by John Ellis
I don’t remember where Tan Man’s nickname originated. I may not have ever known, for that matter. I don’t even remember ever hearing his real name.
Tan Man and I weren’t really friends, simply acquaintances thrown together within the revolving door world that happened to be my life fifteen years ago. He was part of the retinue that came with the apartment in which I was a renting a room. An apartment filled with drugs, sex, and hurting, confused, sinful people.
The last time I saw Tan Man was at his going-away party: as in, going away to prison. He had been convicted on drug related charges and was scheduled to report to prison the following day. It was a rather somber party.
Over the course of that night, several people attempted to make light-hearted conversation, I’m assuming with the goal of cheering Tan Man up. He didn’t really respond, sitting mostly silently, dejectedly taking a hit whenever the pipe made its way back around to him. The conversation that prompted the most involvement from him was when we began discussing the differences between being white and black in the drug culture.
The main difference we discussed, the most relevant difference considering the point of the evening, was the fact that blacks were much more likely to go to prison than whites if busted for drugs. At the time, I hadn’t seen any real evidence or statistics to back that up. I sincerely doubt that anyone else at that “party” had either. Our belief was anecdotal. Turns out, though, based on the mountains of research and statistics I’ve read since then, we were right.
One important point that you’ve no doubt guessed, Tan Man was black. I, of course, am white. And the unjust reality that he knew and that I knew and that everyone else there knew was that out of everybody sitting on that back patio, as a dealer I deserved prison time more than Tan Man. Unlike Tan Man, though, that was a reality that was only on the periphery of my existence. Sure, I had a greater chance of ending up in prison than my clean-cut friends from college, but, still, I was white not black.
Not only did I have much less to worry about legally had I ever been busted carrying, I didn’t have to worry about being busted as much as Tan Man did. As a white guy, I was stopped and questioned by the cops far less often than the black guys I knew. What’s more, the few times I was ever stopped and questioned, I was never searched; it was never assumed that I was carrying, even though I often was. I was only asked about events I may have witnessed, not events that it was assumed I was involved in. Every black guy that I’ve talked to about this kind of thing has been searched at one time or another.
Tan Man’s going away party was almost fifteen years ago. Yet, I think about it frequently. In fact, I think about Tan Man every time I’m confronted with the concept of white privilege. So, it’s not a surprise that a recent tweet by Dr. Anthony Bradley about white privilege brought that evening back to my mind and reignited questions that I continue to grapple with.
With his tweet, Dr. Bradley was adding his voice to another tweet that said, “White privilege isn’t ‘your life is easy because you’re white’ white privilege is ‘your life isn’t made harder because of your white skin.’ No one is saying your life is easy and you don’t have troubles, but unlike people of color, those troubles aren’t BECAUSE of your whiteness.”
In his retweet, Dr. Bradley included the assent, “Agree. White privilege is about all the stuff whites get to avoid in USA life. That is, stuff whites have the privilege of not thinking about.”
And by “right,” I mean that I agree. I want to make that clear.
Sadly, though, white privilege and the accompanying conversations frequently cause self-serving unease and earn dismissive retorts from many whites in my circles, if not downright derision and vitriolic rejection. Except, whether conservative whites in this country want to admit it or not, white privilege, especially as defined by Dr. Bradley above, does exist.
By way of another anecdote, while working in the service industry I frequently heard the claim that black people don’t tip. That belief is so ubiquitous, I even heard it from black co-workers. For a time, and to my shame, I believed it and quoted it, too.
One day, in my early twenties, I came across an article about subtle racism in Psychology Today. The article unpacked several experiments that highlighted ways in which whites subconsciously respond to blacks. One of the main thrusts of the article was how blacks are aware of the subtle racism and how it affects them. As I thought about it, I began to wonder if the article and studies had any relation to my tips. I wondered if my acceptance of the belief that black people don’t tip was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
From that time on, the best I could, I approached my black customers with the assumption that I was going to get a tip. Guess what happened: My tips went up.
To make sure that I’m clear on this point, my tips went up because my black customers began tipping me at the same level as my white customers.
After that, whenever hearing co-workers spout the prejudiced statement, I began responding, “Of course they don’t tip you, nor should they. You approach their table assuming they won’t tip you because they’re black and they know it. They know that you are less attentive to them than you are the white customers. They know that they’re not getting your best because of the color of their skin. I wouldn’t tip you either if I were them.”
And this is connected to Dr. Bradley’s tweet.
As a white man, when I walk into a restaurant my experience is different than that of my black friends. In the scheme of the entirety of world history, does it really matter that blacks get treated differently when enjoying the luxury of eating out at a restaurant? Yes, it absolutely matters in the scheme of the entirety of world history.
For one thing, it matters because little things add up. For another thing, it’s not really a little thing because it’s reflective of the larger issue of explicit racism.
