order to usher in an examination of our lives with others. Some scripture, the prophets for instance, are much more direct in challenging the powerful to care about justice, but it seems that difficult issues, like acknowledging white privilege, require a more inviting and subtle approach. I have found that such an approach is also available in some classic literature such as Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” Her text brought me to just such a moment of recognition.
O’Connor narrates the story of Ruby Turpin, a plump, forty-seven year old woman who resides in a small southern town. She has taken her husband Claud to the doctor because, while he was working on the farm, a cow kicked his leg. Upon entering the office, Mrs. Turpin quickly surveys the crowded waiting room. There is one empty chair, and she gives it to her injured husband. As she waits for one of the other occupants to offer her his chair, she places them into their own categories. This was something that Mrs. Turpin did frequently, as O’Connor tells us.
Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above her and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. 12
In the waiting room with her on this day is a cross-section of humanity. There is a man, a woman, and a little boy, all of whom Mrs. Turpin identifies as “white trash.” After awhile, a young black boy enters on an errand but quickly leaves. There is an elegant lady, who Mrs. Turpin finds agreeable, and then there is an ugly teenaged girl, reading a book, who keeps scowling at her. Mrs. Turpin was also in the habit of thanking Jesus that he had not made her other than she was.
If Jesus had said, “You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin, and svelte-like, but you can’t be a good woman with it,” she would have had to say, “Well don’t make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty- five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty. 13
Eventually “the white-trashy man” is called into the office, and Mrs. Turpin takes his seat, right next to the “ugly girl” who continues staring at her. Mrs. Turpin begins to chat amiably with “the elegant lady” telling her how blessed she feels, acknowledging how fortunate she is to have all that she has. She concludes, “There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,” those who aren’t grateful for what they have.14 The ugly girl hits Mrs. Turpin right over her left eye with the book that she had been reading. Clearly mentally disturbed, the girl also kicks Claud on his hurt leg and starts choking Mrs. Turpin. After a nurse pulls her off and the doctor gives an injection, Mrs. Turpin looks directly at her with a strange sense of recognition.
Flannery O’Connor, “From Revelation” in Three by Flannery O’Connor (New York: Signet Classic, 1983), 408.