Making Sense of Memories of Whiteness

606 Contributor Ben Wideman reflects on his own experience of coming to consciousness about race as a white person. He lives in State College, PA, where he has served in campus ministry.


My kids have been asking me really important questions lately:

“Why are people marching and filling the street?”

“Why do people think certain skin colors are better than others?”

“What does that protest sign actually mean?”

“Why do we need to keep saying Black Lives Matter?”

“Why are people dying?”

I feel some temptation as a parent to give them simple answers – “People are frustrated or angry,” but as I offer this answer I hear my own efforts to hide away some of our cultural systemic white supremacy from their view. One of our daughters saw a protest sign that said, “How many when there were no cameras?”, and wondered what that meant. My spouse patiently and painfully explained that we’ve only been acutely aware of how common police violence  has been toward people of color because of cell phone cameras capturing footage of what is taking place. In the explanation we feel the pain of that reminder that our dominant culture often doesn’t believe victims until video suggests otherwise.   I wonder what kinds of thoughts must be going through her six-year-old mind… is she grateful that she has never experienced that, or fearful that one day she might?

I think back to my own growing-up years…

My elementary-age classes had just one student of color. In  elementary school  I remember some kids telling me about this special word  and how if I said it to him it would be really funny. I did, and it got a big laugh. But I also remember the pain on his face when I said it. Fortunately (because I’m sure, in my small rural school racist language often went un-challenged) the teacher happened to overhear what I had said and contacted my parents. I remember the confusion on my mom’s face. We had friends who were people of color. Was I not aware of how much pain that word had caused? Apparently I was not.

Our family spent a year in northern Ghana when I was ten years old. It was a massive paradigm shift to experience being the singular minority family in a rural village rather than part of the dominant population. The experience was significant in many ways, yet it was only years later when I began to wonder how my experience may have been shaped by my skin matching the skin of the Ghanaian colonizers of bygone years.

I coasted through high school back among the dominant ethnic group, not thinking much about the lack of diversity in my community, and arrived at Eastern Mennonite University still significantly sheltered from the realities of the ongoing need for racial justice. During my first semester, I took a trip to the local mall with another first year student who happened to be Black. We both needed some random items, and he needed a haircut.

I remember being completely floored by two things on that trip. First, we moved from hair salon to hair salon, each time being politely told that they “didn’t cut ethnic hair.”

Ethnic hair? Wasn’t all hair growing from some kind of ethnicity?

Second, after buying a pack of socks, my friend asked if I would be willing to carry them during the rest of our shopping trip. Upon seeing the confused look on my face, he said people would be less likely to assume that they had been stolen if the white guy was carrying them. Never mind that they were in a bag, with a receipt… he still feared harassment simply because he was at a mall and had purchased an item.

While studying at EMU I had the opportunity to spend a semester in South Africa, a country that has been dramatically shaped by colonizing racism. While navigating the complicated history, one of our guides encouraged us to ponder what the USA might be like if European settlers had not been so “successful” in its efforts to ethnically cleanse the land from its original inhabitants. “How different would our lives be,” we were challenged, “if the USA had a white ruling class that was actually an ethnic minority?”

During that trip I bumped into a street person who happened to have white skin. He looked at me and without a trace of sarcasm lamented that I hadn’t been able to experience the amazing power of being white during Apartheid. “We lived like kings back then,” he mused.

A recent social media post challenged people to think back to how many of their school teachers were people of color. I believe it took me until graduate school at Fuller Theological Seminary in California before I had my first. Seventeen years of education, exclusively by white people.

My arrival at Penn State coincided with local efforts to join the Black Lives Matter movement. It was deeply humbling to hear stories of the ways that students of color had experienced the mostly-white Penn State and State College community. One black student remembered a bus trip where a group of people chanted at her, “Back of the bus!” Another reflected on a roommate who would spray down the shower with disinfectant if he knew that his black roommate had been in there prior to him. Countless students have shared the way they have been taunted with racial slurs, defacing of dorm room message boards, hate speech written into the layer of dust on their vehicles, and much more, including racially driven aggression from area police.

The day after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, I lamented to a black student that it felt like intolerance had won. The student laughed and said that perhaps white people were finally getting to experience some of the discomfort of intolerance that people of color experience every day.

My hope and prayer is that we are watching a systemic societal shift take place in this moment. Five and a half years ago I stood with a group of just four other people in one of the first Black Lives Matter protests in our community. Last week, hundreds of community members filled the streets, blocking traffic along College, Atherton, and Beaver, with their critical mass, calling one more time for racial justice.

This week, a conversation with one of our black community leaders reminded me of what we are still being challenged by. He reminded me that people are often only comfortable at surface level conversations and lack the vulnerability to look at their biases AND correct them. Herein lies our challenge in this moment.

May we, as people with the historic cultural power and privilege in this racially flawed country, have the courage to not only name our biases but also work to correct them. May the change start and continue with each of us.

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