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The following is a journal entry from 2011, when Claire and I lived in Zambia (Southern Africa). Those experiences allowed me to see American racial dynamics in a new way that I have not been able to ignore since repatriating. Perhaps they will be helpful to you as you ponder the grief and anger of black activists, which is not just about conscious racial hatred by individuals but historical and societal structures that create unconscious biases and suspicions.
Yesterday, I sat in the office of a bus station trying to convince the ticket vendor that “Ruth” really is my surname, and not just my wife’s name. After a few minutes and miles of confusion, he consented and started writing the tickets. He was a man about my age, quick with logistics and very helpful. He sat at a desk littered with the ticket and receipt books for eight scheduled buses. While he sat there in his bright yellow and purple uniform, plainly reading, “Shalom Bus Services,” another young man walked in, looked around the office, and settling his eyes on me, asked coyly, “Can I have 2 tickets for tomorrow at 13?” I chuckled equally coyly and said, “This man here is the boss. You’ll have to ask him.”
It was a brutal, uncamoflauged example of what countless scholars call, “White Privilege.” Immediately, I felt the centuries of cultural, sociological, anthropological, business, and religious histories conspiring together to give me, as a white male, “the benefit of the doubt.” In this singular case, the benefit of the doubt was strong enough to overcome countless obstacles including the fact that I was sitting in athletic shorts, a t-shirt, flip flops, and a raincoat covered in fresh sweat from a morning in the bush, while the other people in the room wore coordinated uniforms and name badges. Still, when trying to decide the person most likely to be in charge, the “benefit of the doubt” went to the unkempt white man.
One might argue that something more than race led this gentleman to his conclusion, and indeed there very well may be multiple factors at work, and yet still most if not all of those factors are inextricably related to racial dynamics (present and past).
For years, I dismissed the very idea of “white privilege,” which more or less states that white people and especially white men get an assumed, unnoticed, and yet substantial advantage in society. This unspoken benefit corresponds with the “benefit of the doubt” mentioned above. It is a consistent assumption to the favor of white persons, especially white males. For example, imagine a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, and a professor in your mind. What race are those people? What sexes?
While we all know and welcome the presence of other races in these professions, in our imaginations they remain the exception and not the norm – more of a pleasant surprise. While in some cases the statistics support these assumptions, such actually reiterates the phenomena more than excuses it.
In the above scene, the man simply assumed that in a room of people the white persons are most likely the business owners and/or managers. For better or worse, in Zambia like many other former colonies, this is a historically grounded and socially reinforced reality. When the British granted Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) independence, there were less than 50 indigenous people with university degrees, embodying the idea that whites should govern and manage blacks, who had little to no need for education. Today most of the people of foreign descent still hold a much higher economic position than most of the people of the country, whether they work for businesses or NGOs. Because of that, we are usually treated much differently. Often I get preferential treatment in shops and in market places, because it is assumed I have money to spend.
While I rejected or at least ignored the idea of “white privilege” for at least 10 years, living and working in postcolonial Zambia has forced me to deal with its reality. Both in the cases where I get “the benefit of the doubt” and the opposite cases where suspicion forces me to prove the legitimacy of my employment and my immigrant status, I am more and more aware of the dynamics of privilege and suspicion.
As an immigrant of a visually identifiable minority, I am still continually surprised, offended, and frustrated when I must present proof of my profession and exonerate myself of any criminal activity, whether to a government agency, a place of business, or a private citizen. Going monthly to the immigration office to answer these questions, gives me new respect for the millions of people who must constantly prove the legitimacy of their presence in particular places, such as the African American subjected to extra scrutiny in Madison Avenue shops, the Hispanic immigrant stopped by traffic police just to present legal identification, or the turban-clad Sheik eyed suspiciously by the hundred other people at the security checkpoint of an airport. Even as a long-haired, bearded white man living abroad, I have never been subject to such, and yet I’m surprised and offended that I must prove my reason for business in a country, which has been exploited, robbed, and terrorized by people of my race, my religion, and even my nationality for the better part of three centuries.
While few of us were actively involved in the construction of such racial dynamics, all of us are either the beneficiaries or survivors of them. Now, I don’t know how to fix them, erase them, or even combat them, but perhaps it is time that we identify and empathize with others greeted not with the “benefit of the doubt” but the “look of suspicion.” I pray that my family and I will more and more often extend the “benefit of the doubt.” I pray that we will become more afraid of accusing innocent people than of failing to identify a potential threat – that we would be more concerned about hurting someone else than about being hurt by someone. Perhaps that’s part of what Jesus meant when he invited and commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even if that person is in fact an enemy.