Wrestling with White Privilege

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Image used from Scene on Radio, Episode 37’s page.  Composite image: Chenjerai Kumanyika, left; photo by Danusia Trevino. And John Biewen, photo by Ewa Pohl.

Chenjerai Kumanyika is an ongoing partner on the podcast “Seeing White,” a series by “Scene On Radio.” In Episode 37 (part 7 of the “Seeing White” series) Kumanyika, a black man poses a question to the host John Biewen, a white man. He asks John if he feels any responsibility for what other white people do? This question has sat in my soul like a splinter deep in the bottom of my foot.

Kumanyika goes on to explain that as a black man there is a black identity that exists, a connection felt between black people. When he received his Ph.D., he said that he thought it was a victory for all black people, not just himself. When he sees a criminal that is black, he feels that he is part of that failure. He is trying to remove himself from thinking like that, but it is hard. For white people, here in America, we do not have that same connection to the events, situations, and actions of other white people.

The splinter in my foot, the question gripping my soul, is should we? Should my whiteness be attached to the actions of other white people in our society? How would our culture, society, and community change if I, and all white people, personally felt attached to what other white people do?

The truth is I never have and I am sure most of the white people reading this never have either. What I have started to understand this is one aspect of white privilege. I don’t have to look at the actions of Dylann Ruth, who murdered nine people at church and feel any attachment to his actions at all. I feel horrible that he did it but I wasn’t connected on a racial level with him.

The same is true with the actions of the people in Charlottesville, VA this last week. I never really felt connected to other white people who carried Nazi and Confederate Flags while chanting hateful, horrible things about other races. I don’t feel connected to James Alex Fields who drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

I am starting to feel connected. No, I do not agree with their ideology, their twisting of scripture, and the despicable ways they view the world and those who live in it. The connection I am feeling is that I have to limit my own privilege to remove myself from them. I can’t ignore them or their actions by simply saying, “Well, they have a horrible worldview and they are not me.” They are white Americans. I am a white American.

I have to start to acknowledge that as a white American, I have a historical advantage over people of color. Our country has in its foundation, given an advantage to people who are deemed as white. I have been born into and part of this privilege, like it or not, claimed or not.

What claiming this connection can do is to help start naming where it goes wrong or acknowledging the systems that existed and still exist today which continue to hold up this ideal.

Naming these systems, acknowledging our privilege, pulls the sins of the past, present and future, into the light. It gives a voice to what I’ve ignored, out of ignorance and privilege, for a long time. As we name these realities and shed light on the pain they caused, we can work towards reconciliation and equality on deeper levels in our society.

I don’t have answers. I’m simply naming the reality of my soul as I feel the weight of the privilege I never understood I had…until now.

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