Race and Privilege · Social Justice

Living with Privilege

Privilege is the unearned benefits and advantages assigned to certain identity groups that come because of institutionalized oppression. White privilege is the particular form of privilege that has been intentionally developed in the United States to resolve the conflict between a constitution that states “all men are created equal” and the oppression of native Americans and African slaves. But it is one that continues to evolve as the context changes. For instance, following emancipation and the rapid success of newly freed blacks in farming and trades, Jim Crow laws were formed. The creation of industrial suburbs like East St. Louis saw municipal governments without social contracts but instead with a mandate to maximize profits for their partner industry. Even as the civil rights movement began to have concrete success, redlining laws and cultural pressures kept people of color from owning homes in most suburbs (for instance, Ernie Banks in Gurnee). Or consider the laws and practices impacting migrant workers today. Consider, too, how today’s global economy allows us to benefit through the sweatshops and environmental degradation of foreign lands. But also consider the many stories of how small acts in stores, by the law enforcement and the legal system, in the workplace, and in our community gathering places give access, influence, and benefits to some ultimately at the expense of others.

Ronald Sider, in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, points out that God repeatedly sends strong warnings to his people who live at ease when they gain wealth by oppressing the poor through laws, influence, and practices (for instance, Amos 2:7; Amos 5:10-15; Amos 6:1-7; Isaiah 10:1-3; Psalms 10:2-18; Jeremiah 22:13-19; James 5:3-5). In Race and the Christian: An Evening with Piper, Keller, and Bradley (available online at: http://www.crossway.org/blog/2012/04/video-race-and-the-christian-an-evening-with-piper-keller-and-bradley/ ), Tim Keller (minutes 25:56-42:41) speaks of corporate evil – how from Adam and Eve on throughout the Bible guilt goes beyond the individual to the corporate body, just as grace comes from One to all. Exodus 34:6-7 speaks of how God is slow to anger, forgiving iniquity and sin, but does not clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father on the children, and children’s children to the third and fourth generation. Katelin Hansen, in her recent Red Letter Christians blog post (http://www.redletterchristians.org/christian-rhetoric-in-understanding-racism/) suggests: “It’s terribly difficult to break out of generational sin because of the subtle, cultural habits and norms that are passed down from parent to child.”

I believe that there are two key advantages in using white privilege instead of racism when considering the particular form of institutionalized oppression that is part of United States history and that continues today. First, embedded within it is the concept of corporate evil. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith provide a breadth of evidence of how difficult it is for white people, and especially white conservative evangelical Christians, to move from an understanding of race as individual sinful acts that will disappear once people come to Christ to seeing it as a systemic issue that requires reform of culture and laws. Inherent in the definition of white privilege is the concept of institutionalized racism. Second, white privilege changes the emphasis from helping people of color who have a problem to white people needing to first take the log out of our own eye. Frances Kendall uses the first half of her book, Understanding White Privilege to define that log and the barriers to clearly identifying it. One motivator for her to enter into this lifelong journey came through 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.

Responding to White Privilege

As Christ followers, we recognize that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and that we are justified by grace as a gift through the redemptive work of Jesus (Romans 3:23-24). Because of our hope that some day we will see Christ as he is and that we will become like him in full, we work now to purify ourselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3). Acting out of hope instead of guilt is foundational. Acting out of guilt significantly contributes to paternalistic actions. In The Construction of Masculinity, Michael Kaufmann suggests: “Guilt is a profoundly conservative emotion and as such is not particularly useful for bringing about change. From a position of insecurity and guilt, people do not change or inspire others to change.” Hope of one day being like Christ and beginning the work of purifying ourselves now completely reframes this into an activity of profound importance. The question becomes, what can we do to purify ourselves to be more Christ-like? The following is a partial list of ideas I’ve identified from several sources, including chapters six and eight of Understanding White Privilege, Jamie Utt’s blog post “How to Talk to Someone About Privilege Who Doesn’t Know What That Is” (http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/12/how-to-talk-to-someone-about-privilege/), Divided by Faith, and the video “Race and the Christian.”

