The Privilege of Ignorance

Matthew Shallenberger

Volumes upon volumes have been written about race in America. People far wiser, more experienced, and more eloquent than me have researched, analyzed, and explained both the historical and present-day issues. I do not presume to contribute any new and profound insight to the discussion. I write simply to add my unique voice and experience to what has already been said, in the hope that perhaps my voice will impact just one more person, or at least add even a small weight to what others have already affirmed.

When I think about my own personal journey in learning about racial issues, it strikes me how recent my education has been. Most of what I know I have learned within the last ten years or so, and undoubtedly the last five to seven years have been the most influential. I am 31, so the majority of my life was spent without the knowledge I now have.

This fact illustrates what I call the privilege of ignorance, and it is one of the most subtle yet powerful privileges that I have enjoyed as a white American male. I didn’t think about or even know about most of the issues relating to race in America because I didn’t have to.

As soon as I mention that word — privilege — some readers will raise their defenses. In recent years there has been a lot of talk about “white privilege,” but many of my fellow white Americans, particularly of lower socioeconomic status, object to the very concept. “I’ve worked hard for everything that I have. Nothing was given to me. I didn’t get any special treatment, benefits, or opportunities. In fact, my life has been a constant struggle from the moment I was born until now. What do you mean I have white privilege?”

I can relate to that reaction in many ways. Though I have never lived in poverty, my family was firmly lower middle-class. In a house with three boys and one girl, my brothers and I shared a bedroom until I was 18. My mom sometimes shopped for clothes at garage sales and resale shops. Our cars were always used, and we drove them until they were nearly worn out.

But I also enjoyed certain advantages that many other people do not. My parents were not well-off, but my grandparents were, and they shared their material blessings with us. They helped my parents buy cars, made a down payment on their house, and showered us grandkids with birthday and Christmas presents. At the time I didn’t think of any of this as a “privilege.” It was just the way life was. I also did not realize that my family’s inherited wealth was an opportunity denied to many people of color. I did not know that on average white families inherit wealth from the previous generations five times more often than black and Hispanic families and that what they do inherit is ten times more than what black and Hispanic families inherit.[1] I didn’t think about what my family would have done if my grandparents hadn’t been there to help us out. I didn’t think about it because I didn’t have to — the privilege of ignorance.

When I was born my parents were living in some rough places in the suburbs of Chicago. People were literally selling drugs out of their apartment building. The second-hand marijuana smoke was so bad that when my mom took a short vacation to visit her parents, she was shocked at the change in me. At home I was lethargic and listless; now suddenly I was laughing and cooing like a normal baby.

Their dire living conditions prompted them to seek a better life for their kids. At one point they stayed with my dad’s parents for a while (the wealthy grandparents). Eventually, when I was about two, they moved further away from the city and purchased their first home — with my grandparents’ help. When I was five, they moved even further away to a tiny town named Lee, almost straight west of Chicago, smack dab in the middle of northern Illinois. We lived there for the next thirteen years, surrounded by cornfields and open skies instead of drug dealers and stoned neighbors.

As a kid, I didn’t always like living in the middle of nowhere. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a tremendous blessing compared to the life I would have had in the city. Yet I never stopped to think what would have happened to us if my grandparents hadn’t helped us buy a house. What if we had been stuck in a bad part of the city, surrounded by drugs and crime? That’s the reality for many people — including whites, but disproportionately people of color. They often don’t have the option of moving to a better neighborhood, let alone a new town. I was oblivious to all of this — because I enjoyed the privilege of ignorance.

Leaving aside the financial assistance for our home, my grandparents also helped pay college tuition for me and my siblings, enabling us to receive an education that improved our chances of having future financial success. Many people will read all of that and still say, “So what? I didn’t have any of those advantages. My grandparents didn’t pay for me to go to college. I live in a small house; I drive old cars. I don’t see how I’m privileged in any way.” Stick with me just a little longer as I dig deeper into some other experiences I had growing up — or rather experiences I didn’t have.

