Sunday, July 7, 2013

What do I do with all this privilege?!

I'm so inspired by the few comments I have received in response to the blog post I wrote about the need for White Christians to learn from sociologists.  My encouragement went out specifically to White Christians because I feel that is it is really important for the people with privilege to engage these ideas.  As I've listened to a few Black Christians, I realized that the call needs to go out to more than just White folks.  We all need to learn about our society, the context in which we live. 

Another good critique is that privilege is not just about "race."  We all experience privilege in different ways. Rich people have privilege.  Men have privilege.  Christians have privilege.  Heterosexuals have privilege.  White people have privilege.  Etc.  If you are reading this blog on a computer with Internet access, you probably have some kind of privilege, or multiple kinds of privilege, which means you have blind spots. 

Another point of clarification is that I don't actually believe that White people (or other privileged people) can get rid of their privilege.  There are some scholars that advocate trying to distance yourself from privilege, but I feel that unless you were able to dismantle the entire system by which you have gained privilege, it would be an exercise in futility.  However, I believe that you can use your privilege on behalf of others.  Some sociologists talk about privilege as "social capital."  Capital is, of course, the currency by which you acquire things in a capitalist system.  So I feel that if you have it, you should spend it on behalf of those that don't. 

One particularly awesome comment from a White sister went something like this: "How do we tackle this issue? I mean, I've personally identified/recognized White privilege in general, but there are so many ways it shows up.  So now what? What I am I supposed to do?  Besides teach my children?"

I am really in the beginning stages of figuring out what to do with all this information, but here are a few initial thoughts.

1. Develop a healthy White racial identity.

One of  biggest defenses I hear/read from White folks involves some form of guilt or shame related to their racial identity, or attempt to deflect or resist either of those emotions.  As a Christian, I believe that God made people in all different shapes, sizes, colors, languages, and cultures.  God loves diversity and every human bears the image of God.  Every person should begin to develop a healthy identity based in reality.

A psychologist who works in the area of racial identity development theory (Helms, 1992) designed a really useful activity for this purpose.  The task is to try to list all the reasons you are glad to be White.  However, you can't use any reasons that compare yourself to any other racial/ethnic group.  So for example, you can't say, "I'm glad I'm White because I'm better/worse at [pick an activity] than [pick a racial/ethnic category]."  It has to be something that is not dependent on a hierarchical view of "race."

Not so easy to do, right?  We are so used to thinking about racial identity in terms of a racist view of society, that it's hard to think about why it's good to be a White person that doesn't involve disparaging another racial group.  But White people are also made in God's image, so it's important not to wallow in guilt and shame, but instead figure out what it means to have a healthy White racial identity. Why are you glad to be just the way God made you?

2. Talk to your kids about "race." 

The White sister was right on when she suggested that one of the ways White people can engage privilege is to talk to their kids.  If this is the only anti-racist activity you do in your lifetime, this would still be huge.  Children are learning about "race" from the time they are babies, whether you talk to them or not.  And children form theories based on the experiences, stereotypes, and other information that they take in.  Imagine how difficult it is to learn about "race" and racism as an adult, after years of socialization into a racist society. What I hope for my children is that they don't have to undo so much programming, but instead that we can start having honest, open conversations from an early age.

The key to these conversations, as with any kind of "talk," is that they should be age-appropriate.  Let the child lead the way.  Right now, my 3 year-old and I have conversations about different colors of skin, because that's the first thing that children usually talk about.  He says something like, "That man has brown skin."  Instead of saying, "Shhh, don't say that so loud!" (which sends the message that "race" is a taboo subject), I say, "Yes, isn't his skin beautiful? God made different colors of skin." 

I make lots of mistakes along the way, but I think it's better to try than to remain silent.  For example, I realized that in my attempt to celebrate diverse skin tones, I only made comments when I saw Black or Brown people.  This implicitly sent the message that "White is normal" and everything else is divergent.  Or in my zeal to give my son a variety of words to talk about skin tone (black, brown, olive, peach, tan, and only sometimes "white"), I was still privileging Whiteness.  I treated "black" and "brown" as if they were monolithic, but gave various shades to "white," while still avoiding the word "white."  Fortunately, children are both perceptive and honest, and my son recently informed me that "tan" is actually "White" (indicating that he has already internalized this racial category).  Because it's true.  So we're learning together.

