by Jenny S. Maurer
Dear White People: We need to talk. My heart is heavy. I’d like to collectively meet you for coffee (one-on-one preferably, because . . . introvert) and share my heart on this with you. I truly wish I could. I’ve been processing this for a while now, and I hope you take what I’m saying as I intend it—with humility, gentleness, and compassion.
To all my friends who are not white, I want to share deep thanks to you. Thank you for extending grace and patience with me as I grappled to understand this layered and complex topic, and thank you for exhibiting such beautiful dignity in the face of something so painful and unjust. I don't want you to be the only ones talking about this important topic, so I’m joining my voice to the chorus. Here it goes:
If ever there were a term loaded with meaning, with stories, with fears, with intensity, white privilege would be it. If you’re itching to start a social media firestorm, go ahead and just drop that term in your status. It’s not pretty.
For most of my life, I grossly misunderstood the idea of white privilege. It was skewed so that I found myself riled up, feeling like someone was trying to take something away from me that they weren’t. I was a white person serving in large, predominantly white churches and was insulted that someone could think my life was a result of being privileged.
If you are Caucasian, I would wager that many things come to your mind when you consider white privilege, not the least of which is that you feel like your life hasn’t been all that privileged—white or not. I’m certain that you’re a hardworking person, that your life has not been easy, and that you have met many challenges in your life. I will not take that away from you, and I applaud you for doing the best you can with what you have.
But that’s not what white privilege is.
Can I tell you my story, by way of example? Everyone’s story is different, of course. But mine is the only story I’ve got, so it’s where I’ll start.
I was born in Cincinnati—in a very rough part of town that only got rougher as the years wore on. My biological father left when I was an infant, but that’s another story for another day. The assumptions made about me during my childhood because of that would have been different had my skin been a different color.
Because the Cincinnati suburbs were too expensive for our family, we moved across the Indiana state line and settled into a tiny, sleepy town. The town was “safe,” the schools were good, the class sizes were small, and the lady at the video store knew my exact taste in movies and would hold my favorites for me every week.
Unknown to us until later, this town also had an active, terrifying KKK clan. So the privilege of growing up in this particular small, safe town with small class sizes would not have been given to my family if we had been African American.
I didn’t do anything to earn the education I received.
Had my family not been white, we likely would have stayed in Cincinnati, in an area of town where my classes would have been significantly more crowded and underfunded. Per capita, inner city schools are the most underfunded, least resourced schools in our country. I had access to computers in my school, to tutoring when I was struggling with long division (which still gets me), and to media that showed people who looked like me succeeding every day. My parents didn’t pay any more or less taxes than other parents in our region, and I didn’t do anything to earn the education I received.
I won’t attempt to tell parts of this story that are not mine to tell, but please trust me when I say that my family was not well off. We struggled for many reasons, and I worked hard in the cornfields, as a dishwasher, and as a babysitter to afford “luxuries” like lunch and field trips.
In 3rd grade I was tested for and placed into a gifted and talented class. Being in that class was an incredible experience and set me on a trajectory for academic success and eventually college. I was placed in mostly advanced classes in high school and generally did well. Counselors, teachers, and others assumed my plan was for college, and my discussions were not if I would go to college, but where I would attend.
Let’s compare my story with some other stories.
Do you know the likelihood of an African American male being placed in a gifted and talented class? In 2002 (a full ten years after I was placed), it was 3.1%.
I’m offended by that. I’m offended that some child in another context—who was every bit as bright and eager to learn as I was—was not even considered as a candidate for their school’s gifted program (if funding even allowed that program to exist) because of his or her skin color.
She likely worked significantly harder than I did to get to the same status.
I believe we’d agree that color has no bearing on intelligence or aptitude, correct? And if we agree on that, then we should be able to agree that 3.1% clearly under-represents the students who should be in these programs. And if we can agree on that, then we can agree that I was given a privilege in 1990 that was also earned by others but not given because of skin color and stereotypes. A privilege that changed the course of my life and set me on the course toward earning a degree in Counseling/Psychology and Biblical Studies.
Do you know that more than 6 in 10 (62.2%) black women are in the workforce, yet African American women are paid only 61% of what white men are paid? (Which is even less than the 80% average earnings of all women as compared to men.)
That is literally having to work harder to get to the same place as a white person. I’m well aware that a woman of color who shares the same socioeconomic status as me likely worked significantly harder than I did to get the same status and probably did it while navigating both subtle and overt racism.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that I worked hard, experienced setbacks, and faced challenges. But can you see how much more significant and widespread my challenges would have been had I not been white?
Could you please take a minute to consider how your skin color has affected the trajectory of your life?
No matter your skill set, your aptitude, your education, you experienced life differently because of the color of your skin. The difference may have been barely noticeable, or it may have been glaring. Maybe you were unaware, as I was.
You may say your life hasn’t been a cake walk, and I respect your journey. But imagine that same journey also being filled with people hating you on sight or thinking you were not a capable person before letting your work speak for itself—at best.
I’m not even talking right now about the experiences of our great grandparents, our grandparents, or even our parents (that history is for another day)—I’m talking about men and women who have grown up in America in the ’80s, ’90s, and even now. My peers who are not white have not had access to the same privileges that I did.
I get to be angry about this without people telling me I’m playing a victim.
For the sake of argument, let’s put the past behind us for now and think about the present:
I have three children, and not one of them has ever been called a racist name. None of them have ever been threatened or ignored because of their skin color.
I have never been followed in a store.
I have never feared for my life when I’ve been pulled over by an officer, and I even get really nervous and fumble for paperwork in a way that could easily be misconstrued as looking for a gun.
I’m not worried about telling my sons how to behave in a way that is least likely to get them killed when they get pulled over.
I don’t have to worry about my sons wearing hoodies.
People don’t act surprised by how “articulate” I am.
Nobody thinks I am a terrorist.
No one has spoken nonsense words to my children to make fun of their native language.
Nobody has ever refused to sit by me or my children because of the color of our skin.
White privilege means that I get to be angry about this without people telling me I’m playing a victim.
I’m not ashamed that my kids haven’t been called racist names, that I’m not afraid for my life when I’m pulled over, or that I had access to the tools I needed to get into college. That is as it should be. For everyone. Every man, woman, and child deserve these same privileges.
Acknowledging that I have been privileged as a white person in this country in no way takes away my accomplishments, struggles, or hard work—and it doesn’t invalidate other white, hardworking people either. What it does is compel those of us who are white—especially white Christians—to fight for those who have not received these same privileges.
White privilege should be about compassion.
In the end, white privilege should be about compassion. It should be about me as a white person understanding that minorities in this country experience everyday things completely differently than I do. It should be about realizing that my life and my experiences are not the definitive American experience. It should be about recognizing that I have a voice to make sure others have access to the same opportunities and treatment.
That changes nothing about my own difficulties or achievements. What it changes is my heart.
posted on October 9, 2018
Meet the Author
Jenny S. Maurer is a pastor’s wife and mom of three who believes in the power of story to change, teach, and inspire. She writes because she needs to, drinks coffee because she has to, runs because she likes to, and smells books because she’s weird. To read more, visit her blog.
Other Rivulet Collective articles by Jenny S. Maurer: