What’s the big deal about white privilege?

People are funny. We identify strongly with groups and are quick to be defensive about ourselves or others in the groups we belong to. We’re so oriented to this way of thinking that there’s even a phrase describing it (“groupthink”), and we learn to interpret communication according to often subconscious queues that are understood in very specific ways by our groups.

Think about it.  Two individuals who belong to different “tribes” (to use a sociological term for “group”) will assume a whole lot of different baggage with certain catch phrases, so much so that the same words can have entirely different meanings to them.  I was struck by this truth while reading a response from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church on the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C. and the way the UMC phrased its statement using terms corresponding to white privilege.

The statement made a couple of points that stood out to me as poorly worded given the audience it is primarily addressing.  It opened lamenting the riot, then stated: “These images [of the riot] captured for us all a clear picture of a broken and disunified nation and the sin of white privilege…”  It then emphasized Jesus’ words of blessing on those who seek to make peace and segued into the following: “Peacemaking begins with individuals and corporate confessions and asking hard questions with the goal of transformation.  Let us examine and compare the events of the spring and summer, in the way people of color protesting peacefully were treated, as opposed to the treatment of white rioters who assaulted the Capitol…White privilege and white supremacy, undergirded by conspiracy theories, erode the fiber of the true good in our country and in the world.”  It concluded with several bullet points guiding the people of the denomination to confront their complicity with white privilege and ways in which to work toward reconciliation.

Before criticizing this, let me first say I agree with it.  I’m a Southern, middle-aged white guy whose path in life has led to confronting a lot of hard questions about himself and society in general, so I’m a bit of a rarity in that I’m what the kids would call “woke” in regards to several racial issues.  That being said, I also understand how white people who are just going about living their daily lives feel attacked by progressive culture (and use “woke” as a kind of epithet) and have absolutely zero idea of where all this perceived animosity is coming from.  And, truthfully, that in my experience applies to the vast majority of white people, including those who make up the bulk of membership in the Florida UMC: you might as well try to speak to them in Klingon if you come at them with no explanation about what you’re talking about regarding white privilege as the Florida Conference did in its statement – they’re both not going to understand what you’re saying, and because you’ve pretty much attacked who they are, they’re going to be defensive and heavily inclined to reject both you and what you’re trying to say. 

But I’m somewhat sympathetic to the Conference because to explain white privilege to a white person is a long and difficult process that’s hard to do in a short statement.  The truth is, any group of people are going to be inclined to not care what you have to say if you lead by calling them “privileged” – I’m not going to be compelled to listen to you if you start off the bat by suggesting I’ve had unfair advantages, because you don’t know me, you don’t know what I’ve gone through in life, yadda yadda; things become personal very quickly and we mount a defense.  So to explain what white privilege is would best be accomplished by telling the story of how we got to where we are today as a society within the proper context, without going on the attack.

We have to start with the settling of the Americas in the 16th and 17th Century by European colonizers.  To set the stage correctly, though, we have to understand several historical facts.  The reasons for the rise in technological power by European nations above the other nations of the world is varied, complex, and much debated, but is at least in large part an accident of history – as Jared Diamond suggests in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, much of the success of particular nations owes to geography and the particular conflicts or interactions they have with one another over the span of decades and centuries.  The conflict between Christianity and Islam that dated back many hundreds of years – culminating of course with the several different Crusades launched by European powers in attempts to recapture the Holy Land that was lost by the Christian Byzantine Empire to Muslim forces – colors all aspects of the Age of Exploration begun by Spain and Portugal that eventually resulted in the Age of Imperialism, or Colonialism.  One crucial consequence of the Crusades was dramatic increases in trade and wealth in Europe within the framework of a holy struggle for the Christian faith.  In fact, later Crusades were undertaken primarily for economic reasons, as the European sacking of Byzantine Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 clearly demonstrates. 

Muslim armies had captured the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s, and it was in the manner of a crusade that Christian forces backed by the Catholic Church fought the Reconquista in which they regained power and established the Christian nations that eventually became Spain and Portugal beginning in the mid-to-late 13th Century.  The off-and-on cold and hot wars with Islam in Eastern Europe that posed a constant threat of overrunning the continent (and reached a climax with the fall of Constantinople and complete collapse of the Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire in 1453) is the right context – along with I’m sure good, old fashioned greed and lust for power – for understanding the drive for the Catholic Church and the Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal to strengthen their positions by gaining more wealth through trade and exploration.  It was in that vein that the Papal Bull Romans Pontifex was issued by the Church in 1455 that gave Portugal rights to explore, invade and plunder the coasts of Africa in order to find a trade route to India and to spread the Christian faith (in line with the theme of a crusade).  The Church likewise gave Spain rights to explore to the west, which eventually resulted in the European rediscovery of America.