3.  Keep listening and learning.  

The hardest part of being a privileged person is a lack of knowledge, an inability to empathize with other people, and a tendency to devalue the experience of others.  The remedy for this is relatively simple in theory, but an arduous activity in practice.  It involves listening to people who might be mad at "people like you."  It means learning things about your country, culture, or people group that might be less than flattering or even downright shameful.  It requires humility, empathy, and the ability to keep your mouth shut sometimes.

This is a really important step, although it doesn't feel like "doing something" all the time.  However, partial knowledge can be just as damaging as complete ignorance.  For example, middle-class White people learn a little bit about racial inequalities and segregation, so they decide to move into a "transitional neighborhood" (i.e. poor Black and Brown folks) in order to create a diverse community.  They come in with their rehab projects, art galleries, and community gardens, and before you know it, they have caused the housing prices to go up so much that the original inhabitants of the neighborhood can't afford to rent an apartment there anymore.  These well-intentioned White folks perpetuated one injustice while trying to eradicate another.

This is the hard part, because I don't believe we should remain stuck in inaction and silence.  But I also think that wisdom and humility are more important than feeling good about myself because I'm "doing something."  And I also know that "doing something" will look different for different people.  My personal goal is that I would be able to raise my children in a diverse community, where they learn to value and celebrate many different ways of being human.  Heck, I hope I can learn to do that.  We are a long way from that goal, but by God's grace and mercy we will keep learning, moving, and growing.

I would love to hear thoughts about this topic.  What steps are you taking, or have you thought about taking, in order to wrestle with the issue of privilege? 

Suggested Reading

Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. 

Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life. Topeka, Kan: Content Communications.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.


  1. The history of our church does not specify whether it was initiated by the Whites or the Blacks, but what is now Second Baptist in my city was begun after the end of the War Between the States (I don't call it "civil."), when the Black members of First Baptist were released to begin a new church.

    This is an interesting point. The pre-war church was integrated. The races were separated by the stairway to the balcony which was reserved for the Blacks, but both groups received the same Bible teaching and preaching, i.e., there was one Gospel for all.

    Recall that the Southern churches had separated from the Northern churches when the issues of Slavery and States' Rights became dividing points for the whole nation, including the Church.

    The Southern Baptists and Northern (American, National) Baptists are still separated, but they began as one denomination.

    The Blacks were not educated and there were no trained Black preachers in the South, so the Northern Church sent Missionary preachers to establish churches ministering to the former slaves in the South. (When you see the phrase, "Missionary Baptist," think "receivers" of missionaries, not "senders.")

    As a White person who intentionally affiliated with a (formerly) Black church, I am in the minority, racewise, in my church, and therefore, do not have the privileges of being part of the "in" group, knowing the traditions, and having the automatic acceptance that a person of color might have.

    The church is the key to solving the privilege problem. Until the church becomes intentionally integrated and we see the "one body" principle in fact, not just in doctrine, there will still be the "us/them" problems that produce a privileged (majority) class.

    The question to be answered is, "Can we integrate the church?"

    1. Bill, I think that is a very good question, and one that deserves more time in church sermons, discussions and home groups that it gets presently. I also agree that the church can and probably should be the answer to inequalities, segregation, etc. The painful truth is that the church most often is not only not the answer, but a big part of the problem. So where to go from here.

      I hear you saying that you are effectively a minority, a White person in a Black church, but I wonder if in a larger society that privileges Whiteness, if you still experience privilege in other ways.

    2. Lulu, I am also alluding to the ephemeral nature of privilege. As a 65+ person, the number of years I have left is much smaller than the number I have already lived. The changes in demographics of the South mean I am soon going to be in the minority, both by race and by age, if I live long enough. The "majority rules" principle that pervades southern Christianity means that I will no longer be in a privileged (i.e., majority) group. Something other than "majority rules" is necessary as a moral, ethical, philosophical, or theological foundation that determines people's actions. By stepping into the minority role voluntarily, I am attempting to highlight the solution that agape love is the basis of equity.

    3. Hi, Bill,

      I haven't ever heard any describe privilege as ephemeral, so that is interesting. You bring up another facet of privilege that does change, which is age. The young are definitely treated better in society than the elderly, and this is something that all people will experience at some point in their lifetime. "Race", on the other hand, mostly stays consistent.

