Culture

Telling the Truth About White Privilege

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(Editor’s Note: This week we will feature two articles on the topic of privilege from different vantage points. The first by pastor David Swanson will dive into a nuanced understanding of white privilege; the second by professor Vince Bantu on Friday will address the topic of evangelical privilege and is geared for our readers of color. But we encourage you to read both regardless of your own ethnic background for a fuller understanding of these complicated and important issues.)

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Not long ago one of the African-American members of our church told me about a frightening encounter.

He had recently moved his family into a new home in an affluent neighborhood in our city. One evening he was walking his dog in the alley behind his house when a police car pulled up quickly. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the officers demanded that my friend put his hands on his head and threatened to pull their guns. Though he tried to explain that he was standing mere feet away from his house, the officers continued yelling, demanding that he stand against the wall. Only after several long, tense minutes had passed did they allow him to return to his home, explaining that he’d fit the description of someone wanted for a crime.

I thought about my friend’s dangerous encounter as well as our very different experiences with law enforcement when I read a recent blog post by Dr. Bryan Loritts, “Can We Please Stop Saying, ‘White Privilege.’” For those who don’t know Dr. Loritts, he’s the pastor of Abundant Life Church, the author of numerous books including several about racial reconciliation, and an insightful thinker. See, for example, his recent post about “The ‘Bi-Racial’ Jesus.” As a pastor of a multiracial congregation myself, I appreciate Dr. Loritts’s leadership and the wisdom he applies to the complexities of reconciliation. Yet, as I read his article about racial privilege, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways being white has advantaged me over the years and how it seems to me, we need to talk more about white privilege, not less.

Racial Privilege in a Racialized Society

Racial privilege is the idea that people’s race makes them more or less likely to succeed or suffer. As author and professor Drew G.I. Hart writes in Trouble I’ve Seen, “America is a thoroughly racialized society dominated and controlled by white people in a manner that advantages them because of their whiteness” (p. 101). White privilege is not just visible in occasional interpersonal encounters such as being confronted by law enforcement next to your own house; its advantages are baked into our racialized society.

White privilege is not just visible in occasional interpersonal encounters such as being confronted by law enforcement next to your own house; its advantages are baked into our racialized society. Click To Tweet

The fact that these privileges seem normal to many of us who are white doesn’t blunt the advantages we have received and which have been denied to people of color, especially African Americans. Hart writes, “In reality, things like redlining, housing discrimination, and other historic racialized practices offered great advantages, socially and economically to white households.” He goes on to point out that white Americans

“have benefited from some of the largest government handouts in history (beyond, of course, the stolen land and stolen labor). And even for those who have not directly received any of those white benefits, just being white means access to live in, do business with, and benefit from communities that had created their wealth through such racially stratified and oppressive practices and policies” (p. 103).

It’s not that Dr. Loritts thinks that white privilege does not exist. Rather he says, “My problem with white privilege is not so much the ugly, truthful realities the phrase conveys, but how it is said… It has a ring of displeasure, a note of attack and sourness.” I can imagine how, as the pastor of a racially and ethnically diverse church, this othering dynamic is troubling for him. The divisive and segregating forces of our racialized society often feel overwhelming to me, as though the gospel expectation for reconciliation is a utopian fantasy. Anything that might push someone or, even worse, a group of someones away feels like a threat to the vision of a diverse community demonstrating the beauty and power of Christ’s reconciliation.

But Dr. Loritts’s criticism of white privilege runs deeper. He writes, “Many are misinformed when they say white privilege, demonizing privilege for the sake of privilege…[If] privilege was sinful then Jesus Christ was sinful. Philippians 2:1-11 argues that Jesus was the most privileged person ever to live, who in his status was God. But what did Jesus do with his privilege? He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8).”

Understanding Different Kinds of Privilege

Indeed, privilege itself shouldn’t be vilified. A friend once pointed out that, as a white, able-bodied man of a certain above-average height I tick all of our society’s privilege boxes. He was giving me a hard time, but his point was true. There are all sorts of privileges that attach themselves to each of us and spiritual maturity involves recognizing them for what they are—earned and unearned advantages—and investing them for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good.

But can the particular privileges associated with racial whiteness be compared with Jesus’ privileges? The privileges of which Jesus divested himself are inherent to his identity as the Son of God. The power behind those privileges is undeniably good, a reflection of God’s righteous and holy character. It is a generative and creative power, a power that is manifested in the incarnation and displayed in shocking detail on the cross. The power behind white privilege, on the other hand, is categorically different.

Viewed historically, racial whiteness cannot be separated from the pursuit of exploiting and oppressing power. Click To Tweet

Viewed historically, racial whiteness cannot be separated from the pursuit of exploiting and oppressing power. While we tend to think of privilege as following from the reality of race, remembering that race is a relatively recent construct makes it easier to see how the pursuit of power and its accompanying privileges came first. Before there were the racial categories and hierarchies we are familiar with today, there were colonialist enterprises, land theft on an epic scale, indigenous genocides, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Each of these was a thinly veiled grab for power. Only later, in an attempt to justify such a naked pursuit of supremacy and privilege, were pseudo-scientific racial categories developed. By categorizing indigenous people as savages and Africans as property, the consciousnesses of European settlers could rest easy as they accumulated power and privilege.

This is what makes white privilege distinct from, say, the privileges that come with my gender or height; white privilege cannot be separated from the invention of a social category built on exploitation and plunder. It is the opposite of our Lord’s creating and saving power.

White privilege cannot be separated from the invention of a social category built on exploitation and plunder. It is the opposite of our Lord’s creating and saving power. Click To Tweet

Recognizing the destructive nature of our privilege is an important part of spiritual maturity for white Christians. Once we tell the truth about the unearned advantages that make our lives relatively easier while also disadvantaging others, we are then free to draw more closely to our diverse family in Christ. Not only that, by taking responsibility for our racial privilege we can actually use our privilege for good rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Oftentimes this means divesting ourselves of power, stepping aside so that Christians of color can lead from the fullness of their identities. Other times this will involve leveraging our privilege by confronting the earthly powers which continue to exploit those same sisters and brothers.

But no matter the response, we must begin with telling the truth about our privilege.

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