As the kids lay in bed falling asleep last Friday night, Dennis and I stayed up late into the night taking in the coverage of George Floyd’s horrific death and the protests raging around our country. During Egypt Day earlier that afternoon, Mateo had abandoned the movie The Prince of Egypt because he was disturbed by the whipping sounds. He asked me later that day, “Why would someone whip a slave?” My mother’s heart ached specifically for my son and the fact that one day soon he’d have to learn about violence and evil perpetrated against African Americans throughout our country’s history and even today. More widely, my heart hurt for all the families who have lost loved ones to violence. When does this stop?
Like many others, there is something about this instance of police brutality and disdain for life that finally got my attention. I feel shame for not recognizing earlier the extent of the injustice black Americans continue to experience in our society. I’d like to share here some of my reflections on the issues of race, police brutality, white privilege, and racism. These are just thoughts and feelings that I’ve been wrestling with and praying about for the past few days. I’ve taken in a lot of data and information this past week and certain comments and ideas made an impact on me.
One of the advisors from Obama’s Administration was on a news show Friday evening discussing the issues surrounding the protests. He explained that in a society that values law and order, we extend a “monopoly on violence” to law enforcement. In other words, police officers are allowed to use violence to the extent necessary to maintain order and protect the public. Officers must respect that they’ve been entrusted to use violence and be held accountable when they abuse that trust. When society stops trusting our system of law and order due to an abuse of power, anarchy logically follows.
This idea, that we entrust law enforcement to use violence in a specific and controlled way, wasn’t something I consciously considered before. It rings very true to me. Even more so as many police officers condemned the officers that murdered George Floyd and others who have abused their power. Good cops cherish the responsibility they’ve been entrusted with to serve and protect. The issue of police brutality has all too often been presented as a false dichotomy – those supporting law enforcement versus those supporting the African American Community. Most people support both of these groups and condemn violence done by either of them.
Several months ago I purchased the book: White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege by Amy Julia Becker. I recently read another of Amy Julia’s books and related to her immensely. As I watched the news unfold this week, the book practically jumped off the shelf and demanded to be read. It was incredibly timely and helpful. Amy Julia’s oldest daughter, Penny, was born with Down syndrome. This experience changed her life and began to shape her concept of privilege, as she experienced prejudice against her daughter’s disability. From the introduction: “This book tells a story of my growing awareness not only that I have received unwarranted benefits by virtue of my white skin, Protestant heritage, and able body, but also that these unwarranted benefits have done harm to me and others,” (White Picket Fences, p. xxi). Amy Julia’s main point is that privilege hurts all of us – both those who benefit from privileges and those who are excluded from its benefits – because it cuts us off from one another and mutual dependence.
As Amy Julia’s awareness grew, she was fortunate to have close friends that gently helped her see what she hadn’t seen before. First, she started exploring the bookshelves of her children and recognized that all the classics she chose to read with her kids focused entirely on white characters. By choosing books that were classic, and therefore written at least 100 years ago, she unwittingly represented a world where the only African American characters were slaves or servants. When she tried to find books with black protagonists, such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, she was concerned about exposing her relatively young children to violence and hatred. So, she reached out to a couple friends to ask for book recommendations and then asked her friend Patricia (who wrote the Forward to this book) an important question: “When did you introduce your kids to the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow?” Patricia replies in part: “My own children learned that by being African American themselves and getting treated badly by white school children, in the same way that I was also treated badly… In fact, until reading about your concerns about Roll of Thunder, I never imagined that some parents even have a choice whether to talk about it,” (p. 25).
Patricia’s reply clearly demonstrates how white privilege works. White privilege doesn’t mean that you’ve had an easy life and haven’t worked for things; it simply means that the color of your skin hasn’t been one of the hardships in your life. The fact that white mothers and fathers get to decide when to expose their children to the horrors of slavery, racism and prejudice in the world is because of that privilege. Those who experience racism and prejudice don’t have the privilege of deciding when to introduce their children to these ideas.
This all reminded me of times early in our marriage when Dennis and I would discuss race. When I didn’t get it and said something ignorant about the minority experience, Dennis occasionally said to me: “You don’t understand, you’re not a minority,” which left me feeling hurt and defensive. However, as our life together has unfolded, I can now easily discuss these topics and agree, “You’re right, I’m not a minority and don’t know how that feels.” That’s true and honest. In much the same way that Dennis cannot relate to being a woman or a diabetic, none of us truly know what another person or group of people have experienced. All the more so when that experience is one that includes racism, hatred, and bigotry. That’s where empathy comes in as we recognize the pain and suffering that people experience, based on their description of it.
In her book, Amy Julia argues that privilege hurts everyone because it creates an unjust society where groups are separated from one another. Describing her own experience as an educated, affluent woman, she notes that wealthy people are able to pay for the services they need such as babysitting, counseling, housekeeping, etc. In this way, they create an illusion of self-sufficiency because they don’t rely on their neighbors or community for support. The affluent in America are some of the most depressed and anxious people in society in part because they don’t have deep relationships based on interdependence. She explains, “It is as if those of us with wealth try to deny something core to who we are as human beings. Whether we like it or not, we are needy, and no amount of money will ever change this fact. When we try to outsource our neediness, we strip ourselves of the gift of relationships built on trust and hardship and care for one another. Perhaps it is that unwillingness to admit and face our human neediness that leads to a sense of deprivation among the affluent,” (p. 92).
I think many of us are wondering, where do we go from here? How do we fix something so deeply broken as racial inequality in America and the divisive rhetoric that surrounds the issues? This book I keep referencing was impactful for me because it roots itself in Christian faith that binds us all together under the love of Christ. Echoing her description of neediness for human connection, Amy Julia says: “Broken and beloved – these truths of my identity connect me to every human being who walks this earth. If I start to see people who seem radically different from me as those who instead are radically similar to me – needy, broken, with the potential for beauty and joy and glory – then love could begin to connect us, and fear would not be able to divide us. Love could hold us together,” (p. 141).