      I understand from what I hear from you and others that the South is changing. For example, upper and middle-class Black folks are choosing to move back to urban centers in the South. Atlanta, I hear, is becoming the hot spot for young, Black professionals. I still believe that the overall system of White's receiving unearned benefits has not changed in our nation, however. That is where we may disagree.

      I do commend you for your choice to learn from others in community. How can we know what we don't know unless we see from someone's else perspective?

    4. Your use of the term "unearned benefits" caused me to think. In the context of Christianity, we all receive unearned benefits because of God's grace, and that, perhaps, is the model we should use in dealing with others.

      But stereotypes, in general, are earned. The group to which I belong has earned some blessings or curses based upon its members' behaviors, even if I, as an individual member of that class, do not share the particular characteristic.

      The problem comes when we treat individuals as stereotypical without seeking understanding of them, individually.

    5. If I can sort of bring together your comments from two blog posts, I might address a overarching critique that you are presenting, which is whether White people actually do receive unearned benefits in society because of the color of their skin, and whether those benefits actually are then denied from people of color.

      My answer is still, yes, White people gain benefits from being White that they may not have earned or deserve, and those benefits are therefore benefits that are not available to others (ie. jobs, admission to college, houses, etc.).

      This is where a theological understanding of "grace" (unearned merit) is not sufficient to describe what is going on in society. Yes, we all receive grace from God that we don't deserve. But I argue that is separate from the phenomenon that I am describing, that of "White privilege." And because I feel that there is no exact phrase in the Bible that adequately describes the system that is "White privilege," I turn to sociology.

      The ties I find in theology are the "unjust balances/scales," oppression of the poor & immigrant, and the concept that God does not show favoritism. But all of those concepts are mostly part of the solution to the problem that is "White privilege."

      Also, I define stereotype as a belief that is held by a person, as in a bias. Since the stereotype resides within the person with the bias, the person who holds the stereotype is to be blamed, not the subject of the stereotype.

      However, we are both agreed that we should not treat people according to stereotypes.


  2. This is the first good, comprehensive, and non-hostile answer I've ever received to the question, "What do I do with my privilege?" Thanks for writing this.

    1. Wow, thank you. I would love to hear more about how this strikes you as non-hostile, or maybe how other responses have seemed hostile to you. This is really useful information as I attempt to continue in this work.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I hope you will continue to develop this list. (I found this blog through the amazing Christine Cleveland on Reconciliation.)

    My thought is that #4, and maybe even #1 might be: Allow people of color to lead and teach you, esp. to lead (since they usually have more crucial things to do than teach whites) even when you think you might have "better" ideas (and when you are really sure of course, speak up but listen for a perhaps alternative paradigm.)

    #5 Tithe/donate to black-led social service or political organizations an amount based on your family's benefits or inheritances from the work of slaves or cheap brown labor, like maids, farmworkers, construction workers.

    #6 Join and commit your time/commute even to attend regular meetings and "extra" social gatherings of Black/Latino/Native led organizations where real friendships can be developed across race and often class differences.

    #7 Look hard at your many extra material possessions and imagine how you/they can furnish the closets or whole homes of a homeless family (who is likely to be of color esp. in our cities.) Pass on accordingly and simplify your lifestyle.

    #8 Make a spare bedroom in your home available to poor sojourners--not necessarily strangers, but to say jobless people you have come to know through your intentional commitments to community across class differences. See #
    5 above.

    #9 Show up even when it is not convenient to marches or other public witnesses for immigrant rights, voters rights, budget priorities for the poor, etc. Put your shiny white body where it can be seen and counted.

    #10 Support restorative justice/non-punitive practices in your schools and communities that hear the pain and needs of both victims and so-called perpetrators. Resist blaming, further damaging the poor for their anger and desperations.

    ...hope to hear more ideas, these are just some that I have practiced in my journey as a white ally.

    1. These are very good examples. Thank you for sharing!!

  4. I am so grateful I stumbled upon this extremely important subject and the very civil and helpful dialogue which thus far has been occurring . . . and hopefully will continue. Shalom!

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you are encouraged.


Please be kind. This blog should promote healthy dialogue.