Am I a privileged white man? Can I be reconciled to that phrase? My first reaction, over many years, has been, “Yes, I am white, but not privileged. Privileged people are those who grew up with parents who were much better off than mine.” My Dad bought one new car in his whole life, and it was the cheapest model Chevy they made in 1947. The pretty “maroon” paint faded to a dull grey in spots within 4 years and he had to have it repainted.
But I am being provoked these days to consider my own status, my own position as a white guy who grew up without the appearance of an African American boy, and the liability of low expectations from potential employers, college entrance administrators, scholarship committees, the police, and others.
Since I did not have those social handicaps to hold me back, I was quickly hired to my first summer job by the Milwaukee Railroad, in which I earned wages equivalent to my 40-year old high school math teacher. I was readily awarded entrance and scholarships to the University of Minnesota and later to Hope College. In between I was hired by Pillsbury Mills research lab in Minneapolis, and by the now defunct Montgomery Ward order filling center in St. Paul. No one ever looked at me and doubted my potential, or my honesty, as an 18 and 19 year-old white kid. Doors always opened for me, without hesitation. That is part of the social privilege I enjoyed, unaware at the time that people identical to me, except for their color, would not have had those doors opened so easily.
I did work hard, I did have good grades in school, I was polite and cooperative. Yes, I could claim that I earned the respect and the opportunities I received. But when I examine my own heart, my upbringing, my automatic responses, exposed over the years when I finally began to meet African Americans and Hispanic Americans on a personal level, something is exposed. Something in me slowly develops like an old Polaroid picture. I can see that with each of these encounters with persons in my first 40 years, I silently said to myself, I wonder if this is a person I can trust, a person who is responsible, a person who is like me? I must admit, it’s hard to do this in retrospect, but I can still picture some of those encounters. I had grown up in 100% white rural Minnesota. I had to learn by experience that these people were people like me, and some became dear friends I could never forget. But I had to learn that.
Why? Because I had to reconcile the conflicting messages inside of me, and that was a slow and sometimes agonizing process. And how do we reconcile with those members of our society who feel that they have been not privileged, and in fact, questioned, accused, judged, and sometimes assaulted by authorities like policemen who had no fear that they would be reprimanded. It’s painful to work for reconciliation. Jesus’ condemnation as a criminal and his ugly execution is the bold example God has given us of how hard it is to conduct reconciliation, to bring people together, and to prove they are loved, all of them. If Jesus’ cross does not humble all of us into reconciliation, then we are too proud, too stubborn, to let him save us. God wants to save us from all the prejudices and privileges that keep us from one another. Anger and resentment only melt away when we feel one another’s pain. May God help us all to be reconcilers who are not afraid to pay a price and to feel the pain in whatever form it comes.
I am a privileged white man who has been confronted by God in the cross of Jesus, and in the pain of my brothers and sisters of color. So help me God to be willing to bear some pain and be reconciled. So may it be for our nation at this time, as well.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. II Corinthians 5:19
© 2020 Stanley Hagemeyer