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White Privilege. Now What?

December 15th, 2009 by Jason · 10 Comments

This is a talk I gave at my church’s annual Faith & Race conference. You can check out the video as well as the talks from the other speakers over on Quest’s website.

I’m going to be talking for the next few minutes about something called White Privilege and asking the question “now what?”.  What can we do about it?  To start: What is White Privilege?  Put simply, it’s that some of what I have as a Wwhite man is unearned.  Or, to use an analogy, it’s like riding a bike in the wind.  I like to ride my bike around town and I started to notice that there were days I felt great about my ride because I was zipping along and feeling like, yeah, I’m workin’ it today.  And then I’d notice a flag flying or someone huffing it out going the other way and I’d realize I’m not feeling any wind because I’m sailing along with it.  And that’s what White Privilege is: an invisible wind at my back that aids my journey, amplifies my efforts, and of which I can remain happily unaware until I start trying to go the other way.

Still, even with these definitions the concept of White Privilege still seems  abstract and nebulous.  There’s also the issue that as a White person I’v been taught to not see these unearned advantages, or to put it more strongly I’ve been taught to keep a pair of blinders on, so much so that I was able to grow up without ever asking what it means that I am a White person.  For these reasons I want to share with you a few of my own ah-ha!, lightbulb came on, experiences that helped the blinders to come down a bit.

The first one came when I was talking with a friend of mine, Reggie, who was the only Black Resident Director at the Christian college we both attended.  He mentioned how he had been trying to get a chapter of the Black Student Union going and had met with opposition from students on campus.  Some of the White students had written into the newspaper saying that it would be reverse racism to have a group meeting in our dining commons that was only for Blacks.  More to the point, they would be called racist if they were organizing a group that was only for White students.  I nodded like I could see where he was going, but if I was honest what these White students were saying made some logical sense to me, even if I sensed I was missing something.  Reggie then asked me a simple question: “when you walk into the dining commons can you find a table of White students to sit with?”  “Definitely,” I replied.  It is a predominantly White college, it was never hard to find a table with all White students.  “That is because every day the dining commons is a gathering of the White Student Union.  You just don’t have to call it that because it’s the default mode of operation,” said Reggie.  Ouch.  For four years I had been able to attend college blind to the privilege that, if I wanted, I could sit with, talk with, and eat with only other White students and have it be a complete non-issue. Yet, when a group of Black students decided to do the same, and by so doing bring to the surface the White privilege that existed in our lives, it was looked on with suspicion and labeled divisive.

Experience number two was when I got pulled over for changing lanes without my blinker on. I was peeing in my pants given the wonderful combination of an overactive adrenal gland and  having just watched Shawshank Redemption.  The two California patrol officers, both of whom were White, didn’t like my wide-eyed, admittedly mumbled, answers to their questions and were convinced I was up to no good. Long story short, after a breathalizer, walking the line, ransacking our car, and a pee test (which came back clear, by the way) they nonetheless were bound and determined to make an arrest and so I was thrown in the clink for the rest of the night.  So where’s the White Privilege in a White guy getting pulled over by other White guys?

But then I started reading about our racialized prison systems, like how a Black man is 6 times more likely than a White man to be incarcerated, or a Latino man twice as likely to be sent to prison than a White man in America, and hearing more and more stories about racial profiling by cops and this experience kept coming back to me.  During my whole 2 hour ordeal with the cops, not once did I worry about whether I had been pulled over and was going through this because I am White.  And a more subtle, but just as prevalent privilege that came up as I was talking to some non-White friends is that I had no worries about the stereotypes the cops had of me.  Which, as my friends informed me, is a constant obstacle if you’re a person of color.  I wasn’t worried that how White people speak or how White people dress or how White people are portrayed on the shows that the cops might have been watching.  I didn’t worry because I didn’t need to avoid falling into a negative stereotype in a world where White is the norm.  In fact, just the opposite, all those things were unseen privileges that even operated in a situation where I didn’t have a whole lot of power.

Alright, so hopefully you now have a sense of what White Privilege is at the street level, in the ways it plays out in everyday life.  But I’m sure there are objections.  Folks object that they can think of plenty of White people who are under the thumb of other White people.  True, poor White people have less power then than rich White people, and White women have less power than White men.  But I hope that my story about being pulled over by the cops illustrates that the privileges of being White in this country are always operating, even when other forces do factor into the mix.  Perhaps the biggest objection we hear is that this whole White Privilege thing is a farce because in America what you have is based on how hard you’ve worked.  To say that part of why I’m where I am today, with the education I have, or the job I have, or the house I own is because I have benefited from the color of my skin flies in the face of American individualism and meritocracy.

