Awareness of My Ignorance

Jul 10, 2020 -- Posted by : RyanHaley

This blog post is about a topic that is different from what I usually focus on. As you all probably know, the killing of an African-American man named George Floyd by police officers has sparked renewed pain and outrage about racial injustice and the abuse of authority in America. This has reopened scars in the fabric of our society, at a time of deep division in our country along many fronts: politically, economically, and racially (among others).

Recently I’ve been having some poignant conversations with friends and family about this issue. These conversations have convicted me to address these issues from my own perspective and experiences–as a white American male, but even more so as a child of God and disciple of Jesus Christ.

Injustice grieves the Lord’s heart. Even though I am specifically addressing racial injustice against African-Americans in this post, that is in no way intended to minimize the very real suffering and injustices perpetrated against many other people and groups. Injustice of any kind, against anyone, is an affront to God Himself; since we are all made in His image.

I pray and hope that you will read this in the spirit from which I’m writing it: humility, with an open heart and mind to receive the Lord’s perspective, in wisdom and love. In sharing this, I am not standing on a soapbox with a “holier than thou” perspective. In fact, in this post I use anecdotes from my own life to present myself as a personal example of someone who has been well-intentioned, but ignorant of the individual and/or institutional racism and structural inequalities that currently exist in this country (what I’ll collectively refer to from now on as “racial injustice”). Please understand that when I say “ignorance”, I don’t mean to say that I’m a stupid, evil person; just that I’ve simply been unaware of what I didn’t know.

Because this is a fairly long read, here is the “bottom line, up-front”: the 4 main goals of this post on racial injustice are,

  1. To encourage you to be open to the possibility that you may be unaware of the presence and/or extent of existing racial injustice.
  2. To help you become aware.
  3. As a result of your awareness, to acknowledge and be sympathetic to people (specifically, in this case, African-Americans) who have suffered unfairly.
  4. A call to action to do something about it, in your own personal and authentic way.

Like many white people in America, I’ve always had a deep sense of “righteous anger” about the profound racial injustice in our country’s history. Since childhood, I’ve had a number of close African-American friends over the years. As a result, I’ve celebrated my perceived realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”. I’ve celebrated the abolition of slavery, as well as the freedom and equality born of the Civil Rights movement, which Dr. King and countless others so admirably fought and died for.

It is certainly true and worthy of celebration that our society has progressed significantly from many aspects of its dark and sordid past. However, as recent events have so painfully and clearly shown, there is yet much more progress to be desired and achieved. In the past several years, I have become increasingly “aware of my own ignorance” regarding the racial injustices and prejudice that still exist today for African-Americans. As is my custom, I believe personal stories will most effectively relate the truths I’m attempting to convey.

The first recent eye-opener for me about racial injustice was in 2015. I was living and working as a new Realtor in the Washington, D.C . area, talking to a good friend and mentor of mine (who we’ll call “Joe”). Joe is a homosexual African-American man. He’s also a former U.S. Army Officer, and is now quite possibly the best Realtor I’ve ever met in my life. The combination of his genuine love for his job, professional expertise, magnetic personality, and heart to serve his clients–as well as his ability to get results for them–was second to none. To be sure, he had done fairly well for himself and built a successful business over the previous 15 years or so.

I greatly admired and looked up to him, both as a Realtor and as a person. Which is why I was so confused by a comment he then made to me. He was talking about a high-profile property listing in a prime location in D.C. I was excited for him, as I thought he had as good a chance as anyone to get the listing. He said: “I couldn’t get that listing. You might be able to, Ryan, but I couldn’t”.

With shocked incredulity, I asked him what he meant. I was a one-year rookie in the industry, and he was a well-established 15-year industry veteran! Besides, I already knew that no matter how long I practiced real estate, I would never be half the Realtor Joe was. He gave me a skeptical, sidelong glance. Not because he disagreed with what I had just said, but for some other reason. I had no idea what that reason could be. After a brief pause, I thought I had figured it out.

“Oh, I’m sorry Joe, because you’re gay??”

“NO, man!! Come on, Ryan...”

Now I was really confused...if it wasn’t because of his sexual orientation, I had no absolutely idea what it could be. After a few more confused and awkward seconds, it finally dawned on me:

“Oh, what, because you’re black?! No way!!”

