Positioning White Privilege to Where We Actually Can Talk About it

When we hear the word “racist,” we think of KKK members, the “N-word”, or the recent comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling.  A racist is someone who doesn’t like people of other races.  Typically in America it has been seen as a white person who doesn’t like black people.

When the topic of white privilege is brought up, white people typically hate this because we immediately feel like we are being called racist.  Racist like Donald Sterling or a KKK member.  We don’t like talking about it because it makes us feel like we’ve done something wrong when we haven’t.  We have black friends and we are nice to all sorts of non-white people.  We aren’t racist.

White privilege does not make you racist.

I’m hoping we can talk a little bit about white privilege now.

You aren’t racist.

Seriously, don’t comment on this post or on Facebook that I’m calling you racist.

You aren’t racist.

The defensiveness of feeling like you’ve been called a racist, and the assumed guilt associated therein, makes much needed conversations impossible to have.

My hope is we can have some of that conversation.

I just wrote a blog about how overt racism was legal and encouraged during 93% of our nation’s history.  This 93% was intentionally, by law, set up to give whites supremacy over other skin colors.

You had nothing to do with this.

You aren’t racist.

But this happened.

Imagine a basketball game where the white team is beating the black team 100 to 15 at the end of the third quarter.  At the beginning of the 4th quarter, it’s revealed that the white team has been cheating the entire game and the refs have allowed it.  The whites apologize and the refs say no more cheating is allowed.

During this entire time, you’ve been sitting on the bench for the white team.  You have not contributed whatsoever to the cheating.  But at the beginning of the 4th quarter, with the cheating revealed, apologized for and now illegal, the coach puts you in.

The score is still 100 to 15.

What do you do?

This is a very difficult, and in many ways, unfair position to be put in.

Calling you a racist doesn’t do any good, nor is it really true, as you had nothing to do with the extreme advantage your team has.

You can’t go back in time and fix things.

You’ve already apologized to the black team.

Yet still there you stand, with the ball in your hand, and a 100-15 lead that your team got by sinful and unjust means.

I think the worst thing we can do is not acknowledge that our privilege is there.  Acknowledging our privilege isn’t the important part; acknowledging the disadvantages people of color have to fight against their entire lives is.

When we don’t acknowledge and empathize with the experiences of people of color, we are telling them they are liars.  We are telling them their pain and difficulty doesn’t matter.  I liken it to a friend who was abused as a child.  Our response doesn’t need to be, “Well I wasn’t the one who abused you, so get over it.”  Instead, and especially as Christians, we should listen with empathy and pray about how we can be a part of a solution in our friend’s life, rather than exacerbating the problem.

One of the reasons churches are so racially segregated, and why experts say the only way to become a multiracial church is to talk about things like white privilege and racial inequity (things I’ve taken my share of flak for talking about in church), is because a person of color is going to have a very difficult time trusting a white community that never acknowledges their life experience.  Saying “We don’t see color, we see all people the same” is a cop-out and is another way of saying, “We see all people the same, your disadvantages don’t exist and don’t matter to us.”  People of color aren’t looking for a white person to give them their house, or for affirmative action style tokenism, (from what I perceive) they are looking for understanding.

I’m pretty sure understanding and empathy are very biblical and Christ-like commandments.

The truth is, being together in racial diversity is a huge step toward a much better country and a much better world.

In the Church, it’s a huge step toward modeling what Christ’s reconciling power and God’s kingdom on earth is supposed to look like, especially given the types of things that happened during our first 93% to get us to this division in the first place.

You’re not racist.

You didn’t have anything to do with that first 93% of American history.

You don’t need to feel guilty.

No one is accusing you of anything.

I wonder though, when it comes to race, why we feel like the only reason we’d need to do anything intentional or proactive about it is if we had done something really racist.  It’s like our mentality is, “Well I never owned a slave, so I don’t need to acknowledge or do anything about racial inequality.  In fact, that’s un-American!  Those people need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and stop blaming me for their problems.”  Yet, we don’t use this mentality when it comes to other social injustices and oppression.

We’ll pay to give microloans to those in extreme poverty in Haiti as a way of helping them get themselves out of the extreme poverty inflicted on them by decades of governmental corruption and oppression.  When asked to donate to World Relief for this purpose, no one has ever once said to me, “I’m not an oppressor, I didn’t put them in that situation, how dare you accuse me of that!?  And so why would I need to do anything about it?”  No, in this type of injustice situation, we are able to see objectively (and with the eyes and heart of Christ) that these people have been put into the disadvantage they are in due to a history of oppression.  We don’t claim it’d be “un-American” to help them or that they need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”  We realize they haven’t been given hardly any bootstraps to pull, through no fault of their own.  The bootstraps they were supposed to have were snipped off long ago.  And what they need is not a handout, nor are they asking for a handout, they are simply asking for a level playing field.  A microloan is an attempt to give them that.  We have an advantage and privilege as whites that our history wasn’t marked by that type of oppression and disadvantage, thus we have the means to help those in Haiti who were, and many of us do.

