Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. (Jas 4:17)
People get all worked up over the concept of white privilege. Is it a real thing? Is it propaganda used to beat down people like me and to make us feel guilty about the good things we have earned by hard work? Is it a cultural term used to absolve the lazy, or the sinful from the consequences of their choices in life?
Let me try and define it this way:
White privilege is the freedom to ignore the reality that life is not equal, and to disregard the complaints of those who experience systemic obstacles in the pursuit of the same rights, benefits, and freedoms that you enjoy. It is less about the actual inequity as it is about the willful ignorance of that inequity and the othering of those who dare to name it.
White privilege is the capacity to absolve oneself from the label of ‘racist’ because one does not see oneself as actively elevating white people, white culture, white values, or white priorities over the people, culture, values, or priorities of those who are not white. The refrain, “I’m not racist—I believe all people are equal before God and we should all be treated the same” is the chorus of the white privilege anthem. The white supremacist certainly enjoys a level of white privilege as well, but it is most commonly the benefit of those who earnestly believe that #AllLivesMatter equally and unreservedly.
The danger then of White Privilege is not found in what it believes about the inherent dignity of people, but in its assessment of what needs to be done to assure the inherent dignity of all people. White privilege is believing that “thoughts and prayers” make a difference. White privilege is believing that spamming the appropriate hashtags when it is trendy fixes the problems. White privilege is believing that the playing field is level for all people because we have these things called ‘universal human rights’ in our society. White privilege is believing that the absence of doing wrong is a valid substitute for the action of doing right.
And while we are defining terms, white privilege is not about being white. Whiteness is a cultural definition not a biological definition. It’s about inclusion in a social class that has an inequitable concentration of power and uses that power without any regard for the welfare of those outside of itself. White privilege can include or be primarily about patriarchy, or wealth, or, education, or caste. The basic elements of white privilege exist in majority non-white settings as well and can be evidenced between different people groups with supposed equal opportunities and protections under the law who are not white. But in our part of the world, the part that was built on the history of Western European colonial expansion, it is difficult to ignore the centrality of the colour of one’s skin.
White privilege can be the freedom to be ignorant about systemic discrimination where you live.
We are seeing that issue boiling over in the USA right now. Black Americans are speaking up (and have been for generations, but no one listened) about the fact that they are not treated fairly by law enforcement. But it also exists in Canada. Black Canadians have been speaking up in recent weeks to highlight the fact that these same attitudes of fear, suspicion, and diminishment are alive and well in Canada. We think we’re not racist in this country, because our cultural values of meekness and politeness keep most of us from saying out loud the sorts of things that people brazenly say south of the border, but most black Canadians who are speaking up in recent weeks have been saying clearly that we shouldn’t mistake silence for absence. Anti-black racism is alive and well in Canada.
But in Canada we have an even bigger issue of systemic racism (by numbers) when it comes to our indigenous population. This is especially prevalent in our city of Winnipeg where discrimination against indigenous people is woven into the fabric of our civic culture. And while a growing awareness of the political incorrectness of some of our more pervasive beliefs has muted some of the more egregious commentary, you can still hear the rhetoric of the ‘lazy Indian,’ or the ‘drunk natives’ spoken out loud in the corridors of our church building from time to time. White privilege is the freedom to hold those views while simultaneously not considering oneself a racist, and more importantly for my point today, it is the freedom to hear those comments, disagree with them, but say nothing to rebut them, and do nothing to change the culture.
