Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Personal Success Story"? "White Privilege"? or Both?

The ELCA's presiding bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, has set an example: own the white privilege we've experienced in our lives. Will Lutherans step up?

From @scarry:
What if we all did a personal inventory of how our "personal
success story" was built on white privilege? #ELCAcwa

(Image: ELCA presiding bishop Rev. Elizabeth Eaton and quote:
"When my dad came back from the war, the GI bill meant he and
my mom could get a low interest loan. That was not available to
African American veterans. That's white privilege. It's baked into
the system. Now, we didn't create it, but if we don't work to
change it, we are complicit."

The tweet above coincided with the every-three-years national gathering of the major US denomination of Lutherans -- the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The presiding bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, had shared a meme of herself on Twitter, and I found it inspiring. So I added my own take on it, and shared it. It stimulated a lot of activity.

The ELCA has a growing emphasis on anti-racism, and Bishop Eaton's message puts that emphasis front and center.  I found Bishop Eaton's meme powerful for three reasons in particular:

(1) It's about systemic racism . . . in this case, a government benefit. A big part of our anti-racism work is understanding that racism is institutionalized in the US, and that we are called to change that.

(1) It names "white privilege." Without taking anything away from her dad, who served in the war, and worked hard in other ways, Bishop Eaton points out that some of what she has benefited from is based on an inequity: white privilege.

(3) It's personal. It's about Bishop Eaton and her dad and her mom. It's real.

It seemed obvious to me that this act of leadership was saying to all of us, There, I did it; you can do it too: you can think about it . . . you can stand up and say it publicly . . . and you can help spur the conversation! 

Bishop Eaton has a "big soapbox." The ELCA has about 4 million members. Imagine if just a fraction of those people responded to this act of leadership.

So, in response to her initiative, and in the spirit of learning from Bishop Eaton about how to use social media effectively, I'm creating and sharing my own meme about how I've experienced white privilege.

This is just a first step, and it involves selecting one example out of many. This one builds on something I was reminded of by Bishop Eaton's testimony - a benefit stemming from military service in my own family. (Stay tuned for a future installment about my experience with the criminal justice system.)

The personal success story

My mother was the daughter of a coal miner in Eastern Pennsylvania. My "granddaddy" Melker had served in World War I.

My mother got college scholarship money for an essay she wrote for a veterans organization her father belonged to -- the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Together with other scholarship money, that money enabled her to attend college at Temple University in Philadelphia.

My mother met my father at Temple.

They got married.

Time passed.

I was born.

The question

You can't imagine how many times this legend has been repeated in our family. "Just imagine -- if Mom had never won that scholarship . . . !"

Very few teenagers from the coal fields of Pennsylvania got to go to college in those days; my mom was certainly the first person in her family to make the leap.  

And she earned it. She was really, really smart. And she was a hero in many, many ways.

At the same time . . . . I'm now wondering, "Was that scholarship a privilege that could not be accessed by the children of African-American veterans?" I've researched a little, and it's hard to prove one way or another. I did learn that 370,000 African-Americans were inducted into service in World War I. I've seen reference to the de facto (white) ethnic character of particular VFW posts; I've also read that there were all-black VFW posts, and that the VFW wasn't very widespread in the South.

Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era by Stephen R. Ortiz says:

While marked differences existed at the leadership level and in the national status of the [American] Legion and the VFW, more subtle differences could be found in their rank-and-file memberships. Both organizations took pride in a cross-class national membership. The thorny issue of race, however, tested the supposed inclusiveness of the organizations. Each allowed state departments to decide on racial matters, in tacit complicity with the southern Jim Crow system and the racial system that was emerging in the north during the 1920s. Therefore, while both the VFW and the Legion included African-American veterans as members, typically they were shunted into segregated posts in both northern and southern states. (p. 19, accessed via Google Books)

This will be a question that I will continue to research. (Maybe some of the people who know the history can share comments to this blog.)

My family went from the coal fields to the college quadrangle,
with the help of a scholarship from the VFW.

"Personal Success Story"?
"White Privilege"?
or both?

(Share on Twitter)

Related posts

"I am convinced that we are in denial about the racism that saturates our society and from which we directly benefit. That denial produces predictable twin reactions from white people: either silence about the racism that plainly reinforces our way of living or surprise at the frustration and outrage African Americans and others express at how they are treated."

(See Can "Lutheran" Be a #BlackLivesMatter Denomination?)

To be sitting in Berkeley and seeing in front of my eyes the spreading of this idea that started in Texas and was nurtured in Philadelphia and got agitated in Chicago felt like a real Pentecost moment.

(See Decolonize Lutheranism -- A Northern California Installment)

I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

(See Let the Church Out of the Closet )