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Rethinking White Privilege at Age 96

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Black Lives Matter. Systemic racism. White Privilege.

These phrases have become a rallying cry for some, and a political grenade for others.

But there is no doubt the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have awakened many white Christians to the harsh realities of systemic racism in our country.

It shouldn’t have taken this long, but many white Christians (including myself) have been apathetic about the fight for racial justice up to this point. Then we saw the video of George Floyd and the scales fell off our eyes, finally.

This important topic of racial injustice has been a flashpoint for intergenerational conversations in particular, and many of these conversations have played out among family members. Most families, if not all, have members who lack a filter and “just tell it like it is.” The younger generation may cringe at what comes out of their mouth occasionally, but we usually chalk it up to the fact they grew up in a different era. You can’t teach a dog new tricks, right?

Well, my 96-year-old grandfather, Paul, is proving those assumptions wrong.

He has spent this summer on lockdown at his retirement home due to the pandemic, but he has been reflecting on the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a conversation I had with him recently it was astounding to hear a man his age talk about how he now recognizes his own privilege. He said that he is now reassessing his values, and where those values came from. It’s even challenging him to reconsider how he thinks and votes! He is now aware of the implicit prejudices that he has carried with him most of his life.

Paul grew up in Milwaukee and remembers having few if any, classmates of color through all of grade school and college. While in the Army he interacted with other black officers, but he typically outranked them and so he was always the one giving the orders. He said it didn’t even cross his mind that race might have been a reason that some officers were not promoted.

But the delicate balance of race relations has hit close to home since moving into a wealthy retirement home. All the residents are white, and almost all the workers are minorities. Typically, Asians are laundry workers and African Americans are the nurses and food staff.

Dinnertime is a re-creation of the antebellum south in many respects. As my grandfather said, most of the residents dress up and head down to the main dining room where each table is covered in a white tablecloth. The interactions between the residents and the staff can be troubling to witness. Residents will speak to the staff in an “abrupt, disrespectful fashion, and not as equals,” he said. The assumption is that the staff are to simply respond with “Yes ma’am and no sir.” To my grandfather, it feels like a class distinction, where many of the residents treat the staff like servants. Though it may not be spoken, he now sees this as an elitist culture that permeates racist assumptions.

Through this summer his eyes have been opened to the subtle forms of racism that surround him and he’s committed to change, personally, and even challenge the unhealthy culture around him. It is inspiring to see someone at his age who is willing to rethink the assumptions he’s lived with all his life. This summer has challenged his long-held assumptions, and amazingly, he is taking it all in with an open mind and an open heart.

It is amazing to behold but if you knew my grandfather, you wouldn’t be too surprised.

As a devout Christian he has always been thoughtful about his faith, and he knows that God is always working in new and mysterious ways. He sees this time in history as a new form of evangelism for the white Christians. Like hearing the gospel for the first time, white Christians are having to relearn or even re-hear the good news of Jesus Christ. It is challenging us to rethink our assumptions of Jesus’ life and message, and we, as the white church, have to recognize our complicity in the past and present. We must think about what it means to care for the “outsider” in our community. Evangelism only works when it is coupled with hospitality.

Watching the news and seeing the peaceful protests have given my grandfather hope for the future. He says that it’s an exciting time to be alive and to see different races coming together to talk about these important issues.

And so, hearing from my grandfather is not only inspiring but is a direct challenge to those who believe they’re too old to change. Age has nothing to do with it, where you grew up has nothing to do with it. The question is: Are we willing to rethink our assumptions and possibly change? Do we care to listen to someone who has a different perspective than ourselves? Are we willing to admit we’ve been wrong this whole time?

It’s easier to entrench ourselves in our preconceived notions. It’s easier to not listen to the other side. But the work of conversion never stops. God continues to call us into a deeper understanding of what is true and good.

That’s my grandfather’s ultimate hope for all of us. As he says, we must search for what is real and true, and we must ask ourselves: what side do we want to be on?

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

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Not surprising to me at all. I have known and admired Doc for years. Fyi, beginning in October I will be leading a book study of Ljeoma Uluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race on zoom from St. Paul’s, M’boro. Maybe you all can tune in. I’ll certainly be referring to Paul’s story. Thanks for sharing this, Wesley.

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