My friend Dela posted something on Facebook earlier today that caught me off guard. She said it bothered her that out of all the outrage she’d seen from her friends on Facebook about Tray Martin, only three of them were white.
My friend is black. And I wasn’t one of the three white friends she was talking about. And that bothered me.
If you haven’t heard, Trayvon Martin was an innocent, unarmed black teenager (17) who was shot and killed by a 28-year-old Latino man because he looked “suspicious.” Trayvon was wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea and doing nothing wrong. His killer claimed he shot him in “self-defense” and no charges were pressed.
I read this post from my friend Tara in Haiti, and it broke my heart. I love her precious family, and Isaac’s words made me want to cry.
Tara linked to this article by a white guy named Tim Wise, who has researched and written extensively on the topic of racism. Wise says (and I agree) that, “If Trayvon Martin had been, say, Todd Martin, a 17-year old white male, in the same neighborhood on the same evening, it wouldn’t have mattered that he was wearing a hoodie, looking at homes as he passed them by, or fiddling with his waistband.” That was the “suspicious” activity his killer reported on a 911 call.
Wise challenges the notion long-held by most white people (including me, ashamedly) that black people are “exaggerating the problem or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill.” (Here’s another great article along those lines.)
“Empathy,” Wise says, “— real empathy, not the situational and utterly phony kind that most any of us can muster when social convention calls for it — requires that one be able to place oneself in the shoes of another, and to consider the world as they must consider it. It requires that we be able to suspend our own culturally-ingrained disbelief long enough to explore the possibility that perhaps the world doesn’t work as we would have it, but rather as others have long insisted it did.”
I posted a link to Wise’s article on Facebook and added this: “Injustice is real. And alive and kicking around the world and right here in our own country. And it’s not okay with our God. And he demands time and time again in his word that it not be okay with us either. I don’t always know what to do with/about it, but that’s no excuse. God, give me your heart for justice.”
Call me naive, but I did not expect the ensuing comment thread to turn into angry talk about “racism going both ways.” That black people can be just as racist as white people and “I’m tired of white people being called racist,” etc.
I tried (and failed) to explain that yes, every color of person can be racist. But in this country, white people aren’t going to get profiled/accused of stuff/killed just because they’re white.
And a black person very well might. And has. And is.
After an icky discussion, all of my “opponents” (one goes to my church and one is a blood relative) said they “bowed out” and were basically sorely disappointed in my inability to “let this go” and my insistence at calling them “white racists.”
And I felt powerless. Because I knew that we were all missing the real point I was trying to make. Mostly because I had no idea how to say what I really meant.
But I couldn’t just stay silent, because I love my black friends (most of whom I know in real life and go to church with), and their outrage and their pain was not okay with me. I wanted to understand it and feel it, and I wanted to stand with them and fight for them and their kiddos whom I love so much. I begged God to show me how I could do that as a white girl. I didn’t see how it was possible, but I felt like I had to try.
But I didn’t want to say anything that made it sound like I knew what it was like to be black. I don’t. And I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to be a hero. I’m not. And I didn’t want to post out of white guilt or whatever. Yuck.
And then I had a little chat with a friend online. And then a couple friends texted me and told me to please keep fighting for what was right. And I asked God again for wisdom. And then my friend Rebecca told me about an article that had helped her think about race issues in a way she never had before.
And it all started to click. No, I don’t have it figured out. And no, I don’t have any brilliant conclusions for this blog post. But now I can put my finger on what’s been eating at me.
The article is called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. Holy cow.
“As a white person,” author Peggy McIntosh writes, “I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
“I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.”
That’s it right there. That’s what I’d been thinking but had no idea how to articulate. Racism isn’t just about white people doing/saying bad things to black people (or vice versa). It’s deeper than that. It’s this underlying… thing… that says, “If you’re white, you automatically get these certain privileges. If you’re black, you don’t.”
But no white person wants to admit that white people get these privileges. We want to say (and think) that everything is fair for everyone, that we live in a free country steeped in Christian values, that everyone who works hard enough is entitled to everything that anyone gets.
But it’s not true.
Here are 6 of the 26 privileges the author admits that she has (that her black colleagues don’t):
I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me.
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.
I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.
If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
“Obliviousness about white advantage… is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.”
Why do my black friends see my white privilege when I’m completely blinded to it? Because the advantages I have are advantages I have never not had.
Spending time in Cambodia exposed my blindness to my own wealth and privilege as an American. Because it opened my eyes to what I have that others don’t.
I want the same thing to happen with my friends of color in my own community. I want my eyes opened to the privileges I enjoy merely because I was born with cream-colored skin. And I want to fight for justice for my friends whose skin is a different shade.
This post is a start.
And I’ll leave you with a poem written by a friend of a friend. Yalonda Bond Wilson is a beautiful black woman with a gorgeous little boy.
Friends, whether you’re a mama or not, put yourself in this mama’s shoes for just a minute and see if it doesn’t break your heart.
My TrayVon Martin is four years old and I weep when he sleeps
He sleeps so peacefully because he is unaware that the world doesn’t recognize
I weep because i know that no matter the joy he brings to me, he will be seen as
I weep because he is magnificent and splendid and one of my life’s greatest
And it breaks my heart to know that someone, anyone could blot out his existence
He sleeps so peacefully because he hasn’t yet realized his power
I weep because there will always be lingering questions of motives related to
I weep because I know that the best way to preserve his earthly life would be
To raise him to be a non-threatening figure, to placate, and to shuffle
But what self-respecting mother raises a son to be weak?
My son will stand strong and stand tall and be broad shouldered and to know that
He doesn’t have to respond to any ordinary Joe who asks a question
He will know his rights and he will respect the rights of others … All others
He will be prepared to mentally spar with the greats
But raising my son to be strong is a risk; raising him not to be is even riskier
I weep because his mountain is unfairly steeper than anyone else in this land of
I weep because his trail will have hidden obstacles and barriers that will build
Strength that will help him develop into a man, yet strength that may make him
Tonight he sleeps in the crook of his father’s arm, at peace and protected
But me, I am awake praying for a mother and father in Sanford; praying for
Yet grieving because no amount of justice restores the loss of the joy that is a
Heavy hearted because I don’t believe our sons will ever know a level playing
Frightened because our grandsons may not either
My TrayVon Martin is just four years old, and I weep when he sleeps.