The day after Denise Anderson and I were elected to be Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, I found myself on the hotel elevator alone – which was rare – headed down to the lobby for our next thing. The doors opened about halfway down and a young man got on the elevator, saw my C0-Moderators’ stole and blurted out, “Oh hi! You’re the white one.”
Yes. I am The White One. My name is Jan. I think of myself as white.
My skin is pale. My people are from Europe (although the Irish were once considered Black.) Sometimes “blackness” has less to do with skin tone than level of oppression. Quite a few of us have varied and colorful DNA. I’m not sure that even the palest among us is 100% “white.”
But I think of myself as White. I am biased about race. I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice. I am so thoroughly privileged that I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time. I am uncomfortable around people of other races sometimes to the point that I say or do awkward – sometimes even asinine – things.
- I don’t think I’ve ever touched the hair of a black person without permission – although maybe I have – and yet I often talk about hair with friends whose hair is different from mine because it’s easy to talk about. Stupid maybe, but easy. I honestly would like to have Samira Wiley‘s hair and basic head shape but my head is lumpy. So I’ll see a woman who looks amazing with hair different from mine and I’ll want to talk about that as if a stranger’s hair is something I have the right to hold forth about. Note: I’ve noticed that when people feel awkward – especially women of every color – we comment on each other’s clothing or hair or shoes. I once went into a church meeting and a person literally said, “Oooh a boucle skirt and top from Talbot’s.” It felt weird. I am not my clothes/hair. Neither are you.
- I expect Black friends (or Asian friends, LGBTQ friends, etc.) to be my teacher and explain “their people” to me. “Why do Black people ___?” This is ridiculous unless it’s genuinely a joke.
- I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume: that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light, that I belong in the fancy department in Nordstrom, that I am smart, that I can live in any neighborhood I can afford, that I can get a bank loan based on my credit score (and not my skin tone.)
- I think I can sing “We Shall Overcome” without a monumental sense of irony.
On this day, exactly 60 years ago I was baptized. Many of us were baptized for purely sentimental reasons. But if we are serious about those vows we will quake in our shoes:
“Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, which defies righteousness and love?”
Response: I do renounce them.
“Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?”
Response: “I do renounce them.“
We have witnessed evil and its power in the world this week. Much of that evil has been race-based. We are afraid. We are angry.
Or worse: we are indifferent. We go about our vacations or our cook-outs or our business without once pondering what we have done to contribute to/perpetuate racial prejudice in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our country.
I remember visiting a local church in my Presbytery on Sunday, July 14, 2013 – the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin. I felt sick. I craved God’s Word.
Not only was there no mention of this trial or the agony of a 17 year old boy’s death without anyone being held accountable, but the sermon – clearly pulled from a seasoned preacher’s file – referred to “the new play on Broadway called ‘Hair.’” Jesus wept.
What can we do besides “think and pray”?
- Read this book. Talk about it with your friends.
- Correct people – out loud – when they say something racist. (Note: you have permission to do this to me too.)
- Talk about race in our families. I’m talking to you, White families.
- Spark conversations by doing privilege exercises in classes, training retreats, etc. Here are some.
- Register for this conference.
- Plan to register for this one in 2017. Seriously, take a group. Registration for the 2017 conference in Kansas City (April 27th-30th, 2017) opens in January.
- Read books – fiction and non-fiction – by people of color.
One way to change the world is to change ourselves. I for one – The White One – am focusing on this right now.
Good for you, Jan. Preach, sister! Louise Winfield firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, Jan. I, too, am a “white one.”
I love this. Thanks Jan.
Thank you for your voice.
Thank you, Jan. Amen.
My heart cringes sometimes for the dumb/unwitting things I say or do and my sister is black. I have grown up with a minority and still sometimes curiosity or awkwardness get the better of me.
I will say the entirety of my being cringed when TDA was mistaken for other PoC and vice versa. So far to go…
I am the black moderator of the 209th GA and I appreciate your white perspective. I too was elected in the 1st ballot by an overwhelming majority. Without the official support of the Black Caucus or actively supportive Cincinnati Presbytery, I too felt very privileged and humbled by what I felt I had been called to do. To me that call was to emphasize my race, gender, and lack of seminary education to all the minority presbyterians finding themselves on the fringe of the denomination. I accepted invitations from all those who had never been visited by a moderator so that I could call attention to the empowerment that our church gives each one of our members regardless of perceived privilege. My message to you two as a team is to demonstrate unity in diversity, to build on what your election symbolizes for the PCUSA. Your gender has been celebrated but it is more than that isn’t it? It must be for just such a time as this for our nation and our denomination to learn from your leadership. So be honest. Speak up. Enjoy your privilege and use it to its fullest.
Pat – I’m so honored to hear from you. Thank you. We hope to have courage indeed for these next two years. I’m beyond grateful to be doing this with Denise.
I would be so taken aback if someone said to me, “Oh, you’re the white one.” Because in reverse, it’s unthinkable. As for talking to my children about privilege, we as Christians know how we’ve been blessed. But white privilege will not be taught in our house, or should I say, in our trailer. It is a divisive way to look at the world and besides inducing guilt, doesn’t accomplish much else. We do practice gratitude because we thank God.
Here’s a good book written by a black man. https://www.amazon.com/Please-Stop-Helping-Us-Liberals/dp/1594037256
I was 40 before I realized white privilege was me–I was busy being a woman, so that I could share in oppression rather than acting as the oppressor. I wonder if most of us have areas/places in which we are oppressed and also in which we are the oppressor. I am teaching in an all-black (although I think I did see one Asian students at the end of last year) high school in inner city Philadelphia; thinking about white privilege makes it tough for me to hold my students accountable, as does the lack of any conversation about race there, despite the teaching staff being mainly white.
Thank you for this reflection. Putting racism in the context of baptismal promises led me to fruitful preaching
I recommend “The Coming” by Dr. Daniel Black to feel the pain and anguish of Black Americans that reach back to the arrival of our ancestors on these shores. Racism is an unbroken chain for Black Americans. I don’t know what it will take to bring us into the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We seem to make small steps forward, but then take larger steps backward. These conversations continue to be a starting point but it takes more than just a few honest people to move the community forward to true brother/sister-hood. As long as a significant body of people think that it’s not their problem or concern, our progress will be retarded. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” ~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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It really was a lovely skirt and top.
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