It was a bad week. So it is good for us to gather together.
There were two high profile shootings of men of color by police last week–Alton Sterling and Philando Castile–one in Baton Rouge and one in the Minneapolis suburbs.
There were two other similar deaths that didn’t get much news at all.
They were four of the 512 people killed by Police use of Lethal Force so far this year…
Van Jones said this week:
“If you cried for the brother who was shot by police in Minnesota and bled out, but you didn’t cry for the police officers who were shot in Dallas, you’ve got to do a heart check.
If you cried for the police officers who were shot and killed in Dallas, but you didn’t cry for the black men who’ve been shot by police and bled to death, you’ve got to do a heart check.”
There’s been too much killing. Too much division. We need a heart check. And we need to come together, because we are suffering.
But we are not all suffering equally.
Because of privilege.
I want to talk for a second about privilege. The word gets used a lot these days, and I want to make sure you know what I mean when I say it. Privilege doesn’t only mean someone who has something that others do not. It is not about being rich or poor.
Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you don’t have struggles. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for what you have.
Privilege is a descriptor of the way you get to interact in the world. Privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Privilege means there are people who cannot access what you have no matter how hard they work. There are different kinds of privilege too, based on race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, educational opportunity, etc.
As a heterosexual, educated white woman married to a doctor, I have a lot of privilege. I’ve had access to good schools from the time I was in pre-school. My parents had the leisure time to read to me at home, so I learned to read before I even went to school. My schools were all safe and well funded, so I could focus on learning and had access to music, art, and sports.
Yes, I also had to work hard. And my family was on food stamps because my dad went blind when I was a little kid and he was on disability. But compared to many people in our nation—let’s be clear—my access to the American Dream was a wide open horizon, stretching as far as I could see.
And occasionally people without privilege manage to succeed, but they are an exception, rather than the rule. And the odds they overcome to achieve success are things I cannot imagine if I don’t take time to listen to their story.
Here’s one way my privilege played out this week when the news was terrifying. I could turn off the news and go for a hike. I cried about the death of black men without knowing what it feels like to fear for the safety of the men in my life.
We have to start recognizing our own privilege in this nation. The “I pulled myself up by my own bootstrap” narrative is woven deeply into our psyche. But it is not true. Many of in this country were born without boots.
We also need to attend to the way the systems of our culture play out on the lives and bodies of people in different ways.
And today I’m talking about racism. Clearly, we decry the kind of racism that is hidden under the white hoods of the KKK and pronounced in words of white supremacists. None of us want to be racist. Many of us would even deny that we are. But as the musical Avenue Q reminded us, “everyone’s a little bit racist”.
And that is because of structural and systemic racism that is woven throughout our schools, our governmental structures, our economic system, and our faith traditions.
We can weed out all of the bad and corrupt law enforcement officers, and we should.
But it won’t solve our problems. Because the police are not the problem. They are a symptom of the systemic racism in our country that teaches people that “whiteness” is “normal” and “blackness” is to be feared.
Christian Ethicist Reggie Williams writes in his article, Seeing Whiteness:
“But the story of race is about much more than our feelings toward one another, or about differences that we can fix with talk of tolerance or color blindness. The story of race is an ideology of difference that shapes our understanding of our selves, the world we inhabit, and the communities that we inhabit or want. As an ideology, racial thinking assigns value to human beings who are grouped within artificial categories based on aesthetic features. In teaching participants to embrace differences, we may end up accepting stereotyped understandings and artificial hierarchies. What is needed is not an embrace of contrived notions of racial differences, but a critical examination of them.”
In other words, we don’t need to just notice difference or pretend we are celebrating difference. We need to acknowledge the arbitrary categories we use to separate each other from each other.
This week revealed that we’ve forgotten we belong to each other.
Friends, we belong to each other.
As John Metta wrote last year after the massacre in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston:
“Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.”
And it is time for us to get over our white fragility and sensitivity and time for us to change the systems. Because people are dying. And violence and injustice harm the perpetrators too. We must all know justice for any of us to have peace.
I know lots of us are using the word “peace” this week. I hope we won’t be too quick to throw that word around. If the word “peace” is used to silence the pain of people who are dying, it is not peace.
If the word “peace” is used to keep us from addressing the systems and practices that allow some of us to thrive and others of us to die because of the amount of pigment in their skin, then it is not peace. It becomes a word of oppression.
I pray for peace, for wholeness, for our land. But for that to happen, I pray for discomfort for the comfortable and comfort for the afflicted.
White America needs to confess.
It is time for us to confess the racism that founded our nation and continues to poison us even today. We need to repent. And we need to change.
Metta concluded his sermon last year with this:
“White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?
So I’m asking you to help me. Notice this. Speak up. Don’t let it slide. Don’t stand watching in silence.”
Friends. It is up to us now. Are we ready?