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White church on Fox Island struggles with white privilege

Fox Island church explores white privilege

The Fox Island United Church of Christ has had weekly discussions of white privilege using the curriculum developed by national church.
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The Fox Island United Church of Christ has had weekly discussions of white privilege using the curriculum developed by national church.

Members of Fox Island’s United Church of Christ needed only a couple of outreach visits to the Northwest Detention Center to come to a realization.

Just about everyone visiting loved ones at the Tacoma Tideflats facility, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held, were people of color.

The 130 members of the church are all white, save for two Asian families.

“We are painfully and sadly aware of our lack of diversity,” the Rev. Janet Matthews said.

That led Matthews and some church members to question whether they were doing enough to understand how their lives affect others.

For the past two months, some of the church’s members have been learning about white privilege — specifically, how they’ve benefited from it and how to dismantle it.

Church members are doing it by themselves, without the direct input of nonwhites.

White privilege is the inherent advantages white people have over racial minorities in many aspects of life in the United States.

“It’s not like anything we’ve done,” Matthews said of the church’s six curriculum-guided sessions, which aim to increase awareness and expand members’ commitment to racial equality and justice.

“It’s not about beating anyone over the head and feeling guilty,” she said.

The after-church sessions have attracted about 40 congregants and community members.

“So many of us as white Americans don’t really understand that we are, in fact, privileged and how that privilege disadvantages people of color,” said church member Andy Sharp.

WHAT IS WHITE PRIVILEGE?

Many whites resist the notion that they benefit from their race. After all, they say, nobody gave them any handouts, did them any favors. They pulled themselves up by their own work.

But white privilege largely goes unacknowledged, said United Church of Christ President John Dorhauer, who is white.

Dorhauer grew up in St. Louis with an unabashedly racist father. Unable to reconcile his father’s comments with the black role models he knew, Dorhauer decided he wouldn’t pass on racist views to his children.

“In fact, I wasn’t just not going to say those things,” he said. “I was going to actively teach my children different lessons about what it meant it to be white and what it meant to be black.”

Even before he knew what to call it, Dorhauer learned white privilege was something different from racism.

“We’d drive though St. Louis and my father would reach behind him and lock the doors the minute he saw a black person walking down the street,” Dorhauer said. “He didn’t say anything, but he was communicating a message.”

Most likely, those black people got the message as well.

“At some point I realized that not being a racist wasn’t enough,” Dorhauer said.

Through the help of mentors, Dorhauer went from being a “good guy with a good heart and good intentions” to learning how white privilege manifested itself.

Until whites understand how privilege deprives nonwhites of equal treatment, “We’ll never, in spite of our best intentions, achieve true racial equity,” he said

Financial gaps between black and white pay lead to gaps in wealth over generations, Dorhauer said.

“If you’re black in America, you’re going to be treated differently,” he said. “That affects income.”

Numerous studies show blacks are incarcerated at higher rates than whites, he said.

“If you’re the best intentioned, best-hearted white person with not a racist bone in your body, you are still going to be the passive beneficiary of those white-skinned privileges.”

White privilege can show up as “nude” pantyhose that comes only in Caucasian skin tones to being 50 percent more likely to be called for a job interview if your name sounds white as opposed to black.

It can mean the benefit of a doubt in a traffic stop, or not being followed in a department store.

RESISTANCE

Many whites resist the notion of white privilege, Dorhauer said.

“They are automatically going to be on the defensive, and they’re not going to listen to you,” he said.

“One of the things white people can never do is experience the internal angst of living with color in America,” he said.

Like Matthews, he doesn’t believe in shaming.

“I don’t broker in guilt,” Dorhauer said. “Guilt is not a motive that entices people into good behavior.”

Instead, he sticks to statistics and his own stories.

“My father is the perfect example of a poor white man who worked three jobs to raise seven kids,” he said. “He worked his tail off. He would be the last one you would look at and say that everything that he got was a byproduct of his privilege. That wouldn’t even be close to true.

“But it is true that because he was a white man, that when he interviewed with a white business owner, that he had a leg up that a black man in his world didn’t have. When he’s sitting in his interview, he doesn’t know that there might have been two other qualified black men that interviewed.”

MOTIVATION FROM THE TOP

While leaders of the Fox Island church had been concerned about their lack of diversity, what really got them thinking about their insular world was a series of visits to the Tacoma Tideflats.

For the past year, church members have been spending Sundays outside the Northwest Detention Center, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held.

“We’re not protesting,” Matthews said of the visits. “We’re just saying, ‘Hi, would you like a cup of coffee?’ 

After several visits, the racial makeup of the families visiting detainees soon became apparent to church members.

“While there are people of many ethnicities there, it is predominately Latino, brown and black,” Matthews said.

Days spent there often became emotional.

“When somebody comes with a suitcase, it means the person they’ve been visiting is going to be deported in the next couple of days,” Matthews said.

In September, Dorhauer released the curriculum to his 5,000 churches and nearly 1 million members. They were free to use or disregard it.

Matthews asked Sharp, the Fox Island church’s Christian education leader, to take a look at the material.

Along with testimonials from whites on how they became aware of their privilege, the book-thick curriculum contains stories from people of color on how white privilege and racism affected them.

“I immediately came back to Janet and said, we have to do this,” Sharp said. “It’s the civil rights work of today.”

In January, church leaders announced the white privilege course to the congregation.

