Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • 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.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]