A Privilege I cannot escape

When I arrived in Madagascar this summer, I knew I had much to learn. Months earlier, some of my African-French church friends asked if I had ever been to black Africa before and I realized I had not. Although I have been in countries where my whiteness stands out, this would be a first for me. They smiled as if to say, “We know what’s coming your way.”

On the long road trip from Madagascar’s capital to Anstirabe, our taxi-bus was frequently stopped by the police. At first we didn’t pay too much attention to this, but after awhile our Madagascan friends explained to us what was happening. Apparently dozens of policemen line this route every day and illegally tax the drivers of the taxi-buses. “The money goes in their pockets,” our friends explained. If the drivers refuse to pay, the police will take away their driver’s license and thus leave them without a job. In order to bring home any money at all, the drivers are forced to pack passengers into their vehicles like sardines. It’s a terrible corruption, they explained.

However, they aren’t taxing us today. They wouldn’t dare.

“Really? Why not?” I ask.

“It’s thanks to you!” they exclaim. “They see that you’re white, think you might know important people in the government, and wouldn’t take the risk that you might tell on them!”

Wow.

At first I was thankful that we were spared this injustice. We were there to serve alongside our Madagascan friends, and it had already cost a lot of money just to get there. And, so many times I’ve been treated as a “rich Westerner” abroad simply because I’m white. People have tried all sorts of tactics to overcharge my traveling companions and me. So for once the tables were turned. Not bad, right?

At the end of our stay, we returned via the same route. This time we were aware of what was going on with the police and since I was sitting directly behind the driver, the police would often ask me a few questions once they noticed me, “How are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? How do you find Madagascar?” Sometimes I would even poke my head out to make sure they saw me and didn’t demand any money. And then they would send us on our way. The van, this time filled with an equal number of Madagascans and Europeans, always erupted in laughter each time we “escaped.”

Our Madagascan friends kept saying, “Lucky for us that you’re here!” Yet I left this experience feeling uneasy. The message I walked away with was, yay, I’m white so I don’t have to pay. In this case my white privilege was crystal clear. So clear that our friends of color were also more or less saying, yay, you’re white so we don’t have to pay!

It’s really not funny, even though we laughed that day. All throughout our time in Madagascar, there were feelings of privilege that I couldn’t shake, related both to my color and to my citizenship. I arrived in Madagascar and suddenly I was rich. “Wow, that only costs one euro!” And yet for many locals one euro is a full day’s wage. I go there and spend my pennies and feel like I’m saving a lot because it’s so much cheaper than in my country, while the people around me are struggling to find enough to eat.

There was a feeling of compassion, wishing their lives were better but not really knowing how much I could do. And also a feeling of difference, knowing that even though I have lived through unstable or “poor” times by the standards of my own country, I have always been rich by their standards. And because of my privilege, I feel like I can never understand, truly, these people whom I go to serve and love. It is a privilege that I cannot escape.

And so this experience shined brightly upon my white privilege. Yet for most white people, especially when we are the majority race, it must be rare for it to be so obvious. How many times could my white friends, family members and I have unknowingly walked away from a situation and said:

Yay I’m white so I got taken seriously.
Yay I’m white so I only got a warning.
Yay I’m white so I got the job.
Yay I’m white so I was trusted.
Yay I’m white so in this way I meet media’s definition of what is beautiful.
Yay I’m white so when I succeeded it wasn’t credited to my race.
Yay I’m white so they believed me.
Yay I’m white so I was able to rent the place I wanted.
Yay I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be mistreated because of my skin color.
Yay I’m white so the authorities weren’t suspicious of me.
Yay I’m white so I wasn’t harassed.
Yay I’m white so I don’t have to constantly think about how my actions affect the reputation of my entire race.
Yay I’m white so I was recognized as a human being.
Yay I’m white so the police didn’t even look twice.
Yay I’m white so I am still alive.

I know that the recent events in the States have stirred up a lot of emotions among my black and white friends alike. I have seen the posts and comments on facebook and I don’t ignore them. I have seen some very strong and even judgmental opinions from white people about the black community in the wake of recent events. Sure, we can come up with all kinds of arguments to prove whatever point we wish to make.

