Knowing

In her poem “Tablets IV”, Dunya Mikhail writes:

The homeless are not afraid
to miss something.
What passes through their eyes
is how the clouds pass over the rushing cars,
the way pigeons miss some of the seeds
on the road and move away.
Yet only they know
what it means to have a home
and to return to it.

During my morning practice of reading and a savoring a poem, this stanza gave me pause.  The “knowing” of the homeless Mikhail writes about is not a knowing we would envy.  The homeless know what it means to have a home because they miss having one. But the “knowing” of this poem made me instantly grateful for my home, my life, the bed I sleep in each night.

I’ve been writing a lot this summer. I haven’t posted as much on this blog because I’ve been carefully crafting a book proposal that I’m hoping will turn into my first book.  The book is about the “knowing” to which I have been led by people whose lives are wholly different than my own—prisoners, immigrants, LGBTQ+, persons of color. I should add the homeless. As a white woman of privilege I don’t know what their lives are like—in fact I am quite blind to and ignorant of this knowledge.  But I can know.  And I should. Because from knowing grows understanding.  And understanding builds relationships.  And when we are in relationship with each other we can begin to meet the needs of those who, for far too long, have been pushed aside by society.

[Feature Image: Patrick Marioné]

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Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

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]

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]