I debated whether or not it is "ok" to think and talk and write about being white on MLK day. I remember and know, personally, that power-filled majority cultures tend to make everything about them. About me, I mean. They, I mean we, I mean I, make our voices heard, find power, assert dominance, even on days and in places and with people where the focus isn't supposed to be us. We like to be "big deals."
I've always had trouble knowing what it means for me to celebrate MLK day. Of course, there's much King did and said that is more than worth celebrating. Still, I can't help but simultaneously think: I wish there weren't so many reasons to celebrate. I wish he hadn't needed to say so much, do so much, believe and hope and dream so much. There's tragedy mixed in with the celebration, and the extent of the celebration is commensurate with the extent of the tragedy. But, the opposite is true here as well. With the tragedy of racism and prejudice, subtle and not-subtle slavery, comes real and true and glorious celebration when bits and pieces of the darkness are chiseled away and we can see the light underneath.
MLK day is a celebration of King's birth. I wonder, what would I have been like had I been born that day in the south? Maybe in the same town as King. Unlikely we would have been at the same hospital. What would my childhood have been like? My adolescence? My young and mid-adulthood? King never got past that stage. I probably would have. I might still be alive. How different would my childhood have been compared to the one I did have in the 90s? I'd like to think hugely different, but I'm not sure. Could we have known each other? Would we have bumped into each other? On purpose, or by accident? What would I have thought about him? Would the strong call I hear in Scripture to love my neighbors, all my neighbors, to fight for injustice and for the weak and powerless, seem as strong when the question of racial injustice and white privilege were brought to surface? Would King's criticism of and plea to white Christians have applied to me? Probably. Does it still? Yes. Would I have marched? Would I have risked jail? Those Ivy Leagues, you know, they don't like criminal records on their admission applications. I wonder who they would have picked- me with record of jail due to protesting, or a black student with an impeccable record and grades. It's a real question- even in those "we're-above-race"ivory towers.
These are the things I think about on MLK day. These questions are what it means for me to be white on MLK day.
I'm tempted to avoid the day- to treat it as a holiday for rest and maybe some community service. To spend it feeling guilty- guilty for the fact that I'm part of a culture that made this day necessary to celebrate. That I probably would have been explicitly involved in the culture of slavery and overt discrimination. That I probably wouldn't have been as brave, as holy, as I would like to think I would have been. That I probably am not as brave or holy as I like to think I am.
But, guilt and shame and avoidance, or even Hallmark card quotations of King, aren't celebration. They are, in their own way, a part of my privilege. They are part of the problem.
I've never been a good celebrator. But that is what I need, we need, to do today. To celebrate a man who was needed, is needed, because of injustice and inequality that I probably would have perpetuated had I grown up with him. Celebration like that demands humility and confession and repentance and love of what is good and true and beautiful and right, rather than love of self. Now that's something worth celebrating.