On Privilege: “Being white means never having to think about it”

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Here is an excerpt from my sermon this week. You can listen to the entire thing online… just click on over to the sermons page… but be forewarned, it was a long sermon. 🙂

canlecharleston“There are so many places where the people of God, led by the Spirit of God, need to rise up as a great exclamation point amidst the prevailing culture! For ours is a culture that is too content with just getting by, with self-preservation and survival of the fittest, too comfortable with violence and hatred. Ours is a culture with walls and barriers that divide people on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, religion, and more.  If we build the walls high enough, we don’t have to worry about our neighbor. We just have to take care of ourselves. This is our world!

But events like this week’s horrific tragedy in Charleston force us to see that there is no barrier big enough to protect us from the evils of institutionalized racism and the culture of violence in which we live.

Some of us learned about Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church this week, an historic and influential church. Emmanuel AME Church and all her sister churches in the AME exist today because 180 years ago, African Americans were required to sit in the balcony at Saint George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, because some white Methodists believed that black Methodists were inherently inferior and somehow less deserving of the full grace of God.

I don’t know about you, but that fact breaks my heart. I am white, male, straight, college-educated, from a middle class home, and my life has been easy. I live in the midst of privilege. I’ve never had to worry that I would be stopped by a police officer because my skin was the wrong color. I’ve never had to worry that some racist with a gun would shoot up my church family. I didn’t have to worry about being red-lined when I buying a house. I’ve never had to worry what people would think if I held my beloved’s hand in public or put my arm around her in church.  I’ve never had security people follow me through a store because I was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood. I have never gotten up in the morning and worried that my accent or my wardrobe would somehow negatively call attention to me, and I never had to pretend to be someone I am not in order to be accepted or to get ahead. I am a person of privilege.

The insidious piece of white privilege, or straight privilege, or economic privilege, is that most of the time, the privileged majority enjoys the benefits and immunities of that privilege without even being aware that the privilege exists, while those without the privilege cannot live a single day of their lives without running smack dab into it, without bending and shaping their very being into the dominant culture’s model of normal. The inability of people like me, and many of you, to recognize that the advantages of privilege are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of privileged people, even those who are not overtly biased, to recognize our part in maintaining and benefiting from power and privilege.

I know that talking about race and privilege is distressing to a lot of us. White people don’t like this conversation at all. It makes us uncomfortable. From our place of privilege we don’t have to think about racial justice. But here’s the awful truth that something like the Mother Emmanuel shooting forces us to admit: “communities of color are thinking about racial justice all the time. They’re living it and breathing it, and there’s a group of white folks supporting that work, but it’s only a small fraction of the white community.” (Esther Handy, quoted in http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/
deeply-embarrassed-white-people-talk-awkwardly-about-race/Content?oid=9747101)

Last week, I heard five young African American men from Olympia High talk about what it is like to be a young black male in Olympia in the days following the local police shooting. One of the young men told us that his mother didn’t want him walking a few blocks to a friend’s house anymore, that she would drive him instead, because it wasn’t safe for her dark-skinned son to be on the street.  That reminded me of a quote from James Baldwin: “Being white means never having to think about it.”

I am tired of living in a world that accepts racism and violence as a matter of course. In the midst of our very appropriate lament for nine lives lost this week in a church, I feel the need to proclaim that we can do better, we can be better, we can all be better. We have to find a way to say no to the way things are! The Spirit can guide us beyond complacency, beyond the status quo, beyond over-familiarity and misplaced priorities. The spirit can lead us to shout, “No more!” No more racism! No more violence! No more!

It may be tempting to believe that the problems we face are too big, and we are too small, but I remind you people, you Spirit-filled people, you Spirit-led people, I remind you that we do not engage this problem alone, we do not engage this problem with hate, we do not engage this problem with hand guns, but with the power of God and the belief that every Good Friday is followed by an Easter Sunday.