White privilege and Trayvon Martin

By Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton*

During a golf outing a few days ago, my playing partner hit a shot that unfortunately sliced out of bounds. After searching for a few minutes I located the ball in someone’s backyard.

“There’s your ball,” I cried. “It’s in that person’s backyard.”

“Just leave it,” he replied. “Let’s just go.”HowIseeIt_OneLine_TradeGothicjpg

When I inquired as to why he didn’t want to pick up his errant ball, my playing partner said, “I won’t go into someone’s backyard on a golf course. I have been threatened with stealing and trespassing in the past.”

It was there, in the peaceful confines of a golf course, that I was confronted with an unbelievably disturbing fact: my golf mate and I had two different perceptions of reality.

You see, the person I was playing with is African American. I, a tall white male, would have had no hesitation in walking into that backyard, picking up the errant ball, and making my way back onto the course. My African-American golf partner had huge hesitations based on his own experience.

My experience is called “white privilege.” His experience is called “racism.”

Race and our assumptions

As a person who has benefitted from “white privilege” all of my life, my experience tells me that I can take liberties and benefit from assumptions that have served me well over the years. I do not have to worry about being threatened with stealing and trespassing when I hit a golf ball onto someone else’s property. Neither do I have to worry about how I am perceived if I walk around with my hands in my pocket or when I wear a “hoodie.” I live in relative comfort with few threats being sent my way in a normal day.

Not so for people of color. Assumptions based on race abound. Things like, “What does he have in his pockets?” or “What is she hiding underneath that hoodie?” or “What is that black man doing looking around in my back yard?”

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield

There are countless numbers of commentaries being shared regarding the recent trial of George Zimmerman in the case of Trayvon Martin. Many of those comments reflect the hurt, anxiety and pain of the African-American community. Many of those comments express concern over matters of race. On the other side, in public forums and hallway conversations, others cast judgment on those who raise the issue of race and do not understand the passion for doing so. Still others say nothing at all because it does not affect them or the limited realm that makes up their world.

Today I simply want to remind those of us who benefit greatly from “white privilege” that we should be very careful to think before we speak any word of judgment and condemnation in this or any other case that involves potential racism.

Likewise, those of us who may remain silent should be very bold to speak on behalf of the hurts and injustices suffered by those around us. We do not walk parallel paths. Our experience is far different than the experience of others. Our comforts are not shared uniformly.

The life God intends

We live in a world filled with racism, judgment, profiling, hatred, violence and sin. Can we not long to see this end?

As followers of Christ, our pattern should be one where we are never comfortable with anything that separates us from the kind of life God intends. That pattern should be one where we work tirelessly to live a life and serve a church that takes its lead from Micah 6:8, namely, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I am deeply saddened by the pain caused by a verdict in a court case. I am significantly disturbed by the racism that still clouds our life together as children of God. I am painfully aware of the gross injustices that take place every day of our lives.

And, I am humbled to find it to be true — even on the fairway of a golf course.

*Bickerton leads the Pittsburgh Area of The United Methodist Church.



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  1. GemGirl

    If we go beyond race and consider the human condition, much evidence points to the dehumanizing nature of our society that mental health professionals and spiritual leaders need to address.

    A great deal of research and related articles are exploring the tangible effects of societal dysfunction on the human psyche. The dominant society is doing all it can to quash our sense of joy and wonder, with soullessness to replace it. This goes beyond racial issues and we are all at risk.

    The Corporate Right-Wing Agenda Is Driving Thousands of Americans to Attempt Suicide http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/corporate-right-wing-agenda-driving-thousands-americans-attempt-suicide

    Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane

    Bruce Levine, PhD, is a mental health professional who, like me, is deeply concerned about the debilitating effects of oppression on all human beings: http://brucelevine.net/category/bruce-levine-articles/

    Last but not least is this excellent resource:
    Mad in America — Science, Psychiatry and Community
    http://www.madinamerica.com/resources/ The site is designed to serve as a resource and community for those interested in rethinking psychiatric care in the United States and abroad. Too many people are being medicated and mis-diagnosed.