When I learned to drive, my parents took me to the local high school for driver’s education class (I was homeschooled). We learned the rules of the road, we practiced driving with the instructor, and after passing the test, we were awarded our learner’s permits. In Illinois, you had to log a certain number of hours on your permit before you could apply for a license. In addition to that class, I got plenty of driving instruction from my parents, who had to be in the car with me when I drove with my permit.

However, there’s one thing that neither my driver’s education class nor my parents taught me: a step-by-step guide on how to act when you’re pulled over by the police. Sure, I remember maybe a couple of passing remarks about not making sudden movements or arguing with the officer — but there wasn’t a sense of urgency as if my life depended on following these guidelines.

Eventually, I became acutely aware that not everyone has the same experience as I do with the police. In 2012, while I was studying at the Seminary at Andrews University, I got a job as a graduate assistant. I remember having a conversation with a couple of the office managers in my department, one of them Hispanic, the other African-American. The African-American woman said that when her son learned to drive, her husband had to teach him exactly what to do when he’s pulled over. Keep your hands in plain sight on the steering wheel; never reach into your pocket unless you tell the officer first, and even then move very slowly. Don’t back-talk the officer; always be respectful and remain calm, because if you don’t you could get arrested. Then the Hispanic woman started talking about her son. Due to his thick beard and dark skin, he is sometimes mistaken as Middle Eastern. On at least one occasion the police ordered him out of his car at gunpoint.

I listened to their stories in amazement. I had never experienced anything like that. To this day, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been pulled over by the police, and all but one time the officers were perfectly calm and respectful — even when I was driving 25 miles per hour over the speed limit!

Now, I confess I have a certain fear of cops. When I see those blue lights in my rearview mirror my heart starts to pound. But my fear is based on how much money a ticket will cost me. I don’t worry that a traffic stop will cost me my life. Indeed, the last time I was pulled over at night, I immediately got into my glove box to retrieve my insurance card. It was only later that I realized the officer might have felt uneasy seeing me reach over like that before he’d even approached my car. Yet he never said a word about it, and he was a perfect gentleman throughout the entire traffic stop. He even gave me a break and recorded my speed as lower than it really was so the ticket wouldn’t go on my insurance record.

Since my time at the seminary, I have heard other friends talk about their experiences with and fear of the police. Listening to their experiences has helped me realize that my experience growing up was enshrouded in ignorance and cocooned in privilege. I didn’t have to learn how to behave when the police pulled me over because I’m not as likely as some of my friends to be mistreated by the police. Even the infrequency of traffic stops is a luxury some people don’t enjoy. And it’s not because they’re all worse drivers than me, or because they’re criminals with arrest warrants hanging over their heads. It’s because they’re black and brown, and I’m white.

For years I didn’t know any of these things. How would I have learned about them? Everyone in my family is white. Most of my friends and acquaintances were white. The few people of color that I knew didn’t discuss these things with me, and even if they had, would I have believed them? Until I was older and more mature and could make a genuine effort to empathize with people whose experiences were vastly different from mine, I might not have had the wisdom to understand what they were saying. The thing about being ignorant is that you don’t know you’re ignorant, and unless you’re willing to learn you will never see your ignorance for what it is.

I know that some people will still not buy into what I’m saying. I’ve only given a handful of examples, and maybe they’re not very persuasive. If we had the time and I could plead your patience, I’d go into dozens of other examples. Just to illustrate the point, here are a few:

Have you ever stopped to think that when you turn on the TV, or open a magazine, or drive by a billboard, most of the people you see look like you? Have you ever realized that most of the pictures of Jesus that you grew up with depict Him looking similar to you — fair skin, brown hair, European facial features? Are you frequently followed by security while you’re shopping at the mall? Are you often pulled over by the police for petty reasons like a burnt out license plate light? When you walk down the street, do women clutch their purses tighter? Do drivers lock their car doors while you’re in the crosswalk? When you achieve success, are you hailed as a “credit to your race,” as if it’s unusual that someone like you would succeed? Do your children get punished more frequently and more severely at school, even though you’re certain they are no more troublesome than their classmates? Do you worry about the school-to-prison pipeline?

