Returning Home: A Reflection on Power and Privilege upon Being in Charleston

By Jason Whitehead 7-23-2015
Image via Globe Turner/Shutterstock
Image via /Shutterstock

For the past thirty years my family has vacationed in Charleston, S.C. I spent eight years living, going to school, and working in Charleston; I met my wife there, got married there, and it is still a place we count as home when people ask.

The shootings at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston let loose a flood of memories long shoved into the recesses of my mind. One of these was when I was the youth director for a large white affluent congregation, and the youth groups at Mother Emanuel and my church performed a joint Youth Sunday service in the late 90s.

Driving from Asheville, N.C, to Charleston shortly after the shootings, my heart grew heavy as I wondered what to do when we arrived. Nothing I envisioned captured the heaviness I felt; the need to be useful. I decided to sleep on it.

The next morning I awoke to an article by Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, an artist, activist, and professor at Clemson University. Dr. Kumanyika discusses his reticence about holding a white woman’s hand during a time of prayer at a memorial service. As I read his essay, he illuminated things I was unable to articulate, and cast light on why I believe my desire to do something felt so misguided.

My desire to do something, I believe, stemmed from wanting to reclaim a sense of comfort about a place I often think of as home. I wanted to participate in the healing and protest so I could be on vacation. What I needed to do was to sit with my discomfort; reflect on the disproportionate power I am allowed as a white male; connect with a sense of helplessness (or maybe hopelessness).

I needed to not perform. Sometimes performance masks our ability to be present.

The day after we arrived I drove another 60 miles to meet a friend in Pawley’s Island, S.C. Riding up the coast on Highway 17, I pegged the cruise control nine miles above the speed limit. On my way, I passed more than a dozen AME churches dotting the landscape. Each church had found a way to signify their solidarity with Mother Emanuel: 9 crosses in front of one church, placards with messages of hope and solidarity, billboards reading "CharlestonStrong." Interspersed betweeen these churches, juxtaposed with these messages, were a half dozen or so former plantations, now tourist destinations.

The contrast struck me hard. I looked at my speedometer as I passed a car on the road, and even that reminded me of my privilege. In South Carolina I can drive over the speed limit and not think twice about being pulled over. I’m not sure I could say that about others who shared the road with me. It’s these little comforts that I often overlook when it comes to privilege; little comforts that became sources of discomfort; a discomfort that led to a greater awareness of the space I occupy as a white Southern male.

For a number years I have been on a quest to understand better my privilege. I feel this makes me a more capable pastor and educator. This mission originated from an honest reflection by the head of a search committee, following an interview for a teaching position. Towards the end of a grueling series of interviews, the faculty asked me to explain how I understood my privilege as a white male. For the life of me, I couldn’t articulate my inherited and/or assumed power based on my sexuality, social, gender, racial, and cultural locations. I sat in discomfort the whole way home, knowing what I failed to articulate; sat in discomfort when I listened to the rejection; sat in discomfort as I shared the news with mentors and friends. That discomfort provided the impetus to become more aware of my privilege. My immediate goal, crudely stated at the time, was decentralizing myself in my interactions with others. Not denying my presence — just experimenting with ways of sublimating the given or assumed power in relationships.

The experiment reframed my work with students, faculty, and staff members at Iliff School of Theology. It also brought to life something I regularly preached and taught — the concept of relational power.

Robert Mesle described relational power as including "three components: (1) the ability to be actively open to and affected by the world around us; (2) the ability to create ourselves out of what we have taken in; and (3) the ability to influence those around us by having first been affected by them."

This informs the way I think of power now.

As I continued to experiment, I tried to be open to the experiences of others, gaining empathy and insight into the myriad dynamics in any one moment. This openness made me thankful for the differences I experience, and taught me to pay attention to sharing power and co-creating meaning. 

The hardest part of knowing and reflecting upon your privilege is figuring out what to do with it. Empathy and listening are more natural avenues for me, helping me become aware of my privilege. Sometimes, I am still not sure how to influence having been affected by others. How do I interact with the power and influence afforded me? How can I be active without being directive or coercive? At the same time, how do I breathe life into a healthy activism without assuming that I am needed for change to happen?

These uncomfortable questions continue to sit on my heart and mind. At some point I will have to do something — preach, teach, march. I only hope I do it having first heard what is needed rather than assuming I know what is best.

Rev. Dr. Jason C. Whitehead is the Director of Consultation and Formation at Iliff School of Theology.

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