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St. Louis – Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by http://www.radicalcartography.net/index.html?chicagodots (Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago), updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA Map of By Eric Fischer (Flickr: Race and ethnicity 2010: St. Louis) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am white.

I’m not sure that lends me to give my opinions on what is going on in Ferguson, MO.  Yet by living in the St. Louis area throughout my entire childhood and having conversations about race and reconciliation inside and outside of seminary classrooms, I have some passionate thoughts on the subject.

If you live in the St. Louis area as I did in my childhood and throughout college and seminary, you notice that many areas are either white or black.  While there are a few integrated communities, it seems though each race has their designated space to live.

My first residence was in East St. Louis for the first three months of my life.  My parents moved closer to my dad’s work in Belleville.  My grandparents, who lived in my first residence, stayed there for another decade.  Based on what I remember when visiting them, they may have been the only or one of the few Caucasian families still in their neighborhood.

I remember people often talked about this fear that the people of East St. Louis were going to “move up the hill” to Belleville.  People continued and still continue to move farther away from Belleville’s West End because of this fear.

I’m guessing other areas of St. Louis experienced white flight similar to this.  Is it because people assumed racial minority equaled dangerous?  Or did people continue to hold on to their racism from the 1960’s?

When I entered seminary in my thirties, my friends of color would talk about their fears of living in Webster Groves.  I couldn’t understand.  To me, Webster Groves was this safe suburban community filled with large homes and prestigious schools.

But that wasn’t the experience of my friends.  One told me “I couldn’t go running at night.  I just can’t do that – someone will think I did something wrong.”  She told me that our black classmates and friends feel that they would be pulled over by police based upon the color of their skin.  And then she said something to me that really opened my eyes: “I can’t fully be a whole person in Webster Groves.”

When you live in privileged areas, only some people are given the rights of being made in God’s image.  Others have to embrace a lesser form of personhood.

Hearing the words “white privilege” for the first time made me completely uncomfortable.  As a woman I don’t feel extremely privileged.  Sure, I may not be as privileged as another white person based on my gender or socioeconomic group.  There are times that being a woman does not make life easy – especially when it has to do with bodily safety.

But I am privileged beyond what I will ever realize.

I can drive in suburbs and never wonder if I will be pulled over because of my skin color.  I will be treated with greater respect at stores.  People will not assume I will cause trouble because I am white.

Some time later, I took a class on race and reconciliation.  There was one day where the conversation became extremely heated.  The pain of what was happening in predominantly black neighborhoods and the discrimination to our sisters and brothers all over St. Louis was expressed very explicitly that day.

That day still remains at the forefront of my memory, especially when watching these events unfold in Ferguson.  I recognize the pain as many march on the streets.

From all of these conversations, it was like I took the “red pill” in the movie The Matrix.  I can’t unsee the systemic racism that exists in our communities.  The flame of justice and peace that was ignited in seminary continues to burn brighter within my soul as I watch news reports of North St. Louis County.

All I can assume is that these acts of protests, riots and looting stem from this deep systemic pain.  As a white person, I can’t accurately represent their pain.  But from the gift of many conversations, I know it’s there, and they have every right to voice their deep anguish.  When people face discrimination, violence, a disproportionate number of incarcerations, lack of quality education programs as well as adequately-paid employment options, food and basic needs, there’s less hope in their communities.

As a Caucasian, I can tell you that we don’t experience what minorities and marginalized people experience.  All we can do is try our best to point to injustices that linger in our communities.

What I’m writing here is intended for a primarily white audience — to share my story of privilege awareness.  As Caucasians need to start to do our best to see it from a different angle… not from our comfy suburban coves or up on hills away from “those people.”

When a family of color moves into our neighborhood, let’s not contemplate moving to a “whiter” area.  Let’s invite our neighbors over for coffee or dinner and begin to build the relationships.  When you see the looting on TV, don’t just focus on that one piece of the situation.  Instead, focus your eyes on the people who are trying to pray over the communities and lead communities to peace.  Listen for the people who are trying to bring all sides together for dialogue, and join those conversations.  Notice the people who are trying to stop looters and clean up the messes a few hands have made.

And let’s spend some time with our friends of various background.  Maybe we’ll hear the deep pain that resides within them from discrimination.

These are baby steps, but we need to start somewhere.

I believe it was a matter of time before this happened to a community in St. Louis.  The people of color in St. Louis have been living in pain that many of us will never understand in our lifetimes.  As a white person, I don’t know how to support them as I should, and I know I will fall short.

I will continue to make mistakes.  You will continue to make mistakes.  We’re human.  But how can we be better the next time?

When we misspeak and return to our privileged ways, we need to stand back up and continue to try to bring about God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

And I will say this: I don’t want to hear that the people who are expressing their anguish should be “whipped,” and please stop calling them “those people.”  They are part of all of us – part of the Body of Christ, part of God’s creation.  No matter what our color, we’re made in God’s image.

Yesterday, the lectionary text was Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15).  Her ethnicity and set of beliefs led Jesus to group her with the “other.”  She called Jesus out on his moment of discrimination, and he changed his view of her and his process of ministry to those outside of the Jewish faith.

Let’s be like Jesus, the one who taught us how to set aside our prejudices and love our neighbors unconditionally.