My friend, Carlos Gonzales, up in Minneapolis challenged his friends to tell stories about their experience with race in America. Too often we are shouting slogans and sound bites at each other, and not stopping to hear each other’s stories. Mine never seemed to be an American story, having grown up in India and gone to an international school, Woodstock in the foothills of the Himalayas. I am American and lived here now for 45 years and still feel a little Desi (a person of South Asian birth or descent who lives abroad, while I was not born in India I went when I was one, however, my father, grandmother and great grandmother were all born in India). The comedian Hasan Minhaj (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_FE78X-qdY) in a recent youtube presentation kind of called out all the American Desi community (which includes the expat Desi folks like me) to stop thinking they are not part of the story of race in America. So here goes my attempt to tell my story of discovery of white privilege.
What I love about India is it’s diversity. But not all diversity is dealt with in a healthy way. There are divisions over language, region, religion, class, gender, age, and uniquely for India, caste. As a kid I was pretty clueless about such things. Which, by the way, is one of the first signs of privilege, because if you are from any group, such as caste, it defines your every movement. Oh, I was aware that it was a bummer being a girl in India. I hated the groping in crowds and the cat calls, the misogyny I experienced was benign compared to what many women experience. I had a strong mother, who taught me to be strong. I had little to fear. (Again, privilege removes your fear of your place in society....and often replaces it with plenty of other fears that plague the privileged soul about that dangerous world out there, the unknown.)
Let me digress a bit by telling my Dad’s story. He was born and raised in India and started his college years at Allahabad University in India. There his Indian friends told him that he could not join them in the “Quit India” protests. On campus he was their friend, but on the street he was white and represented the British and they would have to beat him. Only then did he think of himself as white. He realised, he was not Indian (by race), he was not British, and the only group that felt outside like him were the Anglo-Indians, but they also were not like him.
Being white, is such a social construct. In India in the 1940s it meant being English or British, even if you were not. My family is German American, but we have lost what it means to be German here in America, though it is more of a diverse country than India (and designed that way). We check off "white" on surveys. But for most of its history great efforts have been made to wipe out our ethnic identities in America (one of the reasons I struggled with the American education system and decided not to be a teacher, something I regret that I didn't stick with to be an influencer of a broken system).
African-Americans (Blacks) were predominantly brought here to this country against their will, unlike my ancestors who came for "opportunity". "Black" became a social construct as their identity as West or East Africans was deliberately and completely wiped out of them, they no longer spoke their languages from the regions of Africa where they came, from their tribes; given names of the people who owned them and in many cases "fathered" them.
For us German Americans, perhaps the largest immigrant group from Europe spread across America there was a more privileged story, for we came to own just a little piece of property or to run factories in cities like Milwaukee. We came because we were too conservative or too liberal for the Federation of German States, and are diverse in our thinking, but held together for a long time by language and place of origin. Germans came since the beginning of America, the radical thinkers came after 1848 and there were other waves as America wiped out the indigenous peoples and settled through out the midwest and mountain states. Until World War II (not one) did many still go to church services that were held in German and read German-language newspapers. But both World Wars, fought because of German expansionism, were the death toll to our German identity for those Americans of German descent. We are just white-Americans now, and despite a period of extreme prejudice against our Germanness have merged into the privilege of being white.
Not that I understood much about my German roots, or American roots, or even Indian roots (five generations have lived most of their lives there). When I returned to America to attend college at 18 years old I had one very eye opening experience my first semester at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I began school the mid-year. And January through April were mostly spent trying to survive the winter going from one class to the next. By May everyone was outside! I suddenly realised I was at a major university of 75,000 students, and couldn’t figure out why that made me miserable. One day I was walking on Park Street next to the Humanities building and ahead of me I saw a group of Black Sorority sisters. My heart leapt for joy; I was so glad to see them. Of course as they passed my silly white grin with disdain, I realised they weren’t “my people”. But I felt like they were. I suddenly realised what was making me miserable. I wasn’t used to white crowds. They scare the b-jeepers out of me. I was use to crowds in India on trains at the bazaar at a Mela; there are always people around everywhere you go in India, I was used to being in a sea of color, not a sea of white.
I spent the rest of my college years learning about racism, classism and diversity in America and India, and I hung around mostly foreign students to feel “at home.” My favorite song that I use to sing to my friends back then was: "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through." My life has been spent trying to figure out how to be a responsible citizen in this world, "in the world", without becoming a "of it." And I am constantly reminded that the world, the society I live in is in much need of transformation, of redemption. But the harder lesson is to discover how much I am co-opted into the world around me and that I too, or I especially, am in need of transformation. I believe it is my "white privilege" that makes it hard for me to see that I need to take steps to move into the world and life of the other. I have choice of which world I will live in.
To this day I still am not comfortable in all white churches or even mostly white, because of what I am familiar with. I do go there to support my family, or other reasons.You definitely won’t find me in a protest of white people, even if I believe in the cause, and only have been to a Reggae concert cuz that was diverse enough for me.