While Spain was enriched by the pillaging of gold from the Incas and Aztecs in South America and Mexico, respectively, the majority of the riches Spain and Portugal found in the New World – and soon England, France, and the Netherlands joined in, too – was from its natural resources: sugar, tobacco, rice, wheat, timber, cotton.  Where there are resources to be harvested, though, workers are required for labor, and with two vast continents of largely untapped potential beckoning, the supply of workers was a drop in the bucket compared with the possible fortunes that could be made.  Portugal quickly saw a use for the pre-existing slave trade it had “discovered” among African nations and soon began bartering for slaves to work the resources in their colonies in Brazil and several Atlantic islands.  Whereas the Spanish saw the native populations they desolated through war and disease nonetheless as subjects, slaves were bought through trade, imported, and seen as commodities.  The first slaves arrived in the English colony of Jamestown in the early 1600s when English pirates captured a Portuguese slave ship, and it did not take long for the English to likewise begin making regular use of slaves throughout their North American colonies.

Slavery truly exploded in the South during the post-Revolutionary era of the new-found United States.  Decades of agricultural success had resulted in excesses of wealth that had to that point rarely been seen in the world, and the wealthier farmers used those riches to buy more land in order to grow even richer.  The accumulation of these vast tracks of land resulted in the development of the plantation system in the South, in which obscenely rich farmers oversaw huge amounts of farmland that required massive amounts of labor to work.  Slavery expanded exponentially as a consequence in the South, while it never became nearly as extensive in the more industrialized and maritime North. 

The Crusader mentality of treating peoples of the world as “us” and “them” (which, to be fair, is in turn simply an aspect of human nature, in which we recognize certain people as belonging to our tribe and others as not) had morphed and transposed itself from a Catholic to Protestant context in the U.S., which nonetheless likewise envisaged itself as spreading Christian civilization to non-Christian and hence non-civilized peoples, of which African slaves were a complicated part.  Perhaps ultimately as an act of supreme self-denial in order to justify owning human beings and treating them essentially the same as livestock, Southerners over time developed what became a deeply held belief that slaves were inherently inferior humans who, they believed, benefitted from the institution of slavery because they lacked the abilities to otherwise successfully take care of themselves.  This in turn inevitably resulted in the dehumanization of slaves in which many Southerners developed an ingrained and perverse racial belief system that became a part of how Southerners learned to view identity and reality.  Much of Southern culture became hinged on this understanding of the world, with active racism toward African slaves as a central lynchpin in the entire edifice.

We need look no further for proof of this fact than in the words of the Southern states themselves upon their secession from the Union prior to the Civil War.  Many of these are quoted in this article from The Atlantic, “What This Cruel War Was Over,” but here are fuller excerpts from several declarations of secession (emphases mine):

  • “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.  Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.  Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.  These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.  These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” – Mississippi
  • “The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation.  For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery…Our Northern confederates, after a full and calm hearing of all facts, after a fair warning of our purpose not to submit to the rule of the authors of all these wrongs and injuries, have by a large majority committed the Government of the United States into their hands.  The people of Georgia, after an equally full and fair deliberate hearing of the case, have declared with equal firmness that they shall not rule over them…While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.” – Georgia
  • “…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.  He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.  This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.” – South Carolina
  • “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country.  The people of slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.” – Louisiana
  • “Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted.  Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as a change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery.  Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions – nothing less than an open declaration of war – for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.” – Alabama
  • “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states…” – Texas

The revisionist history of framing the Civil War as truly about “state’s rights” actually began during the middle to latter stages of the war itself, as the Confederacy struggled to garner international support from Europe due to European opposition to slavery.  The fuller version of the “Lost Cause” eventually blossomed during the early 1900s primarily through the active work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in writing text books and erecting numerous monuments in an attempt to reframe the true motivations of the war.  But that the war was entirely about the defense of slavery, the money it proffered, and the worldview Southerners (and, to a large extent, Northerners, too – African Americans were quite ubiquitously viewed as inferior throughout broader American society) had built justifying their actions is clearly testified to by those Southerners, themselves.

