Friday, June 14, 2013

White Privilege Is Not in the Bible...or...Why White Christians Need to Pay Attention to Sociology

A few weeks ago, blogger and fellow Southsider, Kenneth Pruitt asked me to answer the question: What form of privilege do you personally feel is most urgent for the church to wrestle with in order to be the community Christ calls it to be? 

This was a great moment for me to stop and synthesize what I have been thinking and writing about for about a year now. I wrote:

"White Christians need to develop a “sociological imagination. 

Sociologists are able to see the world in ways that are supremely helpful to understanding our experience.  Along with anthropologists, they are the ones who describe how “race” is not a biological or cultural reality, but is social constructed.  Going all the way back to W.E.B. Dubois, they are the people who talk about a system of “White privilege,” which is the other side of institutionalized racism.  

White Christians mostly don’t know about these concepts, because to be brutally honest, White churches were helping to maintain Jim Crow laws and racial segregation on Sunday morning and every other day of the week for much of this time.  We absolutely have to listen to what sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists are saying about "race," racial identity, privilege and oppression, because we as White Christians have not been developing a capacity to think about these topics.  If we can listen with discernment, we will begin to understand why it is so critical to be aware of the society in which we live." 

The rest of the post can be found on Kenneth's blog, which I recommend checking out at 

I am still hoping for some dialogue around this topic, so maybe I can give another go at engaging people.  

1)  What form of privilege do you think we most need to engage in the church?

2)  Are the sociological concepts of "privilege" and "oppression" useful for Christians?  If not, are there similar themes in the Bible that might help Christians theorize about "race" and racial inequality?   

3) Other thoughts, opinions, or critiques?  


  1. As many page views as this post has gotten from around the internet, it's SO interesting that there are still no comments on either your blog or mine. Are we interested in reading about this stuff but scared to talk about it? What gives?

  2. I agree, it is strange. Maybe there is a saturation point for people who already agree... After a while, people can't take in any more? Or maybe people are afraid if saying the wrong thing and risk being called racist?

  3. To begin with, we must stop using technical jargon, such as "white privilege," and replace it with something the church is already familiar with. From my roots in the South, most churches are familiar with the concept of "majority rule." If we said, "majority privilege," instead of, "white privilege," we are more apt to be understood, especially since the demographics of the South are rapidly changing, and "white minority" will soon be the unprivileged class.

    Privilege and oppression are major themes in the New Testament church, but the language of "Jew" and "Gentile" is used. The Jews had the privilege. See Romans 3ff. The Gentiles were in the minority in the early church. And Paul gives instructions for dealing with each other in most of his letters.

    The church needs to ask, "by what standard do we treat the minority?" This gets to the heart of ethical, moral, philosophical and theological issues, such as weaker brother and Christian liberty.

    The concept of agape love defines how the majority and minority are to treat each other.

    1. Bill,

      I think it's a good point that sociological terms might not always be the most useful in every context. The goal should be meeting people where they are at.

      With that said, do you think it's reasonable to ask people to learn new terminology occasionally? I still believe that we can learn a lot from sociologists. I don't know a better way to explain "White privilege" without using colorblind language. And taking a cue from Mica Pollock, author of the book "Colormute," sometimes the ways we don't talk about "race" can be just as damaging as the ways we do. So we need some language to talk about "race," racial inequality, and racism.

    2. Lulu, Technical terms do work when teaching the disciplines they apply to, but they often fail to convey the intended meaning when used outside that domain.
      For example, as a person with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, I am frequently frustrated by people who use computer analogies that don't mean what they think they mean.

      I am reading a counseling book whose author calls the box containing the CPU (central processing unit), RAM (random access memory), and External Storage (hard drives, CD, DVD, etc.) as the "hard drive," and likens it to a person's brain. There is an analogy there, but his lack of precise language (misuse of technical jargon) messes it up.

      Maybe it works for people not in my discipline, and thus, I am not going to write his publisher! :) But that is the problem with teaching technical terms to people who don't have the technical background to use them properly in polite conversation.

    3. Bill, it also drives me nuts when people are compared to computers. It totally doesn't work for me as an analogy. However, in the field of sociology the analogies or terms were designed specifically for people. So I still maintain that it's useful for people to know a little bit about sociology.

      I do hear your point, that it's not always beneficial to use academic terms in a general audience. That will definitely be a challenge! So for example, instead of saying "White privilege" I would say, "a system in our society by which White people accrue unearned benefits at the expense of others." Quite a mouthful, but it might help people to understand what I'm saying.

    4. Lulu, it is good to define your terms, but you probably also need to give an example. Most people learn better from examples that illustrate the definitions.

      I also think that your definition might need a little change. Add the word "often" before "at the expense of others," or leave out "at the expense of others." That terminology implies there is a limited number of benefits and when one person gets a benefit, someone else must lose one.

      It is related to stereotypes. Some are positive and provide unspoken benefits or privileges, and some are negative, not providing the same assumed benefits.

      If I, as an old white man in the South, were to wear my pants below my butt, people would consider me an eccentric. On the other hand, if I were a black teenager, I would be assumed to be a gangbanger, ne're-do-well, or criminal. My benefit is not at the expense of the teenager.

  4. I'll bite. I recently found your site and have been reading several different articles and testing my hidden biases (thanks for that one...oyyy). It's tough to know where to even begin on a question like this. I think just like each of us has hidden biases, the church as a whole has hidden privilege. I grew up in a middle class white neighborhood, went to a great school, got a good education, etc.etc. I never considered myself privileged...until I moved to an inner city neighborhood where the poverty rate was above 50%, the public schools were failing, and I was in the minority. All of these things--access to quality education, being white, being wealthy, access to healthy food, even access to transportation--are privileges. I don't know that discussing these things really makes a difference. I like the idea of developing a sociological imagination, but I think to do that we have to have some contact with the oppressed (or the not-so-privileged, or whatever term you want to use). We have to hear stories, build relationships, listen and not preach. At least, that's what had to happen for me to see my own hidden privilege. I know I'm not exactly answering your questions, but I like to see this conversation happening so I thought I'd chime in.

    1. I love that, Courtney. So in other words, maybe we shouldn't leave it all to imagination, but actually get outside our comfort zone into society. The reason I think sociology is so useful, though, is because once you get out into society, you will need ways to make sense of what you experience. Sociological theories can be helpful in this way. For example, when you encounter poverty, how do you make sense of it? Why do you think people are poor? Is it because they are lazy? Or is it because of a racist system? Or what? Theories can help make sense of some of these questions.

      And sometimes it helps to talk about these things. :)


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