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]

A Reason to Live, Even in February

8485155298_a3633fb0a6_oIt’s hard to love life in February. All I see on my drive to work is the grey sky mixing into the grey snow that melds with the grey cement of the cracked and salt-stained road beneath my wheels. Black branches poke and scratch the sunless sky as I begin to look for color—any sign of color—in a world that feels so bland. I notice the green of the street signs. They pop out to me now that I have tried to see. But their green is a flat green. It is not the green of spring, not the green of that which is new, fresh, alive.  It is 8:20am and in spite of the two cups of coffee I’ve drunk all I want is a nap. My whole self wants to sleep—to close myself off and shut myself down until this cold, dreary, muck of February has passed.

On Ash Wednesday I reminded a Chapel full of people that life is precious—that joy comes in the morning—that we must live as if we are truly alive. Today, though, I see the ash I thumbed onto foreheads everywhere. This dust of death is mixed into the dirty snow piled on the side of the road, smeared on the bark of dormant trees and settling heavy on my heart, making me wonder if all I said was a lie.

Parking my car in front of my office, I decide to sit for a while, to wait in the warmth and enjoy the numbing hum of the engine. I will sit here and wait, I tell myself, until I catch some sign of life—wait for a sign to live again—wait for a reason to believe that all this matters. If I wait here long enough, there has got to be something, something to stoke my life fire. There has got to be something worth getting out of this car.

A black SUV turns onto the road flashing red and blue emergency lights. It may not be the police. It may just be a volunteer firefighter. But it makes me think of the police and of the conversations I’ve been having about our criminal justice system with a few of our minority students. We’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and studying the issue of mass incarceration.

The night before I sat on an overstuffed couch and listened to three students, one Latina and two African Americans tell me about why they were afraid of the police. Even if you weren’t doing anything, they said, the police were to be avoided. They might stop you, search you, shame you—so you steer clear. The police are not your friends, they said.

This was not my experience. I was taught to trust the police. I was taught to seek out the police if I was lost or hurt as I child. But as I sat and listened to my students—one kept shivering and bouncing her legs, her emotions running so high she couldn’t sit still—I recognized that my experience was not theirs.

Recalling this conversation, I turned the ignition key shutting off my car’s engine and gathered my things to go. My life today might be dreary. I might feel weighed down, maybe even depressed. But my life has never been like that of these minority students. In this insight I found my motivation. What I do with my privilege matters. I can listen. I can come to understand. And then I can help others understand. Thankful for this sign, I began my day determined.

 

[Feature Image: Pavel P]