As Christians we should be the first to acknowledge that idea as a farce.  It should not be a problem for us to call White Privilege what it is, which is sin.  Still more, White Christians should be the first to own up to our part in that sin because we’re a people who know we need a Savior from our sin.  Unfortunately, the Church in America doesn’t have a great track record of acknowledging and doing something about White Privilege, and I think that’s because our view of sin is too small.  We tend to see sin as an act I commit about which I feel guilty about and then need to repent of.  That’s part of sin, but not all of it.  When Paul writes in Ephesians that Jesus’ resurrection made him ruler “over all rule and authority, power and dominion” he’s getting at a much bigger idea of sin.  These “rulers and authorities” point to the idea that sin isn’t just things we do, it’s also something in which we get trapped; it’s ways in which the world gets twisted by sins that are bigger than any one person and in which we get caught, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Acknowledging that White Privilege exists, that it’s a sin in which all White folks in America are entangled, that I as a White man have benefited from the suffering of others who were denied these privileges, is a huge first step.  Of course, recognizing this does not happen in a moment, but as a process.  There was no one day when I stopped seeing myself as generic, as devoid of a race or a culture, and as someone who had been riding all my life with the wind at my back.  It happened in conversations like the one with Reggie about issues of race and it’s still happening, even as I’ve been thinking about this talk.  Nonetheless, acknowledging it has to begin, because privilege must be made visible if Whiteness and the privilege it entails is going to stop being invisible.

Once it’s visible, once we acknowledge it exists, what now?  That’s a tough question, because there is no getting rid of my White skin.  Privilege will be something I benefit from until our society is one that no longer hands it out on the basis of skin color.  And it’s tough because with something as prevalent and pervasive as White Privilege there are as many ways to confront it as there are situations in which it rears its ugly head.

Nonetheless, I want to take a quick look at Esther as a model and guide for where we might go from here.  Do you remember her story?  Here’s a young woman living in exile and captivity with her fellow Jews in Persia.  When King Xerxes starts looking for a new wife Esther is brought in as a possibility and with the help of some crazy 5th century BC Olay beauty products she becomes the King’s favorite and then his wife.  Oh, and she was helped by keeping mum about that little fact that she was a Jew, a captive people who had to be dragged from their homeland because they kept causing so much trouble.  Everything is great for a while, big banquets, moving up in the world, and Esther is enjoying what good luck and diligence have given her.  And then things start to unravel.  Some of the Persians can’t stand these Jews with their refusal to assimilate or worship their gods and get King Xerxes to issue a decree allowing for the wholesale genocide, the annihilation of the Jews, on the day he appointed.

What is Esther doing while this decree is being signed by the king and plans being made for the destruction of her people?  Not much from what we can tell.  And why not?  She wasn’t in any danger.  She’s comfortable.  She’s riding with the winds of privilege at her back.  I’d  be tempted to do the same.  I suppose we could wonder if she hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ words that to whom much is given, much is required.  Maybe she feels powerless as one woman in a harem of hundreds to confront the King who ruled most of the world at that time.  Perhaps she is simply too afraid to confront a King who routinely executes people for speaking when they’re supposed to be quiet.  That sounds like me, does it sound like you?

Mordechai, her uncle, will have none of it.  He sends this message to Esther:

Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die.  Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?


Such a time as this.  Those words shake Esther out of living comfortably in her privilege as Queen and call her to start living in discomfort as an agitator for justice.  And they should shake us as well.  What should I think about the fact that I’m White and that swim in a sea of White Privilege?  Not that I should wallow in guilt, nor that I should deny it, neither of which are helpful.  Rather, that I should live into the uncomfortable awareness of its injustice.  I am White and God was pleased to make me that way, but God also saw fit to bring me into a world in such a time as this.  A time when my Whiteness is part of an unjust system.  A time when racism has not yet been undone.

Because of where and when I live it is a time in which I am called to live every day in a dis-comforting awareness of those facts.  Is that putting it too strong?  Every day?  I don’t think so, for my non-White brothers and sisters live in discomforting awareness each day, but without the privilege of escaping it.  It’s only as we refuse to let privilege slip into invisibility that the discomfort of living with it will start to pop up in how we digest our TV shows, interpret the political debates, what we value in our schools and neighborhoods, or what it means to be the church in a still segregated society.  That is where I want to leave us.  Not at the end of Esther’s story where every thing works out, but in the middle of the story, which is where we are: in a world moving towards redemption, but not yet there.  I want to leave us with Mordechai’s ringing words that we, whatever the color of our skin, were made and called for just such a messy time as this.

