A few months ago, something happened to me that made start thinking again about the concept, “white privilege.” My position at my full-time job was being eliminated. In the ensuing debate that took place, one person commented that what was happening to me had to do with race since I was the only person of color on staff. The person who made this charge wasn’t saying that the people who made the recommendation to lay me off were hard core racists, she was trying to say that even when something might seem innocuous, it can still be hurtful to persons of color.
I’m not here to judge my being laid off. But the whole experience had me thinking about racism and how it can still take place even there is no evil intent. Decisions that impact primarily persons of color aren’t designed intentionally to hurt them; but the out come of such decisions can be viewed as racist.
A few months ago, I wrote about not understanding white privilege. Well, I do get it to some extent more than I once did. But the whole issue still leaves me with questions. Yes, someone who is white but never owned slaves let alone live in the South can still benefit from being white. But how do we not take this whole issue and not make it some kind of guilt trip for white people? Even when folks say this isn’t about making someone feel guilty, there is still some need to hold someone responsible. And when fingers are pointed, guilt is going to follow.
Then there is the whole issue of racism itself. When we think of racism, the common person tends to think of men in white robes setting crosses on fire, or angry citizens taunting school children. Those images are vile and sickening. The average white person has hard time wrapping their mind on their complicity in racism because in their mind being a racist is about being part of the Klan or hating black people. Our culture has made open racism taboo; something so vile that it warrants strong action. That average white person knows they aren’t like that. They might even have a black friend or two.
If we are going to talk about white privilege, we must remember that most people see racism as something that is willful and not something that just is because of how modern American society is set up. The white person whose family came to America from Sweden at the turn of the 20th century is going to have problems seeing how they are to blame for how an African American is treated at Denny’s unless we try to help that person of Swedish ancestry understand the unintentional consquences of racism and how the benefit from their skin color even if they don’t mean it.
The final question I have is what is the end game suppose to look like? What is the answer to this all? How do we become what Martin Luther King calls the “Beloved Community?” The problem I have sometimes with the people who talk about white privilege is that they don’t offer an idea of what accepting white privilege is supposed to do and what a completely healed community looks like. People do offer an answer, but it seems rather muddled. Here’s how Trey Lyon describes it.
So if you are reading this and worship in a predominately white church, let me be as explicit as possible. It is time to do something. Your neighborhood, your child’s school, the supermarket, the passengers next to you on that business flight all likely reflect a greater racial diversity than the sanctuary space you occupy one or more times a week.
Don’t hire a consultant. Don’t go look for a book or call the local college or seminary and get a Wednesday night speaker. Find an African-American leader in your community and set a lunch date. Build a relationship. Listen. Seek to understand rather than to be understood.
You might forge a relationship where you can share your own vulnerabilities and stories of race and find a place of true reconciliation and forgiveness. Then help your congregation find similar ways to do it.
So, I would not want to be the African American leader in the community who has to deal with a long line of white people wanting to have lunch and listen to them. I know I’m not looking forward to it.
But there is another problem with Lyon’s advice. On the one hand Lyon says that having a close relationship with African Americans will mean we can share our own vulnerabilities and stories of race will lead us to reconciliation. Okay. So picture a white guy having lunch with a black guy. What would happen if the white person shares that he is wary of his daughter dating a black man? Will sharing that vulnerability bring us closer to racial reconciliation? Or will the black man be upset at this announcement? Remember, our society views racism and racists with contempt. Does anyone really think that there will be an honest conversation on race?
The problem with talking about white privilege is that it can become accusatory. I think we should talk about it, but there has to be a way of talking about how whites benefit from their skin color without making whites out to be the villain. Lyon’s advice is not helpful because he is both wanting white Americans to have a conversation AND held personally responsible for our racial climate. If we want to blame whites or make them feel guilty, then by all means go ahead- but just don’t expect a conversation on white privilege afterwards. Or, we can talk about white privilege and what a problem it is and let white folks come to their own conclusions on how they are complicit and plan to rectify the problem.
I think we can have a discussion that isn’t about “blaming whitey” and on how to lessen the effects of white privilege. And I think there are practical ways to remedy the problem. However, those are for another post.