I Am Not Immune: Acknowledging racism and white privilege

The setting was an island just outside of Charleston, South Carolina – whose harbors, architecture and lolling plantations are fraught with the storied history of our past. It is the site of naval battles in the war for independence, the location of the Civil War’s first shot, and the port through which passed up to 60 percent of all the West African peoples who were torn from their homelands and trafficked as slaves in ours. (If I am to speak of history, I must also temper any reference to this land as “mine” with the acknowledgement that it was stolen in the first place).

The island itself is a sanctuary for those with the luxury of beach houses and vacation homes and an idyllic spot for a family reunion. That is, if you are a family whose skin tones are of the lighter persuasion. Like ours. Well, all but one of us. My younger brother, who is beautifully dark, was with us and I found myself cringing inwardly at the monochromatic milieu of our community (which is no new context for him) particularly in a place rife with the scars of racism.

So when the first dark people we saw on our island retreat were three teenaged boys who had just immersed themselves in the inky clay of the marshland, I lost it. I felt so uncomfortable that the only people whose skin matched my brother’s were covered in mud that I tried to make a joke of it. I turned to him and said, “did you jump in the swamp too?” Yes, I said that. To my brother. “Did you jump in the swamp too?” I made a direct correlation between the color of my brother’s skin and mud. It was insensitive, rude, offensive and…racist. I, who grew up in East Africa; I, who have two brothers that do not share my ethnicity; I, who live in North Minneapolis and feel painfully conscious of the complexity of race relations. I said that to someone I love and want to protect from the barbs of racism.

That moment is a poignant reminder to me that I am not immune. I am not immune from the influence of white privilege or the ignorance that often accompanies membership in the majority culture. We say things carelessly, seeing humor where others feel a deep pang. We misunderstand the struggle because we ourselves have not been nearly drowned in its murky waters. For all my empathy, I must admit I do not understand what it is like. Even when I find myself in the minority, however comparable it may be, I am still the powerful minority, and that makes all the difference.

So I had to apologize. I had to own that what I said to my brother was wrong, and ask him to forgive me. And that, I think, is the most important thing. We are not perfect; our society is complex and often in the wrong; we speak and act and live in ways that cause injury to others. My shame oozes from an injured pride, from the wound of failure inflicted on my carefully constructed facade of the “socially aware, culturally sensitive, politically correct” individual. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps it is better to mess up and seek forgiveness than to exist in a self-conscious bubble of contrived perfection. Perhaps the point is not to achieve a perfect state of never offending each other. Perhaps the point is personal connection – to live together and understand each other, to apologize frequently and forgive as often. I am not advocating that we stop seeking to be more aware, sensitive and respectful. What I am advocating is a posture to assume in the midst of that pursuit – a posture of humility and grace. It is a posture Andrew and I will need to mindfully return to as we stumble our way through a myriad of cultures and contexts over the coming years.

 

photo credit: Light Brigading via photopin cc

 

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