  2. Parson


    First of all, I think it would be helpful for you to follow the conversation above with xnlover, and to read the article suggested….

    The collapse of the traditional black family in the US is a fact, and seems to drive and aggravate so many other problems – even though a similar trend is being seen among other ethnic groups as well.

    We could say that this area of our culture is like a mission field for the church where mentoring programs like the one highlighted in the article shows promise of making a big and lasting difference.

    Hopefully, in the next generation we will be able to say, “our efforts in this area of need have caused a cultural shift, and a change in thinking about life, education, and marriage.”

    The church ought to be active in, and supportive of, every program that shows promise of bringing health, wholeness, and spiritual salvation wherever it is needed – whether the program is initiated by the government or by the church, or by anyone else, for that matter.

    God’s dream goes far beyond my local church. He came to save the world that he loves. His church should love the world for which he died and help find solutions wherever there is need.

    We will be judged for not feeding the hungry, not clothing the naked, not visiting the prisoners…. Yes, this is our prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven….”


    1. GemGirl

      Parson wrote: “The collapse of the traditional black family in the US is a fact, and seems to drive and aggravate so many other problems…”

      “Collapse” is too extremist and subjective, making your statement sound all-encompassing. What you call traditional (meaning white) has never been fully applicable to the black community…black families were broken up during the slavery era so whites could maintain control in various ways. This required blacks to improvise and adjust for survival, thus the “village” concept emerged where communities helped in nurturing young people.

      Context and qualifiers like “some” and “many” definitely matter. In my circle of diverse friends and family, most black families I know are maintaining cohesion in various ways. Even those without a traditional arrangement might include co-parenting, extended families and community supports.

      This means that even if many are poor, many black families are INTACT – despite the assaults against black people due to racist institutional policies designed to harm black families.

      I give black people credit for coping as well as they have given the ongoing attacks against them. Using extremist, alarmist language attempts to label blacks collectively as a “problem” rather than look at the reality of how racism creates various conditions.

      So then Parson, good that you acknowledge “a similar trend is being seen among other ethnic groups as well” — AS WELL AS AMONG WHITES. Many white homes even with traditional parental arrangements are dysfunctional in various ways, but mainstream media headlines do not single out and label white dysfunction as news.

      All of this points to the U.S. culture being very problematic in various ways.

      1. Parson


        From yourblackworld.com – here’s a recent article entitled, “The Black Family is Worse Off Today Than in the 1960’s…”

        “According to a report released by the Urban Institute, the state of the African-American family is worse today than it was in the 1960′s. Before you become offended and charge, “What about the White family?!” The report also discloses that families of all ethnicities are showing a decline; however, the African-American household has suffered the worst decline….
        In 1950, 17 percent of African-American children lived in a home with their mother but not their father. By 2010 that had increased to 50 percent. In 1965, only eight percent of childbirths in the Black community occurred out-of-wedlock. In 2010 that figure was 41 percent; and today, the out-of-wedlock childbirth in the Black community sits at an astonishing 72 percent. The number of African-American women married and living with their spouse was recorded as 53 percent in 1950. By 2010, it had dropped to 25 percent.”

        I doubt there is one credible sociologist who would think that the statistics cited above are no cause for alarm.

        Yes – collapse is a good word – and perhaps not as extreme as it should be.

        The problem in discussing these issues is that many are very sensitive, and a discussion can quickly descend into an emotional verbal exchange.

        “Cancer” is a highly charged word – but if that’s the problem, no other word is sufficient. For healing, there must first be an accurate diagnosis. We need to use extreme language when there is an extreme illness that needs to be addressed.

        And I’m not sure how far anyone can go in a reasonable conversation when “traditional family” – one man and one woman raising children in a loving home – is said to be a “white” thing. The book of Genesis even says it’s a “God” thing – his design from the beginning.

