Because I had lived in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa, in the early 1980’s, I believed for a long time that race wasn’t an issue for me. Even though my family had enjoyed all of the benefits afforded to whites under Apartheid and had never openly protested that system of racist oppression, I was convinced that my South African experience gave me moral high ground when compared to my white American peers.
After all, I hadn’t supported the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Jim Crow laws; that was white Americans. Surely, the weight of that carnivorous history hung upon other shoulders, and not my own. My family was Canadian before becoming South African, and I became American in 1984. “Don’t worry, people of color,” I would whisper. “I’m not like the other historically-racist white people. I’m a new American white person. I’m one of the good ones.”
J. Kameron Carter was the professor at Duke Divinity School who helped me to see that this inner elitism was my own denial, a denial of my participation in the privileges of systematic racism that actually served only to mask the opportunities afforded me because of my skin color. I discovered that I had a choice: either I remain convinced of my own righteousness, detached from the realities of what it means to be embodied as a non-white person, or I begin to walk with, listen to, and hear the stories and lives of my black and brown friends.
If I was to do the former, I’d have to consciously negate the experiences of other people whose names and faces and laughter I knew. Rather than believe black and brown persons to be authoritatively aware of their own stories, I would be allowing my discomfort (regarding my own complicity with racism) to elevate my own story and opinion as being “more real” than theirs.
If I was do the latter, it would inescapably call for an accounting of my own white personhood, my own experiences, my own history, and in that accounting, an active repentance for my own partaking (whether conscious or unconscious) in the fruits of white racism and oppression.
I knew the former to be impossible, and there was no escaping that the latter would be painful. Honesty, however, is not an unbearable pain.
My name is Adam Baker, and I am a white man who lives in a culture of white privilege. My denial of that is a mask that makes me as guilty as if my mask were one that is hooded and white. Quite simply, Jesus has called me to repent and believe the Gospel, a Gospel which is equal hope for us all. My acknowledgement of my privilege is a part of my repentance. And, as with all repentance, it calls me to live differently. Race matters because it is an inescapable part of the stories of God’s created people, and it is only by hearing and believing these stories that I might truly see.