I’ve never really been into family history. I know vague details – my paternal grandmother’s family came over from England in the early Mayflower-ish days; my paternal grandfather’s family came over from England around World War 1; my maternal grandfather’s family came from Germany…. I have access to more details, but just have never really researched it.
Both sides settled in the midwest and consisted of business owners. They never owned slaves or explicitly participated in systems of injustice but they certainly benefited from being educated, white, Anglo-Saxon immigrants. As a result, I have benefited from coming from generations of educated, white, “upwardly mobile” people.
Last week, as I grappled with the events of Charleston, I posted an article about how we label shooters of color differently than those who are white. As a result, someone suggested I was spreading racism – that this isn’t about color; that we need to stop seeing differences; that until we do, nothing will change. Another friend and I have had a few brief conversations about privilege. She has said that I can’t apologize for my privilege – it’s not something to be ashamed of.
I agree with her on some level. My privilege is not what’s going to change the systemic issues that are in place. However, by not acknowledging my privilege, is my silence continuing these systemic injustices? By recognizing my own benefits and apologizing for my part a system of injustice, I don’t think I’m negating the positives of privilege, but simply acknowledging the unfairness of the world we live in.
My friend, Adrienne is someone who exemplifies using her privilege to graciously make changes. At the Pride Parade here in Denver, she has worn a shirt a shirt reading, Hurt by the church? Get a straight apology here. Adrienne is one of the kindest, most loving advocates to the gay community that I know. She has nothing to apologize for. Yet, she recognizes the importance of apology, that bridges are slowly built when we recognize our global privilege. By offering an apology to individuals hurt by the church, she is not taking on the atrocities committed against the gay community herself, but she is recognizing the privilege straight people benefit from on a daily basis.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller describes a similar idea. He and his friends set up a confessional, apologizing for the church’s role in such global atrocities as the Crusades, Inquisition, and slavery. By confessing these sins, Miller is not negating all the good the church has done over the centuries, nor is he personally taking on the sins of the church. He is recognizing that the church has made some big mistakes – mistakes from which we are still experiencing repercussions – and he is apologizing on behalf.
As I am confronted with my own privilege, and as I read story after story of the inequality that still pervades our justice system and our country, I apologize – not to negate my own privilege but because I recognize my privilege plays into this system of inequality. By apologizing, I am not condemning all white people as racist, but I am recognizing that I have benefited from systemic racism, whether or not I agree with it or like it.
I feel like our country is still grappling with how racism pervades our society and how we, the privileged can confront it. I have no answers for that. I have heard that we need to listen and I have also heard that our time for listening is over and that we need to act. What I know for myself, is that I need to recognize my part – whether it’s explicit or not – in the way our system works. I’m messily fumbling along with it, but I hope that I can be like Adrienne – someone who puts aside my own perceived role and simply offer an apology and a hug. Sometimes that’s the best place to start.
How do you acknowledge your own privilege? What are some “next steps” you suggest?