I represent a particular demographic that has remained fairly silent on the issue of race in America. There are two reasons for my silence:
1) My position of privilege fosters ignorance. Like a wall, privilege blinds my view. I cannot see far enough to realize the disparity existing between me and a minority of people living in America. I, therefore, stay quite so that I do not sound ignorant.
2) My perspective is formed by an unilateral bias. I am not capable of empathizing with the marginalized. My experience is not comparable to a minority of people living in America. I know I have it good; they know I have it good; and, both of us know my perspective is askew. I, therefore, stay quiet so that I am not offensive.
Allow me to offer a surface-level sketch of myself: I am white. I am a male. I am heterosexual. My father is a judge, but he practiced law throughout my childhood. My mother is retired, but she was an assistant director for a county agency during my childhood. I attended the same private school from kindergarten through graduation. My extended family has been involved in local and state politics. My parents supported me in college and graduate school, allowing me to graduate without any debt. I am 34 (my birthday is today), which means I was a child of the Reagan administration. The 80’s were a great time to be a wealthy, white kid!
There were some serious perks to being wealthy and white as a child. There is no greater perk than being given opportunity to succeed. I cannot count the number of opportunities awarded to me throughout my youth. I am not just talking about advanced education and adequate health care. My life has been a continuous flow of opportunities for advancement. I attended camps, participated in a multitude of extracurricular activities, and I was offered a number of internships. I sought some of these opportunities; others were given to me; and some were extended to me after I messed up or failed. At times, I was given second and third chances! For a better understanding of the impact of opportunity, listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest podcast, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, at RevisionistHistory.com.
The cards of life have always been stacked in my favor. Failure has never been the expected outcome for me. Honestly, failure was never a real option; rather, failure was taught to be a choice. I could fail to advance, but it would be my choice.
I am privileged. The components enabling me to assume a position of privilege are the very reasons why I stay quiet on issues of race in America. I have it good, really good. Why would I question the ethics of a system awarding me privilege? How would I even know to question the ethics of a system that rewards me?
You see, my privilege fosters ignorance and bias.
But, my friends, I am trying.
I am trying to listen, to hear, and to understand.
I am trying to respond seriously and honestly to the prophetic calls of my neighbors.
I am trying to see beyond my reality, because I know there is just cause for me to consider, value, and serve the lives of others around me – regardless of race, citizenship, or orientation. I am sorry I cannot empathize with you, but please know I am trying to sympathize. I am trying to transform. By God’s grace, I am trying to be a person of love and not simply a person of privilege.
Having owned my privilege, acknowledged my ignorance and my bias, and shared my intentions, I would like to offer a glimmer of progress (for me) as I struggle to break through the wall of disparity.
Our church is offering Vacation Bible School this week. While talking with a few members of my church the other evening, I was told an ambulance had been dispatched to a parishioner’s house. I placed a couple of phone calls. No one knew why the ambulance had been sent. The parishioner, who is an elderly widow, has one relative in the area. The relative was out of town. Concerned for the well-being of my parishioner, I decided to go check on her.
I searched for the keys to my wife’s car in her bag, but I could not find them. Rather than taking the time to locate my wife, who was somewhere in the church, I asked to borrow the car of another church member. She handed me her keys and I was out the door. As I made my way, I looked to the emblem on the key. I had forgotten my church member drove a Porche.
Moments later I was flying down the four lane running the length of our town. As I hurried, I noticed a marked police car positioned on the side of the road. “Oops,” I thought, as I looked at the speedometer. I slowed and I waved to the officer as I passed by him.
My parishioner was fine. The ambulance had not been called for her.* She and I shared a brief conversation before I returned to the church for the remainder of the night’s program.
The police car had not moved. As I passed the officer for a second time, it occurred to me I was driving a high-end luxury vehicle registered to another person.** I began to ruminate…
Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile.
Additional names could be added to this list of recent deaths, which resulted from a traffic stop.
As I passed, I asked myself, “What would I feel if the officer were to stop me while driving this high-end, luxury car registered to another name? Would I be afraid?”
No, I would not be afraid.
No, I would not be afraid, because I know nothing would happen to me.