“It kind of pricked my conscience,” congregant Charnley Marsden, 70, said of the curriculum. “It’s easy to read, but hard to think about the issues.”

Marsden is the kind of person the course is aimed at.

“I grew up in a really white community and let the civil rights era pass without paying attention,” said the Amherst, Massachusetts, native.

Marsden’s husband, Ron Patterson, 67, grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Akron, Ohio.

“I escaped because I was white,” he said. “This curriculum was the first time that I was ever able to tell to myself the story and understand why white privilege had benefited me the way it had and the members of my family.”

Patterson was attending a poor, inner city junior high school in the early 1960s. His mother pressured school officials to transfer him to a different, better funded, mostly white school.

“I don’t think if she hadn’t been pushy and white, that would have happened,” he said.

The course, he said, has been, “a profound and moving experience for me.”

HOT SOUP

On a Sunday in March, a reporter sat in on one of the six sessions at the Fox Island church. It began with a communal meal of soup for the 40 participants.

A prayer was given. It would be one of the few references to religion that day.

The sessions are divided into historical perspective, personal stories and table discussions.

Sharp told the story behind the Tuskegee experiment, in which 399 African-American men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated in a study between 1932 and 1972 by the federal government and the Tuskegee Institute.

That, he told the group, led to distrust of the medical system by some blacks.

Sharp, a cancer survivor, told the group how modern medicine saved his life — something that wouldn’t have happened had he not trusted his medical team.

“Not believing in my cure, I wouldn’t have survived,” he said.

Frank Lane, 71, of Port Orchard, told of growing up white in Baltimore.

Wherever he went in the early 1960s, blacks showed him deference, he said. Whites would be given priority over blacks in customer service situations, for instance, and no one complained.

“Even if there were black people (ahead) in line, they treated me first,” Lane said.

Though he recalled being embarrassed by those incidents, he said he didn’t have the vocabulary or awareness to fully understand the situation.

“I only learned the name for it (white privilege) when I started this process,” he told the group. “That’s when it came home to me.”

After that, the group broke into table discussions.

“I think the privilege things are the things not happening to you,” said Dwight Larson, 69, of Gig Harbor. “I’m not being pulled over as a suspect because of a broken taillight.”

Lin Velluti, 69, said her awareness is evolving and deepening.

“But what do I want from it?” she asked herself and the others. “What can I do and what am I willing to do?”

WHITE IS THE ‘NORM’

“It’s very easy for a white person in America to view ourselves as the norm and everybody else is outside that norm,” Sharp said during a group interview.

“That’s one of the interesting things for me to discover,” congregant Margaret Farber, 57, said. “I’ve had the privilege to think that I don’t have race.”

Until last year, Farber would have said race doesn’t matter, that there are no advantages or disadvantages associated with race.

“Been there, done that, said that: ‘I love everybody equally,’ ‘I don’t see color,’ that whole thing,” Farber said.

Then her 12-year-old son started asking questions.

“Why do they say, black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter?” the boy asked her.

“He and I started having conversations that aren’t easy to have,” Farber said. “They’re uncomfortable and little bit scary.”

“Once you see that you have race, you can see how that impacted you,” Sharp said.

Refusing to acknowledge race is a stumbling block.

“I resisted (the Black Lives Matter movement),” Sharp said. “At one point in my life I believed that reverse racism was a big problem. Affirmative action — that doesn’t make sense. Why would you give a job to a black man when a white man is just as qualified?”

He understands now that programs such as affirmative action seek to address historical inequalities that have lasting consequences on minority populations.

But even today, Sharp initially will push back when confronted with an example of white privilege.

“This is how subtle this stuff is,” he said. “It’s the water in which I swim.”

WHOSE JOB IS IT ANYWAY?

Is it white people’s responsibility to educate themselves about white privilege? Or is it the job of non-whites?

That question is a hot topic in social justice circles and identity politics.

There are advantages to whites teaching whites, the Fox Island group said. Messages can hit home when they come from one of your own.

“I would love to have black voices in this room,” Sharp said. “At the same time, I recognize that this is ours to own.”

The Fox Island church’s engagement with the white privilege curriculum is a good first step, said the Rev. Kelle Brown, a African-American minister at United Church of Christ’s Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle.

“It’s an absolute wonderful beginning,” she said, calling the work a moral prerogative.

But it isn’t complete without having discussions with people of color, Brown said.

“When you have white folks teaching each other, the leaders are often unaware of their own white privilege and how that enters into the conversation,” she said.

The subject matter is challenging. Discussions with a diverse group of people can be awkward and not politically correct. But that’s where the learning happens, Brown said.

“Because the point of doing the work is to spur change and transformation,” she said, “not to make people smart about white privilege.”

Another example of white privilege, Matthews said, is that, “We can do the class, we can feel good because we’re progressive and then go on about our lives.”

Some participants have spent as much time on the subject as they care to, Matthews said. But many want to go further.

Sharp said they will meet in coming weeks to discuss how the course has affected them and what to do next.

“My attitude around this subject won’t ever be the same,” Sharp said. “I no longer dismiss it as political correctness or people griping. I’m taking it seriously like I never did before.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

FOX ISLAND DEMOGRAPHICS

Number of residents: 3,633.

Percent white: 93.4.

Percent black: 0.7.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

INFORMATION

United Church of Christ’s “White Privilege: Let’s Talk”: uccresources.com.

United Church of Christ, Fox Island, 726 Sixth Ave., Fox Island, 253-549-2420, foxislanducc.org.

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