Dismantling my Privilege begins with Understanding

In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto” James Baldwin describes the 1950 American reality as a “bitterness—felt alike by the inarticulate, hungry population of Harlem, by the wealthy on Sugar Hill, and by the brilliant exceptions ensconced in universities—which has defeated and promises to continue to defeat all efforts at interracial understanding.”[1] Baldwin could just as well have written his essay about our 2016 reality with all the bitterness, rancor, public cynicism and private despair running rampant among us.

With this current state of our union, it’s difficult to know what to do, what action to take, what, even, to pray for as an engaged, responsible citizen. What can make things better? How can I make a difference? It has occurred to me that there is an awful lot that is out of my control—historical structures in place that are inherently racist, politicians becoming popular among working-class whites with empty rhetoric and false promises that appeal to their sense of entitlement[2], and (again quoting Baldwin) “the pressure of living [that] is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding.”[3]

ImageI had never considered “understanding” a rite of the privileged until reading this quote from Baldwin. It disturbed me. How will we ever mature as a society if the pressure of living is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding? I hadn’t considered the stack of books on my nightstand, all conveniently purchased with 1-click ordering on Amazon, as a sign of my privilege. Nor had I considered the thirty minutes I set aside most nights to read these books to be such a luxury. But, unlike many in America, my mind is not preoccupied with questions about how I will feed my children or pay my utility bill or endure one more day on the line at a factory job. It is a part of my privilege to have the freedom, time, energy and resources to contemplate and consider the lives of others.

I recently learned about the idea of “dismantling privilege”, which means using your own privilege to benefit someone who has less. Since reading and studying Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness with a group of students this year, I have wanted to grow in my understanding of people of color and their particular experience in America today. I was also confronted by some hard truths shared by Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, who visited our campus this year and told a room full of white liberal intellectuals, “You know, it gets tiring trying to teach you all about our experience. There are books you can read.” (Or, read this excellent interview with Eddie Glaude.) I took Glaude’s challenge to heart, realizing that I had been relying on my Black and Latino students to share their experiences with me so I could learn from them. Why should they bear the responsibility (or the burden) for my education? Don’t I wish men would educate themselves about my particular experience as a female? So this summer, I have decided to take advantage of my privilege to read books by theologians, essayists, and activists of color.

The books on my list include:

“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone

“Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Brown Douglas

“Mujerista Theology” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

I am disturbed by the state of our society today. I am disturbed and disappointed by the lack of interracial understanding. I feel powerless in the face of most of it, except for the misunderstanding that resides within me. I believe many of our social ills could be resolved if we followed Jesus’ advice in Matthew 7:5 to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” To set aside time this summer to focus on my own understanding is certainly a luxury of my privilege. But it is a necessary first step if I seek to follow Christ and work, as he did, towards dismantling the systems of injustice that bind us all.

 

[1] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 72.

[2] Read George Packer’s article “Head of the Class: How Donald Trump appeals to the white working class” in The New Yorker for more on this.

[3] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 73.

[Feature Image: Johnny Silvercloud]

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2 thoughts on “Dismantling my Privilege begins with Understanding

  1. Teri, as usual your article encourages me to “do something”. I have read Baldwin but not the book you suggested. I will start with his book and try to read them all, as you are, this summer. I agree, we all have to make the effort or things will remain the same for the next generation.

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