Lenten Storytelling: Ken's Story

I recently met Roy, a middle-class African-American man in his 40s. He told me about an experience at a conference he had attended. He had gotten into an empty hotel elevator in the morning to head to the conference area. When the elevator stopped at another floor, a middle-class white woman glanced up from her cellphone as she got on the elevator. Suddenly, as if yanked backward by an invisible rope, she stepped off and murmured: “Go ahead. I’ll wait for the next one.”

A few minutes later, having arrived at the conference, Roy looked up and spotted this same woman across the room. She too was attending the same event, a conference on cultural competency.

I am white, male, straight, educated, American, Christian, English-speaking, able-bodied, with no tattoos or piercings. I’m even right-handed. I have dominant culture written all over me.

I was born naked, as babies tend to be, but I was already robed in tremendous privilege at my birth. I’m like the Emperor with No Clothes, but in reverse. Others can see the many garments of privilege I wear, yet I pull the wool over my own eyes and hardly notice them at all.

In the story of the prodigal son, I’m the son who stays home and doesn’t “get” what’s really going on.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that I’m so insulated in privilege, that I can’t hear the buzz saw of repression that surrounds me.

I want to make a few comments specific to white privilege, something that’s been on my mind for quite some time. Here are some things I don’t know as a white person, but am having an increasingly hard time ignoring:

  • I don’t know what it’s like, as African-American males do know, to have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated in my lifetime
  • I don’t live with violent stereotypes being associated with my race
  • When I encounter the police, I don’t assume I may well be targeted, suspected, falsely accused, or arrested primarily because of my race
  • I don’t wonder if I was hired for the job because of my competence or my skin color
  • I don’t get treated like a foreigner in my own country, as if I don’t really belong here and should go back to where I came from
  • People don’t say things to me like: “When I look at you I don’t see color” or “You’re a real credit to your race”
  • I don’t expect to be followed around the store when I’m shopping
  • I don’t experience people regularly crossing the street when they see me coming
  • When looking for housing, I don’t expect to be screened more thoroughly, charged more, or turned away because of my skin color
  • I don’t have the experience of feeling utterly discounted when politicians claim All Lives Matter
  • I don’t live with the realization that my health and life span are threatened due to the historical, institutional, insidious, and interpersonal trauma of racism

And here are a few things I am coming to know more fully:

  • The term white privilege is itself an expression of white privilege. Aren’t we really talking about a belief in white supremacy? Not the kind dressed in white robes and pointy hoods, but the kind wearing business suits, or designer blue jeans, or outfitted by Value Village, or by Ten Thousand Villages
  • When reading a book such as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, I cannot continue to be shocked and say, “I had no idea…”
  • Rosa Parks didn’t just spontaneously decide one day to refuse to move to the back of the bus
  • True religion is not about our own comfort and protection, but the salvation of equity and liberation
  • It’s not enough to write a piece to share during Lent and then go back to life as normal

Now back to Roy and the story he shared with me…

He told me that it took a while to collect his feelings that morning after the elevator incident, and then determined in the afternoon to try to engage with the woman. When he approached he commented: “I believe we’ve already met.” The woman replied that she didn’t think they had.  Then, he mentioned the brief encounter in the elevator that morning. The woman at that point recognized what had happened and apologized to Roy, saying, “I guess I really do need to be at this conference.” And they continued in a lengthy conversation thereafter.

To my fellow travelers who are a different color than me, yes, we’ve already met. I just didn’t recognize you, for which I am truly sorry.

– Ken Kraybill