The Problem with Being White
To say that Brian Foulks is a Master’s candidate is like saying that Chuck Berry kind of plays the guitar. Brian is a multiple degree holder and is currently working on his third Master’s at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC. He’s also agreed to join in with us here to talk about prejudice, privilege, and racism with open eyes.
Brian’s first blog at Love Sees Color, Just a Few of Us: Being Black in the ELCA and SC Synod, can be found here. I really insist you read it because it’s very good. Not only that, but the reason it’s good is that it captures the essence of why this conversation is important — being a nearly all-white denomination means that we’re only forced to confront the fact that this is a problem when something unimaginably, singularly horrific happens. For us in the South Carolina Synod of the ELCA, that was the massacre at Mother Emmanuel perpetrated by Dylann Roof who grew up at a local ELCA congregation.
What Dylann did happened for a variety of reasons that aren’t our fault — “our” being the ELCA and Dylann’s congregation. That congregation isn’t a place that teaches heresy. It’s not a place that lifts up values that are inconsistent with the Gospel, and it’s not a hotbed of hatred that teaches the heresy of racism. His congregation is a good group of hard working faithful people. That congregation is, as are the majority of our congregations in the South Carolina Synod, mostly white; nearly exclusively so.
To tell the truth, I don’t think that most of us notice the fact that we’re nearly exclusively white most days. It’s the way we’ve always been, and “we’ve always done it that way” could be written into the Apostle’s Creed any day now. The thing is that while it may not be our fault that Dylann did what he did, it really is our problem; and it’s a much bigger problem than I think we realize.
The problem with being white in a world and in a denomination where being white is considered to be normal. When you’re normal, you don’t have to notice. It’s only if you’re not “normal” that you can’t help but notice; because if you don’t, many kind people will help to point that fact out.
I’m certain that it’s so nice to be reminded.
I notice, now what?
This is my perpetual struggle — and it’s one of the reasons I write this blog. I understand privilege because I live it. I understand and can sympathize with the fact that prejudice affects nearly every aspect of a black person’s life in the same way that privilege affects nearly every aspect of my own. What I don’t know is what to do now? I recognize and confess — but what do I do?
The problem is that I don’t know who I am outside of that. My life is so deeply and irrevocably entwined with my privilege that I honestly can’t tell you who I am without it. It’s part of my courage; it’s part of my theology; it’s at the core of my identity. At the very root of my theology is the conviction that I’m called through baptism to be a person who fights for the liberation and redemption of all people on behalf of the Gospel — and right along with it is the cohabitant knowledge that my fight can be a safe one because if it gets too uncomfortable I can always walk away.
I can walk away.
Even freedom fighting is affected by manifestations of my privilege.
How messed up is that?
And if that’s the case, who am I?
Is there me outside of this?
I want very much to be able to declare that I’m one of the “good guys” and that I’m immune to the junk that a lot of people face that causes them to declare insiders and outsiders, or say “this is Lutheran and that is not”; but…but I am not immune.
This is a cross-section of what I think we in the South Carolina Synod are facing right now as we struggle with racial justice and reconciliation. We know who we are, and it looks very different from who we think we’re called to be, at least on the surface. But there’s also another story in the South Carolina Synod.
That story is that many of our pastors and synod staff have been actively engaged in ministries of racial reconciliation and have spent decades working in communities and building relationships to close this racial divide. That story is that our work with racial reconciliation didn’t begin with Charleston, and neither did my own even though this particular project did. Our story is that we fight what every denomination, every long-established congregation faces — the battle against the established order.
I have to say that people like Brian are a lot braver than I am. I’m in the position of welcoming people who come in; Brian is walking into parts unknown, knowing that his welcome in many places will be iffy.
Brian’s been asked, “Why would a black man decide to become a part of the ELCA –the whitest denomination in America?”. His answer is “God’s up to something a lot bigger than me”.
This much I believe to be true, and it’s precisely what gives me hope — what God’s up to is bigger than me; my denomination; my religion. I can’t do it perfectly…maybe not even well, but I can follow where God is leading. I have to trust that this will be enough, or at least a good start.