Becoming Aware of My Whiteness

by Sophie Clarke

The following story was edited by Cliff Williams from a transcription of a conversation he had with Sophie Clarke in May 2019 just after she graduated from Wheaton College, a Christian college in Wheaton, Illinois.

I grew up in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. People say that the D.C. area is diverse, and maybe it is in some ways, but the spaces I was in were all very white. My church was white. Everyone I knew in private schools was white. The suburb I lived in was affluent, with big houses and a lot of status, and also totally white. So I didn’t think about race at all.

During my sophomore year at Wheaton College, I was in a tight-knit dance and ministry group called Zoe's Feet. The people in the group were almost all white females. Anyone who was not white or female or who had not grown up taking expensive dance classes would have felt excluded from the group. It was completely monocultural. We had similar backgrounds, and we thought similarly. I felt comfortable in it—the others understood me, and I understood them. No one pushed for any form of diversity. I was never challenged to think differently, and I was happy with that. I felt sheltered and secure that year.

My junior year was a year of exploring. One of my new friends that year was in a campus group called Solidarity Cabinet. I had not heard of the group before my junior year, nor had I heard of the word “solidarity.” The aim of the group is to increase awareness of the need for diversity on Wheaton’s campus. The meaning of “solidarity,” I learned, is to stand with someone as an ally and advocate and to listen to people’s stories with a posture of humility.

My friend in the group is Asian-American. He listened to me as I began to process my ethnic identity. He let me ask questions that were pretty ignorant and that probably were hurtful at times. But he was gracious with me. I also took a class on the rhetoric of civil rights that was taught by a black professor. I went to his office a number of times and asked him numerous questions. He, too, listened graciously. By the end of my junior year, I felt completely convicted.

During the summer before my senior year, all the books I read, all the podcasts I listened to, all the churches I visited, all the conversations I had revolved around inequality, specifically about race, but also about gender, physical disabilities, and LGBTQ rights—people who are in the margins. I learned about social structures and my place in them.

When I came back to Wheaton for my senior year, I did a 180-degree turn. I left Zoe’s Feet, because I felt that I had learned what it had to teach. That was extremely hard, because Zoe’s Feet had meant a great deal to me. It was a community I felt safe in and was comfortable in. I could just be my whiteness, and I didn’t have to challenge myself. But I believed, as a Christian, that I am not called to stay comfortable. I am called to pursue truth. Although I had learned truths in Zoe’s Feet, I was called to pursue more truth. To do that, I needed to get into spaces I had never been in before.

I decided I would visit the Office of Multicultural Development—the OMD, as it is called on Wheaton’s campus. It is a large room, much longer than it is wide, with a couple of tables for studying, random chairs, a few couches, and a big aquarium. Besides serving as an office, it also functions as a hangout for students of color. It took me a while to feel that I could step into it. I thought, “What right do I have, with my white skin and everything I represent, to go into this place, one of the only safe places on Wheaton’s campus for students of color?” But my nonwhite friends invited me into the OMD. So I went.

I spent a lot of time in the OMD listening and studying. Though I felt that my presence there was pretty quiet, I always had my ears up, because there were times when that space was not for me, times when it was a space just for people of color. I was not always on my guard, but I was always conscious of my surroundings when I was there. I was very aware of my white body, aware of my white privilege, whenever I walked into that space.

The students of color in the OMD invited me into conversations regarding race. I learned a ton from those conversations, especially that experience is often the most valuable education. I even learned by taking an occasional nap on one of the couches! It took me a whole semester to feel that I could do that, but when I did, it felt safe.

So during my senior year I entered a new community that in some ways was never for me. My friendships became more diverse in every way—with respect to color, background, nationality, ethnic heritage, and ideology. My conversations expanded, and I encountered things I had never encountered before in my squeaky white spaces.

Also, I joined a group called Chalk Talk, a group of white students who acknowledged their white privilege and who discussed issues regarding racial inequality. The idea behind the group was to take the burden off the shoulders of people of color, who constantly have to deal with white people asking them questions about race.

I continued to read about race during my senior year—a lot of James Baldwin, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, James Cone, womanist theology, liberation theology, plus books by white people who were wrestling with their white privilege—Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey and White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill, who gave a talk at the college on the subject.

I listened to a lot of podcasts, too, including one on the New York Times’ “Still Processing” series in which two queer people of color talk about the intersectionality of race and sexuality, and one on “Inside the Pink” in which two black women talk about their experiences as black women.

Exposing myself to totally new things made me uncomfortable. But I grew from that. I am in a totally different place now than I was a year ago.

I know now that I can’t be for people, I can’t be for the kingdom of God, I can’t be for my sisters and brothers in Christ without being for the oppressed. The horizons of my desire to love others have expanded. I now know that seeking to love Jesus means seeking justice.

This story is included in chapter 2, "The Power and Effects of Racial Socialization," in The Uneasy Conscience of a White Christian: Making Racial Equity a Priority, by Clifford Williams, 29–32.

© 2019 by Sophie Clarke and Cliff Williams

More articles about race by Cliff Williams