Yet until we recognize our white privilege, whether we can measure it or not, we cannot begin to understand what it means not to have it.

It’s easy to miss the injustices, especially when we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to not think about racism when we’re not personally confronting it every day. It’s easy to even think that minorities are becoming more privileged in America when diversity is celebrated. But as my friends of color share their experiences, I recognize that things are still not right in my country.

If we white Americans were to lose our privilege and experience what that would mean for us, our families, our ancestors and our offspring, I think we would become angry about the injustices, too. I am not a proponent of violence nor do I think it should be justified. But neither should we mistreat our fellow human beings through our actions, our words, our attitudes, our lack of understanding, our ignorance or our pride. Especially if we claim to be living the Gospel, we will desire to move towards freedom and justice, for all people. The stain of slavery upon our recent American history should grieve us and racial reconciliation should be close to our hearts.

I confess that I have harbored subtle racist attitudes and opinions in the past that I now regret. I know that my upbringing in mostly white communities has left me with baggage that includes false stereotypes, fear, assumptions, misunderstandings and ignorance concerning racial issues and those who are different from me. Yet now I recognize my white privilege and the injustices placed upon those who don’t have it. I don’t know how much I can understand what this really means for people of color, especially in America, but I do know that I still have a lot to learn. And I want to learn. As I listen to the stories of my brothers and sisters, I pray that God will continue to change my heart so that I will learn to love others more humbly, authentically and empathetically.

If I cannot escape the privilege, then at least I will own it.

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Born to privilege

I have been born to privilege. In my many adventures around the world, I recognize that being a white American has its value.

I have also been born to a place of secondary value. In the subculture that I grew up in, women were considered to be second-class citizens. They existed to serve men and to remain under male dominion.

In a recent post I wrote about the women I encountered in India. I wanted so badly to communicate to them their beauty and value. I don’t know if I succeeded at all, but this experience also reflected upon my own personal journey.

Unlike me, they were born with what they understand to be a less desirable skin color. Like me, they were born as what many consider to be the less desirable sex.

Who told me that women are lesser in value than men? I can recall a few of the male voices that spoke this message in clear words, although it was more often communicated in subtle ways. The message was powerful… and hurtful.

Those voices told me that my relationship with God must be channeled through the authority of a man. That I belong to one man until he gives me to another. That if men use and abuse me, it is my fault. That women are less qualified to serve God simply because of their sex. That women cannot be trusted. That women are easily deceived and that chaos erupts when women are in leadership.

These voices were powerful, and they defined me from a very young age.

Thankfully, they were not the only voices I heard. I have a clearer recollection of the men who spoke differently into my life, and those voices were also powerful.

The voices that told me that I am a daughter of the King and that no man has the right to mistreat me. That the Lord alone is my Master and that I bow only to him. That God has created woman in his image. That women can also make an intelligent contribution to the world. That women can also be trusted and respected.

While I was in India, I distinctly recalled those first voices, coming from men born into privilege, who were all too ready to highlight their privilege while emphasizing my lack of privilege. I don’t understand. It would be like me going to these girls and saying or behaving as to say, “Well, we can’t change how we are made. I am superior, yes, but that’s just the way it is, and the best thing you can do is to serve me well so that I can thrive.” Was this not the attitude that reigned throughout the horrific history of slavery in my own country?

And yet I know that I, too, have acted and spoken in ways that have hurt others, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I see it now. And for this I am so deeply sorry.

So I understand and yet I don’t. I get what it’s like to be devalued in some ways due to the body I was born into. And yet there are others who deal with this on a daily basis in a way that I can never fully understand, simply because I have never lived even a day in their shoes. I just hope and pray that I will always be willing to listen and to grow, and that I will be an agent of change as I am also changed.

Is Beauty Color-coded?

In March I went on an “Artist Trek to India,” with a team of musicians, writers, visual artists, photographers and a dancer. We visited a high school one day and each of us was immediately surrounded by dozens of students. They asked us questions, wanted to feel our skin and hair, and requested that we take pictures of them.

