Imagine a scenario with me for a second: A 17-year-old black male is walking down the street in downtown Atlanta. He’s wearing a white t-shirt, baggy jeans, a baseball cap, and has an earring in one ear. A 30(ish)-year-old white woman drives up to a stoplight. Her two children are in the backseat of her Honda SUV. She is well dressed, with manicured nails and hair in a ponytail. She stops at the light and looks over at the young black man. Without thinking, she locks the car doors. Then, realizing it, she is embarrassed. She tells herself, “If he were better dressed, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. It’s not about his skin color.” Feeling less guilty, she drives on with her doors locked and doesn’t give it another thought.
There has been much press around the Ferguson case, the New York case, and other similar cases. In both of these high-profile cases, the grand juries declined to indict the white police officers who used lethal force against unarmed black men. I don’t have access to the detailed evidence and, therefore, cannot possibly know for sure whether an indictment was or was not warranted. Yet, one thing is clear. These cases have touched a nerve in our country.
Before going any further, I want to ask a question. If we want to learn about or understand the Turkish occupation of Greece, should we ask Greeks, or should we ask Turks? If we want to understand any kind of oppression, will we get a more accurate understanding from the oppressed person, or from the oppressor? As have many before me, I would assert that the most accurate description of bias, racism, sexism, homophobia, or any kind of oppression, comes not from those in a position of power, authority, or privilege (earned or unearned), but from the oppressed themselves.
I am white and have never had to fear that I might be shot by a police officer while walking down the street. But, I can use my education, my experience with minorities, and my own personal experiences of feeling discriminated against to exercise empathy and attempt to communicate just a little slice of understanding of the outrage which is being felt as a result of these cases.
What is to be learned from these cases is less about the specific cases themselves, and more about the systemic issues which contribute to continuing oppression in our country. It will be very easy for many of us to rejoice in the lack of indictments in these cases and continue on our way. But I challenge all of us to look beyond these cases and see that the experience of so many in our country has NOT been a freedom to walk down the street without fear of being harassed or discriminated against for skin color (or clothing). I have never known anyone to lock their car doors at the sight of a young white woman. But that is certainly not the case for many men (and women) of color in our country. The take-away is to listen to the accounting of oppression from those who experience it, like the black population of Ferguson, who are policed by an almost all-white police force.
White privilege. Two words that can ruffle feathers almost as quickly as the words “abortion” or “gay marriage.” What is white privilege? Simply put, it is a set of privileges which are unearned, given by society to a person based on the whiteness of their skin. It is not something to feel defensive about, guilty about, or ashamed of. It is not necessarily a result of our own personal, individual doing, or that of our own parents or grandparents. And yet, we still benefit.
Some quick examples of white privilege: The ability to turn on the television and see people of my race widely represented in a positive light is white privilege. To see, when learning about my country’s history, that it is the history of people of my race is white privilege. To turn on a Disney princess movie for my child and know that it will likely positively depict a princess of our race is white privilege (7 out of 11 of Disney’s official princess lineup are white). To be able to walk down the street without worrying that I’m going to be stopped by a police officer and asked, “Where are you going? What are you doing?” This is white privilege. As a white woman, when I have been stopped by a white male police officer for a traffic violation, he has never approached my car and unsnapped the holster of his gun, perceiving me as a threat because of my skin color. This is white privilege.
Back to our initial scenario- One of the most devastating privileges that white skin provides is the ability and position to rationalize behavior away and ignore the problem. We are able to resolve our own discomfort by blaming the victim, instead of confronting and dealing with the issue. Let’s examine our initial scenario again. The woman driving the SUV was uncomfortable with her guilt, once she realized what she had done. But instead of questioning it and trying to understand where it came from and how that young black man came to where he is (both on that street and in her mind), she blamed him. “If he were dressed differently…” And so, having explained away her guilt, a luxury unique to those of us who are privileged, she went on her way, and systemic fear and oppression continues.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a random person react to my very presence with fear. To simply see me walking down the street and react by locking her car door. As though my presence is a reminder to her of the evil in the world, as though I might carjack her at any moment, just because of my skin color. What is the message received by that young black man? “I am to be feared because I am a young black man.”
I want to be clear that I am not attacking or demonizing either police officers or white people. Sadly, our society has conditioned us (police officers and everyone else) to fear black men. The cases in Ferguson, New York, and other places are simply microcosms, small manifestations, of the larger problem. While they may not have evidentiary merit for indictment, the overwhelming reaction of the black community across the country and the statistics on the disproportionate numbers of minorities who are incarcerated and/or poor are enough to show that, yes, oppression is alive and well. As one university professor in a recent documentary about the origins of Los Angeles’ most violent gangs said, “The penitentiary is the new cotton field” (see the award-winning documentary “Crips and Bloods: Made in America”).
So I encourage my readers to engage a difficult process, one that has been a journey for me as well, by doing the following:
–Ask yourself what your unearned privileges are, how you feel about those privileges, and how you feel about people of color (if you are white). Acknowledge your privileges, your biases, and try to see your own blind spots which may keep you in the role of oppressor (like not only locking your car doors unnecessarily, but trying to rationalize your way out of it).
–Pursue further education on how our society has ended up where it is. The documentaries (both available on Netflix and other easily accessed outlets) and websites in this article are a good place to start.
–Try to exercise empathy for others whose experience is not the same as yours. Take yourself and your feelings out of the picture and simply try to imagine what their experience has been like.
–Look around at your life. How diverse is your life, your community, your parish? I used to think I was so multicultural because of my Greek heritage, my Orthodox faith, and a few people in my life who were from other races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Then I realized that, in fact, I was quite encapsulated. The vast majority of people in my life were like me- Greek and Orthodox. Look at your own parish family. How many people of color are there in your parish? How many non-Greeks are there, if you are in a Greek Orthodox parish? We Orthodox are in the unique position in our parishes of being a majority among minorities. We have parishes based on ethnic backgrounds. And even our parishes which are based on being “American” are typically still white faces! Where is everyone else? Maybe the best place to begin is our own parish’s outreach committee.
This will, more than likely, make many people uncomfortable in some way. Maybe even angry. How will we deal with it? Blame me? Blame the media? Or, will we engage, acknowledging our blind spots and biases, educating ourselves, and exercising empathy to relate to the experience of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Will we continue to contribute to the systems which perpetuate this problem and to the negative experiences of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Or will we search for ways to advocate, to help bring about change in our own communities and parishes?