After all, this was 2015 in downtown D.C.; a socially progressive city that had already had a black mayor. Surely, I thought, racism couldn’t possibly be holding back a man of Joe’s obvious and impeccable qualifications from success in his business. In my mind, that was a relic of the distant past; not a present reality that affected him.

I was WRONG.

In other words, I needed to “repent”, which simply means to “change my thinking”. Joe briefly but powerfully explained to me in no uncertain terms the present-day reality of racial injustice that acted as a “glass ceiling” in his professional and personal advancement. It would be an understatement to say I was absolutely bewildered by this revelation.

The next instance of a similar realization was about a year later. It was 2016, and I was attending a fellowship program for military veterans in Georgetown (also in D.C.). My closest friend in the fellowship was a male African-American Air Force veteran named “KC”. KC and I had also become close with a female African-American Army veteran named “Monique”.

One beautiful summer evening, the three of us were enjoying a leisurely stroll through the Eastern Market area of downtown Capitol Hill (the area I lived in at the time). As we were walking by the restaurants and storefronts, KC let out a contented sigh and casually remarked to me: “Ahh, so this is what it’s like to be white!”

Once again, I was confused and taken aback. I asked KC what he meant. He explained that, when (and only when) he was with me or another white person, by virtue of our association it was like he got a “free pass” through the area. Free from the suspicious stares of other people he usually received, who would many times cross the street and/or move their hands close to their purses when he approached. (Shortly afterward, another very close African-American friend of mine would say the very same thing to me in Colorado.)

Initially in denial, just like I was previously with Joe, I asked Monique if she felt the same way. She immediately and adamantly agreed, and seemed to instinctively know exactly what KC meant. This was extremely surprising to me for a couple of reasons.

First of all, Monique is a well-educated and highly intelligent former military officer. Since the time I first met her, I was noticeably struck by how she projected an extremely professional appearance and demeanor. (At the time I assumed this was just her personality, but in retrospect I believe it may also be a persona she learned to intentionally cultivate as an African-American woman, in order to avoid being automatically marginalized or dismissed.) Monique was also married to a recently-retired senior military officer (an Army Colonel), who had just started a successful business. Having been to their house, I could clearly see they were “well to do” people. In my mind she was part of an “aristocracy” or socioeconomic status that was well above my own.

Secondly, we were walking through an area of the city that until very recently had been predominantly African-American. I thought that if anything, between the three of us, I was the “outsider” who was getting a “free pass” because of my two black friends. In other areas of the city, that may have been true. But the recent influx of high-income earning (and predominantly white) Millennials from the D.C. suburbs had gentrified Eastern Market and similar areas within D.C.’s downtown “urban core”. The result is that many of the long-time African-American tenants were priced out of the area and forced to move to other locations.

To be fair, part of that dynamic is simply the result of impersonal economic forces such as supply and demand, which is inherent to the “creative destruction” cycle of capitalism. And objectively, this gentrification provided significant economic growth and revitalized downtown areas that had been run-down for decades. No doubt, it greatly improved the aesthetic appeal and expanded the overall “economic pie” of the affected areas. But in the process, it made some pieces of the pie smaller to those who already had very small pieces to begin with.

In the New American Standard Bible (NASB), Jesus says in Matthew 13:12: “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” In combination with the Parable of the Talents which Jesus explains in Matthew 25:14-30 (as well as other scriptures), one may argue that this is a fair and biblical system in which one’s compensation is proportional to the value one adds to others. I don’t necessarily disagree, per se; but as we’ll later see, this would be missing the point Jesus is making here.

To be clear, I believe in an economic and political system that impartially rewards one with the fair and reasonable fruit of one’s own labor. Famed economist Adam Smith uses his own parable of sorts about the “Invisible Hand”: a reference to the free-enterprise market system that somehow, almost miraculously, self-regulates so as to reward those individuals and organizations that add the greatest value to others. People that choose to work hard, improve themselves, or otherwise increase their capacity to serve and add value to society will generally be rewarded commensurately, and vice versa.

However, I believe the insights of Jesus and Adam Smith hinge on the assumption of a truly impartial system in which there is a fair and level playing field. From the two anecdotes I shared earlier (first with Joe, and later with KC and Monique), I’ve become increasingly convinced that the system is not as impartial, nor the playing field as level, as I previously believed. Those personal experiences, among many others, have made me become aware of my own ignorance.

