This week my family and I were on a bike ride through our neighborhood in the early evening in the hot Texas heat. With three young children it doesn’t matter what time of day, we ride our bikes for miles and miles. Usually my three year old daughter rides in the carriage that attaches to my bike. But on this day she decided she wanted to ride her bike. She only just learned to ride a bike with training wheels a few weeks ago. She learned quickly because our next door neighbor gave us a hand-me-down bike. It is pink and white with streamers hanging from the handlebars and a basket at the front. She loves it. She has to use the entire weight of her little body to get those wheels to turn but it is her favorite thing to do. It makes her feel like she fits in with her big brothers. On this particular day, we had gone about a mile slowly but surely, and the boys had long abandoned us for a faster pace, when she looked up at me and declared that she wasn’t going to ride her bike any further. So I took her off her bike and put her in the toddler seat that was still attached to mine and we left her bike sitting there on the sidewalk in front of a neighborhood home, planning to pick it up with the car later.
Hours later and after dark, we had returned home and put the kids in bed when my husband finally returned in the mini-van to collect the bike. Upon arrival he saw that there was a police car in front of the home where we left the bike. He learned that the home owner had called the police fearing that a child had run off and left the bike. Once my husband arrived he cleared everything up with the police offer, he loaded the bike in the car and drove the short distance to our home. As he told me this story, he reflectively said these words to me: “Kel, in interacting with the police officer and the home owner, there was not one moment where I felt un-safe.” He went on to tell me that they were joking with each other by the end of the exchange. One white man interacting with a white home owner and a white police officer turned into a perfectly friendly exchange.
My husband’s comment, and the world full of race-based violence we are living in today, has me thinking about white privilege. The reason that my husband felt completely safe is because of the reality of white privilege. Before you tune me out, consider this. White privilege is not about wealth. It is not about how hard a person works, or how lazy a person is. It not about morality, how a person behaves or doesn’t behave. You can be privileged because you are white and still be a good person, a bad person, a hard worker, an unemployed person, a poor person, or a rich person. White privilege is actually not even about individual accounts of racism exactly. You can be privileged because you are white and not be racist. You can even be an anti-racist, full blown ally and still benefit from white privilege because it is the “water that we swim in.” Asking a white person to define white privilege is like asking a fish to define water. White privilege is the ever- present, pervasive and normative experience for white people in America that puts them at an ever-present advantage over black people and people of color, based on the color of their skin.
White privilege is the reason that my husband approached that police officer at night in front of a home and felt completely safe and white privilege is the reason that my black friends Graham and Steven and Rachel would feel absolutely terrified and probably terrified to the point of not even considering picking that bike up until the next morning.
Why does white privilege matter for white Christians today? For Christians, we are called to do two things with our privilege.
To lay aside privilege and power for the sake of others as we follow the way of Jesus. (Philippians 2:7-9) Jesus set aside the greatest privilege of being God, fully Divine, to share in our human experience. He suffered and he died because he loved human kind. Any privilege that we have should be both utilized and set aside for the sake of others.
How do we do this? Here are two ideas you can try this week:
- Acknowledge the existence of white privilege by interrogating your own experience. As my husband did, become gently curious and ask, “I felt this way in this setting and I wonder if others of a different race would feel the same way?”
- Become a listener and a learner of someone who is not white. Ask them about white privilege, what it means to them, how they experience it, etc. Recognize that how you experience the world is not how everyone experiences the world.