This quote struck me with particular force because so often the idea of formal apologies to the black community for enslavement, discrimination, and segregation evokes such strong negative reactions among whites. Like, Why should we have to apologize for something we had no part in? Reading this document is an examination of conscience, inviting me to recognize that this is a cultural and generational problem–that it is not, in fact, a problem relegated to the past, but something very real today. And for that reason, it is my problem.
One of my kids is studying Westward Expansion right now. This weekend, after finishing his homework on Lewis and Clark, he ran to his brother: “Did you know Lewis and Clark were the FIRST PEOPLE EVER TO SET FOOT IN THIS AREA?”
Thankfully, I was right there, so I could correct this gross misunderstanding of American history. “Uh, no,” I said, “they were not the first people to set foot in this area.”
“Well,” he said, “the first Americans, then.”
“No,” I said again. “Not that either. The Native Americans were Americans long before anyone else. Lewis and Clark were just the first white people.”
It’s not the first time I’ve had to correct such errors in my kids. They’ve brought home statements about how “all the shootings” take place in THAT park, which is why we can’t go there (something their classmates were told by their parents). And so on.
And I think, How in the world are they picking these things up? They’re not getting it from me or my husband! (Are they?)
But then, so much of it is just in the water, in the air. We are whites, surrounded by whites, and this is how we look at the world.
I’ve had white friends say, “Are there really more police shootings of unarmed black men, or does the media just highlight every one, so it sounds that way?” (If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, read this and this.)
I’ve had white friends say, “Those people shouldn’t block the interstate with their protest. They don’t have any right to disrupt the community.”
I’ve had white friends say, “Those football players should be playing football, not making political statements.”
I’ve had white friends say, “A bunch of those people in ___ were a bunch of professional activists that travel around. They weren’t even locals!”
And the more of these comments I hear, the harder I wince. Because what, in any of those comments, acknowledges the injustices suffered by minorities? Don’t they all boil down to: “I don’t believe you”? Or: “I can’t be bothered”? Or: “Accepting what you say would force me to change how I talk/think/act, so I’m going to go looking for reasons to justify ignoring you”?
Where we run into trouble is—as usual—in the nitty gritty, practical details. It’s a lot more comfortable to act like racism was all taken care of by the Civil Rights Act and desegregation. Who wants to hear that if there are disparities in education, in earning, in opportunity, in policing, it’s because there is still institutional, communal, societal racism?
Those of us who have benefited from the system sometimes get defensive about having it pointed out to us. We sense a threat to our way of life. Or at least, to our mental and emotional comfort. Because if we admit that such disparities actually exist, we’d have to change our opinions and attitudes. I think that’s why there’s such resistance to the term “white privilege.”
I’ve come a long way in the past few years, but I still routinely discover unexamined biases and presuppositions popping up in myself. My ongoing challenge as a Catholic Christian is, first, to be honest about those biases, and second, to be open in mind and heart to people of color when they say, “This is what I have experienced.” To take them at their word. Not to suggest that they’re overreacting or being stirred up by some outside nefarious influence (how insulting is that, anyway?)—in short, not to look for excuses to dismiss the cry for justice.
Only then can I start to discern how to stand in solidarity in the quest for a world that better reflects God’s kingdom, where all are equal and beloved.