Ferguson was supposed to be a turning point. It was the unflinching reveal of systemic violence that routinely plays out on black and brown bodies. It was supposed to be a metanoia moment for the rest of society. Instead, it became a line in the sand between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter; between those who must navigate the realities of daily dehumanization, along with some white allies, and those who wish to maintain a corrupted facade of ‘universality’ that is the mechanism of dehumanization. Ferguson revealed how little ground has been ceded by the powers that be, and how bloodied.
And now, Charlottesville.
A white life has been killed while standing in defiance of a colorless vision of the US–a vision that is wholly without merit, though not without precedent. This colorless vision is easy to refute when presented as a high contrast image, like the events in Charlottesville, but not as obvious in its grainier daily forms. Since last weekend I have seen many posts on social media decrying the hatred and provenance of the ideologies behind ‘unite the right’, and admonitions among the white community to stop racism at first sight in any form. I have also seen pushback from people of color who are sick of hearing the defensive response, ‘but I’m not like those people’. Both responses point to a critical piece that we, my fellow white folk, must contemplate. We have so swallowed and ingested the doctrine of individuality that it seems inconceivable we might be confused for one who looks like me but is not-me. We don’t like to be labeled (because no one likes to be labeled), and refuse to consider the subtleties of racism–because I am not ‘racist’. Not like them.
But here is one label that I am willing to guarantee: all humans are assholes.
This is also known as the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology, to get fancy. And right now we are having a serious Come to Jesus moment with communities of color.
Perhaps you’re right to say that you are not like those tiki torch carrying white men. Congratulations. So now, let’s take a look at that knapsack of privilege. When I open mine I see an above average K-12 education, childhood in an affluent and unpolluted community, which meant that I grew up with a sense of security outside the home. My parents divorced when I was young, so other people’s homes became my safe havens, as did school. College was expected, not an option. I’m blonde and blue-eyed, so no issues with fitting into the larger society. Somewhere along the way I learned to listen to the stories of others, and to take them seriously. James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, and Japanese American internment survivors have all been my teachers. You could say my knapsack is adorned with the classic white, liberal badge of honor (or a Canadian flag). But all that is the easy part to identify.
Privilege likes to hide out in tide pools and shadow. It emerges in our gut reactions to something that impacts our daily routine, or sense of fairness. It feeds off particularities of perspective, the way ‘common sense’ is shaped. We see this when a white college student sues a university for not admitting her, blaming Affirmative Action for ruining her future. What seems straightforward–admitting the best and the brightest–takes a detour. The algorithms of society are usually in our favor. When something gets coded differently, suddenly it appears as unfair. There are moments when I see my Latinx and Black colleagues involved in grant-funded initiatives and think, wait, where is my opportunity? The job market is doubly bleak for us theologians. So, with churches dying and schools not hiring, why must my spouse and I bear more of a financial burden for graduate school? It isn’t fair. But when I take a step back, reframe the picture, some other factors emerge. What are the chances I will be able to work past age 60, or perhaps even 70? Good? Better than average? What about my colleagues who may or may not receive the same level of health care? Whose voices are more urgent for the church today? Mine, or the prophetic witness of my colleagues, many of whose lives bear the undue burdens of our society?
Privilege’s partner is exceptionality, also known as not-me. This is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the doctrine of individuality. We are seldom aware of how we categorize, prejudge, and stereotype others, but we bristle when others do that to us. How dare he assume that I’m like that… Who does she think she is… Together, privilege and exceptionalism provide a filter for walking through the world. We fail to recognize all the visual cues, social patterns, and unspoken expectations that perpetuate white power.
As one of my conversation partners often likes to remind me, white people are not the only assholes on this planet–just look at history. The Huns, Aztecs, Pharoahs, and Hutus have all done their fair share of conquering, killing, and destruction. ‘They’re no different from us.’ True though that may appear, those are not the societies in which we currently live. And we do have a responsibility to be aware of how we, in this time and in this place, are being assholes to others.