Why can’t we apply the same principles to the racial inequities we face in America today?  You don’t need to feel guilty about the long bootstraps you were born with.  Nor do you need to throw judgmental stones at people of color (or people like me trying to have a conversation about this), telling them to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop blaming our country’s past for their current problems.

With the score 100-15 and only a quarter left to play, the black team can sweat and try and give as much effort as humanly possible and even with the 3 quarters worth of cheating having been apologized for and no longer allowed, have very little chance of catching up.

My goal in this blog post is not to give all of the step-by-step solutions on how to fix this.  Nor is it even to identify all of the white privileges and black disadvantages that exist.  For that, I’d honestly encourage you to ask your black friend that, and be prepared to listen with humility and an open heart.  To be honest, there aren’t any quick fixes to all of this.  While yes, the slave owners and Jim Crow lawmakers of our past have royally screwed over African Americans; to a lesser degree, they also screwed over contemporary white folks like me, and like you, holding that ball and looking up at the 100-15 scoreboard with a very perplexing situation on our hands.  What are we supposed to do?

The goal of this post is to get us to realize the difficulty of the situation, and how important it is to have these conversations.  To lower our pride, humble ourselves, and listen to someone else’s experiences.  How the key to Christian community and showing the love of Christ is to incarnationally love those different from us, especially those who have been oppressed by injustice.  My heart is for the Church.  We’ve all been given the cards we were dealt when we were born.  Nobody picked the family they were born into.  And the families we were born into didn’t pick their histories and what their grandparents and great grandparents did.

But here we are.

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3 responses to Positioning White Privilege to Where We Actually Can Talk About it

  1. Hey man, great post that nailed it, especially the bball game example. This has nothing to do with your post, but the bball game jogged one of those crazy memories. . . back in college played on a frat intramural bball team. We did OK and made the playoffs but got seeded against the top team and got smoked 96-15 . . .felt like the Lakers were in town. Looking back now can laugh but was no fun at the time being the 15 side.
    Good for you bringing this up. . . think pastors are good because in love they make people uncomfortable with truth. Thinking Jesus is the great equalizer. . . not just for race but all privileges. Jesus flips privilege in this world upside down. . . in Christ, the freeman is his slave, and the slave is his freeman. The wealthy should beware of his riches while the poor he chooses to be rich in faith. The first shall be last and the last first. You nailed it at the end in the call for humility. Whatever privilege we may have in this society and culture, in Christ the attitude should be. . . what do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? World and the church would be better if any advantages we’ve received became in faith the privilege of serving the less advantaged.

  2. Good article. You make a lot of valid points but I am left wondering where those who immigrated more recently our country fall in the whole white privilege debate. There is no denying that whites in todays society have benefited from our countries racist past at the expense of minorities, especially African Americans. There is also no denying that in today’s society we have given several advantages in the workplace and higher education to minorities over whites in an effort to “even the score.”

    So where do recent immigrants fall in all of this? Do whites who came to this country in the last 10 years still have white privilege? And are non whites who also came to this country recently given an unfair advantage over whites?

    This was a debate in my sociology class this past semester. It basically turned into a political debate with conservatives feeling that new immigrant whites are at a disadvantage in comparison with non whites while the liberals felt that the level of individual racism that still exists will provide the advantage to whites.

    Im curious to hear others thoughts on the matter without it getting personal.

    • Hey Steve, those are some very good questions. I think a white immigrant will definitely still enjoy some elements of white privilege, especially in the discrimination department. i.e. they won’t get pulled over because of their skin color, be racially profiled, etc. –that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Though they would not have the white privilege of an inheritance, financial capital etc that a white American would have. Immigration is an interesting topic because I think it’s assumed, fairly or unfairly, that immigrants need to “pay their dues” before being prosperous in society. For example, my grandparents were immigrants from Poland, barely speaking English when they arrived in Milwaukee, fairly poor their whole lives with my grandpa working a very blue collar factory labor job. My mom did not go to college, yet me and my 2 brothers all did. Immigrants have a language and cultural barrier to overcome that often doesn’t balance out until the 3rd generation. I think that’s the big difference between immigrants and African Americans, who didn’t come here by choice, and who have also been here as long as whites have. So I think your questions are really good questions, though I do think the white privilege question and equal opportunity applies differently due to the different contexts. I think the unfair advantage you refer to for non-whites who have recently immigrated to the US is in reference to things like Affirmative Action and other quota policies? That is such a polarizing subject that’s for sure. Let me know if that’s what you’re referring to, as I think about that.

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