My white privilege
How relationships can uncover our blindness to racism
By Susanne Janssen
Am I racist? I’d say no. Born and raised in an all-white family in a large city in Germany, I had from an early age friends from different countries: immigrants from Argentina and Southern Europe. Through my work in the Church and Focolare, I’ve met many different people and cultural experiences that made me who I am today.
And yet, I am biased. I continue to be part of a society that doesn’t see all races as equal, and unconsciously I have assumed some attitudes that were planted in my brain through literature, TV, politicians.
Would I react differently if an African American man followed me walking alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood than if a Caucasian man did?
How do I feel about a soprano of color singing the role of Pamina or Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute?
And why does it seem normal for me to see a picture of a white man helping an African American homeless man rather than inversely?
You could say that media only mirrors the reality in society, that operas and plays created centuries ago didn’t have people of color in their stories, but other playbooks do. Still, only recently I became aware how deeply white privilege affects me, despite considering myself open-minded.
As most human beings, I’ve experienced unfair treatment. My male competitors for a job were perceived differently and maybe preferred despite having lower qualifications. I grew up Catholic in a mostly Protestant and secular city, which made me “the odd one out” in my class. I worked for many years in a region where my accent revealed my foreign origin.
However, none of those experiences was part of a systemic, ongoing discrimination, to the point of almost destroying an ethnic group’s original traditions and past. And while someone can just move on to another job or region, no one can change the color of their skin or eliminate a history that continues to influence the present.
The tendency to argue against being racist and draw parallel experiences of discrimination might be a typical answer from the perspective of white privilege. A white person, for example, might say, “You’re hurting, but others are, too.” That is wrong: we need to recognize that there is a fundamental difference in the nature of these injustices.
The opportunities to move on and take the next chance are part of white privilege. So is the freedom to go jogging wherever I want, or the certainty that I can survive a wrong move if stopped by the police. I’ve had to learn to make these distinctions, through listening and trying to walk in others’ shoes.
The uproar since the murder of George Floyd made me deeply aware that my dream of a united world, instilled in me as a teenage member of the Focolare, which aims to live for universal brotherhood, can only be achieved if we face these wounds in our society, if we address openly the mistakes and the continuing hurt.
This is not simply a utopia. Personally, I’ve learned to appreciate diversity and felt enriched by different perspectives that have opened my vision. I learned awe from a friend from Nigeria with whom I studied theology; she was raised in a family with a strong traditional faith that opened a new dimension to my Western, intellectual approach. I was touched by the hospitality of Middle Eastern families, who prepared food for days and left their beds for us guests, teaching me what it means to go the extra mile. Living one year in Brazil, I became more aware of life’s beauty and people’s incredible resilience.
I was devastated when my father lost his job, even though we were still economically stable. But when I met families whose entire livelihood was destroyed by a flood, who lived on day-to-day jobs, I was struck by their optimism and joy that I had lacked.
In all these friendships, nurtured over years of meetings where everyone strove to be united in the name of God, I experienced that we are all part of the one human race. Yet societies don’t give us all the same recognition or equal opportunities to pursue our dreams.
Today is a call to work for social justice, not only on a personal or community level, but by taking a closer look at oppression and discrimination in any form that persists in our entire justice system, in politics, in business and the arts, to name a few.
Moreover, we can truly be one only if we are courageous enough to show our vulnerabilities, to face our biases and help each other to grow.
Recently, while talking about the current protests with a close friend who is a person of color, I made a comment that she perceived as judgmental. She shared that impression with me, without much fuss. That helped me to understand the problem and choose my words more carefully. So I am grateful for people in my life who have helped me to see that while I might say that I am not racist, in reality, I am still biased.
Still, that is not enough anymore. Am I anti-racist, as Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University asks? He defines anti-racism as being “part of the struggle that is challenging racism on an everyday basis.” This means not finding peace until racial equality is reached. So where do I begin?
While it all still seems nowhere near enough, I start with listening to my African American friends, diving into history and reading stories that might be painful but true. I choose my social media posts more consciously, pointing out injustice and fostering reconciliation.
And I pray that we don’t fall prey to those who want to use the current events for their own political interests, but rather work toward what we are called to: a human family where we can all
enjoy opportunities and be enriched by our diversity.
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