With these words, the Rev. John Dorhauer opened our Clergy Convocation on White Privilege. The question also implies what we do not – or cannot – see. Even for Sally May and me (neither one of us new to this subject), it was a steep learning curve and a deep spiritual witness. The institution of racism – not only the structure of slavery it grew up to protect – has profoundly shaped the nature of all our nation’s wealth and institutions. This is true no matter how “white” our community (94% in Vermont) and no matter how “progressive” our politics.
Dorhauer’s theological doctoral work on white privilege led to a conversation that is a world-shifting learning experience. This brief essay the morning after is but a small taste of what we – all of us who are white – have not seen.
In 1865, a plantation master in Tennessee wrote to his former head slave asking him to return to the plantation. The now-freed Jourdon Anderson wrote back a long letter. Here’s just one of the powerful statements he made:
“We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”
Then he wrote that he would consider his former master’s offer of paid employment on the plantation as it compared to his current wages in Memphis, but only if the former master would pay his family’s back wages for 32 years, which he carefully calculated to amount to more than $11,000. Of course, that never happened.
What do you see? Had that amount been paid to Anderson and invested at a modest rate in 1872, it would now be worth more than $1.7 billion. Not only have we deprived slave descendants from the actual worth of their labor, but we have systematically denied them decent housing, decent education, decent health care, and many other things that are part of the “cash value of whiteness”.
When will we turn our gaze to ourselves and examine what privileges our white skin has bought us and how we can bring equity to this imbalance? Sally May raised this question with you with in 2015 with her excellent sermon “Opening the Blinds”. We were blessed to hear an evolved version “Opening the Blinds: The Open Sore of Race and Privilege” at the Clergy Convocation on Monday night.
The four parts of the curriculum as developed by the UCC are: telling the story of your spiritual journey through the lens of race; looking at the dynamic of a culture in which whiteness is the established norm; learning how America attaches a cash value to whiteness; and inviting the participants to commit to becoming an ally in the pursuit of racial equity. Both Sally May and I would welcome your comments and suggestions as to how and when we might conduct these conversations.