        The social and financial and educational benefits – and benefits to children – of the traditional family are too well-documented even to mention here. It would be a sad thing to conclude that it is only a “white” thing.

        And yes, there are many different family structures today in all groups – and kudos to those who have struggled and are struggling – and having to improvise – in less than ideal circumstances to make things work. They need to be encouraged.

        But if we can’t agree that the traditional family – again, one man and one woman raising children in a loving home – is something we should aspire to as a culture for the benefit of blacks and whites and hispanics, and every other ethnic group, I’m not sure meaningful and fruitful discussion is even possible.

        Blessings, Parson

        1. GemGirl

          Parson, blessings to you as well. And please be aware this will be my last posting due to the fact that we are “going-in-circles.”

          I am black, professional, well-read and well-versed on the various issues impacting the “black community.” So, I really don’t need evidence of what many black people already know and discuss among themselves and with allies of diverse racial backgrounds. The mainstream media has already saturated the general public with every negative concept one can come up with about blacks collectively, so why would you think citing black news sites is necessary to support whatever point you want to make?

          “Cancer” is the word I would use to describe RACISM. Racism is a sociopathic system, which means it KILLS life rather than supports and nurtures it. This description should be adequate for you to grasp, but I doubt that you will get just how extensive institutionalized racism is in affecting black people.

          The topic of discussion here is supposed to be white privilege.I tire of dealing with white people who want to divert from the topic at hand in order to focus primarily on what they perceive as flaws with black life and culture. The whites who fail to look at their own flaws tend to place total blame on others who are harmed by the racist policies and practices that are embedded within American culture.
          Racism is deeper than you realize. What President Obama experiences with obstructionist Republicans is the same racist dynamic I have experienced much of my professional life in most interactions with white people. They do not know how to relate to blacks as individuals and inevitably offend people like me for whom the worst stereotypes not only do not apply, but are far from what we represent. Most black people I know are just doing their best and loving, living and working to maintain their quality of life.

          The problem I have with discussions like this is that some whites grab ahold of a bone to chew on — a pet issue — and decide that that one thing or another is the real problem. RACISM is the REAL PROBLEM.

          Whites who are the most conscious and compassionate know that context matters for every issue affecting the black community. Those are the whites I can relate most to and have no problem discussing their concerns. I don’t like discussing black community issues with people who demonstrate a lack of understanding of context and clearly do not care since their main agenda is to place blame on black people for all dysfunction without considering the context of systemic racism and how that impacts human life. In other words, I tend to see through attempts by some whites who use their comments as proof of white superiority, which is the most non-sensical ideology ever created but which has warped the minds and perspectives of far too many.

        2. Parson


          Thanks for your reply.

          First of all, let me clarify that I was not quoting the article to inform you of what I felt sure you already knew. I was quoting it to let you know that the statistics that concern me and so many others are well-documented and – as you say, saturated by the mainstream media – and not something I made up.

          What puzzles me is that you don’t seem to think these statistics are alarming enough to call a “cancer” – one that needs to be addressed with thoughtful, compassionate and radical efforts to turn things around.

          There is no question that racism is also a cancer in many places that needs radical treatment. Racism is worldwide and more entrenched and more blatant in many other countries like India and China and Russia….

          But here’s the question –
          Do we really think that our best effort to help many of our black brothers and sisters is to focus mainly on what some whites and others are doing or not doing because of their sinful condition – and not put our best effort into programs like mentoring young black men who need to learn by teaching and example (just as young white men do) that young women are to be treated with respect – to be loved and cherished – and that quite possibly their best chance for a blessed and happy life, is to take advantage of their educational opportunities, find a good wife as a life-long companion, and raise children together?

          The statistics are there to tell us clearly that they aren’t getting it.
          40+ years ago most of them were getting it, when racism was so much worse – they aren’t getting it today.

