Simple Things

Are there Limits to White Privilege?

“Mom, what does ‘go drink your race’ mean?”

This was posed to me by one of my children yesterday after school. Evidently it is one of the many odd statements directed at him by his classmates. As a standalone statement, it’s a goofy thing to say, and doesn’t make sense. Considering that my eldest child’s nicknames include “white bread,” “white cockroach,” and “salt,” and that my seven-year-old- daughter is growing self-conscious about her skin because she is always asked why her skin is so pale, the odd question makes sense.

White privilege is very real, and the current conversation about it is centuries overdue. It is hard to conceive of my privilege as a white female of a comfortable socio-economic status and how I take advantage of it without realizing. I applaud and am grateful for the strong voices from people of all ethnic backgrounds. I’ve especially received a lot to consider and pray about by reading The Root. It’s uncomfortable as hell, I’ll be honest, but that is the point. As it probably should be.

But.

I am afraid to write that “but,” yet it hangs on my heart like a weight that wants to drown me. I am painfully aware of my privilege, of how much I am still unaware of the ramifications of my privilege, and how addressing this “but” may be interpreted.

But…

There are limits to white privilege, and they exist in places where whiteness is a minority. I don’t mean “whiteness” in the manner of the population percentage of those with predominantly-European ancestry. Rather, “whiteness” is a cultural habit of consciousness. And that is OK. In fact, it’s great that the whole word isn’t dominated by “whiteness.” It’s one of the things that my husband and I were initially excited about when coming to our current destination: immersing ourselves and our family in a different way of life.

But almost a year later, my children are becoming accustomed to casual “racism” on a daily basis. They don’t understand it. They don’t understand the invisible barrier that was placed between them by their peers; almost impossible to describe but ephemerally perceptible to the mind and piercing the soul. It is inconceivable to them why they would be rejected simply because their skin is not the same color as most everyone else. And when ¬†we explain to them that this treatment is the tip of the iceberg for what people of color and people of other ethnicities have experienced at the hands of far too many white people, for centuries, they stare at my husband and I dumbfounded that this is even a thing.

Right now I feel like I’m going crazy. I look to my left and see so much hatred and bigotry spewed on us for our pasty skin, and on the right I find beautiful, kind people of diverse ethnicities who don’t care about my freckles. I’ve never felt closer to understanding the experience of people of color, yet I am afraid that mine and my family’s pain is nothing more than racial blasphemy: my white privilege is simply unaccustomed to rough treatment and I should quit my whining.

This heartache, aside from inspiring me to understand, acknowledge, and check how I use my white privilege, continues to circle around one detail that, in my opinion, may be a really good place to start earnestly course-correcting how we all think about privilege and race.

That detail is the word “race.” The world generally uses the words “race” and “racism” and “race relations” when discussing issues surrounding white people and literally every other ethnic group in existence. That is a huge problem, because the word “race” specifically drives a wedge between people by omitting a particular ethnicity from the “human race.” In anthropological and scientific circles, “race” has long been frowned upon as a term specifically for this reason, and where it is still used has increasingly become scrutinized. So why do we still use it in our cultural conversation?

“Black people are people, too” should not be a ground-breaking statement. We are all human. Full stop. We are all one race. Full Stop. By defining the ethnic bigotry that has been heaped on people of color as “racism” automatically pits them as outsiders who need to fight their way back in. While that may have been the intention when “race” was introduced by pasty white dudes to describe “primitive cultures” way back in the days of exploration, it should not be accepted anymore. Are there white people who still consider other ethnicities to be less than human? Absolutely. Are there people of other ethnicities who believe that white people are roaches beneath their feet. Apparently.

To recover and rejoice in the truth that all people are indeed people, that ethnicity is a beautiful expression of the whole of humanity, and to begin frank and uncomfortable discussions about the privilege each of us carries about our own ethnicity in relation to that of others, I humbly suggest we start by removing “race” terminology out of the discussion. Affirm what is equally good in all of us, so that we can start to affirm what is good in each other.

If you made it this far, thank you.