One definition of “White Privilege” is “inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice”. Because I personally have worked hard throughout my life to achieve success, and been rewarded with the attendant blessings, I used to be (and sometimes still am) resentful of the notion that white privilege was the main cause of the rewards life has given me. I never thought I was handed a silver spoon or any unfair advantage in life. And, to a certain extent, that’s true.

However, I’m also increasingly coming to appreciate that I didn’t have active resistance opposing my efforts for advancement, either. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of everyone. The analogy I use to explain this is that I generally don’t wake up every morning by gratefully exclaiming, “Thank God my left pinky toe doesn't hurt!” Unless I’ve experienced pain in my left pinky toe before, I probably won’t even think about the fact that it doesn’t hurt. To those who haven’t ever had to deal with chronic left pinky toe pain, it will be hard to empathize with those who do on a daily basis. The pain just isn’t “real” in many senses to those who haven’t been personally afflicted with it.

I think that’s the best way I can personally conceive of white privilege: the unfair barriers to advancement I’ve never suffered from and therefore, can’t/don’t fully acknowledge or appreciate because they haven’t affected me personally. I read something on Facebook that really stuck with me, that says something to the effect of: “Privilege is thinking that just because a problem doesn’t affect you personally, it’s not a problem”. From another Facebook account, belonging to an African-American, another post that relates to this said: “Often white people get defensive when the subject of white privilege arises, as if you are supposed to feel guilty. We don’t want your guilt. We need your awareness.”

And therein lies a critical distinction: the difference between “white guilt” (false guilt simply for being born white) and “white privilege” (the inherent, unfair advantages many white people are afforded and usually are oblivious to). That’s a central theme of this post: awareness. And for many like me, it’s awareness of our current and/or previous lack of awareness. Lack of awareness that isn’t because I’m a racist, a bad person, or because I’ve been blessed. Lack of awareness simply because I haven’t personally encountered or experienced something that causes me pain in the way it does to others.

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We don’t need to (and, in fact, shouldn’t) feel condemned, shamed, or guilty because others are suffering in ways we’re not. What we can and should do is acknowledge and share in their pain; if not with empathy (“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”), then at least with sympathy (“feelings of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”). Ultimately we should all be working towards a righteous, just society with an impartial system that affords everyone the opportunity to advance without any unfair opposition to their God-given right for prosperity.

With that in mind, I want to revisit what Jesus says in Matthew 13:12, this time with more scriptural context about what He was (and was not) actually saying. The context of this verse is not primarily about finances, economics, or compensation. This verse is part of the Parable of the Sower, with the context and theme being that of revelation.

The Passion Translation (TPT) makes this clearer to me: “For everyone who listens with an open heart will receive progressively more revelation until he has more than enough. But those who don’t listen with an open, teachable heart, even the understanding that they think they have will be taken from them.”

As I said at the beginning of this post, that is my heart and my prayer for those of you who are reading this: to have an open, teachable heart. Especially for those of you who, like me, may have good hearts, but simply don’t know what you don’t know. Though it was said in the context of military planning and operational risk management, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said something that I think is relevant and insightful: “There are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”.

I consider it a modest but encouraging measure of progress that some aspects of racism (in this country, at this time) have gone from an “unknown unknown” to a “known unknown” for me personally, as well as many others recently. As a result, I can now more easily sympathize with those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from racial injustice. Furthermore, that makes me willing and able to do something about it (even something as simple as writing this blog post).

My encouragement to you and call to action is this:

  1. Be willing to reexamine your thinking: Without a false sense of guilt or condemnation, be willing (if need be) to humble yourself and “repent” (i.e., “change your thinking”, based on truth and facts you were not previously aware of). Be open to the possibility that you may be unaware of what you don’t even know, regarding racial injustice.
  2. Become aware: In open-minded conversations with others, particularly those who have been the victim of racial injustice, ask for their viewpoint in an effort to better understand.
  3. Sympathize: As the Apostle Paul exhorts us, be willing to acknowledge and sympathize with the suffering of our brothers and sisters who are feeling pain we may not have personally experienced. Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice.
  4. Take action: It’s not for me to say what you “need” to do, or how to do it. In whatever way is authentic to you personally, initiate some kind of positive action to effect change for the better. It could be as simple as having a conversation with friends and/or family in the privacy of your own home. It could be attending a non-violent rally or writing your congressperson. For me, in this case, it was simply being willing to write this post on a sensitive topic in a public forum.

It may not immediately right all the wrongs in the world, but I believe these are some necessary and helpful first steps.



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