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An (Un)Complicated Whiteness: Privilege, Repentance, and the Work of Justice

Most Thursdays, I spend my afternoons at a local halfway house and healing centre, created to prepare Indigenous men for the transition from federal prison to the street. I walk through two sets of glass doors, up a short flight of stairs, and into the sweet smell of sage grass and fried food. Indigenous parole officers, administrators, and parolees mill around a front desk, filling out paperwork and discussing their plans for the weekend. Of the dozen or so people around me, I am the only one with white skin. Brown skin is the norm here, and my whiteness makes me an outsider.

One of the many reasons that I’m grateful for this weekly experience is that it is a bodily reminder of my privilege. Unlike my friends at the healing centre, I am not made to think about my skin colour. The same goes for other aspects of my privilege – my gender, sexual orientation, et cetera. My friend Rebecca Warren has reminded me that one tell-tale sign of my privilege is that more often than not don’t have to think about it.

One tell-tale sign of my privilege is that more often than not don’t have to think about it.

Unlike so many around me, I am rarely forced to wrestle with the implications of my gender, race, economic standing, or sexuality. I don’t go into job interviews worried that the employer might reject me because I’m straight; I don’t avoid in-person meetings with landlords because I’m afraid they won’t rent to someone who’s white or middle-class; I don’t wonder whether a local church will let me speak up front because I’m a man. That’s privilege.

Thankfully, conversations surrounding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and elsewhere have made it more and more difficult for us to ignore the workings of privilege in North American life. But recognizing—or beginning to recognize—my privilege is one thing; wrestling with it in my pursuit of a more just world is quite another.

Bruce Cockburn’s struggle in his song ‘Broken Wheel’ echo my own:

Way out on the rim of the galaxy

The gifts of the Lord lie torn

Into whose charge the gifts were given

Have made it a curse for so many to be born

This is my trouble –

These were my fathers

So how am I supposed to feel?

Way out on the rim of the broken wheel

You and me—we are the break in the broken wheel

Bleeding wound that will not heal.

Even a brief look into our most pressing justice issues reveals that folks who looked and talked and prayed like me helped shape the injustices and struggles of our world. ‘This is my trouble – these were my fathers’: running Indian residential schools, drafting criminal justice policy that leads to the disproportionate incarceration of black men (USA) and Indigenous men (Canada), crafting trade deals that favour the powerful few, or exploiting precarious wild spaces for profit. ‘You and me—we are the break in the broken wheel’.

Cockburn’s prayer becomes my own:

Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see

How to wake up from this tragedy.

What does this mean for my practice of justice?

At the very least, I think it means beginning from a posture of repentance.

Mark Gornik and Allan Tibbels’ reflections on their work in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighbourhood helped me see that repentance is an essential posture for folks of privilege trying to do the hands-on work of justice and peacebuilding. Gornik writes, “We might not have been there when Sandtown was constructed, but we were living off the world of myths and privileges on which Sandtown was created, and therefore subject to its judgment. We knew we were complicit in the racism and systemic injustice that led to the brokenness of the neighbourhood.”

Biblically, beginning from a posture of repentance is about opening ourselves to the process of lifelong conversion.

For Tibbels and Gornik, that meant beginning with repentance. How? Putting the needs of those who experienced the “tearing of the Lord’s gifts” most acutely first; being humble enough to subject themselves to the judgement of the marginalized and those left behind; waiting before speaking, and being open to hearing other voices.

Biblically, beginning from a posture of repentance is about opening ourselves to the process of lifelong conversion–metanoia, or turning—to which Jesus invites us (or, sometimes, drags us kicking and screaming). As Gornik writes elsewhere, “Repentance is not feeling sorry or apologizing, engaging in rituals of regret, but an invitation to open up a new world put an end to business as usual.”

Am I willing to subject myself to the judgement of the Indigenous men at the healing centre, whose lives and communities have been deeply marked by the decisions and policies of privileged folks like me? Am I willing to come to terms with my complicity in the racism and injustice that has led to their pain? Can I wait and listen before I speak about ‘moving forward’ or ‘moving on’, before I start speaking of advocacy or reconciliation?

But as one of the parolees who has befriended me likes to say, most work worth doing is hard work.

I am going to have to. As far as I can see, the call of the prophets to practice justice and loving-kindness requires it. Coming to terms with my privilege is going to be long, hard work–Wendell Berry predicts “a few centuries of honest work”—but as one of the parolees who has befriended me likes to say, most work worth doing is hard work. As my friend Ben Hertwig has learned, being a person of privilege—a person living what Ben calls a life of “uncomplicated whiteness”—doesn’t mean you’re evil, “it means you have work to do.”

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