As the nation pauses on Monday to honor the vision and efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some professors at Gordon are also considering his impact on their work. Katie Knudsen, adjunct professor of Christian Theology, and The Great Conversations, and Coordinator of Academically-Based Service-Learning in the Office of Community Engagement, offers the following personal essay in recognition of the issues Dr. King raised as he pursued racial reconciliation.
A “Privileged” Life
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a conservative Jewish home. My town was largely white, but more diverse by far than the area I currently call home, the North Shore of Massachusetts. My best friends were some fellow Jews, a Korean and an African American from my neighborhood. Even so, I never thought much about race and was never really confronted with it. When we celebrated MLK Day, I was content knowing my ancestors were busy being harassed in Eastern Europe during the time of slavery and Jim Crow.
Clearly, it was a naive response.
College, however, was an awakening. At Duke University in North Carolina, far from home and the culture to which I was accustomed, I became the first Jew a few of my classmates had ever met. There was an enormous population of African Americans, which was exciting for me. I loved getting to know black students, listening to their music in our freshmen dorm, learning from them how to straighten my very-curly hair.
Some things were more unsettling. Every single cook, janitor, and landscaper I met at Duke was African American. It was uncomfortable always being served by black people, but they were the people in the area who needed the jobs, so some sort of “affirmative action” for white service people would have been inappropriate. I began to wonder, though, why so many African Americans were seeking such low-paying work.
Which brings me to the most emotionally-draining, yet life-changing class of my educational career. The year before graduation, I registered for “Race and Education in America,” a class my now-husband and I quickly renamed “Why White People Suck.” The first few weeks in the class were difficult. My Black and Latino peers behaved differently in this class than I was used to them behaving. Many were angry and combative, and they frequently focused on this thing called “white privilege.”
I became defensive. After all, I had always identified as Jewish, rarely thinking of myself as white. And I had certainly never personally oppressed people of color, nor would I approve of doing so. Despite my uncomfortability, I decided to remain in the class (not one I needed for my majors) and to listen to the stories my classmates told. I learned to listen quietly rather than react quickly, and I came to realize that I was indeed privileged. No, my ancestors did not own slaves, but, yes, I had experienced enormous advantages in my life as a white person in America. My parents got the mortgage they needed to buy a home in an upper middle class community. I went to excellent public schools and always had the textbooks and technology I needed to do my work well. Every job interview I had was with a person who looked like me. Every college interview I had was with a person who looked like me. I qualified for loans so that I could go to my first choice for college, and I knew that, if I ever missed a payment, I would have family members who could get me out of financial trouble.
These advantages are not universal. My life could be relatively easy, at least in part because others’ were not. Yet many white people fail to realize that, though we might not be personally oppressing people of color, we nonetheless benefit from a system that historically oppressed others. Too often we’d simply rather not acknowledge or understand it.
Soon, confronting this reality taught me another: that my privilege comes with responsibilities. I cannot fully lay my privilege down, but I can use it to benefit others: to lift others up so that their stories can be heard, to help build a platform, and give a voice and a home to those who might not have either.
And, that, in itself, has become a different sort of privilege. My husband and I adopted two Ethiopian children because we longed to complete our family by giving a home to children who needed one. We have always had extra friends or boarders live with us, but last year we had the chance to welcome three students into our home, two of whom are international. Our home has become a place of challenge, rest and refuge, not just for them but for us as well. Deep discussions go long into the night and are always enlightening. Our family now consists of Caucasians, Africans, and an Asian; a Jew, an Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, and Protestants; Democrats and (occasionally) Republicans.
I have learned to be comfortable in uncomfortability, to find unity in diversity. I learn new things everyday, learn to see things from others’ perspectives. I benefit from Ethiopian traditions and Korean family values. I have also learned to acknowledge my own culture. I have come to understand that the way we grow up is not normal or correct as opposed to abnormal or incorrect. It is largely a series of one culture’s choices as opposed to another’s, and many choices can be equally valid, or useful, or even “Christian.” All races and cultures are created by God and are infused with God’s common grace. All God’s people bear the divine image and deserve to be treated as such. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., we are all part of God’s “beloved community.” I have come to see this, and that, indeed, is a privilege.