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Invisible Enemies: Thoughts on Racism and White Privilege

November 27th, 2007 by Jason · 5 Comments

Isaac posted a sermon a while ago on “invisible enemies.” In it he discusses Eph. 6:12:

our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms

Like Isaac points out, it sounds a bit off the wall at first glance, something from a sci-fi flic. For that reason I’ve always had a hard time getting a grasp on what might be meant by “authorities” and “powers” of a spiritual sort. It’s started to make more sense, however, as I’ve been reflecting on race the last few weeks and then going back over Isaac’s sermon I found that passage to a particularly apt theological foundation for the stuff I’ve been reading about lately on racism and white privilege.

I grew up with the understanding that racism was interchangeable with prejudice. Racism had to do with negative stereotypes or attitudes about people of a different skin color than me. So when I came across Beverly Tatum’s definition of racism as a “system of advantage based on race” it opened my eyes to a new of thinking about racism. By distinguishing between racism and prejudice Tatum is able to capture the insidious systematic nature of racism, something that has taken me too long to thoroughly grasp. Not only that, but it certainly raises the ire of some when you think about it’s implications. By that definition, all white people in the United States are racist because all white people benefit, to different extents, by an advantaging system! The most common response to that is: “so non-white people can’t be racist?” No, I don’t think it means that. In America there is a whole hierarchy of race, that falls along rough lines of light to dark. So, yes some non-white persons can be racist because they benefit from advantaging systems.

So why keep argue for such a contested definition of “racism”? In part because there are plenty of words to describe prejudice: stereotypes, bad attitudes, bigotry, etc. But there are no words that capture the systematic nature of racism and without such a definition many find it hard to see the fact that racism is alive and well in America today, and white people are often unwitting “pawns” in a system that continues to wield its power. We will not see this “invisible enemy” until we understand that at the heart of racism is not just individual prejudice attitudes, but “powers of this dark world” that set themselves up in hierarchies of privilege based on skin color.

Tatum’s definition of racism also paves the way for getting a better handle on just what “white privilege” is. By pointing out that white people in this country have a whole set of powers that they inherit simply by virtue of their skin color we start to unpack white privilege. Of course, “powers” is rather nebulous, which is why Peggy McIntosh’s article on the invisible knapsack of white privilege is so helpful. She lists fifty different “daily effects” of white privilege. Effects as mundane as being able to find a “flesh” colored band-aid that matches my skin to something as powerful as being sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

By detailing this unearned “advantaging system” for white people McIntosh points to two main conclusions: one, that everyone in America is affected by racism and two, that changing individual attitudes or stereotypes is not enough. As Tatum points out, to be white in America and do nothing about it is to participate in passive racist behavior; the equivalent of standing sill on a moving walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along. Unless a person is walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others. To be white and actively antiracist means seeking to interrupt the advantage system; to change the structures of power that give advantage based on skin color. In the language of Ephesians it is to struggle not against flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places … by taking our stand against the devil’s schemes.

And hopefully the church is a place that can take this “stand.” A bumbling group of people whose eyes are trained by Scripture, worship, and the stories of our brothers and sisters to see and interrupt this invisible system of racism.

Tags: race & ethnicity · theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Dec 1, 2007 at 8:12 am

    Hey Jason, thanks for the post—that’s some really important stuff. And thanks for taking my sermon in an interesting direction.

    I have a question, hopefully that pushes your post towards a constructive conversation. How exactly can the the church witness to this ‘antiracist’ hope and, as you say, “interrupt this invisible system of racism”? Are there practical things ‘we’ can do?

    I mark the ‘we’ with scare-quotes because I never know where I fit in this conversation about racism in this country. I’m a child of Latin American immigrants, so I never know whether or not I am included in that “we” when people talk about Christianity in the United States. I’m not saying that I’m not implicated in the racist powers here, but it always seems complicated when I try to discern how the powers crisscross my life.

  • 2 Jason // Dec 3, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    It’s a good question Isaac and one I’ve been trying to flesh out for a while now. My thought is that power can be interrupted either by giving it up or by using power to confront it. Both seem like they might help in different situations. For example, I mentioned the importance of the church just having these conversations and listening to the stories of non-white people. By simply listening to stories and not trying to “respond” to those stories by critiquing or challenging them might be an example of giving up power. On the flip side, speaking up and challenging racist stories and jokes could be an example of the latter.

    But as the larger church I think it can and should look bigger: housing reform (I think of the Catholic Mercy Housing which does a great job at creating sustainable neighborhoods) or getting involved in the public education debate both come to mind. I mention both of these things because they’ve both been heavily influenced by racist policies (e.g. the origin of redlining, suburbs, and the New Deal all have roots in systemic racism).

  • 3 Sunday blogging against racism #20–thinking about my whiteness « I wanna love You better whatever it takes . . . // Dec 30, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    [...] looking for a quick fix (given the fact that it’s 11:23pm already) and came across these wise Mennonite dudes who had some good things to say. I particularly love this quote about white privilege and the need [...]

  • 4 janelle eccleston // Jan 27, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I am working as a member of an anti-racist team in my church with the ultimate goal of dismantling racism, especially institutional racism in our church and surrounding community. We are aware as a group this is not an easy or swift goal to attain; but we are proud to at least be aware of the problem of racism in our church. This article has given me more personal insight on white privilege and how the problem is perpetuated when we do not take steps to identify it and then make both individual and collective changes in regard to that privilege. Thank you for an insightful piece and any suggestions or other helpful readings would be appreciated by me and my congregation at large. Janelle M. Eccleston

  • 5 Robert // Mar 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Though this post is old, I thought it was insightful and as a minister it would be Jesus like for you to start as revolution among your white brothers and sisters of the cloth to teach for a year on this subject. After all is this not what Jesus would do?
    Invisible Enemies: Thoughts on Racism and White Privilege