Their poverty, my privilege

Antiracism journey runs through awareness of advantage

Mexico sunset, January 2020. — Jenna Ratzlaff Mexico sunset, January 2020. — Jenna Ratzlaff

I never thought about my privilege until I went to Mexico in January 2020 with a Bethel College class. It made me stop and think about my own story of growing up as an adopted person of color in a Mennonite community in Kansas.

In Mexico we visited with families and individuals who did not always have much yet welcomed our group of 20 strangers. We saw the worst poverty in the village of Tlamacazapa. Some families went days without eating. Coke products were safer to drink than the water.

I realized this might have been my life if I had not been adopted as a baby from Guatemala.

As we sat in the village and heard the stories, I wondered: Why did I get to be the lucky one?

I never realized how much guilt I carried until that day.

Recognizing my privilege humbled me. I look at things from a different perspective now. I am aware of how my privileges — financial security, physical safety, education — have shaped my life. It has motivated me to use my privileges to help others. It has directed me toward a career in social work.

Recognizing my privilege also led me to consider what it means to be antiracist. White people benefit from privilege. I am not white, yet I have privilege. I also have biases — preconceived ideas about people.

Is it possible to be completely antiracist? I don’t think so, because we all have unconscious biases. Yet there are steps we can take to become as antiracist as this world allows.

A friend and I were talking about our biases, and she said something that has stuck with me: Our first thoughts are based on what we have been taught to believe. Our thoughts after that are what we truly believe.

I have found this to be true. When I read, hear or see something, my first thoughts may be judgmental. It isn’t until I take a step back that I realize the biases that influence my thoughts. This is one of the essential steps in becoming antiracist: recognizing our unconscious biases.

When I have shared my story with local groups, I have emphasized that be­coming antiracist takes work: par­tici­pating in discussions, reading books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, joining community activism. One place to start is to learn the history of the land we live on and of those who once lived here and how they were displaced.

People have asked me, “Can I talk to my friends who are BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] about my thoughts on race and privilege or ask them questions?” I say it depends on your intentions. Do you expect a simple answer that will neatly cover everything and make you feel good? Or are you genuinely curious about how you can do better?

For white readers: Remember that your questions or comments could trigger negative emotional reactions. BIPOC folks often deal with trauma due to injustice and oppression. Recognize the labor you are imposing on them by asking questions or diving into a discussion about race.

Don’t avoid talking with your BIPOC friends about racism. Just keep in mind how privilege and oppression have shaped your life and theirs. They can’t do the work for you.

The journey to becoming antiracist looks different for each person. It isn’t easy. Take time to rest. You are not alone. Progress can happen when we let ourselves become vulnerable, recognize our privilege, acknowledge our unconscious biases and channel any guilt we feel into positive action.

Will we ever become fully antiracist? I don’t know, but that should not stop us from trying. We all can take steps toward a world where everyone feels loved, welcomed and accepted.

Jenna Ratzlaff is a member of First Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan., and a graduate of Hesston College (2018), Bethel College (2020) and the University of Kansas (2022) with degrees in social work. She is focused on trauma-informed practices and diversity, equity and inclusion in nonprofit organizations. She served on the antiracism audit team for Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

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