Today is Uncomfortable

I’m a bit shaken right now. In the middle of a rehearsal with a colleague early this afternoon, I saw that my dad was calling. Usually I don’t answer my phone while rehearsing, but I felt like I needed to check in so I picked up and said, “Hi Dad, I’m in a rehearsal, but is everything ok?”

At the same time, my colleague looked at her phone and saw that her mother had called. And so we learned of the shooting that had just taken place in my very neighborhood here in Paris. Time started to slip away as we read news reports in shock. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t believe it. This is my neighborhood of Paris, my hood. The street I so often run, bike, walk…

When we finally tried to resume rehearsing, we struggled to concentrate. Instead we spent most of our rehearsal time talking about fear, peace, life and death.

Last night I was biking home from my German class, in a bike lane, and a car nearly hit me. I yelled and they stopped just inches from where I passed. It was the closest call I’ve ever had on a bike.

On Christmas Eve, I was in Amsterdam and went with friends to a 10pm service. I didn’t understand much, but the music was beautiful and the evening peaceful. And at least I understood what we were celebrating. On the way back, I thought I saw blood on the street as we were arriving home. Later someone told us that two men had been stabbed on our street while we were at church.

I’m saddened for these lives that were lost and especially burdened for Paris today. Everyone here has been affected. Whether it was interrupted rehearsals, school lock-downs, canceled activities, gatherings of solidarity or deserted streets, we all felt it and saw the effects today in some way.

These recent situations, which have come too close for comfort, remind me of the fragility of life. In an instant everything we hold to in life could be gone. I shared with a friend today how I almost lost my life in 2007. Usually conversations about death take me back to that experience.

It’s easy to get comfortable and to not think so much about important issues of life and death. Sometimes it takes uncomfortable experiences to turn our focus from the temporal to the eternal. Indeed, it was during those days of feeling so close to eternity back in 2007 that I had such a clear focus on what is truly important in life and what is trivial. And the deep assurance that nothing can rob me of what I treasure the most:

“For I am persuaded that not even death or life,
angels or rulers,
things present or things to come, hostile powers,
height or depth, or any other created thing
will have the power to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom. 8:38-39)

Today is uncomfortable, but it draws my heart to what is really important. So again I claim these words. And I cling to Jesus.

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.

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.