I hate the fact that Sunday is the most segregated time in America, as MLKjr pointed out. My last few years in Miami I went to a black church, since I was living in a black neighborhood. The pastor really wanted me to become a member. I wondered how many whites were members of the African Methodist Evangelical denomination: yes, I know there are whites in Africa too. I realised that I was not accepted by everyone at church. I understood why. Many people lived all week in a white dominated world and this was one place that was their own, where they could be free to be themselves. Only a few resented my presence. But I told my pastor that I was only going to be in the church for a season and that it would require me a true life-long commitment to stay and be part of the reconciliation that the spirit of God wanted for Christians. Some black move to white churches to help break the divide, very few whites have dared to commit to this. I was willing, but had another calling to another marginalized people that are in need to be reconciled to God, each other, to their nation and to outsiders. But it made me aware that for those of us who can choose where we want to live (there is rarely red-lining for us) that we rarely choose to live incarnationally (among the other).
I was actually dismayed that I could only virtually attend the Black Lives Matter rally this Sunday that began at that exact spot where I had my whiteness revelation. I was saddened to hear that other white and hispanic churches did not join the African American Christian leaders of Madison, and held separate prayer walks, rather than join in. How can God's Spirit work to unite us if we don't gather together?
Anyone who knows me, knows I try to break out of and disassociate myself from privilege, I tend to gravitate towards the marginalised. My kids even accuse me of loving the spirit of poverty a little too much. And I laugh because as much as I pride myself as having lived for so long at the poverty level, I have been so privileged, I am so wealthy, I have access to networks and safety nets and resources and relationships that can only be seen as privilege.* And most of those networks, safety nets, resources and relationships are white….just like me. I tried to be a connector to connect those without such privilege to the ones so readily available to me. Until I realised that was also coming from my position of privilege: I am here to help you. More and more I know that I need the other to help me, to free me, to make it possible for the Great Reconciler to do the impossible work of truly reconciling us who are divided by race, class, gender and politics..
When I began really studying, about a decade ago, my family’s history with India have I began to understand my own white privilege. Like me, my ancestors tried to be connectors for the Adivasi (tribals) to resources like education and economic development. As I came to understand their limited perspective and prejudices, I began to become far more interested in the resilience of the Adivasi themselves. What were their resources, their networks, their safety nets that has helped them survive a long lasting attempt to wipe them out and take over their land? I began to understand what networks, safety nets and relationships I had that put me in a more privileged position from others and how I had to stop and listen and learn from others.
It is what I have learned in my various community organizing efforts to find the local leadership and to build community from the grassroots up. An approach that too often dominated by privileged whites, I see it a lot in Madison. I have seen it work the best when it is run by the people themselves, with different kinds of leadership (not as hierarchical) and organization (such as BLM). It is sometimes hard to do things a new way. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way and having the same results.
I have to set down my whiteness that I take for granted and listen and learn to those who are crying out. As a Christian I also see that is how God works. He doesn’t even take his privilege as God for granted and humbled himself and came to live among us. He hears the cry of the downtrodden, the blood of Abel cries out to God who heard the cry of Ishmael, the cry of Rachel weeping over her slaughtered children, Jesus wept for a city like Jerusalem knowing well that it will go through so much strife and never live up to its name as the city of peace.
I am no longer an 18 year old naive white girl. I know a lot more now, and know that being given more, more is required of me. I am grateful to my current pastor, Alex Gee of FOL, who preached about Peter and Cornelius today. Reminding me again that it is not a story about the conversion of an outsider, but about the further conversion of a born-again, spirit-filled, Bible believing Christian, the founder of the Church: Peter. He needed to realise that he needed to set aside the law with its commands and regulations (systems and mentalities) that had divided Jews from Gentiles, men from women etc, etc. A law that God himself had imposed to set a people apart, but it had created a wall of hostility and Jesus broke that wall down. But just like Peter, it takes some major transformation for us to live it out. Yes All lives matter, yes we are (or can be) reconciled to each other by God....but it is a life long effort to live it out as if it were so! We are in constant need of transformation, and we must not hide behind our privilege to not move out of our comfort zone and be a part of the change that is comin' down the road. Will we show up to be part of what God is trying to do in this country: to heal, redeem, strengthen, and reconcile people to himself and to each other.
In all that is happening these days: pandemic, economic crisis, racial disparity, starving migrants, locked up migrant children, pollution of our air and seas, domestic violence, human trafficking, and on and on. I realise that I am privileged because my heart isn’t broken enough! I don’t feel the pain. In fact I avoid feeling pain…..….Maybe that’s why I am down on my back for over a month, first with a cold, then a back injury, then vertigo, now a dis-functional thyroid. Pay attention and feel the pain, listen and learn. Lay down your privilege like Jesus did.
*Note I am mostly talking about generic privilege. Because I know too many Hispanic and even black, and people, such as Indians in India, that are unable to recognize that their privilege may be giving them a different perspective on this whole race and privilege discussion. It is important to step back and check out your own privilege, it may be in an a arena....for example if you were privileged to get an education or to be literate. My greatest privilege is that I am a Christian. As a child of God that is a huge privilege and a huge responsibility to properly represent my Lord and Savior (not to be a good little Christian white girl)
These musings include the journey of my writing on the history of my great great grandparents and the travels for research to India, Germany and other places of interest.