I am a white man. And I am troubled. I’m troubled by the number of times I hear other white men say things like: “I stand with my black brothers and sisters in the fight against racism but I’m personally not aware of any time I’ve treated people of color disrespectfully.”
“I can’t think of any time I’ve ever treated women in demeaning ways and I want to go on record that sexual harassment is wrong.”
If you are a white man and you are reading this, I can assure you that your lack of awareness does not mean you haven’t treated others in prejudicial, discriminatory or demeaning ways. It just means you aren’t aware that you’ve done it.
When thousands of black people cry out about injustice, it’s unlikely the source of oppression only comes from “those other white people.”
“I’m not one of those, am I?” Surely not!
When thousands of women say #metoo and #notOK, reason dictates there are more than a few “other” men who have put them down. If the cause of the problem were only “those other people” we wouldn’t have a problem because when we hear outcries like #metoo EVERYONE thinks it’s because of “those other people.”
I want to share with you now a few stories about how I've contributed to the problem. It's not easy for me to do this, but I feel it's the right thing to do so I'm going to do it anyway. As I share, I want to invite other white men to join me in this confession. The only way we will make progress in this is if we all are willing to own that we are part of the problem. If we keep denying it, nothing will change.
I am sorry to say that I’m guilty of putting people of color in my “less than” box sometimes. I see a black man on the street and I instantly think he might be up to no good. I wonder about my Muslim neighbors and fail to say something when I hear someone speak jokingly about my Jewish neighbors. I fail to consider that my Asian friends are subject to stereotypes and I am ignorant of basic cultural differences between my Japanese, Korean and Chinese friends.
These are my friends, mind you. You can see: I need to be a better friend. I’m part of the problem, I have to admit.
Another story: some months ago, I worked with a group of older adults in a series of “listening sessions.” They wanted to engage in a process of group discernment and I facilitated some collaborative exercises to help them do that. As it turned out, the two leaders were both women and there was only one other man in the group.
As time went on, the two leaders of this group and I spoke about next steps for the group. One of the ideas we talked about was the possibility of having the group be part of a ministry I lead.
I was so thrilled at the possibility of partnering with this group of wonderful people that the next time we met, I acted as if it was a done deal. I’m ashamed to say I played my “man card” by assertively leading the group down a particular path without making space for the whole group to have their voices heard.
(I’ve done this many other times, too, and I have to admit it is an abuse of the inherent power I have as a man, however subtle it might be.)
Thankfully, all the women in that group were strong and confident; they put me in my place—and it was humiliating at first. One of them said, “I don’t want another man telling me what I need to do.”
What could I do but just listen and ask forgiveness? Thankfully, they forgave me. See how strong these women were? I'm still humbled by it even as I write this.
As it turns out, the group has continued without me and they are doing really well, I’m happy to say. But I’m saddened that I was the cause of those moments of (needless) friction. The irony is: I was meeting with the group to empower the two women who had a vision to bless many people and, because of my presumption, I hurt them by asserting my male power and privilege. I’m glad they would have none of that nonsense.
Men (especially white men), I want to say something. We are part of the problem, all of us. No progress will be made if we keep saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever hurt anyone that way.”
You have. Trust me. The most dangerous thing in this instance is to be unaware of it and to do nothing to change it in yourself. It’s easy for white men to ignore it because…after all, we have the power.
Intrinsic to power is an interesting irony. There is nothing quite so invigorating as power and, at the same time, there is nothing quite so numbing as power.
It’s invigorating when you feel the power but it’s numbing because, pretty soon, people with power get used to it and take it for granted. Eventually, we forget we have the power...so when someone treats us like we are abusing our power we think, “Who me?”
White men: If you’re in doubt, let me clear it up for you.
You have the power.
The fact that you don’t have to think about it means you also have privilege. Think of privilege as a foundation of the best soil to grow the strongest trees. The tree has nothing to do with the quality of the soil, but it benefits from it immensely. The same tree planted in poor soil will languish by comparison—not because the tree itself is defective but because the soil in which the tree is planted puts that particular tree (or group of trees) at a profound disadvantage.
Now, watch how the trees planted in the good soil say to the trees planted in the poor soil, “Just look at us and learn from us! We’ll show you how to flourish like we do! See all the fruit we bear. Aren’t we just so wonderful?”
But the trees planted in the poor soil, try as they might, cannot flourish like the trees in the good soil. So then the trees in the good soil say, “What’s wrong with you? You have all the same opportunities we do but just look at you…you’re getting nowhere fast! Look: you have sun and rain just like we do. How come our fruit is so much better than yours?”
And the trees in the poor soil say, “It’s because of the soil. We can’t help it. We’re trying our hardest, honest. Can’t you see?”
But the trees in the good soil just say: “Nonsense. You have just as good a place to grow as we do. You just don’t take advantage of all the special opportunities you have. What’s wrong with you? Stop complaining! You’re just making us miserable.”
The trees in the good soil can’t understand because they are not planted in the poor soil. They can’t even imagine what it is like to be one of those “other” trees. And they take for granted the good soil that supports them.
But the trees who have been denied access to the rich land have grown weary of the inequity. They are so weary they are angry and they can’t help but cry out, “Wake up! Look at us! We will not go down without a fight! We will not be silent and accept our ‘lot’ in life anymore! We will speak up, we will rise up and with God’s help we will overcome.”
White men: can’t you hear the cry? What if, instead of turning a deaf ear to the cry, we used our power to minister healing?
What if the NFL owners led the way and asked EVERYONE on their team to kneel solemnly when the national anthem is played? The players could bow their heads and put their hands over their hearts—all of them!—to show respect for the ideals represented in the flag but also to mourn and pay attention to the fact that we do not always live up to those ideals. Kneeling could be a sign that we all want the situation to change. Just think: if people of every color knelt we would all be kneeling together, in solidarity.
Can’t you see? Because of the courage of the men who have been kneeling we have the opportunity not to divide but to join them in their protest? What would there be to divide us anymore?
If white men would kneel, they would be saying to their fellow men of color: “We see you and we will not leave you in this agony. We see you in the midst of the battlefield; we see that you have been wounded and we will rush to your side to carry you to a place where you can live life to the fullest. We’ve got your back, brothers.”
What if our leaders (both political and organizational) paid attention to the outcry and said, “Let’s join them. Let’s listen.” Would that be so hard? What do we think will happen?
Too often I hear people saying, “I could get on board with this if I just knew what it was the ‘kneelers’ wanted.”
But in order to know what “they” want, you have to get close enough to "them" to find out. You have to kneel with them and then listen. Ask them. Work with them. And if it seems fuzzy, stay with them. Remember: they’ve been wounded. They might not make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say isn’t worth hearing. It just means we need to listen that much harder.
Men: when women say #metoo and you say: “Golly, I can’t think of anything I’ve done to hurt women”—that hurts. It hurts—even if you say in the same breath: “Amen, sister! I’m with you in this protest!”
It’s not enough to say Amen when you are oblivious to the ways you’ve contributed to the problem. It’s hypocrisy and it’s time to take responsibility for the culture of fear we’ve created. We’ve all done it. Not just “those other guys.” We’ve ALL done it; that’s why there are so many crying out. If you don’t know that you’ve done it, ask for light to see, because…trust me, you’ve done it.
Now it’s time to do a different doing. Now it’s time to change.
Pray for humility and strength. You'll need it.
Pray for humility and strength. You'll need it.