On White Privilege

Well-known and respected Evangelical pastor Louis Giglio, sitting across from Christian rapper Lecrae and the Chik-Fil-A guy, trying to have an “honest” conversation about race, said that

“…white Americans understood “the curse that was slavery” but that they “miss the blessing of slavery—that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in and lived in.” He added that “a fuse goes off” for a lot of white people when they hear the term “white privilege,” so he suggested a change of language. “I think maybe a great thing for me is to call it ‘white blessing,’ that I’m living in the blessing of the curse that happened generationally, that allowed me to grow up in Atlanta”…

He has since apologized for his “poor choice of words”. This dodges the issue inherent in what he said, which is this: the belief that while we would never tolerate slavery today, it served its purpose at the time in building the foundation of this nation. Further, that people of color must be patient with the white folks who just haven’t turned the corner on issues of race because we are still trying to reconcile the blessing with the curse.

This is a dangerous lie.

I was in my second year of teaching American Lit to high school juniors the first time one of my Black students said “There is something not right about white people.” I had introduced a piece from The People’s History of the United States in class in an effort to combat what I knew to be a white male version of American History. I don’t remember which piece. I don’t remember what we were talking about, or what prompted him to make the comment. I can see his face as he said it though, and he was angry.

I fought him on his idea. I don’t remember my exact words either, but I do know I wanted to impress upon him the idea that we can’t paint a whole race of people with the same brush.

I know, I know, I know.

Now, I know.

But then, it took me a few more times of hearing different Black students say the same thing before I stopped wanting to protest and started trying to understand.

Finally, in the ninth year of my career, I was sitting in a classroom with my good friend Paula, waiting for her to finish a conference with two students so we could go home. Sometimes for teachers, these are the most unguarded moments with students, and can produce the most amazing conversations.

Again, I don’t remember exactly how we got here, but we’d recently had a riot on school grounds that sparked between the Black and Hispanic students and ended  with 40 sheriffs on campus and multiple arrests. At some point in the conversation, one of the boys said “I can say this to you because you all aren’t white, but white people are not right in the head”.

“I’m not…white?” I asked.

“No. You know what I mean. You aren’t white-white, like Lakewood white.”

Lakewood is city within a city, part of Long Beach, where I grew up. And yes, Lakewood has a well-documented and on-going problem with white supremacists.

But it was more than that, for this kid. So I asked him “What do you mean, not right in the head?”

And he told me his mom had said that any people who would enslave another people and then not even try to understand the damage that caused? There was something wrong with them. Wrong mentally. Wrong emotionally. Wrong morally.

He was not the last Black kid to tell me this and I always remember it when I hear things like “I think maybe a great thing for me is to call it ‘white blessing,’ that I’m living in the blessing of the curse that happened generationally, that allowed me to grow up in Atlanta”.

Or the lady on a Facebook post the other day who said “How can we, as whites, learn, if we are only being shown hatred( or whatever the opposite of kindness is) In my opinion, even in anger and frustration, you will open more eyes by using that anger in love, or at least an eagerness to awaken.”

It is critical to the narrative of white American history that this nation was carved from the wilderness by white men who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps to found and defend the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The idea of white privilege threatens this narrative. It says our forefathers had an advantage, from the beginning. Sometimes that was money or manpower or deadlier weapons. But always there was an attitude of entitlement, a desire for domination.

When a white person says “I think maybe a great thing for me is to call it ‘white blessing’”, he is communicating an unwillingness to surrender a cultural mythology that places him front and center. When a white person says “How can we as whites learn when we are only being shown hatred”, she is asking to be treated with a patience and care not extended to people of color.

Now see all that as a person of color, with slavery or American Indian blood running through your veins.

Look from the Thanksgiving pageants about how a shipload of entitled white people came to Massachusetts and set about stealing the land and resources from those who already lived there, to the children of immigrants locked in cages at the Texas border.

Look from the July 4th celebrations over a document that says “All men are created equal” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 188 years.

Look at Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 bill and hear again the story of your ancestors being marched from Georgia to Oklahoma to make room for slave plantations. Then see those white faces screaming at Hispanics to “Go back where you came from!”

Then a white man of God calls all this  a “blessing”? And a white woman asks for patience and love while she “learns”?

No wonder kids of color believe there is something not right about white folks.

This is what we have to do: Listen responsibly, which means not only when it feels palatable. Seek out the uncomfortable and convicting. Make yourself sit in the pain and anger of another. Examine the ways in which you have benefitted from that pain. Reject the mythology of the founding of this nation and demand that your children be taught the truth. I don’t know what else, but others do. Find them. Hear them.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou