The bearable whiteness of being

The first time I became truly self-aware of being a member of the white race (not just a white guy) was when I visited Africa in 1995. My mission team had been dropped off in a town to do evangelism, but two of the team were being driven to another area for reasons I don’t remember.

So I stood on the side of the road in this small Kenyan town with only black skin in every direction. Except mine. The object of some curiosity, I wondered if it was how a black man in 1950s South Georgia might have felt. Minus the racial slurs and potential lynching, of course. I was not merely white, I was the sole white. And did I ever stick out.

Often as an adult I’ve reflected on a time in junior high school when a black friend named Willie had been accused of some infraction and was bound to the office to visit Mr. Rogers. In protest Willie turned to me and said, “Marty, tell’em I didn’t start it!”

I’ve wondered whether Willie was hoping my social standing as a white guy would lend support to his own testimony which was quite evidently not being believed. (For the record, I did not see who started it and said as much.)

Over the last couple of years, reflecting on how biblical justice looks in our world on a practical level, I’ve had occasions to write about racial issues. The subject has no lack of fodder, much of it heartbreaking. I’ve written about unjust prosecution, incarceration for profit, out of control police action, slavery, Jim Crow, the “War” on drugs, and the convict-lease system. Never has such an effort gone without appreciation from black friends, and sometimes just acquaintances. When I’ve written about violence against women I have been thanked for speaking out. When getting advice on this article I was encouraged to move forward. A friend said, “It’s only when white men step into the fray that anything will really change.”

The contours of biblical justice reveal a responsibility for those in power to stand for the oppressed. As there is an inherent power that comes from being a white male in America my voice matters, as does yours if you are a white American male. This is especially true when we lift it on behalf of those who have no voice, or whose voice is suppressed. Our opinion matters, especially when it challenges the accepted narrative. My weight, such as it is, matters, especially when thrown behind those being pushed around. I must speak when society affords those like me the opportunity to be heard without me having to ask.

It is less about privilege and more about opportunity. And responsibility.

I am concerned less with whether my congressman, senator, the press or the president ever hear my voice, but I am very concerned that those who are oppressed know that someone else is speaking on their behalf. As a friend recently said, “In a situation of oppression, to not side with the oppressed is to side with the oppressors. Moreover, in my view, God is clearly on the side of the oppressed. His love requires it and Jesus reveals it. So, to fail to side with the oppressed is to fail to side with Jesus.”

The events of the last few days in Ferguson, Missouri, have unfolded in slow, agonizing motion. Young black man shot and killed, mourning, demonstration, rioting, overbearing police action, more demonstrations, better police action, great community response.

Why did so few white followers of Jesus raise their collective roofs when a young black man–in the middle of a neighborhood street, unarmed, surrendering, already shot once or twice–was shot to death in broad daylight by one sworn to protect and to serve?

Why did so many white followers of Jesus finally start raising their voices and sharing multiple stories on social media when rioting and looting erupted from a demonstration against the police force responsible for the shooting?

Clearly, for many, the site of potato chips burning at a QT convenience store evokes more emotion than another dead black teenager. While looting and rioting are frustrating, the fact remains that QT can repair, restock, and rebuild if so desired. Michael Brown is gone forever.

Many white folks roll their eyes when the likes of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton show up, grab a mic and start making accusations. Fair enough. White folks do not like all white people with a mic, either; some are completely embarrassing, to be honest. But, is a lack of appreciation for Jackson or Sharpton enough reason for me to not respond immediately to the death of another unarmed black man at the hands of law enforcement? I cannot conceive of a way that should be so.

Let’s assume for one moment that there exists some not-yet-released evidence that paints Brown in the worst light. What if, as is just now being reported, Brown was suspected of a theft just before the shooting?

Then he should have been arrested, cuffed, taken to the hospital for treatment, then put in jail pending his arraignment. He, unarmed, should not have been shot to death in the middle of a neighborhood street.

