White Privilege on the Streets of Ferguson

10/02/2014 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Being white is not all it is cracked up to be -- at least not for those who are really aware. There's no escaping the ugly history of those who look like me, those who have historically terrorized and dehumanized some part of nearly every culture including our own. In the past I carried much shame and embarrassment about being white.

When Michael Brown was murdered I found myself sobbing while unconsciously rubbing my skin until it started to hurt. Was I trying to rub away my whiteness?

As a young white girl, I was raised in a very prejudiced environment. My grandmother tried very hard to teach me that being white was better than anyone else -- especially black. Lessons came through getting the hell beat out of me for having my black friends discovered. Another time I was whipped until I bled for declaring that Jesus was black. After all, he hid in Egypt.

When I first heard the term "white privilege," I didn't think it applied to me; I certainly did not feel any sense of privilege. I was from a poor home filled with abuse and brokenness. Life had been hard. As the mother of black children I feared daily for their safety as they left home for school, work or play.

As I learned more, I understood white privilege as a social benefit of which I am, by default, a recipient just because I'm white.

I have never been as aware of my privilege as I was on the volatile streets of Ferguson.
Being out there was not an option for me; the Spirit pulled me as the moon pulls the tide. As I stood in the road interceding -- praying God's peace, pleading with our sons to back-off and not charge the police -- I never once thought about being white, not once.

Determined that no young person would be left behind, I stayed in the streets as the police advanced on us -- begging the few remaining young men "C'mon, let's go now baby, let's go." I stayed long past the police's final warnings to "disperse immediately." I stayed until the last young man ran past me right after which I was shot in the stomach with a wooden bullet.

Immediately I was stunned -- being shot and tear gassed shocked me. I couldn't believe that this madness happens for real! I was dumbfounded that this type of force was even legal.

But what really shocked me was realizing that I really did not expect to be injured. I was never really afraid. I certainly was not afraid of the young folks. It was very painful to see young folks ready to charge the police -- "What they gonna do, kill us? They already doing that." It was painful, not at all frightening.

Obviously, I realized, I wasn't afraid of the police either. The reality that I didn't have to think about fearing the police was a result of white privilege -- the privilege I don't claim but I yet have, just because I'm white.

My black colleagues, friends and fellow foot soldiers didn't have the luxury of not considering danger; they considered the danger and acted anyway.

They were brave.

I have been called brave for standing on the streets. Bravery is reserved for those who stood knowing there was danger.

Maybe I can be called bold, but not brave.

Assumed white privilege on the streets was the expectation for safety -- the expectation that everything will be okay -- just because. The evidence of white privilege isn't so much the thought, "I'll be safe just because" but more so the fact that it never occurred to me to think about my safety.

A young lady took a picture of my wound that went viral. Media outlets were calling to talk about what happened to me. I wasn't the only one who was shot. Why weren't we talking about the militarized police or the murder of Michael Brown? I was irritated and initially refused all interviews.

When my spirit and brain connected, I had an "ah-ha!" moment: I was white, woman and a pastor. Privilege. I wasn't the only one who had been shot: I was the only woman who was a pastor, who was also white, who had also been shot. Privilege. Three places of privilege.

The young lady posted the picture to show what they were doing to us. The young folks understood it. They said it like this, "If they'll shoot the white pastor you know they'll get my a*&."

The media picked it up and ran with it because of my places of privilege -- white, woman, clergy -- more so than because the act of militarized police was outrageous.

As I spent more time on the streets I became more aware of the privilege given, expected, and willingly received.

On two occasions there was a group of young white folks who didn't think that they had to "keep walking" like everyone else. After all "We don't live here," they told me.

The reporters, who were nearly all white, were allowed to walk in the streets when the protestors, who were primarily black, were twice arrested for walking with media, that I am aware.

Groups of white agitators, with their angry words and fists and "ready-to-die" spirits, were able to present themselves as sympathizers throwing off police as they threw bottles at police without being noticed by them. Couldn't be the white folks, now could it?

On the Sunday night ambush, as we ran in terror on the streets, the young folks who ran by me one after another said, "Pastor, tell them the truth; they'll listen to you. You've got to tell them the truth. Tell them the real story, Pastor. Don't let them get away with this."

Did they trust me to tell the story because I am a pastor? Because I had been hanging tough with them? Or, because they knew I'd have access to those who would listen?

The reality is that there will be people who will hear me because I am white. There will be those who believe the stories of terror because I am white. There will be those who feel a deeper sense of outrage about the actions of the militarized police just because .

White privilege exists. It is an irrefutable social-issue imposed upon white people by white people. It divides whites from non-whites and it divides whites who embrace privilege from those who snub privilege.

Would the police have allowed me to stand between them and the people that Wednesday night had I not been white?

On Thursday I joined with five young men who wore bandanas as a form of protest and who chose to protest one of protest marches. Could a black clergy person have marched with these young men and worn the bandana and been safe from police action? To many I just looked silly. How would my black colleagues have looked to the police and media? The police obviously concluded that I was not a threat -- just because.

In nearly all of my familial and social settings I am the only white person yet I never feel white. On the streets of Ferguson I not only felt white, I had a responsibility to acknowledge that my whiteness carried privilege.

With privilege comes responsibility.

On the street I was responsible for acting cautiously and prayerfully making sure that I did not carelessly mistake my sense of acting in faith for my privilege acting or mistake God's favor for that of man.

I am responsible for using my voice to speak expose injustices and bring truth to light even and especially when to do so puts my privileged standing in jeopardy. I am responsible for telling the stories of injustice and pain and truth to people who will hear it from me in the places where I've been given voice.

I used to say, "It's not my fault that I'm white." One day I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit ask me, "Whose fault is it?" I have long believed that before I was formed in my mother's womb God knew me and had a plan for my life (Jeremiah 1:5). Although being white is neither a fault nor a privilege in terms of God's design, it is a reality that must be reckoned with in this human world.

Whites do not choose to be given privilege; whether it is wanted or not, it is present. We choose what we do with the privilege given and we can choose to break the cycle of being a privilege giver.

We must be able to identify and acknowledge privilege when it is given. We must also know how and when to both deny it and utilize it.

As a white-woman-pastor I was a PR nightmare for the establishment and a goldmine for the media. I refused to exploit the situation which is why there are only two pictures of my wound: one that was taken by the young lady and one by the Alderman. Privilege denied.

For the white groups -- who thought they didn't have to move -- I made up a cadence that I chanted next to them until they started walking: "No white privilege on the street, Everybody move your feet." Privilege exposed and rejected.

I intentionally followed the same rules that everyone else had to follow, even when I felt like my feet were about to crumble apart with every painful step. Likely I could have rested and walked in the streets without much fuss from the police. Privilege denied.

Regarding the ambush and the allegations that we were storming the police, I told several media outlets, "They are lying." I told the real story, but this small quote is all that was printed in their stories. At least it was said. Privilege used.

The young men would have worn their bandanas and protested the protest march without me. With me folks didn't mess with them. I looked silly and pissed off people. Privilege used.

I don't ask to be treated differently because I am white. I don't expect to be treated differently because I am white. I will not treat others differently because they are white.

I will deny privilege when it is self-benefiting and I will attempt to skillfully use it when it can be a weapon in the fight for justice. And I will constantly and deeply seek God for the wisdom to know the difference.

One thing I am, for sure, wise enough to know is that it was neither my whiteness nor my two-fingers of peace that held the pain-filled protestors from crossing the police line -- time and again since that first night it has been the power of love and life engulfing God's people. God uses whomever God chooses in spite of notjust because of.