Yesterday, an African American CEO in my city asked me to attend a fundraiser for his nonprofit, the Boys and Girls Club. I respect him. I love the work they do for children. I would love to support it. And at the same time, my household budget is tight right now – two kids in college, two mortgages, my own student loans, you know the story. So I told him no, I can’t afford it.
This morning, I woke up realizing, although I do not have money in my personal budget right now – I have access to money. I know other (white) people with money whom I could ask to help. I even have a discretionary account my church funds, to help with needs in our community according to my judgment. On one level I knew this. On another level, I forgot, feeling like “I have no money.”
My white amnesia leads me to think of myself as an individual, operating separately from the systems I can easily access.
A year ago, I had another case of white amnesia.
I learned that 70% of the children are on free lunch at our neighborhood school, Schenk Elementary. (A child receives free lunch at school if their parent/s income is near the poverty level. There’s a direct connection between nutrition, learning, and child development. My immediate response was, what can I do about that? What can my church do about that? We don’t have any money – which is true; the budget was operating in a deficit.
But I decided what I did have access to was people, and leadership. So I gathered a group of neighborhood pastors to talk about the problem. One of them knew the school principal. He came to our meetings. We all invited volunteers. Some were retired teachers. We put together a plan to go grocery shopping, pack bags of nonperishable food items and feed the children on weekends.
How did we fund it? Once I got over my white amnesia, I realized, we all had access to money. One church held a jazz and bluegrass concert in the parking lot, and neighbors gave donations. Two churches had endowment funds, and wrote grants. Another pastor and I asked the city foundation for money and got $15,000. Two churches wrote proposals and received grants from their broader network. We told the story, and several other churches (outside our neighborhood) took offerings and gave us money. I don’t even know how to do a kickstarter. We all had access to money. We went from “having no money” for this neighborhood problem, to having $30,000, five congregations sending volunteers to feed 110 children every weekend, all school year.
This makes me ponder, what other instances of white amnesia do I suffer from? Where am I blinded by thinking of myself as an individual, with a limited budget, and limited power, instead of thinking of my access to money, power and privilege, which I could share?
But also, these experiences give me hope. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Because I’m getting over my white amnesia faster. As I sit with my intention to participate in healing an unjust society, and my personal feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, the Holy Spirit reminds me what you and I, and all of us, can do together.