“How Cool That You Get To Disbelieve White Privilege…”

File this under “Things I wanted to say, but couldn’t because I was a pastor of a parish.”

But, actually, now being out of a parish, I wonder if it should really be filed under “Things you need to say as a pastor of a parish.”

The title is sarcastic, by the way.

Because it’s not “cool,” right, or what have you to be able to pretend white privilege is not a thing. It’s actually a…wait for it…sign of privilege. That very privilege you’re trying to pretend isn’t real is what allows you to pretend, with some ignorant success, it isn’t real.

We were sitting at a bar. The meeting had been called because I’d been saying things from the pulpit that caused him to squirm.

He bought the first beer, which I was grateful for. And I genuinely did like him, and continue to, despite the conversation.

“You’ve used this term recently,” he said three sips in, “‘white privilege.’ What is that?”

He looked at me as he took another sip.

“Well, it’s the inconvenient truth that you, as a white person, and a white male in particular, were born with a certain backpack of goods that set you up for success in life, not by your own doing, because our culture is biased toward people who look like you and me.”

It was the Cliff’s Notes version, but I had yet to take a sip and knew we’d probably need another round. I stopped and took a drink.

“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I was born poor. I worked hard for my money. I was the first in my family to go to college. I don’t think I had a very good backpack,” he said.

“Well, you certainly had obstacles. White privilege doesn’t mean that white people, especially economically depressed white people, don’t have obstacles. It just means that, despite your obstacles, you had a leg up.” I took a big drink.

“Nope,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Tell me, when you apply to a job, what does the application say your name is?”

<he said his name>

“Now,” I said, “did you know that your name, as compared to a name that is more non-traditional…a name distinctly not white by culture <looking at you Karen and Chad>, is more likely to be read and full and hired? Just by the name. That’s white privilege.”

“My boys,” he said brushing past my example, “had <he looks around and lowers his voice> black friends all through school. They’d come over to our house. They were the same; no difference.”

Pro-tip: if you lower your voice when speaking about a different ethnicity or culture, you’re probably participating in subconscious racism.

Ok, back to the story…

“Did you ever ask them?” I inquired.

“What?”

“Did you ever ask them about their experience? Or is this just what you observed? Did you ever ask them how many times they’ve been pulled over? Or followed in a store? Or passed over for a promotion? Or had athletics shoved in their face because it was lifted as the only legit way they’d get into a school? Did you ever ask them?”

Well, no…” he said honestly.

“Then I don’t think you really know about their experience. You get the privilege of pretending their experience is the same as yours because your frame is the one all other pictures have to fit in. That’s white privilege. And yes, you had some challenges, and your whiteness helped you overcome them. They don’t have that leg up. It’s just true.”

Beer was gone. I ordered the next.

“I still don’t buy it…”

“When I was teaching in Chicago, a lot of my kid’s parents drove very nice cars. They had little money, but nice cars with huge lease payments. Know what one of them told me about that? They said they did that so that people like me would take them seriously. Now, know what I drove? A beat up Honda with two missing hubcaps that I never replaced because, why bother? I never once thought I’d have to do anything to be taken seriously. And I never thought that because my status as a white male just afforded me that luxury no matter what car I drove…”

“They didn’t have to do that,” he said. “That’s irresponsible.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said, emboldened a bit by the beer, “because you’ve never had to fight for legitimacy on an uneven playing field.”

He shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”

“My Philosophy teacher in college once said, after a long discussion, ‘Tim…I cant force you to see the truth.'” I smiled.

He laughed.

But I was serious.

“I’m going to keep talking about it,” I said.

He nodded, though I knew he wouldn’t stay in the pews if I did.

I did. And he didn’t. And there we are.

I guess it’s part of the privilege to just go somewhere else and not have to be reminded of it.

Oh, the Subtle Ways We’re Racist…

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

It is absolutely a sign of my privilege that I forget that racism is alive.

I get “down time” from the uncomfortable, awkward, demeaning, and violent ways that racism infects conversation and interaction.  I don’t mean it’s not there.  I mean that I get a rest from realizing it.

Which is no rest at all.

At our local church assembly yesterday I came out of a workshop session and was talking with a colleague.  A member of local congregation that he knew came up and started chatting as well.  And then it got weird typical:

Colleague: “How did you like the morning workshop you attended?”

Congregant: “Wasn’t helpful.”

Me: “Yeah, I think we were at the same one.  It wasn’t helpful for me, either.”

Congregant: “Yeah. All I want to know is what you do when your Confirmation students look like this.”

And as he said the words “like this” he pointed to a chair sitting nearby.

A black chair.

Colleague: <red face>

Me: “I don’t get your question.”

Congregant: “You know, like this.”

Me: “What are you saying?”

Because if you’re going to say it, say it.

Congregant: “When they’re black.”

Me and Colleague: “…you teach them.”

And I turned back to my colleague and resumed our conversation…and the man left to go somewhere.  And I knew I was giving him the cold shoulder.  And I knew I was angry.  And I knew I didn’t know what to say.  And I knew I felt bad about not knowing what to say.

And then later on we would go to vote on anti-racism legislation for our church and vow to be against racism in all it’s forms…a sea of blue cards would fly up, easily passing it…

Send the medicine, Lord. We’ve got the sickness already.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think he knew his words were hurtful.  That’s not me making an excuse for him; there’s no excuse.  Equating anyone to the color of an inanimate object is really inexcusable and tacky and all sorts of sad.

But it was another knock on my heart at how deep the system is.  Because I imagine that this man probably thinks he’s open and welcoming to everyone.  I imagine he thinks that he’s an ally.

And I imagine that in some ways he is.  But in subtle ways, he’s not.

Louis CK had a stand-up bit on the season finale of SNL a few weeks back.  It was really awkward, as most of his bits are. But this particular act was really in poor taste, I thought.  Nothing is funny about child molestation.  Social commentary is one thing. He went too far.

And it’s too bad that the parts about child molestation overshadowed the whole routine, because I actually think he hit on a nugget of reality in the monologue that is good to ruminate on, even if uncomfortable.

He talked about how he’s not racist, and how when a black man in a hoodie walks into a convenience store late at night while he’s shopping the aisles, he has to continue to repeat to himself, “I am not racist. I am not racist. I am not racist.”

And that, there, is what I’m talking about.  Because for as much as he’s “not racist,” the subtle triggers that have been given to him by the media, by privilege, and by his own uncomfortability in being absolutely present in situations that test the tribal mentality of his cultural upbringing still persist.

Because Louis CK is racist. And an ally. He’s both.  And pretending he’s not won’t do any good.  And he knows that. Because the minute we forget that the system is alive is the minute it steals from you, like it stole from me in the exchange with the man yesterday.

Because if I had been present in the moment, I would have been more forceful in telling him, point blank, how uncomfortable his words made me feel.  How when he pointed to that chair, all I could see is my own Confirmation students sitting there.  And how their heritage is so important to them. And how I could see them looking down as this man pointed at them as if they are an issue that he had to figure out.

If the man is having trouble teaching students of any race, then the man is the issue, not the student.

I speak out about the overtly racist system all the time.  I forget about the subtle racist systems…and it always steals my voice. Because it exists in me, too. And it is pernicious.  And it operates under the radar for most of us (and in most of us) who consider ourselves allies.

Oh the subtle ways we’re racist…even in the church…maybe especially in the church…