I Am White Privilege, Part 5: Overcoming By Embracing

Over the past several weeks I have shared some of my thoughts regarding white privilege.  Many people have contacted me via private message or face to face to state they are cautious about posting their opinions publicly.

This is sad.

We have created an atmosphere of polarization and all-or-nothing comments.  If someone wishes to state they do not believe white privilege is an issue, they are afraid of being branded close-minded and racist.  Those who agree with me regarding privilege are tentative to say anything because of the argument they envision erupting.

We must learn to disagree well.

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I have been repeating that in order to overcome privilege, we must see people as more than categories; we must learn that we are all people who have stories and we should strive to join our stories with one another.

If that is true, how beneficial is it that we still have so many items in our nation defined by ethnicity?

Television networks, movies, music, colleges, even dating networks are categorized by ehtnicity.  Our houses of worship are often mono-chromatic.

Can we overcome the issues created by privilege if we continue identifying these things by race and ethnicity?

The answer is simple:

Yes.

And no.

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We all have a rich history and heritage.  There are positives and negatives to our familial pasts that should be acknowledged.  Knowing our histories allows us to hold on to the habits, traditions, and lessons of our ancestors that we wish to continue passing on to future generations; while also providing the opportunity to change behaviors that we no longer wish to carry on.

Some cultures cling to their ancestors more than others, and they should continue doing so.

We should all study and learn where our families come from and what traits identify them.  We should long to join with others who have a common heritage so that we can share in our likenesses.

As we cling to those things that make us who we are, we find comfort in family practices, work practices, and worship practices.

That feeling of comfort can aid in development of our identities.  Comfort can also lead to closer relationships and a greater sense of self as we interact with others.

Who we are is something to be celebrated.  We should never act as if we have no heritage, nor should we act as if our heritage does not matter.  Our pasts, our histories, are rich and full and should be embraced and enjoyed.

As we enjoy our heritage and embrace those things about our pasts that form our identity, we should find joy in participating in those activities and programs that promote and celebrate our ethnicity or race.

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We should never embrace the comfort of that which is familiar to the exclusion of that which is different.

We cannot learn, truly learn, what life is like for those who are different from us until we experience life with them; until we live in the same communities, study together, work together, and worship together.  If we avoid those who are different we are limiting our educational experiences.

We are also limiting our understanding of what life is like for those who have a different heritage and background than we do.

We must seek opportunities to be with people who are different.  We must look for opportunities to listen to others’ experiences.  We must learn from people who have a perspective different than our own.

We must welcome people, actively invite them, into our lives so that we can share life together.  We must ask people to tell us their stories.  We must learn from their experiences.

As we learn from others, we can apply that knowledge to what we know from our own heritage to create an identity that is not limited by any one culture.

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White privilege exists in our society.  We may have done nothing to create it.  We may do nothing to promote it.  We may actively live in ways to try and overcome it.

But we cannot ignore it.

How is it going to change?  How are we going to change a societal construct that has been in existence since the founding of our nation?

By being different.  By making different decisions.  By not giving in to the way things have always been.

By supporting practices that promote equal hiring and recruiting.  By voting for issues, not personalities or political affiliation.  By fighting for justice to be applied equally and fairly.

By living and learning…

Together.

White Privilege, Part 4: Constructing Our Realities

We construct our social realities.

We construct them by the stories we tell and the actions we perform.

I recently read about a thought experiment conducted by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their work, The Social Construction of Reality.  In the experiment, they suggest what would occur if two people, one male and one female, survive an ecological disaster and have to begin a new society.  In that first generation, those two survivors will make decisions understanding they may need to change their minds based on what occurs in their lives.

When their children grow and begin to make decisions, they will say things such as, “This is how our elders do it.”  The third generation will say, “This is how it is done.”

The fourth generation will say, “This is how the world is.”  In this thought experiment, it takes less than four generations to move from possibilities to certainties.

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Not too long ago, the first African-American student of my alma mater was on campus to speak about his experience.  One of the stories he shared was that as a young child growing up, he knew his behavior needed to be different.  He needed to be better than everyone else.  When white people were present, especially authority figures like police officers, he had to make sure all of his actions went above and beyond the accepted definitions of “polite” and “proper.”  He did not share this with bitterness, but with an acceptance of his realization, “This is how the world is.”

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Many changes have been and still are occurring in our country.  We are making great strides at overcoming privilege.

But we must still do more.

