I walked outside the other night, and there was a smell of wood smoke in the air. Suddenly, it took me back 40-some years to my first sight and smell, of the Philippines, where my husband was stationed, and which would be my home for the next three years. We passed through small villages with bamboo huts built on stilts and saw women using short, but thick brooms made of twigs to sweep their yard. When they got the debris piled up, they would light the leaves and bark and burn it. That, to me, was the scent of the Philippines, and I think of it every time I smell that particular odor.
I learned a lot from living in the Philippines. I had always lived in the United States, in the Southeast, as well as in the West. In the south, we had African-Americans and almost no Hispanics at all. In the West, on the other hand, we had lots of people of both ethnic and racial groups. It didn’t bother me; I figured I could adapt to just about anything.
Then I got to the Philippines. One of the first things I learned was that even though I was in the minority, namely light-haired, light-skinned, with blue eyes, I was considered a person of wealth. I would have children follow me around the local market, and even on the streets of Manila, calling out, “Hey Joe, give me one peso.” The peso was only a few pennies in American currency, but the kids looked at me as if they expected me to ride a carnival float and toss out coins the way carnival cruise toss out beads. It was uncomfortable, and it was tough to say no sometimes. The second thing was that when I walked into us a store or a stall at the market, the price automatically doubled. Jeepney rides to the market that would cost a Filipino the equivalent of 20 centavos cost me the equivalent of two pesos. Not only that, but I was not permitted to share a jeepney with Filipinos and pay the 20 centavo price. The third thing I learned was that even if I could say a few phrases in Filipino, or even in the local dialect, people in the market and the town or the city, would switch to a dialect I didn’t know. It was a form of isolation, and it was frustrating because I was only trying to learn to fit in. They took it another way entirely.
There were many more lessons, but I remember those in particular; I think it is because it was my introduction to being “different.” I also got a taste of how being singled out because I was different felt. It was a kind of racism, although not nearly as damaging to me as the racism that I see about me today towards nonwhite people. It was a big lesson to learn.
We are so used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a light-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed man with a beard neatly trimmed and clean, dazzling clothing. Since I was young, I’ve been exposed to that kind of Jesus. I wondered how he got his robes so pure and so white, without having bleach, tied, and blooming and being on the dusty roads so much. I’ve come to I came to realize that how Jesus was perceived was in the eye of the artist, and often those for whom the artist painted. I remember seeing some virtual eyebrows raised when a bust of the first-century man from the area around where Jesus lived, appeared through the magic of forensic sculpture. He had brown skin, brown eyes, short curly blackish-brown hair, and no beard. It wasn’t a Jesus we were accustomed to, but it was more like the Jesus who probably was. I think it still causes some raised eyebrows in some places, right here in our own country. He looks too much like people we are told to block from immigration because they are crooks, killers, thieves, rapists, and every negative thing that dehumanizes them.
I go back to my experience in the Philippines, and while the people were mostly very kind, I still could not forget who I was, a guest in their country, a person whose standard of living was considerably higher than most of theirs, even though ours was not rich by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I have to remind myself of how it felt and wish that others could see it as I have. Perhaps they have but simply didn’t realize it. If they had, maybe then they could understand what white privilege really is and how there is absolutely no place for it in Christianity. Love thy neighbor as thyself doesn’t mean loving just people whose skin tone is the same as ours. It means loving our neighbor, no matter the color of their skin, as we love ourselves.
Wake up America. There are people who need help, who live in abject fear for their lives every day in countries where armed gangs and even national armies create terror and slavery, and who have learned of the words on the Statue of Liberty and taken that as their dream and symbol of freedom. I am ashamed of those who find ways to exclude others who seek only to make new lives in this country. The National Cathedral and its faith leaders have issued a call to America to speak out against discrimination–whether racist, ageist, gender-based, economically-based, or any other division that stops us from seeing us all as human beings and beloved children of God. I think they have made a courageous and honest prophetic call.
God bless us and help us all to see all people as equals and as neighbors, not inferiors or “others” who are beneath us and our privilege. Otherwise, the kingdom of God will remain a far-off dream for all of us.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is owned by Dominic, Gandhi and Phoebe, who keep her busy and sometimes highly amused.