  1. Commit to a lifelong journey of critical self-reflection. It took us generations to become adept at using our privilege and it will take a great deal of work to learn to identify and use differently those privileges. Listening with a willingness to be influenced, temporarily suspending our reactions and assumptions, and using inquiry to draw out the inferences and assumptions of others and ourselves serve as useful tools in the process. Tim Keller remarks how nonwhites want Christian leaders to surprise them even just a little by knowing a bit more about what it is like to not be white.
  2. Invest in authentic relationships across difference. Many have indicated this is a key way that people begin to see institutional racism. Friendly chats don’t count. The relationships need to bring us into awareness, if not direct contact, with the person’s network of relationships. This generally requires moving outside of our familiar and comfortable places. But it doesn’t require us to travel far nor does it require something as formal as an accountability partner. One of my relationships began when I took time to begin visiting a minority-owned ice cream shop and later took up the offer by the owner to learn a card game he often plays.
  3. Expect to make mistakes – take the initiative to create space for correction. This can be practiced in our individual interactions, in our small groups and committees, and in our church and workplace. Many times people of color are put in the uncomfortable position of considering whether to take a great risk to point out that privilege is negatively influencing an interaction or activity, or to let it slide and be further marginalized. If we put on the table at the onset of engagement across difference the recognition that there is a difference in privilege and power, and if we ask for help in identifying times when we use our privilege in ways that disadvantage or silence, we create opportunities for learning and growth. But recognize such discussions can often be uncomfortable. We need to become accepting of that discomfort to truly grow from the moment.
  4. Recognize it is a conversation of action, not character. Tobias Winright points out in his blog post “Gandalf, Gollum, and the Death Penalty”, that as people made in God’s image, human dignity is something inherent, not something gained or lost by what we do (http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/01/gandalf-gollum-and-death-penalty). We are children of God – that defines our character. Still, we do sinful things. When people hold us accountable for those acts, consider that they are challenging our actions, not our character or dignity. A conversation of action helps us to repent of sinful deeds, check our privilege, and undermine the system that hurts us all.
  5. Refuse to participate in oppressive systems when possible. For instance, simply choosing to send our children to schools with diversity, whether a public school or a private school that prioritizes diversity, instead of an elite private school lacking diversity can be an act of resistance.
  6. Become an informed and active participant in the political process. Both conservative and liberal politicians have been active players in creating systems that are oppressive and that rob people of their dignity. Indeed, Kendall has found that often liberals can be the worst offenders. Using our positions of privilege to influence positive change for more just laws is not just a helpful way to harness our privilege, it is specifically what the prophets throughout the Bible call us to do.
  7. Consider partnering with nonwhite agencies and organizations to bring about change. But this is not about rescuing. For instance, I came across one author who suggested the surest way to a multi-racial church is for we who are white to go to a black church and just worship. Don’t suggest ways we think our gifts can benefit them. Just worship. Eventually they’ll ask us to use our gifts in ways the existing church leadership would find helpful. We need to follow their lead and do everything we can to avoid taking control.

Please consider commenting to this post with suggestions for revising or adding to this list!

0 thoughts on “Living with Privilege

  1. An excellent portrayal of the subject. For a number of years, I’ve heard the phrase “white privilege” used to support a speaker’s attempt to convince me I should feel guilty about my whiteness. This has always troubled me as I have never felt guilt about both being white and having the many opportunities I’ve had.

    However, this discussion has helped me understand that what I’ve always done is more accurately defined as partnering: I have many friends who are not like me at all. It’s very hard to find anyone to hate when I have friends who are of all races and many ethnicities, when I have friends who are Muslim, Hindu and other (or no) religions, or when I have friends who are gay or lesbian.

    I was fortunate I grew up in a home where, not only did I never hear a racist word, my parents (without “fanfare”) had life-long friends who were not white or Christian or (as I found out later) heterosexual. When I was a child, the fact that my parents started and maintained a Protestant/Catholic Bible study group was controversial (1960’s). My dad’s interest in American Indians went beyond his work responsibilities (managing federal funds designated for Indian education) as I saw him enjoy true friendships with Indians in their schools, churches and homes. I didn’t only grow up listening to “Negro Spirituals” but was blessed by my parent’s friends when we visited them in their churches and homes—and when they came to ours.

    I know from my almost-forty years of working with juvenile delinquents and their families that I have something many people of color and people of “poorness” don’t have: opportunities blessed upon be by the decisions made by my parents and grandparents, and that, being white has opened a lot of doors.

    Thank you Martin for your wise insight!

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