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!”
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.