One of the most difficult topics in America is race.
It is perhaps particularly difficult for people of faith, trying as most of us do to practice some coherent version of The Golden Rule. Most of us, certainly including my Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers, long for a day when we all treat each other as we would be treated by others. Most of us have a dream that a time will come when that spark of divinity in each of us will be honored.
Unfortunately, when it comes to race, that time is not here. In America, as a society, whiteness is valued more highly than blackness — as tough as that can be for us to face. I know how easy it is for us white people to say, “I am not responsible. I am not biased about race. I do my best to treat all people equally, with respect and compassion.”
And those sentences may well be true, for us as individuals. The problem is that we are — often unconsciously — the top dogs in an unfair society. We cannot solve the race problem single-handedly, and it is counter-productive to wallow in guilt for the advantages we take for granted over people of color. But if we can become more aware — if we can change our attitudes to a matter-of-fact knowledge that we are privileged — some things might start changing.
How, we may wonder, do we have advantages denied to people of color? Well, we have white privilege if:
▪ We can move into a nice neighborhood without fear of harassment or vandalism.
▪ We have never had a defining moment in our life when we realized that there are people who hate us just for our skin color.
▪ We can shop without store personnel “subtly” keeping an eye on us.
▪ We can be sure that our skin color won’t be a problem in getting loans or establishing credit.
▪ We can dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer messages, or swear, without people noting the poverty or bad morals of our race.
▪ We can rise to exceptional challenges without being called a credit to our race.
▪ We can work hard and get accepted to a good school or job, without anyone resenting us because we supposedly achieved success as a result of unfair advantage to our race.
There is more, but the picture emerges. I remember how upset and frustrated I felt when I first realized that I get significant advantages just because I am white. I first felt resentful, like “Well, what in heck am I supposed to do, anyway?” Then I felt guilty, which was equally counter-productive.
Now? Now, I try to be honest and matter-of-fact about the privileges I enjoy. I see what a complex, deep problem race is in our American society, and how solving it is going to take all of us working together with open hearts and willingness to change. I would love to have a simple solution, but I don’t see one.
What I do see is that lots of us white people are, not surprisingly, unaware of the advantages we enjoy. What I hope is that more and more of us will become aware, slowly changing the inequities that now exist. What I hope is that each of us will be more devoted to recognizing the spark of divinity that dwells in each of us. What I hope is that all of us, people of all faiths and no faith, can start seeing the Golden Rule in a new light, and change our hearts, at least a little.
Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.