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White privilege and Trayvon Martin

How I See it

How I See it

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield

A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton.

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July 19, 2013

During a golf outing a few days ago, my playing partner hit a shot that unfortunately sliced out of bounds. After searching for a few minutes I located the ball in someone’s backyard.

“There’s your ball,” I cried. “It’s in that person’s backyard.”

“Just leave it,” he replied. “Let’s just go.”

When I inquired as to why he didn’t want to pick up his errant ball, my playing partner said, “I won’t go into someone’s backyard on a golf course. I have been threatened with stealing and trespassing in the past.”

It was there, in the peaceful confines of a golf course, that I was confronted with an unbelievably disturbing fact: my golf mate and I had two different perceptions of reality.

You see, the person I was playing with is African American. I, a tall white male, would have had no hesitation in walking into that backyard, picking up the errant ball, and making my way back onto the course. My African-American golf partner had huge hesitations based on his own experience.

My experience is called “white privilege.” His experience is called “racism.”

Race and our assumptions

As a person who has benefitted from “white privilege” all of my life, my experience tells me that I can take liberties and benefit from assumptions that have served me well over the years. I do not have to worry about being threatened with stealing and trespassing when I hit a golf ball onto someone else’s property. Neither do I have to worry about how I am perceived if I walk around with my hands in my pocket or when I wear a “hoodie.” I live in relative comfort with few threats being sent my way in a normal day.

Not so for people of color. Assumptions based on race abound. Things like, “What does he have in his pockets?” or “What is she hiding underneath that hoodie?” or “What is that black man doing looking around in my back yard?”

There are countless numbers of commentaries being shared regarding the recent trial of George Zimmerman in the case of Trayvon Martin. Many of those comments reflect the hurt, anxiety and pain of the African-American community. Many of those comments express concern over matters of race. On the other side, in public forums and hallway conversations, others cast judgment on those who raise the issue of race and do not understand the passion for doing so. Still others say nothing at all because it does not affect them or the limited realm that makes up their world.

Today I simply want to remind those of us who benefit greatly from “white privilege” that we should be very careful to think before we speak any word of judgment and condemnation in this or any other case that involves potential racism.

Likewise, those of us who may remain silent should be very bold to speak on behalf of the hurts and injustices suffered by those around us. We do not walk parallel paths. Our experience is far different than the experience of others. Our comforts are not shared uniformly.

The life God intends

We live in a world filled with racism, judgment, profiling, hatred, violence and sin. Can we not long to see this end?

As followers of Christ, our pattern should be one where we are never comfortable with anything that separates us from the kind of life God intends. That pattern should be one where we work tirelessly to live a life and serve a church that takes its lead from Micah 6:8, namely, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I am deeply saddened by the pain caused by a verdict in a court case. I am significantly disturbed by the racism that still clouds our life together as children of God. I am painfully aware of the gross injustices that take place every day of our lives.

And, I am humbled to find it to be true — even on the fairway of a golf course.

*Bickerton leads the Pittsburgh Area of The United Methodist Church.