My formative years were the 1960s and early 70s. I’ve known about white privilege for most of my life—that as a white male I do not face the every-day challenges that black men do. But I grew up in a white world and only saw my privilege from a distance.
My town and my high school were 99.99% white, but we read Dick Gregory’s Nigger: An Autobiography and John Howard Griffen’s Black Like Me in high school, because my English teachers genuinely meant well. But the reality of life without white privilege was not really something I was forced to witness in my everyday life. It was out there somewhere—like people going to bed hungry or sleeping on park benches. I knew about it but didn’t see it.
Awareness of white privilege at a distance was also the norm through most of my adult years. Whatever black presence there was at my college, seminary, graduate school, and first teaching position—covering 30 years from my late teens to late 40s—was minimal, and largely assimilated into the dominant white culture.
I’d love to be able to say that I saw through it all and rose above it, but I didn’t. I was aware. I knew the racial divide was real—but from a distance. I have believed my whole life that all people are created equal, and that discrimination on the basis of skin color was simply wrong—but from a distance.
I don’t think my experience is that different from many white Americans—going on with our lives, looking up now and then to see the racial disparity, feeling bad about it, and then moving along. Looking back, it is clear to me that things would have stayed just as they were for me, were it not for something that happened to me—something thrust upon me, out of my control—something to begin bridging the distance.
In the not too distant past, I found myself spending a few days as one of several speakers at a conference in a rural southern setting. Many of the speakers had not met before, but we got on great and decided to have a pizza night together. Two of us were charged to go on a beer and wine run: me and another speaker, a black male.
We got to the liquor store and headed for the door. Standing outside was someone we had met earlier, so I stopped for a moment to talk with her.
As my friend entered alone, I glanced over and saw the two white employees visibly stiffen, glance at each other, and lock on him as if tracking game. That alone was a new and very unsettling experience.
I remember thinking to myself, “Wait a minute. He’s black. We’re in the south. This is a liquor store . . . at night. I’ve seen enough movies and news footage . . . . ”
So I further said to myself [edited], “Oh shoot, what do I do?” I wasn’t sure. I just knew I should get in there.
As I opened the door, both employees turned to me with obvious, instant, and absolute relief that I wasn’t black—they might as well have held up a sign “Thank God. A white guy.”
I felt in my bones, “Man, I’m in the middle of something here. What do I do?” My friend, however, was just going about his business, paying no mind to the fiery stares—like . . . this was normal for him.
So, I made eye contact with both of the other white guys, smiled, and said a cheery “hi.” And then I walked right over to my friend, put my arm around him, and left it there as we walked up and down the aisles.
I’ve reflected on that moment a lot since. It dawned on me this was the first time I really saw and felt my white privilege. I have never in my life walked into any kind of store and had employees stop what they are doing, stare, and begin plotting what to do about me because of the color of my skin.
That is not my friend’s experience. And I finally saw it.
Race is something he has to think of every day. White privilege means that my race only comes up now and then. I can go days, weeks, years, without thinking about what obstacle in my life will pop up because of my white skin. For my friend, his race is a factor he needs to consider with virtuality every move he makes.
I certainly understand that not every white person is born with a silver spoon in their mouth. White people are not immune from scrapping and clawing their way to get a job, put food on the table, get decent medical care, and so forth.
I could tell stories, in fact, of my German immigrant parents, who were very much taken advantage of and had obstacles thrown in their path because they had very thick accents. They both worked their you-know-whats off, but life was always a struggle. I have memories of my mother walking through grocery stores with a few coins in her hand looking for something to put on the table or on my father’s sandwich the next day.
Many white people have very hard lives, to be sure—but not because they are white. That’s the point. In America, white people have an advantage from birth. Amid other sorts of struggles, race is not one of them.
Some of you reading this may think that I am stating the obvious. I agree—I am breaking no ground, offering no new brilliant insight.
But white privilege is not obvious to all. Some vehemently deny it altogether. Others, like me, see it but only from a safe distance.
White privilege can be kept civil, fly under the radar. But it is the soil that allows white supremacy, systemic racism, biased courts, and obscene violence to take root.
I wrote this because I want to do something from my quiet little corner of the world to help. I am hoping that some who read this will pause for a moment to see the truth of white privilege and, in Jesus name, move beyond awareness of it to owning it—and be open to opportunities to do something about it.