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A Reflection on White Privilege

Christ Church United Methodist, December 29, 2019

By Bob Blackmon

For all of us, our lives are in part a function of where we grew up, where we’ve lived, and what our life experiences have been. All that has molded us into who we are today.

For today’s call to worship, I was asked to share some of what has shaped me, and to do so within the context of white privilege.

I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s in the Deep South, in the state of Louisiana. My family wasn’t poverty stricken, but we were rather poor. My dad was a preacher and a carpenter, so you can imagine that our income was modest at best.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed innate white privilege, as do most of us here today, simply because we were among the majority population.

My mom — herself the daughter of a sometimes sharecropper — had occasional domestic help, especially when there was a big church meeting coming up that would involve hosting out-of-town guests. It was like the poor hiring the poorer!

White privilege was also evident in the schools we attended. They were segregated, of course, and the authorities argued that they were “separate but equal.” That was totally false.

White privilege was on display everywhere: public drinking fountains labeled “whites only” and “colored;” restaurants with lighted front doors for whites and back doors leading to dark alleys for African-Americans; separate dining rooms for the races. 

I remember as a kid, a restaurant in my hometown that had a half-height wall to separate the dining room; there we all were in one room, but separated. And that was troubling to me.

One of the Black women who sometimes helped my mom would bring her son to our house; we played together, but come lunchtime, we weren’t allowed to eat together. This bothered me; I knew my folks were not racists, but they were people of white privilege even if they were poor. My friend and I finally convinced my mom, and interestingly, his mom, that we should eat together.

A few years later, another African-American woman who had worked for my mother moved to California. A couple years after Marion  moved away, we had just sat down to dinner when there was a knock at the door. We knew it wasn’t a relative; they would’ve just walked right in. My dad answered the door, and it was Marion, who had stopped by to say hello. My dad invited her to have dinner with us — and she did.

That may seem like a trivial story, but it is extremely significant. In 1950, a black person sitting down to dinner with a white family in the deep South would’ve been extremely rare.

That made a huge impression on me, and made me appreciate that my parents, while not flaming liberals, were not racists.

A few years later I went off to college, and then to graduate school. After completing my Ph.D. I took a job with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, in Leland, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. 

In 1967, the Delta was the ‘national capital’ of white privilege and sadly, it still is today. Schools were still segregated despite 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. Black people lived in abject poverty, many in shacks on white-owned plantations.

I felt a sort of calling, along with a small biracial group of liberal-minded people, to help implement court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. We were successful in doing that in the early 1970s, but today Leland’s schools are again segregated, thanks to the prevailing white privilege, the kind brandished proudly, also known as pure, unadulterated racism.

All of that had a profound effect on my son Doug, who years later ‘specialized’ in racial subjects as a journalist and eventually wrote a race book, Slavery by Another Name, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

In 1975, I was a Visiting Scholar at the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar, Pakistan. That was a life-changing experience, giving me a close-up view of another ethnic group’s culture and faith. I learned that Muslims are, like Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, basically wonderful people. Yet much of the racism so apparent in the US today from the president on down, is directed against Muslims.

I left the Forest Service in 1979, moving on to higher education. As a university dean, I worked with students and faculty from all over the world. This further broadened my perspective, underscoring the fact that people of many races and faiths were essentially alike.

Traditional white privilege is alive and all too well today in the South, but elsewhere as well, including right here in Troy. The 2016 police killing of Edson Thevenin, an unarmed black man, is a perfect example of white privilege: the policeman who killed him clearly saw Thevenin’s skin color rather than his humanity. The dead man lacked the protection of white skin, and so he was shot seven times. I’m not alone in saying Edson Thevenin would still be alive had he been white.

Caging children separated from their parents; building a border wall; attempting to undo the ‘dreamers’ act — these are all obvious examples of racist thinking on the part of people who suffer from the illusion that being white makes them intrinsically better.

That’s my story, shaped by 80 years of living. If you follow Facebook or see my occasional letters to the editor of the Times Union, you know I’m still trying to be active in speaking out: for the underprivileged, the unfairly incarcerated, the poor — those who don’t enjoy white privilege. It’s who I am.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include pastors and priests from Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic churches as having helped to shape my thinking, my life.

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