I wrote the following essay a few months ago (June 5th, 2018). I don’t know why I didn’t share it then. I guess I was a little ashamed that I’m not further along with some issues than I am. I think I was also a little scared. Scared that my life may not live up to the ideas that I proclaim myself to seek out. I’m a person, and I don’t always walk the walk as well as I talk the talk. Maybe you can relate to that.
I think this afternoon, I needed to read this again. A couple weeks ago, a young black man, Botham Shem Jean, was killed in his apartment in Dallas by a police officer. For some reason, I felt this one more than a lot of other similar shootings. It could be that I know people who are close to the situation, and it could be that Botham was about my age, went to a school of the same faith tradition as me, and was heavily involved in his University’s community and his church family, much like I am. Maybe it was the Spirit of God giving me a feeling of conviction.
I have put off saying much publicly about my feelings regarding the painful situation in Dallas. I didn’t want anyone to feel as though I was trying to jump in on something that wasn’t mine to jump in on, and I hope that this isn’t perceived that way.
I hope that I am not the only one that this injustice has awakened.
Tonight I went for a walk through my neighborhood.
I started going on walks through my neighborhood last summer due to some stress and a consistent need to clear my head. I have found that these walks have given me space to talk to God, or to be more clear, talk to myself about myself in front of God. Yeah, I talk to myself often. Those who have ever lived with me or walked in front of me can probably attest to that. I don’t think I have a clinical disorder, maybe it’s just more that I really like to hear myself speak. Either way as I walk the neighborhood, a lot of my thoughts just come out. They come out free and unedited. Sometimes as I walk, I learn that I think and feel things that I didn’t previously know that I thought and felt.
It’s a beautiful evening out in Nashville tonight. The weather is perfect, and a lot of people have chosen to spend it on their front porch, playing with their dog, or going for a walk themselves. As I passed other people, we exchanged a smile and a wave, sometimes a hello. People have always seemed to be pretty receptive to me right off the bat. Maybe it’s my face or my approachable, non-threatening body shape, who knows. As my thoughts wandered out of my head tonight, I kept coming back to one thing in particular: how might this walk be different if I weren’t white?
I remember a time before I was white. In elementary school, most of my friends at school weren’t white, and they never told me that I was. We ate lunch together, played together at recess, and participated in a school percussion group together. On Valentine’s Day I gave everyone a Spiderman valentine. I got a bunch of different valentines too. I was good at a lot of things, mostly school stuff. I won a bunch of awards for the school’s core virtues: responsibility, respect, trustworthiness, citizenship. I was really good at math and spelling. I don’t know that my self esteem has ever been higher than it was in elementary school.
I’m not really sure at what age or point in my life it clicked that I was white and some people weren’t. Somewhere in middle school probably. I think I’ve subconsciously blocked out most of middle school. I had to go to a new school in 5th grade. A private, Christian one at that. People at my new school had more money than people at my old school. I guess no one ever really feels like they fit in when they’re in middle school, but I definitely felt like a fish out of water. The idea of race started to creep in. As I got older, I noticed that the few black kids at school were all friends with each other. I heard a joke here, told it there. It doesn’t take long before that becomes the new normal.
In high school, I still didn’t realize that I was white. Intellectually I did, but I didn’t have any grasp whatsoever on the weight of what it means to be white. Being white was normal. If I was telling a story about one of my white friends, they were never “my white friend,” they were just my friend. If I was telling a story about one of my few non-white friends, they were “my black friend” or “my hispanic friend.” I spent hours upon hours in parking lots in high school just talking with my other white friends. I don’t remember ever getting a sideways glance. One time in particular, after church, my white youth group friends and I went to Wendy’s. I maybe ordered a frosty, if that. We stayed at a table at Wendy’s until they closed for the night. Then we went out in the parking lot and talked for another couple hours. Those times are some of my fondest memories from high school, just sitting in public places until late at night, talking and joking with my youth group friends. Never one time did I even have a thought of “could we do this if we weren’t white?”
I think the Trayvon Martin tragedy was the first time I ever thought that perhaps someone might be viewed differently than me because they aren’t white. I remember seeing LeBron and the rest of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies. I knew it was related to the Trayvon Martin story, but I didn’t really feel it. I remember being a 20-year-old Junior in college at my predominantly white, private Christian university here in Nashville and seeing the events in Ferguson on the news after the Michael Brown shooting. I remember being in my dorm room with my friend Cedric as we watched on CNN. In that moment, I knew deep down in my gut that something wasn’t right. I remember within a week or two of that memory, I went with a group of friends to Nashville’s Live On The Green when, during the show, protesters made their way to the front with signs chanting “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.” At that time I thought, “Why are they protesting here and now and in this way? Couldn’t more be accomplished by sitting down and having a civilized conversation?”
Over the next couple years, the back end of college, I grew a lot. As more of these cases of policing came to light, I learned about implicit racial bias. In short, implicit bias is you feeling different about seeing someone that looks like me (white, 24-year-old man) walking through your neighborhood wearing a hoodie at night than you would feel about seeing a black 24-year-old man wearing a hoodie walking through your neighborhood at night. Or to give another example: someone might feel different about 5 black young men hanging out in a parking lot than they would 5 white young men. I learned that everyone in the world, based on their life experience, has some sort of implicit bias. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I have implicit bias. I don’t say that everyone has implicit bias to communicate that there’s nothing that we can do about it, I communicate that as a way of saying that I believe coming to grips with our implicit biases is a key beginning step in our growth.
I also learned towards the end of school that once the person or people in power are dictating how someone else chooses to express themselves in protest, it is no longer a protest. Protests are designed to disrupt in order to get someone’s attention. The reason people feel the need to protest is not to ruin my concert or an NFL game, often a reason that people protest is because they were not invited to the conversation and feel unheard. So when we are upset by someone’s protest, perhaps we should invite them to the table, not write them off.
By the end of college, I felt much more of the weight of what it means to be white. So much so that I had begun to dissociate with my whiteness. I began to feel a sense of shame about what it means to be white in America. I felt overwhelmed with the history of how white people in our country have oppressed black and brown bodies. First with colonization and slavery, then with Jim Crow, and now with mass incarceration. When confronted with the dark realities of U.S. history, it’s hard to not want to run and hide. Being naïve is one thing, but once we have faced the reality of systemic oppression throughout our history, what we absolutely cannot do is shrug it off.
Only in the last year have I begun to realize that being ashamed of being white is not a helpful posture either. To be white and socially conscious, I believe we have to understand our privilege. The more I think about my life, my history, and my current day-to-day dealings, the more I see myself benefitting from white privilege. To my white friends, me claiming that white privilege exists in our culture today is not me saying that white people do not work for what they have. I would go more in depth on the realities of implicit bias, systemic oppression, and white privilege, but that would take many more words. Furthermore, many more learned men and women writers, authors, and speakers have tackled these issues in great depth, and I would much rather leave you to read their work.
So now I find myself in a position where I ask myself the question: As a white man, how do I use the platforms that I’m given?
The conclusion that I am coming to is this: When possible, use my seat at the table to bring diversity to the table, even if this means giving up my seat.
Granted, I’m 24. I’m young, and I have a lot of growing up to do still. Perhaps in a few years I’ll look back at this time and think, “Wow I was young and dumb.” The great thing about writing for me is that later I get to look back and see where I’ve come from. I don’t know if anyone will ever read this, but I hope that if you do, you will grant me some grace because I know I probably said some things wrong. More than that, I hope reading this may propel you to growth. We all have room to grow, a next step to take, a new conversation to start. Me included. Scratch that, especially me.