Thoughts from a Recovering Racist

December 4, 2014


I grew up white, not just in the color of my skin, but in the culture of my youth.  My wife and I call it “super-white”.  I was raised in a small farm town in Illinois – white family, white friends, white people at my church, white teachers, white kids in my classes, white players on my sports teams, white players on the teams I played against – WHITE!

My parents are amazing and did well to raise my brother and I as unprejudiced as possible, but that background is a large obstacle when it comes to issues of race.

But I didn’t see it that way.  For many years I was convinced that, in spite of my monochromatic background, I was still able to see race issues clearly and with a balanced perspective.  And most certainly, I would never have classified myself as a racist.

I was wrong.

To be clear – I wasn’t racist in obvious, belligerent ways.  My racism was subtle and nuanced.  It appeared in silent assumptions, private fears, and in my total, absolute, pervasive ignorance of my privilege.

Thankfully, living overseas and in urban areas has diversified my life some.  This includes introducing people that are black into my world.  I have black friends, black church members, black small group members, black colleagues.  My daughter is black. Admittedly, I experience the world differently than I did growing up.

Over the last couple of weeks two grand jury decisions have rocked this country.  Some of my friends and church members have been wounded in this.  There is deep sadness, anger, frustration and hopelessness.  And I don’t know what to do about that.  I am wrecked by what this is doing to them.

And this morning was the final straw…

Last night as Minhee and I got ready for bed, I told her I was going to write something today.  The grief of watching so many friends struggle yesterday was too much, and I needed an outlet.  I decided I’d wait for morning, for a fresh perspective, and then write.

This morning I dropped off Minhee at work, then Lucy at school, and was driving back home, thinking about what I wanted to say – when all of a sudden lights were flashing behind me.

I pulled to the side of the road and waited as the police officer, the black police officer, approached my window.  He asked for my license and registration which I handed him.  The registration had expired months ago, and he pulled me over for having an expired sticker on my plate.  He told me that if he ran my plates and found the registration was indeed expired, I wouldn’t be able to drive and we’d have to tow the car home.

I told him I had the sticker at home, but I had no proof of this.  He told me to wait and he went back to his car.

After 5 minutes he approached again, gave back my information, and handed me a warning ticket.  He told me to keep the warning ticket with me, so that if I was stopped again I could show the officer the citation, tell them I’d get it fixed, and could be on my way.

He also told me that he didn’t run my plate, just in case the registration was expired, because he didn’t want me to be towed.  He looked at me and said, “I’m trusting you here man.  I’m trusting you.”

Just to recap before the icing on this cake… the officer gave me a citation that cost no money, but would save me time on subsequent traffic stops for the same issue, and also didn’t check my plates just in case I had been lying to him about them being renewed, which would have forced my car to be towed.

He then tipped his hat, returned to his car, and began to pull away.  But then he made a sudden stop and motioned for me to roll down my window.  Just in case I did need to still renew the registration, he gave me exact information on the RMV to go to, told me to skip the line, and then gave me the exact window # to approach to get it taken care of without waiting.

I looked over and told him, “I promise, it’s at home on the counter.  Two days ago my wife told me to take care of it but I ignored her.”  He chuckled at that, waved his hand, and gave an, “Alright brother, take care!”, and he drove away.

That is white privilege.

Honestly, earlier in life I would never have said that.  I would have attributed the pleasantness of that police/citizen interaction to my willingness to follow instructions, or to the calm and submissive tone of my voice in the conversation, or to some other explanation born in the womb of white privilege.

What I didn’t consider before was how easy it is to be obedient when the officer assumes trust in you.  How simple it is to be calm and submissive when the officer is treating you so well.  Back then, I just couldn’t see that I was treated differently because of the color of my skin.  Of course, it wasn’t only the color of my skin that mattered, but it DID matter.  And back then, I refused to believe that.

Over these last couple weeks, the responses of some white men and women have been discouraging, and often infuriating.  And yet, while I want to get angry, deep down I know that at times I have been them.

And so I want to end with a few thoughts to any white readers out there.  Some of you are way out in front of me on this, and I need to learn from you.  But for those that are still waiting to put the “recovering” in “recovering racist”, a few final thoughts:

  1. If your whole world is pretty much white people, like what I described above, watch what you say.  I shouldn’t tell a woman not to yell and scream during childbirth, and you shouldn’t tell the black community that they are overreacting, or missing the point, or biased.  We have no idea how they feel or how deeply this hurts.  These last two weeks have inflicted serious injury, so please keep quiet and don’t aggravate their pain.
  2. I know some of you want to defend cops, and I get that.  You feel that the everyday, sacrificial lives of police officers should inspire gratitude – not rioting. And you are absolutely right.  But these marches and riots are in response to a systemic issue of racism and prejudice, not just individual officers.  And if the primary response of the white community is to make sure police officers know they are appreciated, while showing little concern over black men dead in the street – that only exacerbates the pain and frustration of the black community.
  3. Please, please, please don’t say things like, “Race doesn’t matter – we are all just human” or “Race isn’t the issue here”.  Race matters.  Race is the issue.  Being black is the issue.  Being white is the issue  Skin color is the issue.  And to suggest that these don’t matter devalues the life experience of racial minorities as well as makes you someone they know doesn’t understand – and they can’t trust.

Finally, if you are someone that reads the Bible, then you may know Paul’s verse in Romans that says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”.  This verse assumes that there are patterns of thought informed by this world, and that those are old ways of thought that must be made new. 

And I know that I am someone whose mind was, for a very long time (and partly still is), conformed to some pretty old patterns.  But time and experience have me thinking new thoughts – and I am grateful for the transformation that has come so far.