If you’re white, you probably answered no to most of those questions. In fact, you may have never even considered them before. For most of my life, I certainly didn’t, because I didn’t have to. And that is the privilege of ignorance. You see, for many people of color, these aren’t just concepts written about in sociology journals or debated by TV talking heads. It’s their everyday life. They deal with these issues all of the time, and they learn how to manage them because they have to. Many white people, like me, never even have to think about them. Don’t take my word for it. Ask a person of color. Chances are they could name a hundred other examples that I haven’t even thought of.

Yet even though I have enjoyed the privilege of ignorance, I’ve made a conscious choice to think about these issues. The main factors in my decision were not only the broadening of my perspectives as I began to interact with people of color on a regular basis but also my deepening commitment to follow Jesus, who is no respecter of persons. I will be writing more on that in the future. Based on my journey, here are four observations about race and privilege for you to ponder.

1) Being privileged doesn’t make you a bad person. You notice that I never called anyone a racist in this article. That’s because having privilege doesn’t make you a racist; it’s what you do with your privilege that counts. I didn’t choose to be born white. I had no say in my genesis whatsoever. Now that I am in this world as a privileged white male, I can choose how I relate to others who are not white or male — and that makes all the difference.

2) Being privileged doesn’t have to make you feel guilty. There are some who will assume I’m writing this article out of “white guilt.” In reality, I don’t feel guilt for the privileges I have enjoyed. In fact, I’m incredibly grateful for supportive grandparents who cared enough about me to invest in my future. What I do feel is sadness, and even anger, that some people are denied those privileges because of their race. I feel responsible to use my privilege in a way that benefits those who don’t have it. That’s why I’m writing this article.

3) Since many white people have enjoyed the privilege of ignorance, we’re not the best ones to ask about racism. Seriously, I felt a little silly making that list of questions earlier. What should I include? I don’t know because these are all issues I read about or hear my friends discuss. I’ve never experienced them personally. If you want to understand how racial discrimination works, ask a person of color — preferably a friend who trusts you. (If you don’t have one, first ask yourself why; then go try to make some.) Genuinely listen to their stories and experiences. Don’t make excuses (“well, that probably happened to you because of some non-racial cause”). Don’t pontificate (“the black community really needs to address its own problems with crime, poverty, etc.”). Don’t minimize (“it’s not that bad; racism has improved so much in the last few decades”). Just listen. Most of us are bad listeners because we listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. Resist the urge to reply and just listen. You may be surprised at what you learn.

4) The privilege of ignorance is also a curse. Ignorance is bliss, but only because you are unaware of how it’s hurting you and those around you. You can, however, break the curse by opening your mind to learn new things. But you must make a conscious choice; it doesn’t happen naturally. If you stay in your little racial comfort zone you’ll continue to enjoy, but also suffer from, the privilege of ignorance. Getting outside of that comfort zone is messy, scary, and painful. But it’s worth it in the long run. I’ve made so many wonderful friends and have broadened my horizons in so many ways. However, don’t engage in this process just for what you will get out of it. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, because everyone, regardless of their skin color, is a child of God just as deserving of respect and dignity as you and me.

I’ll end by encouraging you, if you’re white like me, to open your mind — and your heart — to the perspectives and experiences of people who don’t look like you, and to consider the possibility that even if your life has been difficult, you’ve still enjoyed certain privileges denied to others. If you’re a person of color, and you read this with a bemused smile or perhaps an exasperated shake of the head, please be patient with us white folks. Yes, we’re privileged. Yes, we’re often ignorant. Even when we start to learn about our privilege we still sometimes fumble around in the dark trying to navigate the racial complexities of our world. Know that some of us, even if we may be few, have recognized our privilege for what it is, resolved to use it to bless others, and registered our solidarity with those who have not enjoyed it. Since it is the result of our race and our society, over which we have no control, privileged we will remain — but we will no longer be ignorant.

Matthew Shallenberger is currently a pastor in Tennessee. He describes himself as a “husband, a dad, a pastor, a musician, a thinker, and a writer, but most of all a disciple of Jesus.” He received a Masters of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI and a BA in Theology from Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN. Read his Against the Wall declaration here.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

[1] Dahmer, David. “Bootstrap Myth Exposed: White Inheritance the Key Driver in Racial Wealth Gap.” Madison 365. March 1, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2017.