Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]

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]

In Need of Jubilee: Reflecting on Mass Incarceration

5913375744_009d6a1788_oBy 7:30am, my six students and I were on our first of two buses that would take us across town to the southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  We were proud of ourselves for catching the right buses and making the hour and fifteen minute commute successfully.  No small feat for anyone trying to get to a program or a job on time—especially a minimum wage job that one might lose if he or she showed up late. Once we got off our last bus we saw the church, Saint Xavier Catholic, where the job-training program would be held that we had come to observe.  We followed a few people into the church’s fellowship hall feeling self-conscious that we had not come out of need.  But we were greeted warmly by the program’s leaders and introduced to a fellowship hall full of adults as a college group here to learn and observe.

The program was called “Jubilee Jobs.”  This faith-based program was founded to help recently released prisoners connect with employers who would hire them.  The term “jubilee” comes from Leviticus 25, where a year of Jubilee, or a year of Sabbath, is mandated for the Hebrew people.  During this year the crops would lie fallow in order to rejuvenate the land.  The people would be rejuvenated too through communal practices that would ensure economic and social equity.  Property that had been loaned would be returned. Debts would be forgiven.  Prisoners and slaves would be set free.  The year of Jubilee would begin with a trumpet call on the Day of Atonement—a day of making amends.

As I learned more about our nation’s issue of mass incarceration, it became clear that there are little to no opportunities for atonement, debt forgiveness, or freedom for those who have been incarcerated.  Even after people have served their time, we stack the deck of life against them. Ex-felons are barred from public housing, food assistance, access to drug treatment, job opportunities, and, in many states, the right to vote.  All this makes it very difficult to succeed as a newly released citizen if you are poor and lack resources for support. Statistics show that within three to five years of being released 60-70% of ex-felons end up back in prison.

5064358491_3ca18b820e_oThe more I learned about mass incarceration in preparation for our trip to Washington, D.C. the more disturbed I became.  It was uncomfortable to learn that there are currently 2.3 million people incarcerated in my country with 6 million more on probation or parole.  These numbers have skyrocketed since 1997 when only 200,000 people were incarcerated in the United States.  It’s stunning to recognize that in this land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” we incarcerate more people (by far) than any other industrialized nation.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the majority of those incarcerated in the United States are people of color.  Currently, black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives.  Latino men have a 17% chance and white men have a 6% chance.

Why has our prison system expanded so rapidly?  For a full and thoughtful analysis, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in a Age of Colorblindness. But the War on Drugs, which began under the Reagan administration (and has been supported by every administration thereafter), has been a major reason for our expanded system of incarceration.  The War on Drugs set policies that incentivized police departments to get tough on drug crime.  Federal money and military-style equipment has poured into local police departments to encourage drug arrests.  And even though drugs are abused in all communities, no matter the racial or economic makeup, poor communities of color were (and are) targeted for these military-style raids.  In studying this issue we must be honest with ourselves.  If SWAT teams broke into wealthy, white suburban homes, terrorizing elderly women and innocent children, we’d be protesting the injustice.  So poor communities of color are targeted instead.

The War on Drugs also instituted extreme, racially biased sentencing for minor charges.  We heard story after story of people being sentenced for 15 to 20 to sometimes even 30 years for minor drug charges.  We learned about judges who knew their sentences were unjust, but whose hands were tied by the law.  One law, in particular, was mind-blowing in its injustice.  Up until 2010, a conviction of 500 grams of powder cocaine triggered a mandatory sentence of five years in prison while a conviction of 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered the same five-year mandatory sentence.  What’s the difference between powder and crack cocaine?  What’s the reason for this 100:1 sentencing disparity?  The only difference is that wealthier, white people typically abuse powder cocaine. Poor, people of color typically abuse crack cocaine.

Our trip was not without hope, though.  We learned how, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.  We also learned about the Sentencing Reform Act – currently waiting for Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote– that makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, allowing those convicted before 2010 to be resentenced under the 18:1 ratio.  Our group met with Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office to thank him for his leadership in these criminal justice reforms.  We also met with Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ (D-IL) office to ask for her support of the bill when it comes to the House of Representatives.  We are even planning a trip to Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) office in Chicago to ask for his support.  One of the empowering lessons we learned was that we can make a difference when we advocate on these issues to our political representatives.

The fellowship hall at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church was full of people, all African Americans, many with criminal records.  An older man sat next to me with grey-speckled hair, dressed in a smart tweed sport coat and tie.  Another younger man sat in front of me dressed in slouchy blue jeans, a chain hanging from his pocket, a beanie on his head. A young woman juggled a baby in her arms while she tried to listen.

The program began with speeches made by two African American leaders, George and Jacquelyn, about how Jubilee Jobs worked.  Then the founder got up to speak—a tiny white woman named Terry Flood.  At first the people gathered were only half paying attention to this tiny woman speaking softly and kindly.  I couldn’t blame them.  Why should they trust her?  But then Ms. Flood paused to survey the room.  After taking a few breaths, the tone of her voice grew earnest and she said this:

I want you to know that we at Jubilee Jobs believe that everyone comes here with a core of goodness.  Your past is your past.  You may have made some mistakes or taken some missteps, or had some bad things happen to you along the way. But that’s all in the past now.  Today is a new day.

Her words brought tears to my eyes.  Not only because of the respect she held for all the people gathered in that room and all they had been through.  But also because of the change this respect created. Suddenly everyone was paying attention.  People sat up straighter.  The room grew quiet and still.  A sense of trust arose—as if the people gathered, people desperate for a job and a way to improve their lives—suddenly believed that it was a new day.

My prayer for all of us, and for a nation in need of Jubilee, is that this can be a new day for people to be free.

 

[Feature Image: Tim]

 

Protecting our Hopefulness

Just_Mercy_Stevenson_Bryan_002 (1)_0I just returned from a trip to Washington DC where six students and I studied the issue of mass incarceration.  I will write more about this trip soon, but for now I just want to highlight the inspiring work of Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.  Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption details his journey into this work beginning with one of his first cases, defending Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he did not commit.  I highly recommend this book as well as a number of videos where you can hear Stevenson speak.  In this 45 minute video you can hear Stevenson talk about “Confronting Injustice.”  At about the 20 minute mark he talks about the importance of “protecting our hopefulness.”  Here’s a little of what he says:

If we are going to create more justice in the world, we have to protect our hopefulness. Injustice is a direct consequence of hopelessness. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. When I go into a courtroom and I see a hopeless judge and a hopeless prosecutor and a hopeless defense attorney, I know that there is going to be a bad outcome. When I go into a school system and see hopeless teachers trying to deal with hopeless sets of rules, I am very worried about the future of our children. When I go into communities and hear people talking about issues but I hear them giving in to the despair and hopelessness that oftentimes emerge because things get complicated, I get very worried. The complexity of the world can oftentimes make us hopeless about what we can do. We have to be curious and understand the complexities of issues, but we also have to protect our hopefulness because we cannot move forward without hope. We cannot create more opportunities for justice without hope.

I encourage you to get to know Stevenson’s work.  Learning more about our country’s urgent need for criminal justice reform will disturb and challenge–the stories of injustice are heart wrenching.  But, as Stevenson shares with us, we have good reason to hope, because through hope we find our way forward to justice.

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]