I took a walk today. This weekend I’m in Colorado, near Avon, at a continuing medical education conference, and after today’s sessions were over, I walked up the mountain a ways and then back. About 5 miles altogether. Beautiful day. Clean, cool, thin air. Spectacular views.
I saw thousands of aspens, two ski lifts, and of course, lots of gorgeous houses up that mountain, set back from the road, but designed, I’m sure, to afford dazzling views to their owners. To be clear, I’m not a hiker. This walk was on a paved two-lane road, and I regularly encountered cars and a few trucks driving up and down the road. I’d nod and wave, and the occupants of the vehicles, when I could see them, would smile and wave in turn. In all, a peaceful, contemplative way to spend an afternoon.
Of the many things I mused upon, the first anniversary this weekend of the death of Michael Brown was chief among them. A year ago he had his fateful encounter with Darren Wilson, and the world changed forever. Except of course, when it didn’t. Since then, we have seen the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Samuel DeBose, Sandra Bland, and all too many more African-Americans at the hands of police or while in police custody.
About ten years ago, I was part of a weeklong workshop called Dismantling Racism in Education put on by the National Conference on Community and Justice of Greater St. Louis. The fifty participants were assigned to one of four cohorts: African-American men, African-American women, white woman, white men. We met in various permutations of our groups during the course of the week, and I will never forget what an African-American man, a high school assistant principal whom I had gotten to know quite well during the week, said in one of the men-only groupings: “I wake up every morning, and for a few moments as I’m becoming conscious, I feel good. Then it hits me. Something bad is going to happen to me during this day because I'm black. It might be a clerk at a mall looking nervous when I walk by, a woman on the street clutching her purse a little closer, a cop car slowing down to get a good look at me when I’m riding my bike. But I’ve got to get ready for it because it always, always happens.”
Today I didn’t think twice about putting on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and a ball cap and sneakers and leaving the hotel and climbing the hill lined with multi-million dollar homes with earbuds in my ears. I didn’t have to. I can walk anywhere I want. I can smile and wave, and people will smile and wave back. Because I’m white. And I have privilege. And the fact that my high school assistant principal colleague, someone who is as at least as powerful and smart and kind and good as myself, would have to think twice about doing the same thing… Well, that is wrong. That is unjust. That is immoral.
I cannot NOT be white. This is who I am. This is how I was born. And because of this accident of ancestry, I am given privilege, access, freedom that people of color do not have. And if you are white, you have it too. And let’s be clear: Privilege is nothing to feel guilty about. It simply – is. It becomes a problem when we – and by “we” I mean my white cohorts – act like this privilege does not exist. Denial is toxic. And it keeps people of color oppressed and gets them killed.
My first ten years in the St. Louis area, I practiced pediatrics in East St. Louis, a predominantly African-American community. I moved there because my mentor, Father Joseph Brown, an African-American Jesuit priest originally from East St. Louis, encouraged me to act on my deep sense of mission and vocation. Over time, though, I began to wonder whether my telling my young African-American patients that I thought they were wonderful kids, that I looked forward to seeing them again, and that I knew that they could do anything they wanted, really made a difference. I mean, here I was, an upper middle class white pediatrician. Even though I firmly believed every good thing I said to that these kids, what kind of credibility did I have? One day I talked to Joseph about this. “Oh, Kenneth,” he said, shaking his head. “Everywhere they turn, they hear they are worthless. You have no idea how important it is that these children hear from someone who looks like you that they are precious and valued.”
If you are white like me, you don’t need to feel guilty because you’re a member of the club. But we must – MUST – realize that until everyone, including Michael Brown if he were alive today, belongs in that club, that the default greeting for everyone should be a welcoming nod and a smile, that we all should be able to climb to the mountaintop without a second thought, our work for justice will never be done…