I was in first grade when I first saw posters for the upcoming election in Apartheid South Africa. The year was 1983, and I remember asking my Mom who she’d be voting for.
In the few minutes we had before school drop-off, she explained she’d be spoiling her vote in protest: it wasn’t right to only be able to vote for white people when the majority of the country didn’t have representation, she explained.
For a white kid in South Africa, I grew up with very liberal influences. Attending a multi-racial school was only possible in private schools: public schools were segregated by race.
I don’t know many white kids my age from my hometown who had classmates of color, or who visited homes in the “townships” (areas of town demarcated by race).
We had a domestic servant living with us—as most white households did—but in our house my Mom insisted on respectful treatment and vacations for Emily; another marker of her progressive convictions.
I grew up hearing about the evils of racism and apartheid, and witnessing my Mom do something about it. By the time I was a law student in the mid-90s, studying the interim constitution in the new democracy of South Africa in real time, I was ready and excited for the dawn of a new non-racist democracy.
And yet—despite all that awareness and rejection of the evils of racism—I still did not understand what ‘white privilege’ was.
I Listened to Other’s Stories Who Grew Up Differently
Reckoning with privilege and my whiteness only came later.
The first significant shift came in my first year of seminary, when our class was tasked with practicing sharing our testimony.
Hearing others’ stories of growing up in abusive households made me realize how safe my childhood had been. I hadn’t realized.
Hearing others’ stories of battling to make ends meet and resorting to crime to feed siblings made me realize how economically privileged I’d been. I didn’t know.
I honestly thought I was a person who would never steal cars, but then again: I’d never been starving. Their stories made me reconsider.
If you’d asked me before if I was physically privileged or socio-economically privileged, I would probably have said no: I was well aware of the presence of a Cinderella-like evil stepmother in my own story, and the many nights we ate mac and cheese because it was what we could afford.
But hearing others’ stories can shine a light on our blind spots.
It can show us protections and perks we had which we’d accepted unquestionably as “normal”.
Seeing how others did not have those same things made me question what I’d accepted was a “normal” default position: I slowly began to see that if life was a long journey, we weren’t all running on the same lanes.
Some were running uphill. Others had great boulders in their way.
My life, by comparison, had been a long manicured running track, with the added boost of starting blocks and a downhill gradient. And I felt gross, guilty, and defensive seeing it.
I Had to Reckon with My Own White Privilege
Nothing made me feel more defensive and icky, though, than realizing I had to reckon with white privilege.
It was my classmate, named Innocent’s, story, which triggered my come-to-Jesus moment on this.
Innocent shared that he and his siblings had been raised by his grandmother. His father had been shot by police and he only saw his mother once a year or so, as she was a domestic worker in a far-away town.
In that moment, I saw for the very first time that the domestic servant we had had growing up, whom I had been proud of “treating so well” (certainly better than many other white employers treated their domestic workers), had been just like Innocent’s mother.
She had three children of her own, but they were strangers to her and she to them–because she had to work in a white suburb many hours away to support them.
Twenty years later, even though both she and her children had received the vote, things were far from equal.
Her kids were the same age as me: but they had never had their mom tuck them in at night, never got to talk to their mom on the way to school about what was happening in the world. Her children did not get to go to college. Her children did not get to do internships or career counseling.
They may have had the vote, but when they went to the grocery store, the only shampoo for sale catered for straight, white hair. If they skinned a knee, the only bandages for sale were “skin tone” ones in pinkish beige.
If they were lucky enough to own a book, no-one in the book looked like them (unless it was a villain).
Innocent’s story revealed a whole world I had seen but never perceived; a world tailored to whiteness in every realm and every way. And I’d had no idea.
I Learned Jesus’ Words to the Privileged
Hearing the term “white privilege” made me feel ashamed, as if someone had accused me of being a racist: an unforgivable sin in my book.
But having white privilege didn’t necessarily mean I was a racist. What it did mean was that I was the (often ignorant and ungrateful) recipient of the benefits of a racist system.
The gospel has much to say about ignorance and ingratitude, as part of Jesus’ gentle yet firm command that we increasingly follow his ways.
I may have been aware of some elements of racism, but there were areas I was unaware of; and in those areas I needed to learn humility.
“Forgive my hidden faults,” the Psalmist teaches us to pray (Psalm 19:12). When we ask God “search me and know me, see if there be any wicked way within me” (Psalm 139:23), we implicitly are confessing areas of ignorance in our own lives, and we dare not squirm or deny the truth of these when they come to light.
This absolutely includes areas where other believers of color point out blind spots of ignorance and idolatry, as my friend did for me.
“If we claim to be without sin,” says 1 John 1:9, “we deceive ourselves.” As uncomfortable as it was to reckon with white privilege, obedience to Jesus required that I not blame-shift or duck the conversation.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) One translation of the word “blessed” (or makarios in Greek) is “in sync”, indicating alignment with God and his will. Jesus our Lord wept (John 11:35).
Yes, he went to the cross to remedy the pain and curse of sin, but not without mourning over it. He grieved before he “fixed”.
As a white woman who has now been grappling with my unavoidable entanglement with racism in me and the world around me for 25 years, I know that my default position when hearing of things is often to want to swoop in and do something, to fix it.
But this, in itself, is a presumption that comes all too quickly to a person with a privileged background: we just assume that without enough effort and leverage, we can change the outcomes.
It takes humility to sit in mourning with the weeping without trying to save the day.
One thing I am learning from my brother and sisters of color’s example is this: to be in sync with the God who mourns and laments over such brokenness, too.
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant not to put their home in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” writes the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:17.
This instruction applies to those who are wealthy, and also to those who are rich in other ways; those privileged in position, power, and opportunity.
Whatever privilege we might have, in education, whiteness, class, citizenship, or relationships – we are called to make sure we are not putting our hope, identify, and confidence in those things, but rather in God.
Rather, says the Apostle, “command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
Again, this applies to more than money. If I have the richness of privilege, the gospel invites me to consider how I might use that for good.
If life has given me a higher pedestal, how might I instead use that as a platform to elevate the voices of others? Being confronted with racism and privilege at first triggered a defensive reaction in me, causing me to wince, clench my fists, and withdraw.
But God points out riches not to shame us, but to make us grateful and generous. So it is with the advantages of privilege: God calls me not to wince, but to worship.
Not to clench my fists but to open my hands in generosity. Not to withdraw but to serve.
God made me with white skin: there is no shame in that.
But humanity has done shameful things in the name of whiteness, privileging me and my family at the expense of others, like Innocent’s and Emily’s. And for that, I mourn.
For that, I acknowledge that often it hasn’t suited me to “see” what my privilege has cost others.
For that, I am called to steward privilege with intention and generosity.
This is not a political position, it’s a discipleship posture; and there is no better place to be, no matter where you live in the world.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/jjneff
Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World. She and her husband are from South Africa but now live in Northern California, where they and their three kids count their church community as family. Find out more at www.bronlea.com.