Note from iAt editors: This article was originally published on August 19 in reflection of the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white police officer. We decided to republish this article in response to the Grand Jury decision on November 24.
I confess I have not always chosen to understand or embrace the white privilege I hold as a female of Northern European-Dutch descent. I confess as a child I was taught to fear those different than myself. I confess I have not always worked to end the racial injustices of our time. I confess the racism within me.
Lord, have mercy.
I confess I didn’t really begin to understand white privilege until I was in my early thirties. The church denomination I served at the time held workshops on racial reconciliation. It was 2008 — forty years after the civil rights moment. I participated in conversations with those of various racial ethnicities and I listened to those with a similar racial makeup to myself angrily demand racism no longer existed. And I saw the pain on the faces of the men and women in the room who had clearly faced racial discrimination every single day of their lives. I saw the grief on the faces of men who listened silently as part of the room acknowledged the privileges we hold. I watched the tears flow down the faces of the women who shared their own tragic and horrific stories of discrimination, hate, and fear. I confess my naiveté to the privileges I have held since birth because of the color of my skin.
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
I can eat in any restaurant and not worry if I will be served with respect and dignity because of my race.
I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race if a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
I can walk into a classroom and know I will not be the only member of my race.
I can take a job or enroll in a college with an affirmative action policy without having my co-workers or peers assume I got it because of my race.
I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group.1
Lord, have mercy.
And then my husband and I had children. We have two boys. Our boys are black.
When President Obama was elected into office I felt a sense of hope. I felt like our country might have finally moved past the sin of racism that has held deep in the history of our nation. Political agendas aside, I felt a sense of renewal growing within our nation. I felt like the prophetic words of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. years ago were finally coming true. “I have a dream,” he said. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I envisioned those who marched on the streets of Birmingham or rode the buses on Freedom Rides or those who courageously sat at the counters in segregated restaurants to be rejoicing in their efforts. I had hope — hope for our nation and hope for my boys.
Then I read the stories of teenagers by the name of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. I heard stories about other black teenage boys — stories like the one teenager who was shot in Walmart because he was holding a toy gun. I saw the pictures of the militarization of police in Ferguson, Missouri joining together to fight against people living in grief — grief not just because of the loss of one son in the community but the loss of many sons and daughters who have had to fight too hard and for too long just because of the color of their skin.
My boys are six and four years old. They like to eat candy. They like to ride their bikes in the middle of the street. They like to play with their cousins and with their friends. They like to have water gun fights. They like to wear hooded sweatshirts. Ten years from now they will be teenagers and I wonder what it will be like for them when they will no longer live under the white privilege umbrella of their white parents. Who will judge them by the color of their skin? Who already judges them by the color of their skin and not for the character within? When will “Ferguson” happen in the town we live in?
I confess feeling ill-equipped in raising my children to fully embrace their racial identity. I confess not knowing how to talk about the hatred and pain they may encounter in their life. I have tried but have stumbled over my words. This is something we didn’t learn in an adoption class or from reading the “how to” books on parenting.
Lord, have mercy.
This has to stop. The racial hatred and mistrust that runs like rushing flood waters through the neighborhoods of this country has to end. I believe this is not how God intended for the world to be when it was created. The earth groans in pain and suffering. The world grieves the sinful ways we have dug ourselves into generation after generation. Humanity suffers from our own sinful acts against one another and against ourselves.
We need a Savior.
The Psalmist writes in the 51st chapter, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (verses 10-12).
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour in Christian America is eleven o’clock on a Sunday.” I fear not much has changed since he said those words. I believe now is the time for the church and for the brothers and sisters within the church to repent — to repent for all the ways we have turned from God in our hateful acts and our sinful ways. Now is the time to confess our need for a Savior, our need for change and new life. I believe now is the time to stand with all people, not because of their color of their skin but because of whose image they were created in. Galatians 3:28 says “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe now is the time to confess the division we have created and our desire for change.
Now is the time to confess.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, and people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)
Want to read other perspectives? Read Howard Schaap’s article “Or does it explode?,” a reflection on Ferguson from the perspective of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” Or read Christena Cleveland’s post “The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail”, Sarah Bessey’s thoughts “In which I have a few things to tell you about #Ferguson,” or Ebony Adebayo’s article “When Black Victims Become Trending Hashtags.”
Peggy, McIntosh. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988). Posted online as an excerpt and reprinted again in 2010. ↩