Turns Out I’m White

I always knew I was a girl, marked from puberty by a cyclical sort of life that set me apart from my male peers. What I hadn’t always realized was that the patterns of my life were also given shape by my whiteness, a whiteness that was often unmarked, unnoticed, unapologetic.

shutterstock_50524789-1-615x345I’ve been floored and hammered into pieces this past year about the inordinate injustices against black men in our penal system. I tore through The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012), quoting atrocities to my husband at night while my feet warmed under the comforter. Feminism had always felt personal; I could speak out of my wounds. Racism had felt more distant; only recently have I been poking at the wounds of my privilege – fear of chaos, vulnerability, and “the other.”

What better time than Lent to confess our helplessness, and shame, and willful ignorance of a broken system? Below is a startling devotion written by a new friend of mine, Marcia Owen, Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. May it grip you as it did me today, on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when those who sought civil rights for blacks were met with billy clubs and tear gas.

Fifty years ago Southern white people of Duke admitted six black students. It was a just act and a mighty confession. It was a confession of white privilege created by black indignity and of white wealth created by black poverty. It was the university listening to the heart of God.

In 1963 I was a white, seven year-old girl living in Duke Forest with my parents and brother. Eight years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional my school was all white, except for the janitor. Duke families from all over the world lived in my neighborhood but no American black family was among us.

My family was United Methodist and our exclusively white congregation confessed sin collectively, out loud, every Sunday, with greater guidance during Lent. “I have not loved my neighbor.” “I have not heard, seen, or responded to the suffering of others.” We confessed these generalities knowledgeable of sit-ins, boycotts, and endless evidence of racial discrimination. The adults studied Jeremiah, Romans, and John’s Gospel and still we did not profess to God the sins of our segregation or renounce the profits we gained from our privilege. It was clear to me then that white people feared their crimes against black people more than they feared God.

In this season of Lent the people of Duke have another confession to make and a just action to take. Let us confess that we have not seen, heard or responded to the indignity of punishing blacks for crimes equally committed by whites. The mass incarceration of our black brothers and sisters, primarily for drug offenses, has replaced the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. The “War on Drugs” is being waged in black and poor neighborhoods with the indifference of their white neighbors.  In 2013, let us lament that 82% of Durham prisoners are black and, once released, will be prohibited from working at Duke.

I pray that the people of Duke will once again act justly and transform our prejudice into promise. Like the first six black students admitted to Duke, I pray we will address the needs racism creates in our community and open the doors of employment to six formerly incarcerated individuals whose qualities, gifts, and character will uplift us all.

I pray that we obey the Justice of God’s Love.

(Submitted by Marcia Owen on 2/5/13, and Printed with Permission.)

2 responses to “Turns Out I’m White

  1. Erin, I hear your confession and I join it. I have been incredibly moved by Michelle Alexander’s work. There is MUCH to be done within (and around) the justice system. One of the only known interventions to show reductions in juvenile delinquency has been early childhood education. The recent announcements of universal preschool may be a small step to celebrate– a shift to fund education over incarceration! Here is a 20 minute video of Michelle Alexander summarizing her research and work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWIsS5RBxJU
    Thank you for getting us talking about this important topic!

  2. Erin, thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this piece.

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