Letter to a potential friend

This is my response to this article posted on Facebook, the title of which is

What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege.

I really hope what I’m about to say will be received in the same spirit with which it is intended: a helpful response to an issue that has caused way more pain than it should.

When I look at you, I see a beautiful woman in the prime of life, with beautiful dark skin.  Has it occurred to you that those are advantages that many people would like to have but never will?  You could even say that because you are beautiful, you have a kind of privilege that comes from that.  And it’s a pretty powerful and significant one at that.

Reading your post, I can also see that you have had a number of other privileges in your life that some among us might be envious of.  Here are a few:

Good complexion privilege – You don’t appear to have acne, warts, flesh eating disease or deformities, so you enjoy privileges that come from that.  Your skin is dark, and that gives it a special kind of beauty.  That’s not just my opinion.  Lots of white people agree.  This is part of the ‘Beautiful privilege’ of course, but noteworthy that being black and beautiful has privileges I’ll never have.

Socio-economic privilege – I grew up in a family that never had enough money to be able to afford a swimming pool.  The fact that yours did, gave you a privilege I never had, and you should be aware that most Americans didn’t either.  And we’re the richest nation on Earth, so most of Earth’s citizens don’t even know that some people are rich enough to own their very own swimming pool!

Good parent privilege – You’re proud of your Mom for standing up for you when the stupid neighbor kid threw rocks in your pool.  You should be.  But again, you should be thankful you drew her as your Mom, and not a crack addict.  And aren’t you grateful the kid’s Mom was at least sympathetic to yours, and corrected his behavior?

Smart privilege – You did well enough in school to get into Harvard.  Good for you.  You probably had to work hard to do that.  But you didn’t do it without help.  You had a home to come to each night, with a loving parent (maybe two) who encouraged you, helped you, set expectations for you and sent you off every day to a school you didn’t have to pay for, and that facilitated your learning in many ways.  But lots of kids work hard and have all those privileges and still don’t get into Harvard.  So you were also smart.  Again, good for you on that.  But has it occurred to you that you didn’t bring your smarts into existence on your own?  Has it occurred to you that they were either (depending you your worldview) a gift from God or a fortunate turn of the evolutionary wheel that gave them to you?  Either way, you did not bring your good mind into existence on your own.  And because you were given a good mind, you have enjoyed a special kind of privilege many of us would love to have had?

Harvard privilege – The handful of people on planet Earth who can claim to be a Harvard graduate enjoy such special privilege, that their future as part of the upper class of our society is almost guaranteed.  You felt victimized by racism when some white people responded to your going to Harvard by saying “The one in Massachusetts?”  I would have responded the same way, regardless of your ethnicity.  Going to Harvard is a rare privilege, and it would be noteworthy for anyone.  So what makes you think they were being racist?

Judeo-Christian society privilege – The USA is not Nazi Germany in 1932, and you’re not Jewish.  So the only people who can take away your dignity are people you allow to do so by playing the victim.  It’s not the Middle East today, so you aren’t told to stay home, submit to your husband’s sexual demands, wear a burka, shut up and have babies.  It’s not North Korea.  It’s not India with its caste system and you weren’t born into a lower caste there.  If you had been, there would really be no chance for you go get ahead in life.  There are so many other places on the planet you could have been born into, but weren’t, that you should thank God or your lucky stars that you are immersed in a culture that often does not do right, but at least knows the difference between right and wrong.  I do, almost every day.  When I forget to thank God for my advantages in life, I repent as soon as I remember, and my gratitude is coupled with remorse over my sin, and a humble and contrite heart as I approach my maker in prayer.

Born alive privilege – While I’m at it, aren’t you glad your Mom wanted you to be born, so you made it out of the womb alive?  According to the Radiance Foundation, abortion is the number one killer of black lives, ahead of HIV, firearm homicide, diabetes, accidents, cancer, and heart disease combined.  Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a true racist in the Nazi mold.  She viewed black people as ‘inferior racial elements’, and PP was one way to tamp down their influence on the pure ethnicity of Americans.  That we in America still not only allow the practice of abortion to continue unabated, but that we aid and abet it to the tune of at least $500 billion annually, is abominable.  And it is disproportionally black babies that are being eradicated.

I don’t deny that there is such a thing as white privilege.  I don’t even deny that I have been the unconscious, undeserving beneficiary of it.  What I’d like to suggest though is that the sin of racism as we in our privileged culture have come to define it, is really just sin.  And as such, it is no more wicked and damning than any other.  All sin, including racism, varies in its degree of evil.  But all sins, including all of the ones I have committed this week, are evil.

David Brooks, who does not seem to me to be a particularly religious man, nevertheless says that we all sin.  The word has gone out of vogue lately, he says, but the disease has never left us.  Others have pointed out that sins are the bad things we do, while sin is the heart condition we all have that makes us incapable of not sinning.  It’s a good concept to keep in mind, I think.  And the Holy Bible, which I trust as my ultimate source of moral guidance, says that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  There is no one righteous, not even one.”  And I agree with G.K. Chesterton, who when asked what was wrong with the world, replied simply, “I am.”

So when your white boss makes you the butt of a racial slur, he’s committing a sin.  But he’s just as ignorant in his own way of his sin as you and I are of ours.  We all sin.  And we are nearly incapable of seeing our own sin clearly, while we are absolutely clear-eyed when it comes to other people’s sins.

Racism is a horrible evil in its pure form.  The Nazis were racists, and their kind of racism is grounded in actual hate, and in an actual belief that Jews were not really people, so it was perfectly fine to treat them as dirty animals.  That’s pure evil racism, and allowed to grow unchecked, it’s what our racism will look like if we aren’t judicious in tamping it down whenever it rears its ugly head.  But some of the examples you list simply don’t rise anywhere near that level.

Most of the stories you told of your encounters with unfair treatment for racial reasons are absolutely valid, and I will never know what it’s like to experience them first-hand.  And I and many others sincerely want to treat all people of color with dignity and respect and care, but sometimes don’t know what it’s like to be you.  What I’m suggesting, though, is that you (in the often mocked words of Jerry McGuire), might consider trying to ‘help me help you’.  Don’t try to hurt me back when I hurt you.  Help me understand how I hurt you, assume I want to do better, and help me learn how to do it.

You and I are different.  I didn’t grow up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in a house with a pool.  I didn’t grow up in one neighborhood, since my dad was a non-com in the Air Force.  I envied kids who grew up in the same place, and went to the same schools.  I was told I couldn’t go to college because my parents couldn’t afford it. College wasn’t on the radar screen at all, so Harvard wasn’t even a pipe dream.  I was usually the last one picked for kickball, dodgeball or softball.  I didn’t fit in because the culture I was immersed in changed every time we moved, which was a lot.  And yes, we are of a different race.

What I want to do is recognize our differences and celebrate the things about you that are good for you, those you love, and society as a whole.  I don’t want to be colorblind, as some do.  That’s just silly.

I’d love to be friends: friends who go to the same places, have the same kinds of dreams and aspirations, are victimized by the same kinds of hate, bigotry and ignorance that has plagued the human race since the beginning, but who respond with compassion and love, rather than taking offense and playing the victim.  I believe that those who have hate in their hearts will pay a far worse penalty than their victims.  And I believe that those who offend because of ignorance will not be helped out of their ignorance until we tell them how what they did or said made us feel, without hating them for having done it or said it.

I hope that we get that chance.  And I hope you’ll judge me by the content of my character, not by my resume or my academic background, or the color of my skin.  I promise I’ll treat you the same way.

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