One of the elements of my childhood which I cherish to this day was growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania. From memories of running through the lush green woods and climbing trees. To memories of waking up every summer to the sounds of cows and horses in my backyard. I really enjoyed growing up in rural America as a child. And now that I am slowly becoming a middle-aged adult, I find myself being called back to it.
However, besides the friendless of neighbors and the rural serenity which still is within my soul, I find myself now looking back into my childhood and seeing elements of my cherished rural upbringing that were also disillusioned from reality.
These past few weeks have been difficult for our country. Last week, we saw a parade of white segregationists marching throughout Charlottesville, VA with tiki torches fueled by hate in an American culture which still clings to its roots of racism and oppression. I am also reminded of last summer when we learned of the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, two African American men who lost their lives by two police officers without any provocation or reasoning. And these past few weeks we also saw the deaths of five police officers, two in Dallas and three this morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The deaths of these police officers as well as the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alron Sterling highlight not only the unjust judicial system in our country towards black men in the United States and the tensions because of it. But these past few weeks also acknowledge the racial tensions which exist in within out country which has always existed yet is seldom noticed by those who struggle to see it.
While I found myself being blessed to grow up in a rural community, one of the disadvantages I had, when I was younger, was not knowing any children who were any other ethnicity other than my own. As I recall my days of being a student at South Side High School in Hookstown, Pennsylvania, out of the 400 students between 9th and 12 grade, I only recall two youth who were students of color at our school. Additionally, what we were being taught in school relating to the history and social studies came from a white, European perspective. This educational experience, along with the lack of opportunity to form relationships with students of different ethnic backgrounds than ourselves, made it difficult for a lot of us growing up in our community to be aware of not only the intercultural presence beyond our own white community. But it also made us unaware of the social injustices towards people of color in our country.
Despite the lack of diversity that was in my rural community growing up, my mother believed in the need for my sister and me to form relationships with people outside our own color while also be aware of the social injustices many people of color faced in our country. While I was not familiar with the term “white privilege” at the time, essentially this is what my mother was seeking to teach us.
One such experience I can remember was my mother taking my sister and me to an all black church where her friend served as a pastor. Through these experiences along with conversations my mother and her friend would have with us about issues relating to race and culture in America, I was able to begin to see past my own white privilege while also become aware of the responsibilities I had as a white person to stand up for racial injustices against my fellow Americans.
As someone who is white, I am fortunate enough not only to have these early experiences and conversations relating to race and being aware of my white privilege. But I am also fortunate to have friendships with people of color where we can discuss issues relating to race and culture.
However, regardless of these early experiences and relationships, I have today, I still cannot understand what its like to be a person of color in the United States. As a white person, I especially cannot understand what it’s like to be black in America.
Yet while this is something that we as white Americans cannot understand, we as white Americans can learn what its like to be a person of color in America from forming relationships and engaging in conversations with others we meet and those already in our lives.
I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to be part of many conversations on race and multiculturalism in different academic and social forms in my time in college, seminary, and through my work in ministry. However, what I have found the most beneficial for me as a white person is to learn about the experiences of those who are people of color in the United States comes from private conversations I have with friends, co-workers, and those in my own community.
With individuals who know me in atmospheres which are relaxed and informal, I have felt more comfortable asking my friends who are people of color, particularly those who are African-Americans, about their experiences being a non-white person in America.
From experiences of relationships with those who are white and their struggles with many white Americans to acknowledge their white privilege. To their experiences of prejudice and racism experienced not only from law enforcement, but in the workplace, academia, and other communities, being able to listen to black Americans about their struggles in America helped me not only become aware of my privilege as a white person. But it also helped me understand the role I have to stand up against the injustices in our country against my friends and fellow Americans.
It is a realistic truth that a lot of work needs to be done in our country in terms of addressing the injustices in our country when it comes to people of color. From addressing the unjust judicial system and the often targeting of black men by law enforcement to the discrimination and systemic racism which still exists in our country, we as Americans, particularly those of us who are white, need to work along with our friends, neighbors, family members and all people of color in our country to bring about solutions to address what many Americans struggle with on a daily basis.
At the same time, it’s also important for white Americans to not just converse with people color about the issues that face as Americans in terms of racism and discrimination while being aware of their own white privilege. But it’s also important for white Americans to educate other white Americans about the social injustices towards people of color in our country and their social responsibility to stand up against it and the racism which still exists in our country today.
Black people don’t need to be convinced that anti-black racism, structural inequity, and skin privilege are facts; white people do,” says Darnell Moore, editor of Mic Magazine.
From educating other whites in their community, particularly in our rural white communities and in our rural white faith communities, about white privilege and the social injustices towards people of color in the United States. To speaking up and standing up against racism comments and jokes we hear spoken from other whites. We as white Americans who see racism and social injustices, have to do more than acknowledge its existence. We have a social responsibility to stand against it.
Racism, which stems from the slavery of which has been woven into our American history and our democracy and judicial system cannot be removed overnight. And if there is anything which the present situation can illuminate for us is our country is still racially divided and much work needs to be done.
However, by being aware of our own white privilege and working to help other white Americans acknowledge the social injustices towards people of color in the United States and the need to stand with our fellow Americans against it are ways we can slowly work to someday eradicate racism and close the racial divide in our country. And at the same time, for us, as white people to learn about the lives and communities of our friends, co-workers, family members, and most of all, our fellow Americans.