In the history of country, African-Americans have only been counted as full people since 1865.  Think about that:  because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, only 60% of slaves were considered as people for census and tax purposes.  Although that changed after the Civil War, that means that non-whites have only been fully considered humans for less than 150 years.

The Civil Rights movement has done a lot to shift our thinking and policies, yet we are still barely more than 50 years removed from its inception.

We have a lot of history that needs to be overcome.

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What would life look like if white privilege did not exist?  Can you imagine a society where Dr. King’s dream finally comes true:  people are judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin?

Start to imagine it:

Imagine neighborhoods that are not afraid to invite in families who look different.

Imagine a business culture that hires, promotes, and bases wages on job performance instead of appearance.

Imagine a church environment that promotes integration and togetherness in worship instead of worship being a time of dividing into our “groups.”

Imagine an education system where the best resources are available in all places.

It’s not so hard to picture, is it?

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I cannot say this enough:  we must listen to people’s stories.  We must hear them describe their experience and stop telling them they are mistaken, paranoid, bitter, or just flat out ignorant.  We must accept that the story they tell us is their understanding:  “This is how the world is.”  Just as my story is my understanding of how the world is.

The stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next have created in part the stories we are living today.

Once we learn others’ stories and share our own, we can begin to envision a world where our stories can be lived together.

We construct our social realities.  The history of this country created an environment of privilege for one particular race.  As we accept that, we can work to change it.  Many people have already started to bring about change.  How can we join them?

I long for a generation to come about that views equal opportunity as a certainty.  I must live as if it is important to me.  I must behave as if it is important to me.

It starts with relationships.  It starts with stories.  I want to hear yours.

Will you share it with me?

Please, Don’t Make Us Sing These Songs

“Please, don’t make us sing these songs.”

When the Israelites were in captivity, they did not want to sing their songs of praise.  They did not want to sing the songs that reminded them of happier days.

Their captors wanted them to sing those songs so that they could mock them.  “Go ahead!  Sing!  Sing praise to your God, Yahweh, who did nothing for you!  Sing to the God who let us walk in to your homeland, steal you away, and bring you here—SING!”

The Israelites plead, “Don’t make us sing these songs.”

Instead, the song they want to sing is raw and bitter:  “Happy are those who dash your babies against the rocks, so then you will know how it feels.”

We hate you.  We hate our lives right now.  We don’t even know if God hears us.

Please, don’t make us sing these songs.

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Last night, I heard a friend say, “I’m just ready to give up.  What do I have to live for?  I’ve been waiting for God to do something…where is He?”

I have no answer.

I hurt for my friend.  I am angry along with my friend.  I am helpless to offer any solutions to my friend.

My friend feels raw and bitter.  I am certain there is some part of my friend that would love to see the source of their pain and anger get what’s coming to them.  I know my friend does not feel like praising God right now.  And I cannot blame my friend…I feel the same way.

Please, don’t make us sing these songs.

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Today, my friends will gather to lay the woman who is daughter, sister, aunt, and friend to rest.  Her mother died four weeks ago.  This family is hurting.

I am hurting for this family.  I shed tears thinking about this family.  I long to be physically present with them.

I know they are hurting.  I struggled to sing the songs in worship today.  I agreed with the words.  I have sung them many times before.  But today hurt.

Please, don’t make us sing these songs.

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Did you know that when Job’s friends showed up after his life fell apart, they did the greatest thing for a week?  For seven days, they offered the greatest help and support anyone could offer.

For seven days, they said nothing.  They just sat in silence with Job.

We struggle for words so often.  We want to find the right thing to say.  We want to take pain away.  We want to offer solutions.

Sometimes, we just need to shut up.

We need to hurt.

We need to say that we want our enemies’ babies dashed against the rocks.  Because that is how we feel.  That is what exists within our souls.

And to deny it or ignore it or hide it gives it power.

Please, don’t make us sing these songs.

It’s okay to not sing.  It’s okay to sit in silence with our pain.  It’s okay to invite people into our pain and ask them to sit in silence with us.  It’s okay to yell, scream, and cuss—even at God.

So today, if you cannot sing—please don’t.  And if you are with someone who cannot sing—please don’t try and make them.

Sit with them.  Be silent in their presence.  When you are with them, be okay with saying nothing.

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“Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope….”

This Door

A month ago, I wrote about a set of doors that I had been entering often beginning in 1993.

Today, a group of students will enter through this door and begin a season of life dedicated to improving their current station in life.

