By Alice Hunt
Dear white friends—particularly my white, female friends—our system has failed us. This failure became ever more clear to me when I saw the post of a Facebook friend. “Mary Beth” is someone from my hometown—Boaz, Alabama. She is someone I went to high school with at Boaz High School, the home of the Boaz Pirates, someone I attended Sunday School with at First Baptist Church of Boaz. Her post stunned me. The meme she posted shows Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama and says, “These three race baiters have done more to hurt Black people than any White person EVER could! They have set race relations back 50 years.”
HUH? What? Really? Now, mind you, I grew up in the same hometown as Mary Beth. We went to the same high school. We attended the same church. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama have set us back on race relations? Really? Are you kidding me? The sad reality is: she is not kidding me. She believes her post to be true. And so I must sadly accept the fact that Mary Beth and I do not have the same operating premises about life. She is a white woman and I am a white woman. She wants to do the right thing and I want to do the right thing. She has good intentions and I have good intentions. She is a woman of faith and I am a woman of faith. And yet, our fundamental operating assumptions about life are diametrically opposed.
Mary Beth assumes the following: racism is something that happened mainly in the past; slavery was horrible but it is long gone; she is not racist; she never held slaves; she does not see color; racism happens today when one person judges another person because of the color of their skin; prejudice is personal; people have hard lives and they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps; “they” sometimes make her feel threatened; people should be “color blind”; everyone is free to make their life as good as possible; everyone has an equal opportunity; racism is over – a thing of the past.
I assume: racism = prejudice + misuse of power by systems or institutions; I am a racist—not because I want to be, but because of my privilege, because I benefit from centuries of benefit-of-the-doubt, because I can remain silent whenever I choose to remain silent; racism does have personal dimensions but the more crucial components of racism are institutional and systemic; having good intentions is insufficient; wanting to do “the right thing” does not make everything okay; we live in a “land of the free” that is not “free” for all persons; we are all complicit in systems of oppression; none of us are “pure”; we are afraid to talk about race; no one wants to feel guilty or ashamed; our systems limit the possibilities for some while over-privileging the opportunities for others; the deck is stacked in favor of white people.
I am astounded that she can think these things. And I am sure she finds me outrageous. Honestly, I would like to read her the riot act. I would like to tell her how absolutely ignorant I think she is being. But I doubt doing so would accomplish anything. I doubt she would even hear me. Data shows my arguments would not have the effect I desire. In fact, studies show my tirade would have the opposite effect on Mary Beth. (See When Corrections Fail.) And so, I am faced with questions about what I should do. Part of me wants to remain steeped in my anger, frustration, and depression—by giving up on Mary Beth. But my faith calls me to more.
Mary Beth and I need to find a way to engage each other because we have a fundamental theological issue at stake here—questions people of faith are called to address: Who deserves what? And why? Do I deserve something special because I am white? Because I am middle class? Do you deserve something special because you are male? We humans fall easily into a posture of thinking we deserve something special. (See Brown Eyes – Blue Eyes and see Adding Money). If we really value God’s creation and if we really believe in equal opportunity, there are implications for the privilege currently maintained by us, white folks. Self-reflection is required here—and has everything to do with our faith, our theology, and our humanity.
And then there is the whole white woman issue. Recently, Juror B37’s statements about her deliberations being “very emotional” and resulting in her crying was a cultural code reminding us that she needs to be protected by society. White women who talk about race frequently end up in tears. We must stop crying. We must own up to the situation at hand. We must stop trying to make people of color feel responsible for our feelings of shame. We must stop hoping people of color will drop everything to comfort us, as our society has socialized them to do. We must stop trying to make our “innocence” the highest priority. We must stop crying in an effort to take the heat off our own culpability. We must listen—and hear the experiences of our sisters and brothers. We must acknowledge our complicity and our continuing privilege.
My white friends, particularly my white female friends: our system has failed. To be sure, our system has failed black folks, but our system has also failed us. Our system has failed all of God’s creation. The sooner we recognize the failure, the sooner we can be part of working toward God’s new creation. Let us acknowledge the failure and move to make changes.
Rev. Alice Hunt, Ph.D. is the president of Chicago Theological Seminary, a school dedicated to preparing leaders to transform society toward greater justice and mercy. She researches, writes, and teaches in the areas of Hebrew Bible, leadership, and theological education. In addition to essays, her published work includes Missing Priests: The Zadokites in Tradition and History (2006) and two edited volumes, Second Temple Studies IV: History and Historiography (2012) and Focusing Biblical Studies: The Crucial Nature of the Persian and Hellenistic Periods: Essays in Honor of Douglas A. Knight (2012). Her current research focuses on two areas: European-American Biblical Hermeneutics and theologies of institutions. She was ordained at the historic Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, National Baptist Convention, in Nashville, Tennessee. She holds dual standing with the United Church of Christ in the Chicago Metropolitan Association.