The recent grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner have left me confused, embarrassed and ashamed. Confused about the justice system. Embarrassed by my own privilege. Ashamed of my ignorance of the racial issues that keep us entrenched in our own experiences and divide us from one another. The grand jury decisions have left me wondering what I personally can do, convicted to learn more, and find ways to act.
It took a long time for me to come to the place where I could acknowledge how deep of a problem racism is in America. For much of my life, I’ve been a white person with many non-white friends. Racism? What racism? There’s no problem here. That was when my definition of racism was limited, narrow and one-dimensional.
My definition stemmed from a racist relative. He was blatantly, overtly and unapologetically hateful toward non-white people. When I was younger I would argue with him. But over time and getting nowhere, I adopted our family’s response of non-engagement: “You’ll never change him,” “just ignore him.” He was considered an anomaly. That’s how I learned to deal with racism. Those few racist people out there are set in their ways. There’s nothing you can do. Don’t engage.
A snapshot of my group of sixth grade friends: one white girl, one Hispanic girl, one black girl and one girl who was half black and half Japanese. We were the very picture of diversity. For me, to acknowledge my white privilege was just one step away from saying that I was racist. So no, I could not own my white privilege. We were all smart, all equal, and no one got an advantage.
It wasn’t until graduate school, in a class called “Religion in American Film” that I was finally able to see racism as something much more complex, more nuanced, more subtle and more systemic than the one-dimensional definition I had grown up with. It took seeing it on the silver screen, in a context safely outside my own, for me to truly see. As Dr. Gregory Ellison, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Candler School of Theology, often says, “Once you see, you cannot not see.” And now that I have seen, I also see that I have a lot yet to learn.
Years later, living in the American South, my education in racism and white privilege has continued. A stranger in this cultural context, I have felt free to be honest and ask questions of my friends. And in my experience, the word “friend” is key. I have seen that once an authentic relationship has been established, hard questions can be asked and received in a spirit of grace and love. Even if I don’t know how to frame my question the “right” way, I can ask my friends to help me learn how to ask the question in the first place. Do you have someone in your life of whom you can ask these questions? If not, how can you diversify your news sources to broaden the cultural ideas presented to you?
In his book, “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough,” Harold Kushner says that there is no “Answer” with a capital A, but there are lots of answers, with lower case a’s. So I don’t know what the Answer is. But I do know that every authentic friendship, every act of courage and solidarity, every acknowledgement of white privilege, and every single stand for peace, justice and reconciliation is an answer.