Subtitle: An honest dialogue with a friend
The death, the murder of George Floyd has provoked national, indeed, global demonstrations against racism and conversations hitherto only (at least, by me) imagined.
Earlier this week, a long-lived (never old!) friend, embarked on a decidedly risky course with a courage I deeply appreciate, writing to me: “Paul, I understand how you, as a black person can talk about racism, for that is your experience. But how can you talk about white privilege, for that cannot be your experience?”
Given, for me, the obvious sincerity of the inquiry, I accepted the question as earnestly asked (that is, with an honest desire to know).
First, however, I must digress. I believe that words are symbols, which, pointing to larger realities, inevitably can mean different things to the speaker/writer than to the hearer/reader. Therefore, I also believe in the necessity of defining my terms…
White privilege [n.]: Cultural advantage, social opportunity, and political (understood in the broadest sense regarding all manners of human relating in community) license accessible to white people and denied (or restricted to) non-white people; historically rooted in and arising from European colonialism and, in regard to the United States, in particular, the Atlantic slave trade and institutional slavery.
The following is my response to my friend (who has granted me the grace of permission to share it):
I can speak of my experiences of racism looking through the lens of my personal historical record of the denial of opportunities in the world and in the church and in individual encounters in which white people, in word and in deed, unmistakably conveyed their negative views of my person, specifically, and of other black people, generally, because of race. My experiences have been substantiated by those of countless other black people who, through their personal testimonies, can and do document similar denials of access to society’s benefits.
Deprivation has a way of sharpening discernment; the coming to understand the content and context of life’s circumstances. In a word, to be denied continually social advantages that were…are freely bestowed on others (read: white people) and beyond any obvious determinants of personal worthiness has proven to me the reality of white privilege.
Thus, I am aware of white privilege, even and especially if and when a white person is inattentive to her/his societal situational reality and, therefore, cannot acknowledge the race-related liberties s/he possesses. This is an aspect of the consciousness all disenfranchised people historically and unto this day develop, for it is an element of that daily defense against life’s degradations, the chiefest being death, called “the survival instinct.” In this regard, some of the most dangerous people I have encountered are white people, even, perhaps, especially those of goodwill, who (in current vernacular, being “unwoke”) cannot claim and, therefore, accept no accountability or responsibility to share with others the privileges accrued to them by virtue of being white.
On this last point, after I had hit “Send,” as a nearly immediate afterthought, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his now fabled Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963, came to mind:
“…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…”
That Martin wrote these words nearly 60 years ago and that I continually find them applicable speaks volumes unto the depths of my soul, to employ the words of Robert Frost, that we “have promises to keep and miles to go before (we) sleep” to achieve racial reconciliation.
© 2020 PRA