A Feature Review of
White Picket Fences: Turning toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege
Amy Julia Becker
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
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Sometimes realizing your privilege starts with looking at your bookshelf.
Perhaps like you, I’m a book person. I read and consume books like it’s my job, because sometimes it really is my job to learn and grow and put words to the stories and experiences of those who’ve gone before me. But it took me nearly three decades to realize that it was a privilege to even have than fifty books in my house, let alone to choose to read books about characters that looked like me written by people who looked like me.
After all, having the ability to choose is oftentimes the biggest privilege of all.
It wasn’t all that different when Amy Julia Becker, author of White Picket Fences, began to consider the whiteness of her bookshelf, a bookshelf found acting “not as a door but as a mirror, a mirror that shows me my white skin, my stable and traditional family, my remote and safe neighborhood, and little of the expansive world outside [her] door” (19). As Becker quickly discovered in an attempt to read quality children’s literature with her three children, privilege often starts with noticing who’s not on your bookshelf – which for her meant realizing that there weren’t any books that featured children of different ethnic or racial backgrounds.
Nearly every character in the books she loved and filled her shelves with was white.
Connecting the dots from her bookshelf to her identity as a white, straight, middle-to-upper class, educated woman meant coming to grips with the reality of a privilege that had always been hers. But if waking up to the reality of privilege ultimately means learning to use and lay down this same privilege for good, a journey of noticing and deconstructing first must take place.
In time, when Amy Julia Becker looked at her bookshelf, she grew “increasingly concerned that our reading is constructing for them a view of the world that places people with white skin and wealth and power at one end of a hierarchy and people with brown and black skin at the other. What if, in my attempt to bypass the injustices of the past, I am only underlining them, albeit in a subtler form?” (24). In a way, this is where a psalm of lament begins, where the author makes public the many ways her ignorance marginalized and oppressed those who did not have what she had, for whom the tides of privilege had not always ebbed in their favor.
Perhaps like other readers who identify as white, this where Becker realizes the power of whiteness – how it not only shapes perspective but also continues to dominate the assumed way of being and operating in this world. As she delves into the history of her family and her upbringing in the South, she realizes “a racism of comfortable homogeneity, racism without relationships, racism without love, which threatens our communities just as much as the more overt systems of social segregation and oppression” (62). In this realization I picture the author on her knees, begging for forgiveness: for the first time, she admits how complicit she is in conversations of racism, that she cannot scapegoat the South in general or negate the many ways she happily (albeit ignorantly) benefited from systems that gave advantage to some but not all.
Maybe this is where real fruit begins and where real change births. Maybe this is where we lay our many privileges on an altar of fire and give heed to the voices we’ve silenced. Maybe this is where we say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, seventy times seven times, and where we keep digging into our histories in an effort to fight for real, equitable change.
But we do not do this alone, for transformation always happens in the context of relationships. Like her previous books, A Good and Perfect Gift and Small Talk, Becker’s writing centers in story and in the art of telling good stories about herself and the people in her life. Perhaps most profoundly, the author is most able to identify privilege through her relationship with her oldest daughter, Penny, who was born with Down syndrome. Had it not been for Penny’s presence in her life, she might still feel dismissive or even bewildered by controversy (136), but being in intimate relationship with her daughter helped her make connections to other injustices bought by the price of privilege.
“As I have learned more about the history of people with intellectual disabilities,” she writes, “I have seen the parallels in their treatment to that of other oppressed groups” (137). I found myself nodding my head in agreement, because when the conversation becomes personal, we are changed. When we see how the heights and depths of how oppression affects those we intimately, actually know, then we are changed.
Then we begin to see that those who’ve been marginalized – whom we’ve marginalized through privilege alone – aren’t so far away after all. We see them not merely as boxes and labels and stereotypes, but as real, fleshy human beings made in the likeness of love.
And it’s in this likeness of love that the book also reaches its pinnacle point, for Becker connects the dots between humanity and divinity:
Human beings, as God’s “image bearers,” are created to receive and reflect God’s love. From the beginning of the human story, at least according to Genesis, humans are those who are loved by God and called to love others. Love is who we are and who we are meant to be. Love is what makes us human (140).
Although Becker writes to a Christian audience, the message is universal: if love lives at the core of our identity as human beings, then the power of love is big enough to change the way we interact with the world around us – just as it’s big enough for every single one of us to not only be given a seat at the table but to be offered the seat of honor and lifted up to a place of power.
And in that way, I hold onto a little bit of hope. Amy Julia Becker shows me that the tides of white supremacy and colonization might actually be turning, one conversation, one lament and one realization of privilege at a time.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first book, The Color of Life: A Journey toward Love and Racial Justice, releases in February (Zondervan)