Coming to terms with my racial privilege

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Please welcome Jody to the Words That Changed My World Series! I have loved reading Jody’s thoughts over the past months – she’s a deep thinker and winsome writer on some tricky issues relating to race and culture, so I am more than thrilled to have her as a guest today. And, by the way, you should stop over at her blog to read some more of her stuff when you’re done!

Photo credit:  TheRealRanjitMakkuni
Photo credit: TheRealRanjitMakkuni

I sat in her office, desperate to convince her that I cared, that these issues of race were just as important to me as they were to her, one of the few African-American woman working in a predominately white institution.

“You don’t have to think about the issue of race,” she said to me point-blank.

I was taken aback, “Yes, I do. It’s really important to me to understand,” I tried to half-convince, half-explain.

“But you don’t have to,” she persisted. “I can’t ever take my skin off. It comes with me everywhere I go. You don’t have to think about yours if you don’t want to. I don’t have a choice.”

I paused, having never before considered that the privilege of my white skin was that it allowed me simple freedoms like walking into a rural gas station without getting suspicious looks, or keeping people from placing me under media-driven stereotypes. It was a moment in time when I realized that everything I’d ever understood about ‘normal’ was far from that very notion, and that no matter how much I did actually care, I would never fully understand the experience of people of color living in a broken and racialized society like the US.

At the time, I had no idea how formative her words would be as my life-steps eventually led me to marry across racial lines, teach in a wide variety of diverse contexts, move several times among the immensely diverse cultures of the US, travel around the world and raise biracial children. In order for me to fully step into the world of understanding another’s reality, I needed to first accept that I would need to accept their worldview without a complete ability to understand it.

Come to find out, this lesson had a much broader application than I originally realized. As I walk through life, there are a whole host of people I don’t understand, and walking alongside them with an attitude that reminds me that I don’t have a clue about their story allows me to listen more gently, walk more humbly, and love more mercifully.

It’s a bit paradoxical, I admit. However, the more I matured in my understanding of all things, the more I understood both the reality and beauty of paradox. To save your life, you must lose it. The first will be last and the last will be first. Blessed are the meek. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Admitting my own limitations in my ability to walk alongside others has given me a freedom that I never knew in the days when I thought I had all the answers. It allows me to listen without judgment, to love without critique or skepticism, to speak and anger slowly. For those of us who have only ever known the experience of being the-ones-with-the-power, these skills must be actively developed and practiced when in order to truly hear those coming from a different place. Like a diamond, they form as a result of some intense and heated pressure within, creating something beautiful only after the conflict resolves.

My journey toward a deeper racial understanding has mirrored this very process. I am forever grateful both for the discomfort my African-American friend’s words created in my life as well as for her honesty that set me on a brutal and beautiful journey toward the reconciling of broken things – myself being first on the list.

DSC_0668Jody Fernando (@Jodylouise) does a lot of living between worlds. A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean. Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents. She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry. Read more about her journey toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race and faith in her book Pondering Privilege.

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1 thought on “Coming to terms with my racial privilege”

  1. Jody, I remember my best friend in college used to joke with me whenever we had a miscommunication, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” It was funny and a reminder that he lived among a bunch of people who didn’t look like him.

    Like you, I am in a marriage that crosses what people used to call racial lines. I have lived for more than a quarter decade with a constant awareness of race, my own skin color and my wife’s. It’s interesting to then extend that awareness to other differences between me and people around me, as you’ve discovered and wrote about here too.


    P.S. Here’s what I’ve thought about white privilege too.

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