In my philosophy class last year, I made friends with this guy who just graduated in May with a business degree planning to go to law school. He lived with his girlfriend who also had her bachelor’s degree (although I’m not sure what her major was). In our class discussions, it was clear that although he was still young, he had a lot of experience and had witnessed a few pains in his lifetime.
Throughout the entire semester, he and several other students in the class really challenged me and changed my perspective on race. See, my friend is African-American, and I am white. He grew up in a culture entirely different from my own with values, perceptions, and an upbringing that at times I would find hard to understand. There was another African-American in the class, one guy was Palestinian, and then a woman who was Pakistani. It was revealed to me (sometimes in some painful, hurtful ways) that I was privileged as a white man, and I did not know as much about race as I claimed I did.
Before the class, my understanding of race consisted of “Well, race WAS a big issue during slavery times and maybe even during Martin Luther King Jr.’s time but it doesn’t really affect us now, right?” or “Well, blacks and whites are pretty much equal now, so lets just stop talking about it.” I would read things on Facebook like “why don’t we have a White history month? Oh that’s right, cause it’d be racist and we just get ignored” and I would think, “Yeah! Why don’t we?!” I had a handful of black friends (maybe one half-white, half-middle-eastern), but unless they acted white I wouldn’t want to be around them.
But throughout this semester, my eyes were opened to just how much privilege I had and just how many experiences I managed to ignore because I was white.
I have never known what it’s like to walk down a street during the day and watch women cling to their purses and men hold their wives closer to them. I have never known what it was like to be with a group of friends picking out a card for my mom at hallmark, lingering just a bit too long in the aisle, and then having the cops stop me as I leave the store suspecting that I stole something. I’ve never experienced a security guard warning me not to scratch the expensive car that I was walking next to… even though it belonged to me. I’ve never had someone listen to the way I talk over the phone and suddenly treat me differently because I somehow sound uneducated even though I have a college degree. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to feel ashamed of my skin color or, at the very least, what it’s like to be constantly aware of how different I look to other people.
But each of the students in my class had.
They’d dealt with that their entire lives and will continue to deal with it until they die because racism isn’t a morality problem, it’s not a black-people-are-just-over-reacting problem, and it’s not a why-are-we-still-talking-about-it-isn’t-racism-already-solved-problem. It’s a systemic problem that is deeply rooted in our culture today and seems to not be going away any time soon.
As privileged whites, we think “can’t they just work their way out of poverty and move up with a little hard work?” If they had our advantages and our privileges, maybe, but it’s increasingly difficult when one lives in a system that constantly puts them down for being different and for looking different.
I’m not saying this to make white people feel guilty or make them feel bad about being white. We all come from a place culturally that we should embrace and be proud of. But, I do say all this because lately I’ve seen a lot of my white friends on Facebook saying some very hurtful and very divisive things. I fear for all the people of color who might feel increasingly alienated not because of commentary on a recent court case but because their white friends are refusing to listen to their pain and casting aside their stories as overreactions or political power grabs.
As a Christian, I believe strongly in the power of the cross and Christ’s ability to save, to transcend social class, race, and gender, and to heal all wounds, physical and emotional. I pray that we might all understand our place culturally and interact with others where they are culturally so we might grow as a people and learn to appreciate the diversity in the Body of Christ.