Classroom Door

FaithWorks of Abilene is an amazing place.  Our mission is to help the underemployed, through personal, career, academic and spiritual development, acquire the confidence and skills for gainful employment.

We try to help restore lives.

As we begin class today, I think about lives; stories; people.

I think about people like Susan and Rosario and Tracey; former students who have gone on to work or higher education.

I think about people like Jeri and Lloyd and Rudy; students who are not working due to a variety of issues yet they volunteer and look for ways to serve in their communities.

I think about people like Michael and David and Lacey; former students who are still fighting to find direction in their lives.

I think about people like Foy and Terri and Jason; former students we wish were still here with us.

And there are so many other names:  Chauncy and Vivian and Annette and Brandi and Kevin and Mark and Darrell and Becky.  Name after name after name.

More than 350 of them.

350 lives changed.  350 families changed.

And today I have a list of 23 names.  Names like Amy and Ian and John and Colton and Nikki.  Names that belong to people with all sorts of backgrounds and stories to tell.  Names that will begin telling a new story.

I have no idea what tomorrow will look like.  But today, I have an opportunity to welcome 23 people through this door.

Hopefully, beyond this door something will be said or experienced that will spark within these new students the process by which they can realize what we so deeply believe to be true:

“It is never too late to become what you might have been.”

I Am White Privilege, Part 3: Rethinking the American Dream

The American Dream is a great ideal.  Everyone can own their own home, have their own things, and enjoy life to the fullest.  It is a dream that promotes hard-working, individual achievement.  It is a dream that rewards people for the things they do.

And it is a dream that was initiated by one group of people who took land away from the people who already lived here and took another group of people away from their homeland in chains, shipped them across the ocean, and had them work the “new” land.

Regardless of how true it may be that the American Dream is available to everybody, we cannot erase the years of history that indicate it is a dream created by one culture and perpetuated by that same culture.  To say that enough history has passed that it should no longer make a difference is a statement that can only be made by a dominant culture trying to escape the shame created by what has occurred in our past.

So if we cannot change history, what can we do?

First:  be aware.  While working on my degree, I took a class that assigned all of the students to participate in six cultural plunges.  These were assignments that had students experience something for one week that members of the dominant culture typically do not face (wearing a rainbow pin, attending a non-Christian worship service, attending a celebration of a different ethnic group, etc.).

These assignments made me aware of two important lessons.  One lesson was that it truly is different to experience life outside of the dominant culture.  The second lesson was that the experience of living outside the dominant culture was only a weeklong assignment for me; it is everyday life for others.

Being a member of a non-dominant culture is different—not necessarily better or worse, just different.  Let us all learn that.

Second:  be involved.  Even as we acknowledge the differences that exist based on the culture in which we are placed, we can also thrive as we live together in community.  We learn to accept, acknowledge, and appreciate those things that make us unique while learning to draw closer to one another.  We grow in the knowledge that we are people, not categories; that although we come from different cultures we learn to live with, support, and root for one another.  We do this by getting involved.

There are a number of ways to be involved.

When you receive a jury summons show up for it.  Take the time to be a part of the justice system.  Fight against the stereotype that the system is corrupt by being a part of it.  Bring integrity, respect, and justice to a system that often lacks those characteristics.

Pay attention to what is happening in your school system.  Are some schools chronically under-performing?  Why?  How can you help improve it?  What does the school need?  Is there a distinguishable difference between successful schools and under-performing ones?  How can your presence make a difference?

Become involved in your local political process.  (This comes from someone who hates all political processes!)  If there are unjust laws or practices in your community, find out how you can initiate change.  Maybe it is campaigning.  Maybe it is talking to your local representatives.  Maybe it is just deciding that you will not the fact that you are one person stop you from initiating change.

Find out what community agencies exist in your community and pick one or two to be a part of.  Look especially for those groups that work on development of the whole person.  If there are ways to help with furthering education or employability, jump on opportunities to help.  If those agencies do not exist where you live—create one.  Do not tell me it cannot be done: I am working for an agency that was created when one person had a dream of a way she could help improve employability of those most in need of work.  Ten years and 350 people later, I am about to do my part to help that dream continue.

Third:  change the dream.  The American Dream has many components that make it desirable.  But it is too individualistic.  Let us learn to dream in community.  Let us learn to dream dreams that celebrate togetherness.  Let us learn to dream of ways that instead of attaining things we are distributing things.  Let us learn to dream of a world where no one is in need because all people are sharing what they have with each other.

We cannot change our past.  But the ways we live in the present can yield substantial benefits in the future.