One of these girls grabbed my hand and said, “beautiful” as she stroked it. I took her hand and said, “YOU are beautiful!” She responded, “No. Black!” And she frowned. My heart sank but I looked at her again in the eyes and said, “You are so beautiful. It’s true!”

Another day, in the city of Vijayawada, a couple of girls came running up to me and another team member. “Photo please!” They asked while giggling and posing next to us as their friends stole some photos with their phones.

Um, hello?

But they didn’t care to get our names, they only wanted our pictures. And then they were off as quickly as they had come, not giving us a chance to ask for their names, either.

My team and I attended a relief meeting for Indian people suffering from AIDS. We packed bags of food for them and then introduced ourselves during a short service of singing, a message and prayer. The majority of those in attendance were women, who had most likely contracted this disease from their husbands. The men don’t come because they are too embarrassed. The women come because they are in desperate need of help for themselves and their families.

I finished my introduction by saying, “You are beautiful.” My words fell upon blank faces, but as soon as the translation was pronounced, their reaction was anything but neutral. Some snickered, others shook their heads.

The younger girls received my words with less disdain and rejection. When I grabbed their hand or touched their face or pulled them in for a hug and said, “YOU are beautiful,” it came from the very depths of my being, a message shared in complete sincerity. I wished I could gather all of the women, teenagers and young girls into a big group hug and describe to them more of what I see.

Because truly, these women are stunning!

I returned to Paris and saw the color of humanity like I had never seen it before. Caucasian people seemed especially pale. Oh, right. I’m Caucasian, too. Suddenly for me, human colors were more defined but not in a categorical “white” and “black” way. I find the variety of human color to be beautiful and something that ought to be celebrated.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes that our world places upon people. Of course, I have also been personally influenced by the way media dictates what makes a woman beautiful. When an ideal is out of my reach, it can be hurtful. And I hate that feeling of not measuring up. But to recognize that I was born to privilege simply because of my skin color makes me uncomfortable. I see it more clearly now than before, and it bothers me deeply. I don’t really know what to do about it. I just know that it is there.

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 2)

The half-marathon mark was quickly approaching. Only half-way? You have got to be kidding me. I wasn’t in pain yet physically, just tired and not caring. I searched inside of me for something profound to drive me on. Nothing came. I’m in trouble, I thought.

So, since I couldn’t pull it together, I reached for some outside inspiration. I remembered the words of the man from Portland. I recalled what my doctor had told me. I thought of what friends have been telling me all my life. Basically, if you don’t slow down and start enjoying life, you’re just going to drive yourself to the ground.

That’s right, and sometimes we do go through life running even when we would rather be walking. We can get so focused on the goal that we miss everything we pass along the way. Oh, another thing my doctor said? That I needed a week-long vacation, away from the pressures of life and work. I haven’t taken more than a weekend away this year. Still, it seems impossible. I don’t have time! Truly, there are things we learn about ourselves during a marathon that we don’t learn anywhere else. There are things that confront us during those hours that we cannot escape.

So this was all starting to feel quite negative, and I still had half a marathon to finish! At this point, my pace was still on track for the time I wanted, but the thought of keeping it up seemed impossible. The initial excitement seemed to have died down a bit around me as well. I was passing people who were already walking. I found my earphones and put them in. The music gave me a little boost. I thought, what the heck, I’m just going to enjoy this marathon like everyone seems to say I should.

I didn’t care about time anymore, I decided to just to glide through to 30k. I wasn’t going to use any more mental energy to calculate my pace and my predicted pace. I even started to walk through the refreshment stations and enjoy a cup of hot sweet tea instead of simply spilling it all over myself. I was still mentally a bit checked-out, and occasionally I had extreme thoughts like, “I have six hours to finish this thing, I wonder if I would still make it in time even if I walked the rest of the way?”

After 30k, I started taking short walking breaks (1-2 minutes) every 10 minutes. Whatever, I didn’t care. Then, something crazy happened. I realized I was at 33k already and I looked at my watch again. It seemed that even with a conservative pace from there on out, I might still be able to finish a few minutes faster than I had in May. This gave me a slight bit of motivation, and although I continued to take walking breaks, I was more motivated to keep a good pace for 8-9 minutes at a time.