          Do we really think that what some whites do or don’t in big business, in big government, is the main culprit – and that the male who becomes virtually a sperm donor, and not a loving father, has a pass, because he’s not personally responsible for the white racism that has caused most of his problems?

          I am concerned about racism – and I know that it shows up in a variety of ways in our culture – and in ways that blacks see and feel more quickly and more intensely than whites. And yes, I am aware of its impact on our black community. But I’m not sure that what is at it’s heart a spiritual issue, is not best addressed by spiritual solutions….

          And I’m sorry if my comments have appeared to be an effort to blame black people for all their dysfunction.
          I am concerned deeply to find solid solutions that will make the most positive and lasting difference in the lives of the poor and hurting.

          I’m like Barney Fife – I have one bullet – one life to live – and I want to be sure it’s aimed in the right direction…

          And I’m sorry if my comments have appeared to be an effort to demonstrate some kind of superiority. I’m still trying to broaden my understanding of these issues, while expressing genuine Christ-like, loving concern.

          Blessings, Parson

        3. GemGirl

          Parson, thank you for your thoughtful and very humane response.

          White people in positions of authority need to share adequate financial resources with black people rather than hog all the money available for human needs. Black people will then be able to provide leadership in implementing their own solutions.

          Many mentoring and other programs already exist, but most need funding. And we’re not just talking non-profits. Community-based small business efforts need access to financing support without all the hoops-jumping and extra barriers currently in place.

          And white people need to stop thinking they should be in charge of everything. They need to step back and allow solutions that have already been suggested by diverse activists to be implemented. The readiness is there at the community-level, but public funding allocated for many projects is not getting to the communities directly. White people in positions of power are blocking access to this funding or offering only scraps to communities of color.

          Black people collectively do not have adequate resources due to historical reasons and institutionalized racism. Many individuals and families are struggling to maintain housing and food for themselves, so this means that few blacks can realistically do volunteer work at the level that is required to turn things around.

          People in communities could be paid for their work including mentoring and other services they render to fellow community residents.

          Many have developed proposals for various projects that would benefit diverse low-income communities, using culturally-relevant solutions. BUT GETTING FUNDING FROM THOSE WHO CONTROL THE PURSE STRINGS IS THE MAJOR BARRIER.

          Perhaps if blacks were finally compensated for their collective pain and suffering due to systemic racism/discrimination and provided financial reparations for the unpaid slave labor of their ancestors collectively, you will see many improvements within a short period of time.

          Are you aware that whites in power often target and harrass blacks who are doing well without white supervision? Did you know that when blacks are working in various systems, they are targeted for criminal charges if they help other black people? In my city, some decent black people have had their lives harmed by nonsensical investigations on allegations of $500 embezzlement. These are the kinds of systemic abuses that happen when progressive black people are viewed by the white establishment as potential threats. WHY?

          Of course, competent,ethical and compassionate black people will need to be in charge of these programs — not those who are hand-picked by whites because whites feel more comfortable with certain types of blacks who are the embodiment of internalized racism due to their self-hatred and disrespect for other black people.

    2. wesleyngunn

      I agree with you then. Supporting a family in crisis would do far more than lobbying for money from government to funnel into bureaucratic programs. And the traditional family which hopefully gives people a landing place in the craziness of the world is vitally important. My heart goes out to those who have to navigate their way without such a family—I was once one of them. But I did find that the love and grace of my Heavenly Father supported me through every crisis I had to face, seemingly alone, though I was never really alone during these times. Perhaps that is why I react negatively to man-centered (anthropocentric?)theology, as if the physical welfare of man was the most important aspect of life. It is our relationship with God and faith and trust in Him which makes the love of neighbor possible. Thanks for your great response.

  3. GemGirl

    The Justice Department announced that it is collecting feedback from Americans for its investigation into whether to file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. Justice officials said the move comes “because of interest in this matter.” People can e-mail Sanford.Florida@usdoj.gov if they have thoughts on how the department should proceed.

