Essay

Just another word

By January 29, 2021 23 Comments
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On my mother’s side, my Dutch-American ancestry has been here since before the American Civil War. My people were among the first immigrants from the Netherlands to put down roots on the western shore of Lake Michigan. I have a picture of a couple dozen elderly Hollanders gathered in some lakeshore park in 1898 for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dutch people in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, my great-great grandfather among them.

My father’s grandparents left the island of Terschelling for America in 1868, once the American Civil War was over. Terschelling is a beautiful place–I’ve been there a few times, sat alone at the harbor and wondered what my life would have been like had C. C. and Neeltje Schaap stayed, if I’d been born and reared on that kidney-bean Frisian island with all those spacious beaches.

My mother’s mother could recite the Heidelberg Catechism in Dutch because that’s the way she had to learn it in her turn-of-the-century Dutch Reformed congregation. Ironically, she didn’t understand Dutch. She was, after all, third-generation American.

A man I know who knows and loves local history told me about a largely unkept cemetery just outside of Hull, Iowa. No one gets laid to rest there anymore. For the most part, the community whose people are buried there is gone. “There’s a black guy buried in that cemetery,” he told me once upon a time. I’d have to look really hard to find the grave of another African-American anywhere in the county, I’m sure.

In the 2020 election, Donald J. Trump would have had to raise the numbers of his base by five percent in order to offset changes occurring in the demographic profiles of the red states he’d won in 2016–just to offset the changes in populace. The times–like American skin tones–are a’changing.

In 2008, I walked across the room during the Iowa Caucuses to join those caucus-goers who supported the candidacy of Barack Obama. I’d been moved by the speech he gave at the Democratic Convention a few years earlier, really moved. He seemed thoughtful, a good man. I’d never liked the Clintons much, so Hillary was out; and a bald man like me thought John Edwards loved his hair far too much. Besides, I thought Obama had a chance to heal the nation–our first Black president.

I’m guessing that election was the first time I heard people repeat what that little girl up top of the page has written on her sweatshirt. I thought the idea was cute, and nice, obviously true, and really sweet.

And now it’s happening again with the new VP, Kamala Harris. Some town in India went wild when Biden/Harris won. What’s more, Ms. Harris’s father was African. She went to Howard University, a traditionally black college in Washington D. C.

Native people I know are thrilled to see Deb Haaland as the new nominee for Secretary of the Interior. Here she is, a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo, just west a bit from Albuquerque. She calls herself a 35th generation American.

She doesn’t look at all like me, but she looks a heckuva lot like my friends.

I understand what that young lady up top has printed on her sweat shirt, but the line doesn’t thrill me like it does her or her parents or so many people of color.

Why not? Because for my whole life I’ve been blessed with white privilege. Because for my whole life the only people I saw in significant seats of national politics looked pretty much like the gent I see in a mirror every morning. White privilege is something I’ve borne without knowing it or owning it. But it’s always been there.

Tell me this–how is it flesh-toned Band-Aids were always pink?

In 1967, when I was a first-year college student, anti-miscegenation laws were finally totally repealed in the United States–it was no longer against the law to marry someone from another race. That year, sixteen states still had such laws on their books. My parents used to say that mixed-race marriages were very sad because the children were born to suffer not being accepted in either white or black communities.

Today, people for whom my parents felt so much pathos include an ex-President and our own newly-elected VP.

I wish I didn’t have to say it, but the preponderance of human beings who marched on the Capitol a few weeks ago looked very much like the person I see every morning in the bathroom mirror.

White privilege is what I have, and what so many of those who do don’t want to lose.

In a nation where all men and women are created equal, white privilege is a synonym, just another word, for racism.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

23 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I found this moving.

  • mstair says:

    “White privilege is what I have, and what so many of those who do don’t want to lose.”

    We hear it everyday … it just takes some translation of the words used by those who have it … think about it when you hear,

    “I just want my country back … ”
    “I’ll never trust a God-hating liberal..”
    “He is still MY president… “

    … see, no racial language there …

  • Keith Mannes says:

    So beautifully spoken. Thank-you for this!

  • Jan Koopman says:

    Thank you. May the progressive church find its voice.

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thanks, Jim! Amidst all of my privilege, I celebrate your voice coming from Sioux County!!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Isn’t it ironic that so many of my generation grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world”. As adults they now behave as though Jesus loves them, but only if they stay in their own countries and don’t threaten our less than 50% white dominion in the very place where they sang those words with gusto long ago. Thank you for gentle words bringing a powerful message.

    • Tom says:

      Granted, I am making an assumption of your racial makeup – based on your last name and the fact that you’re reading this blog, so I apologize if that assumption is incorrect, but just to illustrate my point in the comment below – you say you agree with the point of the essay, but you demonstrate that you don’t really believe the point of the essay. Hence, you use the word “they” (not “I”) to describe the supposed racists who used to sing about the red and yellow, black and white.

      • David E Stravers says:

        Hmmm. The word in the song is “they.” Perhaps we should alter the song to sing “We are precious in his sight”? In Philippines, it’s sung “red and yellow, brown and white…” Its that racist to leave out “black”?

      • Jan Zuidema says:

        By using “they”, rather than “I”, I could be accused of taking a cheap shot at friends, relatives, and many in our nation, who it appears refuse to even acknowledge that there is such a thing as white privilege and therefore refuse to struggle with exactly what Jim was pointing out. For those of us who have lived our lives in a bubble of white privilege, the last few years have called us to educate ourselves, admit the reality of the our past, and work to impact what we can, where we can. And by using the old song we sang, I was trying to illustrate how much we, as the church, have possibly failed each other. For most of us in the Western Michigan area, we could sing about those different colors as being wonderfully loved by the Lord, but they didn’t live near us, worship with us, or go to school with us. I was afraid of the Mexican immigrants who were sometimes on the streets of Spring Lake during the pickle season, because someone had given me the idea that they were dangerous. But now, I’m quite sure that they and there children were made in God’s image and were loved by him. The reality of my childhood fear springs from racism. So there, I probably should have used “I”.