Most white American men have no frame of reference for why Greg Howard can write America is not for black people, or why Jordan Lebeau can write Because most Americans are cowards. The typical white American male response would be, “Love it or leave it” without even a second thought as to why it is possible for an entire segment of the population to feel the way these two black men feel.

By virtue of our status in society, white men have a responsibility to stand in the gap, to jump into the fray on the side of the voiceless, the dispossessed, the unjustly treated, the unfairly charged, the abused and the exploited. Not only because we are white, nor merely because we are men. I am not advocating racial or gender superiority. Instead, because we are the majority and by virtue of that there are injustices that will remain entrenched if we do not speak out. Proverbs 31:8, 9 says, “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.” We cannot simply pull these verses out every January for Sanctity of Life Sunday. Truly, if we believe in the sanctity of life we should be speaking up for communities like Ferguson, Missouri, and future black men who are even today doing nothing wrong other than being black men in the United States.

HT (or apologies) to Milan Kundera for the title of this post.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Greg Hook

    Why did so few white followers of Jesus raise their collective roofs
    when a young black man–in the middle of a neighborhood street, unarmed,
    surrendering, already shot once or twice–was shot to death in broad
    daylight by one sworn to protect and to serve?

    WOW I didn’t realize you were there …

    • martyduren

      Greg-
      That’s a fair objection based on what I wrote. In my mind of was thinking of the number of stories I saw in social media re: the shooting vs the looting. In my case, there were multiple times the latter than the former.

  • macmanbob

    No one knows the whole story, yet.

  • James

    Why is it no one believes a witness that was with the young man that was shot? We do know he was unarmed, and we do know he was shot dead.

  • Chris Burton

    Within a couple of days of the Trayvon Martin incident, folks all over Facebook had changed their profile photo to someone wearing a hoodie. George Zimmerman was judged to be evil, *without the full body of facts being laid bare to anyone*. I was disturbed that a person could be so easily tried and declared guilty in the court of public opinion, without the facts being known. I found it frightening. If you think about it, what happened to Zimmerman is the same thing Zimmerman did to Martin–judged on a minimum of information and declared guilty (Of course, Martin is dead and Zimmerman is still alive, so the parallels between the two end pretty quickly).

    I can’t help but think of Proverbs 18:13, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” We should judge righteously, which includes trying to get most of the facts before making a decision.

    I’ve talked politics on social media long enough to have stuck my size 11 shoe in my mouth more than a few times, usually reacting to something rather than thoughtfully responding. Lately, I’ve generally tried to do more of what you do–read a lot and then assemble a blog posting that is thoughtful.

    So, I’ve not spoken up because I don’t feel I know enough (yet).

    However, I agree with everything you said. To whom much is given, much is expected. Anyone with any kind of power or influence ought to use it for the good. Christians especially should be quick to stand in the gap for the oppressed and to speak up for them, and do what we can to help tangibly.

    I’ve been surprised at how the election of the first black President has played out. I had thought it might heal what I thought were only minor remaining wounds over race issues and we could “move forward”. Instead, a lot of folks in the African-American community have been more willing to be open about their experiences and their pain. It’s been eye-opening to me as a white guy. I’ve heard stories from black friends even recently of overt white-toward-black racism. It doesn’t make be self-conscious or self-loathing because I’m white, but it does make me angry that this kind of thing is still happening 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. So I agree that white people need to speak out against this and actively work to heal these wounds.

  • Excellent article, Marty. I pray that white evangelicals will begin to listen and hear and come alongside our African-American brothers.

  • Difference Smifference-Michael

    Seems to me you are focusing more on the race of the victim than that he is a victim!!
    Why are putting expectations on people due to their race?
    Let all the parties defend their interests, and the truth will eventually come out. Hopefully, justice will be served, and good changes will come about.
    Now, looters, you should be prosecuted. No excuse for your behaviour!