Black, White, Red, and Blue

Would you like a free upgrade?” the car rental manager asked me. I rented there a lot. “Absolutely,” I responded. He tossed me the keys to a brand new Jaguar. I smiled.

You see, I rented from this dealership a lot. It was located just down the street from the school where I used to serve. Near the rental place were two car dealerships, a Jaguar lot and a Ford lot. If I was getting a free upgrade that usually meant one of their service vehicles for the dealerships, which were normally new models.

Because I had hit it off with the manager, likely because of my frequent rentals, I was often given free upgrades. I never refused. One shouldn’t look a gift horse, or in this case, a gift Jag, in the mouth.

I was headed to Nashville, TN, for a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, also called the ERLC for short. A friend of mine, a church planter in Louisville, was joining me.

Later that morning, I pulled onto Therron’s street. He did a double take when I stopped in front of his house and rolled the passenger window down. When I didn’t have a rental upgrade I would be driving a KIA, which I think stands for Kindof Incompetent Automobiles. But not today. Today we were riding in style.

Therron and I always have great conversations about all kinds of stuff, from family life, to ministry life, to topics related to ethnicity. That morning our conversation landed on racial issues before we made it to the interstate. With what seems to be a constant stream of headlines related to police aggression against black men, there are ample contemporary inroads into conversations on this topic.

Therron and I have known each other for a really long time and I consider him a dear friend. He’s black. I’m white. I won’t say that doesn’t matter. It does matter, but only in a really glorious way. Our friendship transcends our racial identities but it doesn’t in any way remove them. That’s one of the things I love about our friendship.

After making it to Nashville and attending some of the conference we decided to hit the well-worn, tourist overcrowded, neon-lit stretch of lower Broadway for dinner. I pulled up to the traffic light to turn left next by Jack’s, the barbecue spot where we planned to feast. The light turned green, without thinking I turned left, since it was a Jag we made it through just fine, but the cars in the other lane opposite of us had the right of way.

But don’t worry, there was a police officer behind me in the turn lane who made sure I realized the error of my way. He let me know he wanted to chat by flashing his red and blue lights and sounding his siren. I immediately pulled over and put the car in park. The police car sat behind us for several minutes with his light shining brightly in our rearview mirror.

I joked to Therron that my driver’s license was in bad shape. My daughter had ripped the plastic cover off my license and then to top things off, it went through the washer when I forgot it in my jeans. You really couldn’t read anything on it. Therron wasn’t laughing. He looked straight ahead the entire time.

“This isn’t good,” I remember him at one point saying. The officer came up, an Asian man, who was as polite as he could be given the fact that I was driving a Jaguar I didn’t own and was without any valid form of identification to offer him.

He stood there for around fifteen minutes as I scrambled to figure out my driver’s license number on my barely legible ID. I gave him a couple variations that I thought might be right (I was basically guessing). He then went back to the car and gave us another fifteen minutes to try to get in contact with my wife with the hopes that she would have it.

I got out of the car, walked back to his car, where he was running the numbers I gave him. They didn’t work. My wife called. We got our IDs on the same day and our numbers were the exact same except for the last number. I knocked on his window, gave him the final attempt and it happened to be correct. He let me go with a ticket instead of arresting me.

I felt so relieved. And then I walked back up to my car to see Therron still starring straight ahead. It hit me that he had barely spoken since we were first pulled over. The rest of our evening was spent in either serious discussion about how that could have gone really differently if he was the one driving, or in gut busting laughter as we rehearsed the absurdity of me trying to read my faded driver’s license.

“You know that’s white privilege,” Therron said later. “What do you mean?” I asked him. He explained to me that when the term white privilege is used this is the sort of thing that is meant. He likely wouldn’t have been given thirty minutes to find a way to locate a driver’s license number and relay it orally in the place of a valid ID. He likely wouldn’t have left the scene with a ticket instead of being arrested.

Why? Because he’s not white. That’s white privilege.

On the way home the next day we stopped for dinner at Cracker Barrel just off of I-65 North in a little town in southern Kentucky. As we chowed down on yet another oversized meal, I couldn’t help but think of something, which, if you know me, means I couldn’t help saying it either.

“Did you notice you’re the only African American in the restaurant?” Therron put his fork down and raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he asked.

This whole exchange might seem insignificant to you, but I was really curious. I hadn’t quite thought about it this way before, not like I did in that particular moment. I wanted to know how it felt, especially in light of our previous night’s incident and our ongoing conversation. I wanted to see past my white privilege and understand his experience as much as I possibly could.

So, why am I writing about this?

I’ve spoken as forcefully as I know how against racism. It’s not just unfortunate. It’s evil. That’s not necessarily the reason of this post.

I’ve preached on the theological categories that demonstrate that we are all created in God’s image and there are no grounds for any sort of superiority among any people group. But that’s not really the point of this post either.

I guess I want to put something on the table and just admit that I don’t understand Therron’s experience as a black man. But I want to.

Why? Because he’s my brother and my friend. That’s why. And because I know if I don’t try to understand I’ll be forever blinded by my privilege. I don’t want to be blind to his experience. I might not fully understand it, but I can better understand it.

I don’t want to be guilty of not caring about my brother’s real challenges. I want to be an authentic friend and that might just mean owning up to some privileges that I take for granted, assume, or worse, abuse. And maybe, just maybe, I can be a voice that joins his in a call for equality and justice.