Tags: race & ethnicity · theology

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 patti // Dec 15, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks for articulating these ideas. We white folks need to hear them!

  • 2 Keyanna // Dec 16, 2009 at 6:55 am

    I enjoyed your post. As a multicultural person of color I agree with your assessment of the situation. We are in the middle of a cultural awakening and it time to stand for justice and righteousness regardless of race or creed. It is said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. It will be a great day when people care enough to stop the sweeping generalizations, stop perpetuating ignorant stereotypes, and start taking really analyzing what they are doing to enable unequal treatment to continue.

  • 3 Daily Links – 12.16.09 | Community of the Risen // Dec 17, 2009 at 1:36 am

    [...] White Privilege I like Jason’s Definition here where he says: “it’s like riding a bike in the wind. I like to ride my bike around town and I started to notice that there were days I felt great about my ride because I was zipping along and feeling like, yeah, I’m workin’ it today. And then I’d notice a flag flying or someone huffing it out going the other way and I’d realize I’m not feeling any wind because I’m sailing along with it. And that’s what White Privilege is: an invisible wind at my back that aids my journey, amplifies my efforts, and of which I can remain happily unaware until I start trying to go the other way.” [...]

  • 4 Reggie // Dec 19, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Good stuff Jason! Some people argue that we should be color-blind, as if blindness will combat white privilege and racism. But color-blindness doesn’t help either; that only makes us ignore the dominant racial construct that is demanding our conformity. That only creates color-blind racism. We assimilate, or are expected to assimilate, to the dominate social construct in the name of color-blindness. But the Jesus gives us another remedy: “Love your neighbor as yourselfe”, and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” How am I supposed to know what I would want you to do to me if I were in your shoes? It would require me getting to know you more significantly than the stereotypes that describe you. Whether I, as a black man or woman, know “white people” in a stereotypical way, or as a white man or woman know “black people” in a stereotypical way, I cannot treat you as I would want to be treated unless I share knowledge of the world through your experience/lenses. Empathy becomes vital in the effort to dismantle privilege.

  • 5 isaac // Dec 24, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Jason,

    Great talk. I hope it led to some good discussions at your church.

    I think your analogy of riding a bike works really well with thinking through systemic racial preference in our society. Sometimes all people need is a powerful analogy and that changes everything about how they see the world.

    I’m still wondering about Esther, though. That story has always troubled me. For one thing, Mordechai seems like a slimy uncle, pimping out his niece for the sake of the people! Pretty crazy. I guess you could make a connection with beautiful people today using their sexiness and celebrity to stand up for just causes. But that seems weird too; the entertainment industry and politics seems like a bad combination. And then there’s the way Esther doesn’t simply help save her people from genocide; she actually turns the tables on her enemies and has them all killed—not just Haman, but all their enemies throughout the land, by order of the king: “they killed 75,000” (9:16). That sounds bad. It basically sounds like a story of the oppressed finally getting some power and using their new power to kill off their former oppressors. It’s a story about vengeance—and, as you probably already know, it’s not divinely authorized vengeance. There’s no talk of God throughout the story. It’s about the power politics of an oppressed racial minority. Very troubling.

    I can think of one way to read Esther as a hopeful story. In the Nazi concentration camps, of all their scriptures, the Jews had the book of Esther memorized. They recited it from memory. It was their book of hope that God will some day turn the tables. Given that history of interpretation, it seems like Esther is a book for the oppressed, for the disempowered minority who can do nothing else but hope in the darkness. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to see how you can read it as your story, Jason. You can’t be Esther because you are white. You already have power; you already are an insider to the ways of power. This might be a text the meaning of which you are unable to discern—because your position of privilege is actually a disability. Esther isn’t a word you know how to hear; you can’t hear it from where you stand. The text renders you an outsider to the meaning. If your racial analogy is a good way to read Esther, then you have to read yourself on the losing side, on Haman’s side, on the side of those who have the privilege of power at the beginning of the story, right? And all you can hope for is grace—the gracious generosity of a minority to let you into the club, into their secret, into their knowledge, into their family. The unmasks your power and shows you how your power makes you an outsider who can only live by grace, the grace of a friendship—hoping that Esther will have mercy on someone who is not among her people.

    What do you think?

  • 6 Jason // Jan 5, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Thanks for taking the talk seriously enough to offer up a critique, Isaac. You’re right that Esther’s story ends in a mess of violence, sacrifice, and scapegoating. It’s the perfect example of the world of sacrificial violence that Allison is always talking about. But it’s also not that surprising. Because while there are hints of moving towards an alternative way of life in the OT, we don’t see the sacrificial violence undone until Jesus comes along.