  • Tom says:

    With all due respect (and believe me, relative to you, Mr. Schaap, it’s very HIGH level of respect!) I am baffled by that last sentence, which I’ve read many, many places over the last year. If by being born white and middle class in America makes you and me and most of the readers of this blog racists, then what word do we use to describe Richard Spencer?

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      I would defend Jim’s last line this way: it is not a sin of mine to have been born white and it is not sinful on my part when others accord me white privilege even though I neither seek it nor particularly want it. But it becomes sinful and it becomes de facto racism if and when I demand white privilege be accorded to me or when my desire to hold onto this power makes me vote and behave in ways calculated to extend it and keep it going as robustly as possible, to the detriment of all non-white people.

    • James Schaap says:

      I would hope to believe that I am not “racist.” But without a doubt, from childhood on, I have carried along attitudes that constitute something akin to racism. When I was a kid, my dad, a loving man, believed and explained to me that MLK was an agitator with friends who were “known communists.” Was my father racist? I don’t know that. I remember Rev. Eugene Calendar, the CRC’s first Black minister, sitting across from me at our Sunday table. Did my dad hold notions/beliefs that grew out of racism? Yes.

      • David E Stravers says:

        It might be helpful to define “racist” and “racism” since it seems the words are being used here in a way that is different than many of us have come to understand.

      • Tom says:

        I am not arguing that white privilege does not exist or that I have not benefited from it, or that it is not something I should work to counteract. I prefer your follow-up term “something akin to racism”. I just think if you advance the argument that “white = racist”, which I hear over and over everywhere from this blog to NPR interviews, etc., seems like it both condemns people who are only racist in the sense that everyone is the world is racist because we seem to be hard-wired to be most comfortable around people who are similar to us, while also letting true racists off the hook. What do I mean by that? Well, I fully accept that I am a sinner and that in God’s eyes, there may be less distance that I care to admit between me(and you) and Adolph Hitler – yes we are both sinners, but, from a human standard of good vs. bad, it’s rather non-sensical to put us in the same category. In fact, putting you and I in the ‘bad’ category along with Hitler renders the term effectively meaningless.
        (and I lament that I am not nearly as gifted a writer as you (I mean that sincerely, your writing is beautiful), so my point will be less clear 🙂 )

        • Rodney Haveman says:

          I have often put it this way: All sin is equally wrong, but it is not equally bad.
          Therefore, Hitler and I are equally wrong in our sin, but we are not equally bad in our sinfulness. I think that states the honesty you are looking for in examining our benefits from privilege and the structural racism it is built on (I speak as a white guy), while maintaining there is a difference between beneficiaries of privilege and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Both equally wrong, while not equally bad.

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    When you look at the “preponderance of human beings who marched on the Capitol,” you see a preponderance of angry white men. In the days following that attack, I, and I know many others, have asked themselves the question: What has made these people so angry and what are they so fearful of losing?
    Your words this morning pretty much state the answer to that question. Thanks, as usual, for the un-minced words.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    You mention Band-Aids. How was it that my parents never blinked–nor did I–when we brought out our coloring books when I was a child and when we opened that big super-duper sized box of Crayola crayons I got for Christmas and then whenever I had to color a person’s face I reached for the peach-toned crayon whose name on the side of the crayon was simply “Flesh.”

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you, James. I too am given an abundance of white privilege, and though I didn’t ask for it, I have a real sense that I have used it (consciously or unconsciously) to my advantage. The question for me concerning your last sentence is, “Now that I know, that I’ve seen it, what will I do?” My answer reveals the level of my white supremacy, from denial to actively working to ensure the privilege continues.
    I wonder if our faith (white church) has been shaped by the interpretation of Matthew 25:29, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” I can’t help but see a particular interpretation of that verse lived out in our country (maybe throughout the world) by those with white privilege and a conscious or unconscious white supremacy. An honest question, “How might we interpret this verse to help overcome the ardent work we/I do to continue our/my privelege?”

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, that was an excellent message. All of us white people bear some racism even if we fight against it in our hearts. I fight against it and truly love Black children (half of my grandchildren and one of my sons is black or part Black). We get comfortable with the position of privilege from birth onwards. It is in getting into colleges and getting jobs and seeking housing. It is hard for us to separate from that privilege unless we see others not getting the same degree of opportunity. We need to be open to others’ opportunities or lack of them to release our own straight path of privilege. Then we need to spread the gospel of love for everyone just as you are doing.

  • Andrew Riensstra says:

    Jim, your words reminded me of the time our family moved to Oostburg and one evening, the kids sitting on the bench in front of the Knotty Pine, mentioned that it was illegal for a black person to stay over night in Sheboygan county. I coudln’t believe it and remember going home and having a long family discussion. Having lived in a community where I was the only white kid on the baseball team and given the nickname “whitie” it was hard for me to understand and accept. After getting to know the people and community better, I realized I was living among many good people who just had not been exposed to living with people of color. Most of them simply needed more exposure and leaders who promoted exposure positively. Thanks for sharing your perspective so clearly and in your interestig manner!

  • Norm Heersink says:

    This reply is off topic. I’m currently reading the book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Diet Eman with James Schaap, copyright 1994. I just started reading so have nothing to say but, are you the James Schaap that wrote this book with Eman?

  • “I don’t like hypotheticals” when asked of those critical of BLM if they would switch sides.

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