I know nothing would happen to me, for two reasons: 1) The officer did not pull me over when I waved in acknowledgment of my speeding; and, 2) I have been pulled about four times in the last six years. I have received a warning on three occasions and my ticket was dropped on the fourth occasion. I do not have to fear at present, because I have not had to fear in the past. In fact, I know it will work out in my favor…because I will be given opportunity.
I pushed myself. “If I wouldn’t experience fear, what would I experience?”
I was pretty disappointed in what I learned about myself.
I realized I would experience something, but it would not be fear. I would not experience fear, because I would be overcome with frustration. The thought of having to explain myself to the officer seemed like an annoying, and unnecessary chore.
Oh, wow, I thought as I heard the ignorance and bias. Wow!
The blinders of privilege are a thick wall. In that moment, though, I caught a glimpse of the other side. It was fleeting, but the light was bright enough to reveal the darkness of the shadow cast over a great segment of our population. It was bright enough to reveal the darkness in my own life and in my way of thinking…
My father, the judge, and I, the pastor, were discussing the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile a few days earlier. He and I were speaking from the perspective of our respective discipline. I was opining on the concept of compliance. I commented, “I do not understand why people are not more compliant. If people would follow the instructions of the officer, there would be no cause for the officer to use force.”
I know, I know, I have already acknowledged my ignorance and bias.
I continued, “Every time I am pulled, I am quick to remove my license and retrieve my registration from the glove box so I can had them to the officer when he approaches my window.”***
Again, I know.
As I drove pass the officer, I heard my ignorance and my bias. The momentary glimpse of light overcame the shadow as the ugly truth of my privilege was revealed.
I will reach for my license and retrieve my registration from the glove box as the officer approaches my window, because there is no fear. There is no fear of being dragged from my car, hit with a taser, or shot four times in the chest! There is no fear of my resembling a robbery suspect. There is no fear of anything! There would only be frustration at having to give my time to sorting out a minor traffic violation…even if I was driving a high-end, luxury car registered to another name.
I have been told I possess privilege because I am a white male. The truth is I am as ignorant of my privilege as I am to the systemic injustice applied to a minority of people living in America.
But, I am a man of faith, who prays for the grace of God to transform my heart and my head. I pray for glimpses of God – moments when the light of truth reveal the darkness in my life and life around me. I pray for the coming of His kingdom, even at the forfeit of my privilege.
Honestly, I am struggling with the thought of sharing these words. Why invite criticism into my life? Why question the ethics of a system awarding me privilege?
Because people I believe to be my brothers and sisters in Christ have asked me and others like me to listen. They have asked to be heard. They have asked to be considered. They have asked to be valued. They have asked to be supported and encouraged. In their asking, they have asked me to look at myself, to acknowledge my privilege, and to claim my silence, which supports the injustice forced upon a minority of people living in America.
You have my response. It is not much, but I am trying.
I caught a glimpse the other day. It may not be enough, but it is something.
For a moment, I realized my privilege…while driving white.
* The ambulance was not dispatched for my parishioner. An elderly African-American woman, who was visiting her home. While writing this post, I learned she passed away that night. I will not reveal her name, but I would like to invite you to prayer for her family in their time of grieving.
** My father and I briefly discussed the first draft of this post. He made an observation. He suggested there is was no fear of being pulled over because I was driving a nice car. It’s expected. My wife, our children, and I live off of a pastor’s salary. I drive a 2005 Honda with paint peeled off the roof of the car. My father encouraged me to consider why it would have been more likely for me to have been pulled if I were driving my Honda and not the Porche. I am thankful I have a father who encourages me to see privilege as responsibility.
I shared my first draft with a trusted friend. She offered an alternative approach to traffic stops observed by her husband. He is tall with a large frame (his body still resembles that of a college athlete). He is confident, personable, and articulate. Yet, his approach to a traffic stop is much different. He immediately rolls down all four windows in his car. He places both hands on the top of the steering wheel, where the officer can see them. He will remain in this position until the officer instructs him to reach for his license or his registration. He and I have two very different approaches to traffic stops. Our approaches have been conditioned by our experiences. The difference in our approaches (and the reasoning for them) signal the disparity between his and my reality.