This is not a blog post to try to help white people understand what white privilege is and/or to persuade them to acknowledge it and do something about it.
I did a blog post a few months ago that did that. It was helpful for many and received flak from others. I used the analogy of a basketball game where one team cheated to get a 100-15 lead prior to the rules being made fair at the beginning of the 4th quarter. The post was an attempt to help us position ourselves to at least have a conversation about white privilege in a constructive way. You can read that post here.
A few weeks ago, my friend Jeremy Dowsett totally copied me but instead used the analogy of riding a bike on streets made for cars. His analogy and blog article are great and received several billion (or something like that) more hits than mine. You should check that out here.
Today’s post is not to convince you that white privilege exists or that American society is slanted unjustly in favor of white people. If you’d like to argue against the existence of white privilege or call me names, please stop reading here and do so on the above link, not this one. Better yet, do it on Jeremy’s page.
Today’s post is for those of us whose eyes have already been at least somewhat opened (I say “somewhat” because I know even my eyes need much more opening to be done still) to what white privilege is and we’d like to know what we can do about it. We have white privilege. We feel bad about it. Is there anything we can do about it besides feel bad?
I attended an extremely helpful 3-day “Understanding Racism” workshop last summer. We did a white privilege exercise where the group of 40 of us or so all stood in a line at one end of a large room. Our group was around 65% white and 35% people of color, mostly African-American. The moderator began making statements and if the statement was true of us, we were to take a step forward. Examples of these statements are:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
- I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
There is a list of 50 of these statements created by Dr. Peggy McIntosh entitled “On the Invisibility of Privilege.”
By the end of the exercise, you can image what the room looked like: All of the white people were now at the front of the room and all of the people of color were still back near where we started. The silence was deafening.
The debrief to the exercise was challenging. While we all processed through the emotions we were feeling, my friend and co-pastor at Crossroads, Curt Wright, eventually asked what those of us who have white privilege could do about it.
The first response was from one of the African American instructors who said that this was a very “white male” type of question. There is definitely truth in this, which Curt and I both acknowledged. There is definitely a need to be aware, to be humbled, to learn, to empathize and to be educated. These things do need to come first and we should not have a savior complex about our ability to fix what is broken. But practically speaking, it is still a question that ought to be answered. The reason it ought to be answered is because feeling bad about things doesn’t actually help change the system.
If you are white, and especially if you are a white male, you were born with life on a silver platter in comparison to your brothers and sisters of color. (If you disagree with this statement, I had assumed you already stopped reading at my fourth paragraph as I’d requested, so if you’re mad now, that’s your fault not mine.) Is the answer to give all of your money and possessions to a black person? This is typically where critics’ minds and smart remarks will come in. Let’s get beyond that simplistic of thinking and talk about what might actually help the mess our society has created.
Dr. John Perkins “3 R’s” of community development are very helpful here:
Relocation – Moving to, moving back to, or intentionally staying in an economically depressed area so as to be a change agent from within the community.
Reconciliation – The reconciliation of people to God, and the reconciliation of neighbor to neighbor. Using the power of the gospel to break down the dividing walls of ethnicity, class and economics.
Redistribution – (Copied and pasted from Action.org article by John Barkey) Perkins believes in the importance of economic development and the redistribution of resources. But this commitment does not mean the heavy hand of government taking from one member of a community to give to another. It requires, rather, “bringing our lives, our skills, our educations, and our resources and putting them to work to empower people in a community of need. [This] is redistribution and it helps people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”
We initially cringe at the word “redistribution” because it sounds like communism. The helpful mental path around this reaction is to understand that redistribution is not simply talking about our finances, it’s talking about all of our resources (time, relationships, networking, skills training, friendships, mentoring, etc.). To be reminded of this truth just think about how much money is dumped into urban community development with very little to show for it.
Redistribution reminds of Luke 12:48 From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. While the biblical context has to do with how much of God’s revelation has been revealed to one person versus another, I think the principle is very helpful here as well. Is the silver platter you were born with meant to help you live a life that revolves around you or was it meant to equip you to love others the way Jesus loves you?
I have not done my doctoral thesis on this, but here are a few “redistribution” things I have been a part of over the years that I have observed to be doable, effective, and I hope reproducible. Though you certainly don’t have to be white to do these things, my aim with this list is to give white people of privilege some doable challenges to help bring justice to the systemic oppression of people of color. None of these will fix the entire problem, but each will help in small ways. And last I checked, if we are all helping in small ways, big things can happen… (side note: you will not find donating a coat or giving to a food bank on this list for a reason, but that’s a whole other blog post)
- Don’t worry about doing this perfectly, as you never will. Don’t let that stop you from doing anything at all. (For the record, this is a blog post full of flaws I’m not even aware of)
- Develop an urban park ministry in the summertime with your church. Find an inner city park where at least one person from your church lives and canvas the neighborhood with them in the springtime. Invite kids ages 4-18 to come out one evening a week. Bring with you a bag of balls, a stack of pizza, arts and crafts, some basic prizes, and be prepared to do Bible study small groups with the kids. My church has done this for the past 8 years and it has been very successful.
- Mentor a youth of color from a low income urban area. Use a program like Big Brothers, Big Sisters for this, or create a park program as I described in the above bullet point and create mentoring opportunities from it.
- Expose people of color to your professional network of contacts.
- Help people of color get jobs and get better jobs by using your network of contacts.
- Give scholarships for youth of color to go to college or trade school.
- Allow a youth of color to shadow you as an intern at your job, learning how to do your trade over an extended period of time.
- Hire people of color at your company.
- Give scholarships for Bible college and/or seminary to pastors of color and aspiring pastors of color.
- Create pastoral residencies within your church for minority pastor candidates. Have these residencies paid with a stipend and/or paid via a Bible college or seminary scholarship.
- If your church is low on funds as mine is, raise outside fundraising in order to hire in these minority staff, residency, and scholarship positions. This is very possible to do–we’ve done it with two new positions thus far.
- Push your church to become more and more multiracial and you’ll find all of the above things happening on their own and/or will find open doors for these things to happen.
- If you don’t live in a diverse area or where there is need for socioeconomic development, move to a place that does or at least attend church in an area that does. If you don’t do either of these, at least invest your money into people who are doing these things in these places and invest your time to help them in any way you can.
I hope you get the idea.
Use the advantages American society has given you to advance others.
This is love.
This is the love Jesus modeled to us and and tells us to show to others.
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