What To Do With Your White Privilege Besides Feel Bad About It

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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4 responses to What To Do With Your White Privilege Besides Feel Bad About It

  1. Of the 3 Rs, relocation is the topic that has been most difficult for me. During my college internship in Benton Harbor, I lived in a very economically depressed area which was mostly black. While there were a few individuals that i was able to make connections with, for the most part I was constantly verbally harassed and threatened. It definitely helped me gain perspective but I was left wondering if an area like this would be one where i would feel comfortable raising a family? This situation reminds me a lot of the issues you outlined about school systems and how the parents that are transferring their kids from failing schools are the same kids that could potentially save the school.

    I feel i have a responsibility to live in an area that is both economically and racially diverse but at the same time, I am selfish and don’t want to my children to get in with the “wrong crowd.” Currently, I live in an area now that is racially diverse but not at all economically, it eases my conscience a bit but I am left feeling like i could do more.

    • The school system piece is a great question and highly debated (within my own marriage even!). I think with relocation, there’s got to be a balance to it. I don’t think you have to move in to the worst street of Detroit or the Southside of Chicago where there are literally people getting shot at on a daily basis. But there are also a lot of urban/city areas that have a fair amount of poor people in them or are just really old parts of town so housing costs are low that are really pretty safe places to live with nice people around. Some people think my neighborhood is “the hood” but they really have no idea. I’m in the city, but it’s a far cry from a dangerous place. But in Lansing, and I’m sure in most cities, the school system is really the kicker. I struggle with ministering to kids in my neighborhood but knowing my wife won’t let our kids go to their schools (and I’m not bashing her for this). “Sorry, I’ll tell you about Jesus and love you, but my kids are too good for the school you go to.” Yet the only school system that is truly racially diverse along white and black lines is the Lansing district. It’s a real struggle for me, I’ll be honest. One conversation that was really helpful to me was talking to a Christian black friend of mine who knows my heart for Christian community development and shares a similar heart. He attended one of Lansing’s school districts for his entire upbringing and graduated from there. He lives in Lansing with his wife and kids and told me that his kids will not be attending Lansing schools. He told me the schools were bad when he went and they are worse now. He told me if I thought I could save Lansing schools that there were thousands of parents before me who came and went who thought the same thing and were unsuccessful and for me to think that (which yes, I thought that!) was pretty presumptuous and not healthy. He asked me if I’d send my kids to Detroit schools and I told him probably not, and he said Lansing was just as bad. That conversation was helpful to me, but I still really struggle with it.

      One last side note: I think the myth that suburban schools will prevent our kids from being in the wrong crowd should be exposed. My friends school of choice their kids to the suburbs and both kids have been caught stealing drugs from drugstores and doing them at school with friends there, multiple times. For me growing up in public suburban schools, there was plenty of drugs and alcohol to go around if you wanted it. I hear your heart on that, but I think that’s an important point to make.

  2. Touching on your bullet points —

    Relocation sounds dangerously close to contributing to the gentrification of poor neighborhoods, a process which is making housing less affordable and less available to poor people and communities of color, exacerbating the process of homelessness. Its a process which threatens to undermine efforts at community self-determination and for someone who is not mindful of their privilege and of the economic forces alluded to here, can easily be seen as a means for perpetuating the problems.

    This strategy pursued in a careless way plays right into the banksters hands, rewarding them yet again for the grand larceny, euphemistically referred to as the housing bubble, or sub-prime crisis. We should instead be engaged with fight-back strategies to help people defend their homes against those who would foreclose and evict. There are historical precedents from the last Great Depression (the dimensions of which do not touch the pain being felt in this one) which we ought to study and build on.

    On the other hand, for more and more of us, while we continue to benefit from skin privilege in so many ways, it is becoming ever more clear that between the 1% and the 99% that our interests are clearly with the 99%. If we can legitimately be a part of poor communities, without homesteading them (as previous generations of white people homesteaded the lands of previous generations of people-of-color); if we can do so in ways which are humble, and respectful of the self-determination of communities-of-color; if we can learn to be good allies to struggles indigenous to poor communities, lending our talents, skills and energies without thinking we have to run the show; there can be a contribution we can make.

    Redistribution is fine, Reparations is even better. Reparations is a collective debt owed, and requires that we engage in systemic work to change the conditions in our culture and society. Some of your examples (leveraging one’s network to extend employment opportunities for example) seem far more useful than others (colonizing other people’s neighborhoods to evangelize our own faith or agenda).

    The most important thing we can do, I feel, as members of privileged castes in this white supremacist and male supremacist culture to which we were born, is to risk that privilege — and this can often require that we put it all on the line — by challenging and educating others with privilege to join us in deconstructing those systems of privilege.

    This is white people’s work, or as Paul Kivel put it, Men’s Work. Noel Ignatiev said that our best strategy lies in encouraging others to join us as ‘race traitors’, that when we get to a point that enough folks have renounced their skin privilege, where our skin color is no longer a predictor of our loyalties, that the white supremacist institutions can no longer depend on our silent complicity with its abuses; that at that point we can reach a tipping point where meaningful and systemic change becomes possible. As Ignatiev put it, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”.

    The counter-balance to our skin privilege is the oppression of others. Neither is possible without the other. But if we are willing to put that on the line, real community becomes possible, as does our ability to tap our own humanity. People of color do not need more white charity. Nor do charitable strategies do anything meaningful to undermine skin privilege or the white supremacist institutions which run our lives. Until we are prepared to engage this work for our own liberation, it is too easy for our well-meaning acts to replicate the very power relationships we say we wish to dismantle. Audre Lord taught us about the limitations of the Master’s Tools.

    No one needs our charity. We all need real justice.

    — Hugh Esco

    former Secretary, Georgia Green Party

    member, Caucasions United for Reparations and Emancipation

    • Hi Hugh, please forgive my long delay in responding to you, I’ve been really swamped. I really appreciate your comment. I think you hit it on the head with the statement:

      If we can legitimately be a part of poor communities, without homesteading them (as previous generations of white people homesteaded the lands of previous generations of people-of-color); if we can do so in ways which are humble, and respectful of the self-determination of communities-of-color; if we can learn to be good allies to struggles indigenous to poor communities, lending our talents, skills and energies without thinking we have to run the show; there can be a contribution we can make.

      I appreciate your explanation of gentrification for those who aren’t familiar with it. I know when I first heard of it, it was one of those “wow, I’d never even thought of that” moments. I know Perkins is very familiar with gentrification as well and his relocation and redistribution principles both would avoid gentrification at all costs. Most gentrification I have seen in Michigan in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit has come from brand new development of things like lofts, condos etc alongside of the development of brand new “cool” businesses. Whereas what I propose in relocating to the cities is not this at all, but rather simply move in to a normal house where normal people already live and support the businesses already there. And starting new businesses is great too, so long as they are there for the needs of the people indigenous to that neighborhood. But when you build businesses that specifically target young rich white people and build condos designed for rich young white people, you have the breeding ground for gentrification. I don’t know the research data on it, but I’ve got to think those new “hip” urban condos are one of the biggest causes of gentrification out there.

      Thanks again Hugh, I’m encouraged by your knowledge and your passion for these things.

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