    A message board with different info that many in the public might not be aware of: Trayvon was calling out for help and among his last words were “mama” before being killed by Zimmerman:

  4. Parson


    If the Lord ever puts me in a position to address many of the things you mention, I promise you, I will speak to them.

    And yes, I’m all for “competent,ethical and compassionate black people… to be in charge of these programs…”
    I’ve even thought about the idea of having a predominately white church ask a sister black church, what beneficial program have they dreamed about that the white church can help fund.”
    I think if I were Bishop of a UM Conference, I would try to develop a program like this Conference-wide.

    Here’s one of my favorite quotes from GK Chesterton –

    “…the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

    May the church not be an impediment, but the catalyst for “good things to run wild.”

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.

    May the Lord bless you.


  5. GemGirl

    Parson, I appreciate that you and I hung in there enough to understand that we really support the same things.
    There is a powerful article — completely SATIRICAL — that many black people love because it speaks to the reality of us knowing that even if all blacks changed certain negative behaviors, racism is a separate animal that has nothing to do with us: 15 Things Black People Must Do In Order To End Racism JULY 29, 2013 BY NOVA SLIM

    Blacks who are decent are very much concerned about the serious problems affecting families and many are actively doing what they can to nurture and support young people who are confused and need redirection.

    To that point, this article by Iyanla Vanzant got a lot of positive remarks from black women, who agree with Iyanla that women need to be selective about men they choose to have children with and that women need to take personal responsibility:
    Iyanla Vanzant says black women are ‘out of order’
    by Alexis Garrett Stodghill | August 5, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    1. rwj

      Blacks who are decent? Colorism is alive in well…

      1. GemGirl

        rwj — You can attempt to stretch the meaning of what I said if you’d like, but “colorism” has nothing to do with my comment. I never made reference to blacks based on whether they are light-skinned, dark-skinned or anything along those lines. Why don’t you know what colorism means?

        Just as I recognize that there are some whites who are major racists, I also recognize some blacks operate from “internalized racism.” They have in common a shared disdain for the basic rights of black people and this makes them “not decent.”

        This has nothing to do with “colorism” — everything to do with MLK Jr.’s words that content of one’s character is more important than the color of skin. And just because blacks collectively have a fight against race-based discrimination does not mean we should pretend that all black people are decent.

        So, let me make myself clear. Most people, I believe, are relatively decent and try to be reasonably humane. But among humanity is a group known as sociopaths, and they can be found among people of all adult ages, races and both genders. They specialize in power, control, manipulation, exploitation and lying — in other words, they cause inevitable harm to fellow human beings. IMO, sociopaths (some refer to them as psychopaths or pathological narcissists) are the epitome of what we might call evil due to their patterns of behaviors, not just single incidents, occasional sinning or periodic mistakes.

        As King pointed out, there is some bad in the best of us and some good in the worst of us. So of course all human beings have some flaws and limitations — but decent people do not take pleasure in doing harm to others routinely, as the sociopathic tend to do due to their lack of conscience, lack of empathy or apparently no remorse (due to the tendency to repeat abusive behaviors directed at others).

        And decent people would not want to create nor participate in systems that would prevent other people from being able at a basic level to feed their families.

    2. Parson

      I’m glad we hung in there too…
      Both articles are great.
      Interesting to see that some respondents didn’t catch the satire in Slim’s article.
      What really got me was the picture of the man drinking water from a “colored” water fountain.
      I still remember seeing those as a young boy in various locations, and I never could understand why this was done – and my parents couldn’t explain it.
      How any Christian could ever see something like this and not immediately realize “this is totally wrong,” just gives testimony to how blind we can be sometimes – even among people who really love Jesus, for crying out loud!
      We really do need to have our eyes opened in an almost miraculous way to our “stuff.” May God be merciful…
      And Vanzant is right on…

      Thanks for sharing, Parson

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