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St Barts Blog

The Day I Became Aware of My White Privilege

JD Cowart shares the moment he understood his own privilege as a white person and what that means for him and his life of faith.

by JD Cowart on June 15, 2021

Several years ago, Christine and I took a road trip to Utah. As we cruised along Interstate 15 just the other side of Vegas, a Nevada state trooper fell in several car lengths behind us and, for what felt like an eternity, stayed there, keeping his distance while matching our speed. Not sure what we might be doing wrong, I told Christine we were about to get pulled over, and sure enough a minute later the trooper sped up to within a couple of car lengths and flipped on his lights. 

We pulled off at the next exit and he followed us, stopping his car, again, several car lengths behind us. And after what felt, again, like an eternity watching him in the rear-view mirror talking on his radio, consulting his computer, talking on his radio, consulting his computer, he opened his door and began walking toward us — slowly and cautiously, hand on his gun, body positioned to draw it at moment’s notice. I was puzzled, to say the least.

As he approached my side of the car — giving us a very wide berth in the process — his pace slowed to a crawl, and in the side mirror out my lowered window I saw his hand tighten around his pistol grip. Suddenly my puzzlement became concern. What in earth was going on?

Several agonizingly slow paces later, the trooper caught his first sight of one of us — almost certainly Christine in the passenger seat with her blonde hair — and he stopped in his tracks. His hand remained on his gun, but I saw his expression and his posture change. He started walking again, this time a bit more quickly and much more directly toward my door. As he got to within ten feet, right about where he could first get a good visual on me, he stopped again and craned his neck to make sure he was seeing me clearly … and immediately everything changed. The tension left his body, he stood straight up, his hand came off his gun, and he walked up to my side and asked, “How are you two doing today?”

Turns out that, because of some neighborhood license-plate mischief here at home a couple of years earlier, our car showed as stolen in the Nevada system. No doubt himself thoroughly relieved on hearing the full story, the trooper spent a good fifteen minutes contacting California authorities to verify it and Nevada authorities to begin the process of setting the official record straight. He took our registration card and wrote his name and badge number on it, signing it with a note saying he’d verified the car was ours and the plates were good, and he sent us on our way. We were, and still are, very grateful for his excellent service. 

That was the day I became keenly aware of my white privilege. I’d heard the term before, and I understood intellectually what it meant. But I had never before internalized it. I’d had no need to. … But at that very moment when the trooper realized he had a 40-something white couple in a car reported as stolen, his instinct told him everything was alright. And my instinct told me the same. I can still see that moment as clearly in my mind’s eye today as I did that day — the moment it became clear to me precisely how my privilege works and why it’s so valuable. 

Sacred Ground has helped me make sense of my privilege — to understand it much more fully, how it developed and was handed down through generations, especially over the last hundred years from my grandfather to my father to me and now to my kids. More importantly, though, Sacred Ground has begun to illuminate the history of this nation I love much more completely, making clear that the version of history I have learned — first because it was taught to me and then because of my own learning choices — while mostly true, is horribly incomplete. I learned history entirely from the perspective of my ancestors, white European settlers of New England, Georgia, Tennessee, Mexico, and ultimately Texas. Very little notice was given in my historical education to the perspectives of the indigenous people of this land and the affect my family’s livelihood has had on them. Nor much to the experiences of enslaved Africans and the lengths to which my southern ancestors went to ensure the post-emancipation lives of Black Americans changed very little. I come from family proud of its role in building an independent Texas after its freedom from Mexican rule — a history closely followed by the State of California as well — with no heed paid to the lives of the Mexican citizens who preceded them. And I’ve come to truly appreciate how my life own choices perpetuate this history. 

I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that it’s on me: 

 - to understand history, 

 - to understand and embrace that I’ve had opportunities that simply were not and still are not available to everyone, and

 - most importantly, to listen intently to, and learn from, people whose life experiences and family histories are very different from mine and, if I will allow it, will transform how I live and engage in Christian fellowship with my neighbor, in the greatest, Christ-given sense of that word. 

The Sacred Ground study is built specifically to create a sacred meeting space that encourages and supports this learning, sharing, discovery, understanding, and fellowship. It is designed to help each of us live into our promise — as expressed in our own parish mission statement — to be a “radically welcoming Church” that strives to transform lives, beginning with my own. 

Tags: faith, white, jd, cowart

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