“We can’t save the soul of America without in the process saving our white brothers. And they aren’t free. When you enslave an individual, you enslave yourself. I mean all white brothers are slaves to that fear – slaves to their prejudices. How many white preachers are there in this town? Slaves to their congregations and they’re afraid to take a stand and so they prefer to remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They know that segregation is wrong. They know that they should take a stand but they are not free. They are afraid, and they haven’t allowed the gospel of Jesus Christ to permeate their lives. And we’ve got to save those preachers. We have got to put Christianity in the church.” MLK from a 1965 sermon
A friend of mine posted this last week and it struck a chord. I try to explain to other white friends, colleagues, church people that we white people are oppressed, too, when we oppress. Even people who see that white culture and systems oppress people of color, they have trouble seeing that we are slaves to fear and hate and loathing and shame. But it’s not easy to understand.
I thought I understood, until I realized this evening that I didn’t really understand. I understood with my brain but I didn’t understand with my heart.
So let me share a story with you that I have shared on countless occasions:
I was about 12 or so and lived with my mom and sister in South Minneapolis on 41st & 12th. We lived three houses from the corner of a pretty white neighborhood.
Back then Minneapolis was sort of integrated racially, but it was still divided. We all knew that white people lived east of Chicago and black people lived west. Phelps Park was for the black kids and Sibley was for the white kids. (This park thing I didn’t know until a black kid explained that to me).
It was a lovely summer day. I don’t know exactly how this serendipitous moment happened, but my white friend and I were looking out my window and we saw a black friend of ours and his other black friend crossing the street at the corner.
So we called them over.
My friend and I were excited, or at least happy, to see each other. It had been awhile.So we’re chatting away, the boys outside talking to us through the screen on the window.
Across the street there was a teeny tiny house where an older white guy lived. We never really talked to him because he seemed grumpy all the time.
So we’re talking, having a fun time, and the grumpy old white guy across the street yelled to my friend, “Hey! Get away from there!”
And my friend answered him, “We know these girls.” And we went on talking.
And the old, grumpy white guy yelled again, “I said to get away from there!”
And my friend answered once again, “We know these girls!” And we kept on talking.
And then the scary old white guy across the street yelled, “Hey! I said to get away from there!”
And as my friend turned around to answer him one more time, we all noticed he had a rifle or a shotgun or something. And he was pointing it a my friend and his friend.
My friend said something like, “We gotta’ go!” And he and his friend took off running around our fence and through our neighbor’s back yard.
And I never saw my friend again.
Now, here’s where white privilege and oppression meet, and it took me close to 40 years to start to understand this.
I always knew my friend and his friend were the targets of that man and his gun. I always have known that I was not the target. They were the targets. We were not.
And so as I’ve told that story over the years, it has always been with a sense of incredulity or of confusion or maybe sometimes a little bit of anger mixed in there.
But it took me until today to understand that I have been suffering from the oppression of my friend ever since that day, that day that left a hole in my heart. I didn’t understand that I have been mourning ever since that day. And because I always knew that bullet would not have been for me, I have been blind to the empty place this “story” left in my soul. I didn’t understand that I have held on to this story and told it almost flippantly for so long because it took me this long to begin to understand my place in this story, oppressed and oppressor.
White privilege means that you know that the bullet isn’t for you. And because that bullet isn’t for you, you can somehow skirt over the real danger you were in that day. And because you can skirt over the danger that you were in, you don’t have to acknowledge your own fear and anger and hurt. And because you don’t have to acknowledge your own fear and anger and hurt, you cannot recognize your own rage that someone took your friend away from you. And because you don’t have to acknowledge your own rage you cannot truly acknowledge the rage and hurt and alienation and fear that the person who was truly in danger from that bullet might possibly feel.
That man did not shoot that gun at my friend that day. But he did leave a hole in my heart even so. White privilege means I can live 40 years without having to acknowledge that. It means I have been able to paper over the hole in my heart and live in denial of its importance in the rupture of relationship.
And so tonight I confess my place in this system. My eyes are opening a little bit wider. I found this friend just yesterday with the magic of Facebook. I ask for forgiveness from my friend for my own blindness. I suppose this is a big part of the reason I am so dogged in doing the work I do, but that will still take time to process.
And as I close this note, I feel one stitch beginning to sew up that hole in my heart.