And, look, this isn’t easy to confront, so I’m sympathetic to the discomfort this causes many white people – several of my great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy, and I’m even a very distant cousin to Robert E. Lee, himself, so it’s not the easiest to admit to the complicity my own family had in something that was so very wrong.  But as a Christian, I’m called to self-reflection and confrontation with the demons I find in myself and in my history and, when they’re identified, to repentance.  And as complicated as this portion of scripture is to parse out, there are several Old Testament references to sins being connected generationally: God is referenced as “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation” in Exodus 20, Numbers 14, Deuteronomy 5, and more generally in Jeremiah 32.  At the least this means I can’t just say “all this happened in the past and has nothing to do with me” – it absolutely does.

The really important distinction to note following the Union’s victory in the Civil War is that, while slavery ended, the beliefs and attitudes of Southerners did not.  And while African Americans were now free, since there were no reparations paid despite talk of 40-acres and a mule, they had no money, no power, and no employment.  Who were they thus dependent on for money and for jobs?  The very same white people who had been their owners and still viewed them the same way they had before the war.  Think they got fair deals?

African Americans were thus set up to fail and, even more than that, lived among people who continually sought to keep them poor and powerless out of hatred and out of fear for what they might do in retaliation if they acquired more power and influence.  So of course African Americans continue to suffer from disproportionate poverty and crime – they’ve never been given collective opportunity otherwise.  Any group of people in the same situation would suffer the same fate.  I shouldn’t need to retrace all the details of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras up to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement to give all the proof needed for the opposition African Americans continue to face.

So here’s the point of retracing all this history: it’s to clearly show the consistent thread from the Europeans who colonized America to those who continuously took more and more land from Native Americans to those who made vast fortunes through slavery – those who had the most power in the modern story of America (and those people happened to be “white”) enjoyed prosperity through the expense of other people.  The nation that was built was done so with white people in mind and, because our present world is a result of the histories we’ve lived through, the nation that exists today still in very large part caters to white people; that doesn’t mean there aren’t white people who are poor or disadvantaged or have awful lives, but that, overall, there is more opportunity – more privilege – if you’re white than if you’re not.  And here are some specifics, which will conclude with finally demonstrating how the Washington protest itself is an example of white privilege.

There are sins of commission and sins of omission in life, and racism and privilege are no different.  To be racist, you don’t have to actively not like people of different races, but you can also choose to be indifferent or turn a blind eye to matters of discrimination and racial prejudice; likewise, with privilege, you don’t have to actively assert some undefined thing that’s called “whiteness,” but instead can typically live your everyday life almost completely unaware that certain things actually count as privilege.  This was plainly laid out to me in college when I was willing to critically look inward at my experiences while reading a classic, short article called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh that lists several rather mundane examples of privilege enjoyed by those of us who are white, most of which follow (but you should read the whole article):

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

One can add to this list numerous other items, including why there even is a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with and, lastly, the privilege inherent in the Washington riot: I can be quite certain that a situation won’t escalate out of control with police and potentially lead to violence or death just because of the reaction and perceived threat of my skin color, and I can participate in a violent riot whose stated purpose is the overthrow of our government without fear of being killed.  That is why this riot is an example of privilege – the goal was to overturn legitimate election results by force, and violence and harm was threatened to members of the government by several rioters throughout, and the entire situation was met with (comparatively) very little (though in several situations, heroic) law enforcement resistance.  You’re living in a complete fantasy land if you think a Black Lives Matter protest with the exact same goal would have gone down in the same way – you know there would have been drastically more escalation, and all efforts would have been exhausted to prevent the “protest” to begin with, and failing that would have been met with massive amounts of police presence, force, and, likely, even more death and destruction than what did take place.

That is white privilege – living in a world in which the same rules don’t apply to everyone because the nation has never fully tried to reconcile itself with its heritage.  It’s of course not a sin to be white, but it’s a sin of omission to enjoy privilege without doing all we can to make sure our brothers and sisters of other races are treated the same as we are.  It’s going to involve honestly assessing our past and our complicity in continuing systems of thought and practice that have kept other people disadvantaged and endangered.  We need to act like adults and be willing to see our collective shortcomings, not looking for the slightest perceived “offense” to raise up our defenses and shut down conversation.  This is going to be hard work, but it’s work that needs to be done, particularly for those of us who claim to be Christian – the Life to Come is going to be a large shock to us as we commune with every tribe and every tongue and worship a Savior who eternally inhabits a Middle Eastern body if we don’t begin reconciliation and repentance right now.

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