Let’s not kid ourselves, for many of us that are white, if we had been alive just a few decades ago we would have been resisting calls to allow black people to drink from the same water fountain as white people. All these “little things” point to how much racism still exists even though many of us believe that we scrubbed our society and our own heart clean of the stain of the “big things” like Jim Crow laws and lynching. And it also matters because adding all the little things up amounts to psychological death by a thousand cuts.
If my daughter and son had to endure a near constant barrage of slights, no matter how tiny, and lowered expectations, no matter how slightly lowered, I would be livid. With everything in me, and by God’s grace, I would fight tooth-and-nail to claw equality into their existence (for the record, people of color experience racism that cannot be classified as “tiny,” I chose that word as well as the description “slightly lowered” to make a rhetorical point not to quantify the experiences of people of color).
And, also by God’s grace, I would teach my children to locate their identity in Christ and find their sufficiency in being his. I would teach them to strive for contentment, through the power of Christ’s Spirit, knowing that God works all things out for their good, making them into the image of the Son.
And those two things are not mutually exclusive. Fighting for equality and trusting solely in Christ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, those two things go hand in hand. It’s an undeniable fact that the Bible is chock full of commands to uproot injustice and replace it with true Justice. Wherever the Cross goes, the flourishing of all humanity should also go, and followers of Jesus should be engaged in defending the oppressed. All Christians should actively be working for the good of all Image Bearers through the fight against injustice.
Take special note of my shift from “if my daughter and son” to “all Christians.” Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persons of color should not be left to wage the war against racial injustice alone. All followers of Christ should mourn the effects of sin manifest through racism, and all followers of Christ should be employed in the work of fighting sin – both in our hearts and in society. Sadly, attaching the word “justice,” to the assertion that all Christians should fight racism is the rhetorical equivalent of setting a bomb off for many conservative evangelicals.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched and listened as a war of words has been waged within conservative evangelicalism over racism. The terms “woke,” “social justice,” “white privilege,” and “diversity” engender much angst and hand-wringing. Accusations of giving in to the high priests and priestesses of intersectionality dominate word-counts of blogs and articles warning against elevating racial issues to the level of gospel issues. In fact, going a step further, charges of abandoning the gospel are added to the dialogue – unhelpfully and often incorrectly, I might add.
I don’t agree with everything I read or hear from men and women like Eric Mason, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trillia Newbell, and Jackie Hill-Perry, among others. But what I do know is that not a single one of them has ever denied the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor have they watered it down. Nor are they wrong when they claim that fighting racism is a gospel issue.
There is a difference between something being the gospel and being a gospel issue. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to pursue holiness. As God’s children, we are to desire sanctification in our own life and in the lives of others. Pursuing holiness means fighting sin, in our hearts and in society. It is a gospel issue to fight sin. If you’d prefer me to say that it’s an implication of the gospel, fine, whatever gets you to engage in the fight against injustices like racism. The shameful truth is that too many of us are too busy fighting over which terms are allowed to be used and still retain the description of a conservative Christian to obey Jesus and be any earthly good.
The sad irony is that if I were writing an article about how Christians should be fighting the injustice of abortion or sex-trafficking or the LGBTQ agenda (and I believe with every ounce of my being that Christians should be fighting those things), I would receive “amens” from some who will look at me askew over this article. Descriptors like “neomarxist,” “intersectional,” and “progressive Christianity” will snake their way into the minds of those who are suspicious of this article. It won’t matter that my beliefs and opinions about identity politics are well-established and publicized. It won’t matter that I consistently and clearly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, both written and vocally.
However, whatever negative pushback I receive won’t really matter because I’m white. My life will be far less impacted (if at all) by critical responses than the lives of brothers in Christ like Dr. Bradley and Eric Mason are impacted by the vitriol they receive. The color of my skin means that my experience with criticism is and will be different than the experiences of people of color. That’s my white privilege.
With the understanding that I’m undermining what might be a clever ending with “that’s my white privilege,” I want to conclude with an appeal to the white followers of Jesus that are reading this:
Brothers and sisters, it’s okay to be confused about terms like “woke,” “social justice,” and “diversity.” It’s not okay, though, to deny that people of color in this country have a different experience than white people. It’s not okay to ignore that racism is still coursing through our society to the detriment of the flourishment of people of color. Make what you will of the terms but engage in the gospel issue of fighting against sin, specifically the sin of racism.
Involved with that is listening to brothers and sisters in Christ who are a different ethnicity than you. Ask them about their experience as a person of color. If they’re a member of your church, ask them if they’ve ever felt “less than” because of something that was said or done (or being said or done) within the corporate life of your church. Pray for the Holy Spirit to help you continue to uncover and root out any feelings in your heart that cause you to treat Image Bearers of God as “less than.” And repent of the sin when the Holy Spirit answers your prayer. At times, that will require public repentance. But, please, by God’s grace, do not allow the noise and confusion of the world to cause you to shy away from your responsibility as a follower of Jesus to fight the injustice of racism.
Soli Deo Gloria