Finally, I reached 39k and mustered the strength for a little pep talk that consisted of one word, “BURN!!!!” So I did, I started running again and didn’t stop until I reached the finish line. I passed so many people who were walking during these last kilometers, including the four men in purple shirts, who were clearly struggling by this point. I was glad I still had something left to give, even though perhaps earlier I hadn’t given all I could. Then I started counting down the minutes to myself, knowing when I had only 14 minutes left, ten, five, two… From kilometer 40, I knew when I would finish, and I came in right on the money. WAAM! Five minutes faster than in May! How did that happen??

And then it wasn’t pretty. My head was not happy. I started walking again and realized I had a debilitating pain in my right hip, so instead of walking I was limping. I very nearly burst into tears, but then again, I didn’t care enough, even to cry. I mostly just felt awful. I wanted to get back to my room. I had to get there. The sooner, the better.

My French friends finished before me, but waited in the arrival area for me to show up. I was so touched by this gesture! We were all happy to be done, and we all felt completely spent. We parted ways and I had to find the bag that I had checked earlier. I asked someone and he pointed to some tents that I could barely see. “500 meters,” he said. “No!!! I mean… thanks.” And I limped over there, stopped to take a couple of pictures and then collected my bag.

The next mission was to find a taxi. I didn’t care how frivolous it was at this point, I knew I needed to get back as soon as possible. And by now my hotel was another 2.5 kilometers away. I spent about 10 minutes trying to communicate with Italian volunteers about how to get a taxi. Apparently it was all very complicated because so many roads were still blocked off for the race. I was getting nowhere. Walking to an accessible taxi station would have meant walking too far for comfort in the other direction. The streets were also packed with people, so I wasn’t sure how a taxi would get through. My head started to swim. I stopped and leaned against a post. Then I heard someone next to me saying, “tutto bene?” I nodded my head, I shook my head, and then I signaled that I was dizzy. Finally someone said my best bet was to just walk to my hotel. But I caaaan’t!!!!

Still, I did. I limped all the way back. And yes, it took forever. I was hungry. I was tired. I was hurting. I was also nauseated. I arrived next door to my hotel and knew that once I went up I might not be down again for a while. I needed some kind of fuel, so I stepped into a gelato store for their “Thanksgiving” special (pumpkin-flavored gelato), one of the few things that was at all appealing in that moment. They served me, congratulated me on the race, and then I sat down for a few minutes. I enjoyed a little bit of the gelato, but then I started seeing zigzagged lights, and knew I had to get to my room subito. I took the migraine medication that I had with me, threw out the rest of the gelato and hurried on to my hotel. But the time I reached my room, I couldn’t see clearly anymore. I was conscious enough to change into dry clothes but the next few hours were a blur. To be honest, it was also a little scary.

So, this one didn’t end so well. Maybe I’m not made for marathons? Maybe not, who knows. But I can’t imagine that I will stop here, especially since I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April. If I’m going to quit, I simply have to quit on a better note than this.

Post-race, is it possible to still be thankful? Yes, I believe so, if I choose to be. I’m thankful I made it to the start. I’m thankful for my French friends, for my running group in Paris, for the spectators, the volunteers. I’m thankful for the journey God has brought me through. This difficult experience reminded me of more difficult things that I have suffered in the past. I’m thankful to have finished, to have made it back to my hotel safely. I’m thankful for the reminder of the fragility of life. I later learned that a 38-year-old man had collapsed and died one kilometer before the finish line. When a fellow runner dies in a race like this, it affects all the rest of us, too. We can’t help but think, “that could have been me.” I hurt for his family. I’m thankful that God carries us in times when we lose the motivation to keep going. He carried me and protected me through this race, and for that I am thankful. I am thankful for life.

Still, I do need to cool it now for a while. And as a friend corrected me, “you must not just try to rest, you must actually rest!”

Well, at this point, I’m so shot that by default I have no other choice!

2014-11-30 20.07.08

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?