Comfortably white

I can’t fight oppression with my head in the clouds

Jun 15, 2020 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I’m a visionary. A generalist. A dreamer. Some of that is my personality. It’s also a privilege of whiteness.

I can afford to have my head in the clouds and talk broadly about “shalom” and the Beloved Community. My privilege allows me to fight racism in general terms without getting into the details.

Whiteness means I can say “Black Lives Matter” yet never research the specific demands of the movement. Or hold a “No Justice, No Peace” sign at a rally without knowing who organized the demonstration and what their goals are for that particular action.

Black voices in the antiracism movement are not vague or sloppy like white activists are allowed to be. Their razor-sharp diagnosis of systemic racism empowers them to enact strategies of change with surgical precision.

“Defund the police” isn’t a “eureka” idea Minneapolis protesters discovered suddenly when they saw George Floyd casually murdered. It’s a long-term demand that’s part of a movement to stop systemic forms of anti-blackness.

So is community oversight of abusive police behavior, divestment from fossil fuels, defunding militarism, improving health care and establishing restorative justice practices in neighborhoods to replace weaponized officers.

Time to get specific

Brandon Wrencher, an activist from Greensboro, N.C., told me that #DefundThePolice is the new #BlackLivesMatter. Everyone’s saying “Black Lives Matter” these days. But saying that phrase isn’t a demand. Abolishing the police is.

I have to admit, advocating “Defund the Police” makes me anxious. I think that’s partially because it’s a new concept.

But mostly it’s because white supremacy tells me I have a right to be comfortable.

Names such as the following are not calling us to a vague opposition to racism: Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Amy Cooper, George Floyd. These and countless others call us to a concentrated emphasis on the demands of the black community, only one of which is to defund the police.

It’s the same in other communities of color. Immigrants call us to the specific act of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. First Nations leaders try to keep oil companies from building pipelines on sacred land.

Getting off the sidelines

Many of us have spent our lives listening to the words of a man of color who was publicly executed by state-sanctioned violence. My privilege as a white man allows me to cheerlead from the sidelines while others do his work.

That work, then as now, is precise: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

It’s been years since Black Lives Matter swept into comfortable language for white people. This moment is calling us to move past both our apathy and our ambiguities. It’s time to support the specific demands of black and brown people.

Listen to black voices. Not with the goal of responding, but with the goal of following.

Celebrate their successes, like organizing hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate on our streets, or getting commitments from Minneapolis city council members to defund and dismantle the police force.

Read Scripture not as the recipient of God’s healing action, but as one who uses one’s power to oppress (as Pharaoh instead of Moses; as the religious elite instead of the woman they almost stoned).

Trust that the Spirit of Jesus can liberate your racist heart, then do everything it takes to liberate people from systems of oppression.

Rooted in Jesus

After years on the journey, I claim an antiracist identity stronger than ever. It’s rooted in my baptism as a follower of Jesus. It’s rooted in the transformative specificity of demands from the black community to let the oppressed go free. It’s rooted in brutal honesty that I’m still tripped up by the white supremacy my privilege affords.

I’m a visionary. A generalist. A dreamer. But the movement to stop police brutality can’t afford my head in the clouds.

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and author of The Gospel Next Door.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.