    Given that, I think the portion of Esther I used can still be fruitful, without devolving to prooftexting. Similar to how the church has chosen certain passages and not others for the lectionary, or how the liturgy is sometimes better served by ending before the psalmist gets to the fire and brimstone.

    Haman could be an interesting alternative. But I think it would have to be teased out carefully. To tell White folks they are Haman in the story is to say we are still trapped in the world of victim and victimizer. Nothing has changed except who is on top. It doesn’t lend itself to the creation of a new fraternal reality or a reality where mercy, not sacrifice is demanded. I’m not saying White folks don’t need to be reminded of the burden and difficulty of being the ones in need of mercy, but I’m not sure Haman’s story lends itself to the undoing of our violent ways. Thoughts?

  • 7 isaac // Jan 11, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Jason, I hope I didn’t come across as criticizing what you put together. I think your presentation works really well, and I’m sure it led to fruitful conversation—which is what it is all about anyhow. So, all that to say, I meant it when I said that I think you do a great job and that the metaphor of riding your bike works really well.

    I was struck by your reading of the story of Esther because I heard recently heard an awesome sermon at my church. Here’s a link to it: http://mennonit.es/chmf/2009/09/for-such-a-time-as-this/

    She has a very different reading of the story that I find compelling.

    I’m wondering about being “trapped in the world of victim and victimizer.” Are you saying that this arrangement is no longer the case? If so, what’s your proof? It seems to me that the world is still organized in terms of victim and victimizer—e.g. Obama perpetuating the global war machine called the U.S., bankers getting incredible bonuses while people lose their homes and their jobs, the incredible sea of African-Americans in prison. And this world passes through the church—McClendon: “the line between the world and the church passes through the heart of each of us.” So, it seems to me that the way the church witnesses to a different reality, to a new creation, is not to say that we magically escape this configuration of power. But to demonstrate it through our life together. So, we turn the tables and the people with cultural power sacrifice it and let the powerless take control of the church body. Isn’t this what Paul is all about in his letters to the church in Corinth? Paul doesn’t say, “hey, don’t worry about the way power is distributed because you are outside of that world.” Instead he says, let the weakest have the power, let them have a voice, give them the table.

    It’s one thing for the people in power to say, “Hey let’s just forget about who has power, about how is on the inside of power, and instead practice equality.” It seems like it’s another thing entirely for the people on the inside of power to give it up and let the table be turned on them and let the weakest, the victims, decide what equal distribution of power looks like. Does that make sense?

  • 8 Jason // Jan 19, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Hey Isaac, thanks for the link to the other sermon—a good read and it helps me know where you’re coming from. And no, not at all feeling criticized; sorry if I came off too strong in the first comment.

    Where I’m coming from is all this James Alison stuff I’ve been reading and listening to (did you know he has some online talks you can download?). And he has this line in one of his talks about Jesus’ desiring “mercy not sacrifice” as being his hermeneutical lens. And I’ve been trying to put on that lens, as it were.

    Anyhow, so I would agree that the world of “victim and vicitmizer” is alive and well, and most certainly runs through all our hearts and churches. But what I take Alison to be saying is that we shouldn’t give that world any divine attribution. In other words, that the world of “victim and victimizer” and of sacrifice, not mercy has nothing to do with God or Jesus, even if it does have everything to do with how our world continues to operate.

    That’s why I’m reticent to use, say the story of Haman, as an instructive text for the church in figuring out how to undo racism, because it seems to enthrone violence and sacrifice as divinely sanctioned. However, given your last example from Paul, I think I see that you’re coming from more of an anthropological stance. We need stories that hold up a mirror and show us the ways we continue to make victims of others and then to be instructed in how to start giving up their power. Is that right? I sense this is way off-track from where we started, but interesting nonetheless :)

  • 9 isaac // Feb 2, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Hi Jason,

    Sorry. I haven’t had much time on the internet lately. Very busy with church stuff.

    Yeah, I think our conversation has taken us a long way from where we started—but there’s nothing wrong with that! This is interesting.

    I think I get what you are saying with Alison. He is always showing how God does not compete with our systems and our relations. God isn’t another power that is in competition with the powers of this world. And so that makes sense that he wouldn’t want us to understand God as in a relationship of victim-victim.

  • 10 Primrose // Feb 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    Great Stuff man, this is devine revelation, for someone on the other side to experience what others are dealing with everyday and not be allowed to share that experience with no one for fear of labelled reverse racist, incompetant, unable to assimilate and the looks of pity. I praise God for you brother, be blessed. Whatever Esther’s story is about, we got your point thoroughly.

    Praise Jesus, Amen