February is black history month, and though some celebrities apparently think it’s an unnecessary period of national focus (why do we as a society privilege the opinions of celebrities?), I think we as a church have made some good attempts to incorporate the focus into our faith life. A few years ago we did a month long study of racism that had some real thought provoking information, including the difference between systemic racism and individual racism covered quite plainly in the article by Michael O Emerson, “The Persistent Problem,” which can be accessed online at http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/110974.pdf When we met weekly in that discussion group a few years ago, I felt that important topics were discussed—the only frustrating thing is that any kind of in depth study we usually embark upon inevitably has only a few participants. Wouldn’t it be something if we as a whole community of faith could seek greater and deeper understanding when it came to addressing America’s “persistent problem?”
I am so glad that our women’s book club will be dealing with some of these things when studying the life of Harriet Tubman this month. Dr. Kristen Oertel has spent some time working on this book, and it likely bears some personal significance for her and her family since its publication was delayed due to a scary car accident, injury, and long recovery. I know our whole church family is relieved that the Oertels made it through the bulk of that crisis.
Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” In “The Persistent Problem,” Michael O. Emerson writes about an element of white privilege called “white transparency,” which is
“the tendency of whites not to think…about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white-specific.”
Whites typically lack a racial consciousness. Most whites are unaware that
they are “raced,” and that their race has real consequences for their lives.
Rather, they believe that they earn what they get, and their achievements
are nearly all based on individual effort, talent, and creativity. Whites often
believe they are cultureless; it does not mean anything to be white they may
think. They often think that only other groups have distinctive cultures and
ways of being. Thus whites find it difficult to explain what it means to be
white. In fact, they typically find it uncomfortable, even offensive to be
I thought of Harriet Tubman’s quote with regard to slaves not knowing they are slaves because I think we too can be enslaved to a system of thinking (that being systemic racism) without knowing it. This past week, I was impressed to see white privilege being talked about in a variety of formats in the media. Stephen Colbert hosted civil rights activist DeRay McKesson who spoke in a compelling segment with that popular late night talk show host on that issue that was fairly ground-breaking (at least for network talk show formats) conversation.
I just bounced this thought off of Rev. Willis Johnson (pastor at Ferguson, MO) at our Hendrix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement. I’m pretty sure he thinks it is on point. I had thought of the Harriet Tubman quote above in relation to a favorite Bob Marley lyric (surprised?) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” White privilege enslaves our culture. We (white people) are subject to it and benefit from it. But as a force that affects our whole American culture, it enslaves us to a status quo which is harmful to some in our midst. Opening our eyes to it helps the shackles loosen. “I could have saved a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” May it be so.