionated versions of the facts that white-privilege becomes most apparent.
This line has been spoken to me most frequently from the mouth of middle-class white men most of which have very few if any legitimate relationships with the black community or any at-risk marginalized individual.
I also frequently heard disgust and complaints as it related to the Ferguson riots and looting. When I hear such bold and confident remarks like this it becomes apparent that we’re overcompensating due to the insecurity and awkwardness of white-privilege.
I certainly don’t condone rioting and looting, but I get it. And rather than quick condemnation of those acting out can we instead ask more compassionate driven questions?
We hate to hear the screeching whistle of the tea-kettle, but do we see that it’s screeching so loudly due to the water boiling for far too long? Can we prayerfully consider how the stove burner became red-hot in the first place? Did someone turn the burner up and walk away to focus their attention on something else?
More than "facts" generated from white-privilege powered media, may we pursue compassionate driven questions. May we listen attentively rathen than offering unhelpful static statements of personal opinion.
This is so deeply complex! As a white male coming from a place of privilege I'm awkward and I'm afraid. The haunting chants of "white silence is violence" are still ringing clearly in my ears.
I could see Christ there. In the trauma, brutality, and neglect experienced by the Ferguson community Christ was present and inviting me to follow him.
Within this conversation of race and privilege if you have overcompensated, been excessively quiet, or even been a jerk repentance is graciously available. Those who are suffering and oppressed are desperate for the privileged to make the appropriate shifts and move in the direction of redemptive relationships and socially active justice in the way of our Lord.
May we be reminded of the Spirit given to us as 1 John 3:19-24 encourages...
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.