Race and Privilege · Social Justice

Understanding White Privilege by Frances Kendall, Chps. 1 & 2

I’ve been reading through Frances Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege as part of a Christian formation class at Twin City Bible Church.  Here are my notes and excerpts from the first two chapters of this excellent book that especially caught my attention.

In the prefix of Understanding White Privilege, Frances Kendall states: “The book provides a much-needed context for understanding the ways in which whiteness and white privilege systemically affect how white people and people of color – African Americans, American Indians, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas/os – are treated and interact in and out of the workplace (page xi.)”

“White privilege is an institutional, rather than personal, set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who hold the power positions in our institutions. One of the primary privileges is having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people (page 63.)”

Whose problem?

During intense conversations with woman of the National YWCA, on several occasions Kendall was told by women of color that the white women students needed to go away and figure out what it meant to be white, to work on our own racism, and then to report back.

“Racism in America is a white problem. It is woven into our institutions and our culture. We must all recognize how we benefit by racism and are caught in its web. Whites can and must change! Change themselves, their institutions, and their culture…

We need to look at ourselves.  We need help to understand how we as a people through history have used others for our own ends. We need help to look, without fear, at the meaning of our own lives. We need help to understand that our own worth and power is not lost in a just distribution of power. The emotional weight that racism produces in whites blinds us from a vision for the fundamental changes we must work for and which will, in fact, free us all (page 10).”

“My experience with language surrounding the issues of racism, privilege in general, and white privilege in particular is not that we who are white don’t understand the definitions of words and phrases, but rather that we resist acknowledging the existence of the concepts in our world (page21).”

“It is important to note that in the United States, while any racial group might view itself as superior, only the white group has the power to institutionalize that belief into laws, policies, practices, and culture and to subordinate other groups based on that institutional held power (page 21-22).”

Why are we doing this?

“Why would we explore what it means to be white? Or perhaps: Why wouldn’t we? If we want to work in open, inclusive, just organizations, if it is important to be congruent in our stated values and our actions, if we want our organizations to thrive, then why wouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to understand how to reach those goals? (page 20)”

“If we do not work to change ourselves and our systems, we continue to be complicit in the oppressions of others whether we mean to or not (page 23).”

“Because we see ourselves and our ways of doing things as superior to everyone else, we have very little knowledge or understanding of other peoples – their religions, their governments, their ways of doing things, or their belief systems. I resist saying ‘culture’ because that’s often what we focus on about other people – their food, their dances, their ‘costumes’ – and we are apt to see these as exotic, weird, quant, foreign. Different from ours (page 23).”

One page 32 Kendall notes that race is a central part of who we are as a nation.  There is a cost to not keeping race and white privilege as a regular part of conversation as we loose a critical lens through which we can interpret situations. On page 39 she states: “I work with a primary assumption: until we as white people are clear about what it means to be white, the issue of race in this nation and in the colonized world can never fully be addressed. We must know about ourselves before we can learn fully about others.”

Kendall spends some time reflecting on the financial benefits of a “racial contract”. Clothes manufactured mostly by people of color globally at low wages, and loss of jobs by people in the lower classes of the US, many of whom are people of color, because of the offshoring of jobs are but two examples.  Further, Kendall points out the loss of knowledge and skills needed to work in a global marketplace when elite schools do not have diversity that could inform the students on working across culture. Kendall goes on to discuss the emotional costs for whites to ignore the negative impact that our white supremacy has on the rest of the world.  Ultimately, we can only survive by anesthetizing ourselves. “I think that most of us who are white don’t even know that we’re not whole. We feel like something is missing, but we’re not sure what. Some sense of ourselves as whole human beings is not there, because for us to be whole and present every day means that we have to re-member ourselves, and that is painful (page 38).”

“In the end, those of us who are white can’t choose not to get the privileges we are granted, but we can choose how to use them to make personal and system changes (page 38).”

“I wonder what would it be like to feel that all others are as valuable as ourselves? What if we believed in the humanness of each person? What if we understood that each of us is connected to all others – that if others aren’t able to thrive, we aren’t either? (page 40)”

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