by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)                   June 10, 2020

“Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Psalm 119:18

Over the past few weeks, voices advocating for racial justice have grown and expanded to include individuals from all walks of life and from every racial and ethnic group. We have stood shoulder to shoulder, white and black and brown skinned individuals, bearing witness to the inequality and the pain in our society, and calling for change. And we who are white have sought out ways to be good and effective allies to our black and brown brothers and sisters. Sometimes the way to do this is clear, and sometimes we may wonder what we can do.

For me, this has come down to taking the next step in front of me. One step on my journey is to wrestle with the very challenging reality of my own white privilege. I say challenging because white privilege is so pervasive in our society it can be difficult for those of us who are white to really see all the ways it plays out. With this in mind, I wanted to share an experience I had a few years ago that opened my eyes to see more clearly my own white privilege.

One course required of seminarians at Andover Newton Theological School was a Border Crossing. This actually included a series of classes offered each year. The thing these classes had in common was that each one focused on both a written curriculum as well as an experiential component. I say experiential, but that is an understatement because each course placed students in physical contexts that were unfamiliar – contexts that took students out of their comfort zone to experience being the “other” in some way.

The course I took focused on the religious denominations and life experiences of the people of Appalachia. In addition to books and papers, the experiential segment of the class took place at a Christian retreat center in Burnsville, NC. With the retreat center as our home base, our group of about a dozen seminarians attended worship services at a Southern Baptist church, a Church of God, and a Roman Catholic church where the mass was held in Spanish. In Asheville, we had conversations with a Rabbi who showed us the intricacies of a Torah scroll at his synagogue. We shared a lunchtime meal with members of Asheville’s homeless population at a complex run by members of the Methodist church. It was a very busy week.

I was one of two seminarians from Andover Newton. The other ten students in the group were from various seminaries in Maryland, Washington D.C., and North Carolina. Most of the group were white as was the teacher and the two local faith leaders who were our guides as we navigated the various churches that week. Our group included one student from Puerto Rico and two African American students who were enrolled at Wake Forest School of Divinity.

As a group of students enrolled in this course, we went everywhere as a group. We sat in church pews as a group. We met with the Rabbi as a group. And while we were separated into three smaller groups during our lunch at the Methodist center, we gathered back together afterward for worship in the sanctuary. Traveling between locations, we were in two vans, driving in tandem, most often in sight of each other. You get the point – we were always a group of students.

Because we were always a group, I didn’t give much thought to the differences between us. I just blindly accepted that we were all having very similar experiences. That is until one Sunday morning as we were leaving a Southern Baptist church. In the course of the ensuing conversation in the van, one of the African American seminarians stated something rather matter-of-factly that hit me between the eyes. He said that he was just trying to keep a low profile that week so he wouldn’t find himself having any trouble. He didn’t mean those of us in the van. He meant the people we were meeting, the places we were going. Even as part of this rather large group of people – fifteen in total – he was still acutely aware that he was being seen and encountered differently than those of us who were white.

That had never occurred to me. After all, we were a group. My assumption was that we were being seen as a group – black and white and Puerto Rican, we were all being seen as the same, as a group of seminarians. But he knew differently. He knew he was being seen by others as black, as a young black man. And this meant he needed to be aware of how he could be perceived. I then realized that most of the churches we were visiting were composed of white congregations. This opened my eyes acutely to my own white privilege.

Beyond being kind and appreciative to our hosts in these churches, I didn’t have to worry about my actions. I didn’t have to worry about my speech. I didn’t have to think about my mannerisms. I was free to move about without giving those things any thought. He didn’t have that assurance. He didn’t have that privilege. We were having a very different experience. And I had to face my own blindness to his reality.

I learned many things on that trip to North Carolina, but this was one of the most important. Perhaps because his statement took me so by surprise, it made a deep impression. Because it took me by surprise, it showed me just how blind I was to my white privilege. This is not to say that now I see my privilege clearly, or that I understand all the ways I am privileged because I am white. But it did awaken me to realize that I have blind spots about my privilege, and it has caused me to think more about the ways my experience is not like others, the ways my experience is easier, the ways my experience is privileged.

This experience showed me that even with all my education, even with my doctorate in political science and my years of teaching about civil rights and civil liberties, even with all the ways I’ve educated myself about issues of race in America, I’m still learning. My education on this is not done; it will never be done. And that feels daunting sometimes. But it’s important to continue learning and doing what I can to make a change. My faith assures me that the God who made each one of us in God’s own image will guide my steps and open my eyes.