As someone who is striving to help others discover themselves, I cannot only focus on the “feel good” aspects of this work. Reflection and self-discovery are essential in the work of justice and reconciliation in the world, for we must see and know our own biases and privilege before we take any action. I had been blind to my white privilege for most of my life and it took 25 years to finally see that. My intention today is to share my experience, as a white woman, with other white folk who, too, are seeking paths to education and conviction regarding our privilege and the role we play in systemic racism.
Cleo Wade writes in her collection of poetry, Where to Begin, “When the world asks us big questions that require big answers, we have two options: One. To feel so overwhelmed or unqualified we do nothing. Two. To begin. To start with one small act and qualify ourselves.”
This is my one small act.
Since coming to Divinity School this past year, I have been on quite the self-discovery journey. Some of it has been pleasantly surprising to uncover about myself, but one such thing that was hard to face at first was my white privilege. I know this word can sting, but it’s real. And every white person has it.
As a white Christian, I have stayed silent for too long. I have safely reposted the words of others but never spoke my own. I sat in my classrooms this past semester as conviction sank in my gut – I knew that now, was I not only privileged because of the color of my skin, but I was in a graduate school program where I was being educated from my assignments, my professors, and, most importantly, my peers on the effects of racism today and what needs to be done to advocate for my black friends. I have been equipped with education that I want to share with other white folk, particularly, white Christians.
My small step is sharing some words from theologians that have convicted me and changed me and helped me see. These words have stuck with me and help me live in alignment with God’s love for ALL people. And as I learn more and listen more, my empathy grows, my understanding expands, and my heart softens.
If we refuse to learn and listen, we will never develop the empathy needed for change to happen. As a white person, I never have to think twice about the color of my skin and how it might impact me. I will never know what it is like to live as a person of color in America. And I will not learn what that experience is like from another white person or white scholar or white professor. We must listen to people of color. Their voices must be raised and heard.
In Kelly Brown Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground, she describes the culture America finds itself in today:
Stand-your-ground culture alienates people from the very goodness of their own creation. It essentially turns people in on themselves as it sets people against one another. This culture promotes the notion that one life has more value than another life…As a sinful construct, stand your ground is sustained by a notion of “not belonging.” Certain human beings are assumed to not belong in certain spaces and to not belong to God. Stand-your-ground culture disengages perpetrators from their humanity and most significantly disengages victims from their lives. The person on the other side of the stand-your-ground gun is not seen as a human being or as having a life worth living…In effect, stand-your-ground culture empowers people to deny the sacredness of God’s human creation. Both the lack of regret for the taking of a life and the refusal to acknowledge the meaning of a life beyond a crucifying death are inevitable outcomes of stand-your-ground culture. (194)
This is the reality of stand-your-ground culture and the effects it is having on all people in America. I fully reject any notion that one human life is more valuable than another because I fully believe we were all made in the image of God with inherent value and worth and belovedness inside us. You are a cherished and special child of God. This sinful construct has infected our ability to see others as the same.
This is why it is critical that white Christians get uncomfortable. As Robin Hawley Gorsline once said, “No one — no white person — has to do anything for white supremacy to continue.” When we stay silent, when we say nothing, when we observe but do not act or challenge or get uncomfortable in some way, when we do not speak the truth and say THIS IS WRONG, that is when it continues to thrive. We have privilege, white friends, we must use it.
And if we are claiming to be Christians…if we want to do what Jesus would do…then we most certainly cannot stay silent.
In her article, “What Jesus Wouldn’t Do,” Dr. Karen Teel, a white theologian, speaks to white folk about how Jesus would be responding and acting in the world today. She argues that white Christians must cultivate a “discomfort in our own skin” in order to do the work of dismantling white supremacy. In order to do what Jesus would do if he was in the 21st century, we cannot just act generously and compassionately without speaking against the injustices of our systems. Teel argues that most white folk do not grapple with the problem of race at all, for we do not have to wrestle with our own racial identity. White Christians have to go beyond just helping marginalized peoples, for we must also condemn the system as a whole that is keeping such folk oppressed in the first place. Referencing James Cone, Teel emphasizes that Jesus would not even identify as white if he were here today, but rather Jesus would be in the marginalized community, fighting against the unjust structures in place. We must do the same.
So this is my small, first step. This is my offering today. These brutal acts of violence and dehumanization must end. All people are children of God. All people have inherent worth built into their bones. All humans deserve freedom. Real freedom. I am a work in progress, but I will no longer stay comfortable. And if you are a white Christian reading this, I challenge you to get uncomfortable, too.
I want to end with two things, first, a prayer, and then some resources. This is a short list of books and articles that are full of helpful information and education on the history of racism, Christianity, justice, and allyship. Check them out if you want to explore more. And don’t stop there, keep exploring and educating yourself. There is no limit to what we can do to make positive change here.
Alright, let’s pray,
Creator God, thank you for making us all perfectly in your image. That image being boundless and full of all colors. You’ve created a masterpiece of diverse bodies holding beautiful souls on this earth that I pray will all be liberated some day, for when only some are free, none are free. I lift up people of color who are suffering unjustly. God, act swiftly. Keep me uncomfortable. Make me depend on you as I strive to learn, listen, and act. Give me a desire to listen and not speak. Open my eyes to my privilege and how I must use it. Give me vision to see all your children as you do. Soften my heart toward what I don’t yet understand. Infuse me with grace as I will make mistakes. Heal our broken world. Give us leaders and give us hope. Amen.
And if you have any suggestions for further feedback or education, please do not hesitate to share in the comments.