And this is here I have been struggling of late. Because one of the most heinous sins of white privilege is the freedom to speak up only when it is convenient or beneficial to me. When it is cool and woke to speak out in favour of racial justice I am just as likely to speak up as are large corporations who do nothing to advance the cause in any tangible way. I have been inundated with emails and social media posts from large multinational corporations of late virtue signaling their solidarity with the cause of racial justice—some even being brazen enough to say #BlackLivesMatter—but doing nothing to change the systems by which they profit off of racial, and economic injustice. If I am honest, I have been just as guilty though. I feel emboldened by the current social climate to speak out and make posts (most explicitly on Twitter where I have the fewest members of my congregation as followers) about racial justice, but I am wary to speak out in sermons or in the church blog. Instead I have been carefully doling out nuggets of social justice teaching in my sermons like breadcrumbs over several years—diluting the message just enough to be palatable to people who will feel uncomfortable with the truth while still being willing to give myself a pat on the back for speaking out. Occasionally I have gone too far and dealt with backlash. A few years ago, I singled out the reprehensible behaviour of Donald Trump as being fundamentally anti-Christian and the result was conflict and families leaving the church. I confess to you that the experience shook me and caused me to step back from some of the bolder claims of the gospel. White privilege is the ability to do that. To speak up when it’s easy, and to be silent when it’s not.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have the terminology of white privilege in his lexicon during the 1960’s civil rights movement, but he did speak about it by other words. Consider this excerpt from his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-eror the Ku KluxKlanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
This letter was written to clergymen like me. White, privileged ministers of the gospel, who believed philosophically in the cause that King was advancing, but who weren’t willing to speak up, or speak out any more than it was safe to do so. The letter was written to people who were more concerned about the means by which King et al were protesting injustice than they were about the injustice at the root of the protest (sound familiar)—injustice which, to be clear, they did not experience themselves in any tangible way.
Here is my confession: I experience the benefits of white privilege every single day. I experience economic benefits, social benefits, vocational benefits, security benefits, and many more. Any of these benefits can and have been abused by people in power at the expense of those without power. I’m sure that I am guilty of some of those sins, even in ways that I have not yet been made aware of. But the sin of white privilege that I have been made keenly aware of in the past couple of weeks is the sin of selective silence. The sin of only speaking up when it is safe, or when it benefits me. It is a sin of cowardice, of ignorance, and of callousness. It’s fundamentally rooted in a lack of empathy toward those who suffer injustice, and a lack willingness to suffer myself in small ways to promote their cause. And most disturbingly of all it is a sin against my calling as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have indulged in the privilege of not speaking up about injustice because it is inconvenient for me. I have indulged in the privilege of not speaking up about racism because it may be costly to me. I have indulged in the privilege of demurring silently when I have heard friends and congregants make unfair racist statements because I have not wanted to deal with the conflict that might ensue. I have been guilty, not of active discrimination, but of a passive abdication of responsibility to speak the truth. And because I have not spoken out, I have managed to keep the peace, but I have done so at the cost of justice.
So these are my confessions—but confessions are useless if they are not fuel for repentance, and repentance requires change. And the change that my sin requires is honest talk, honest correction, and honest preaching.
What is happening in the USA right now is evil. The systemic issues that fueled the murders of black people by police, and the lynchings that continue to happen and go unreported or underreported by the media are evil. The current executive administration in Washington D.C. that seeks to turn the police, the national guard, the DEA, ICE, the military and other federal enforcement agencies against its own people is evil. And the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump is evil. No amount of pandering to evangelicals, packing the supreme court with conservatives, or awkwardly posing with a Bible that he has never read will change that fact. To the extent that saying these things on the record will get me in trouble, I will accept the consequences.
But what is happening in Canada here is just as evil. We may not have a single figure that acts as an embodiment ofall that is wrong with our country (and to be clear, the what is happening today in the USA has been building long before Trump came around and poured gasoline on the fire), but the pervasiveness of our systemic issues are actuallyworse by most measurable metrics than what we are quick to point fingers at in the states. We have systemic problems that go back as far as the history of our country and for too long we who claim to follow Christ have turned a blind eye to them, passively benefited from them, or actively contributed to them. Like the protesters down south have been saying through this season quite articulately: It is not enough to not be racist, one must be anti-racist or else we are participating in the systems by our silence, and we are giving our permission for it to continue to happen by not standing up and demanding change.
And it’s not like we don’t have a framework for what a better future looks like. The 94 calls to action contained within the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be a guide to what an anti-racist future looks like in our country. Our own denomination has produced a widely renowned prayer guide and response to the TRC that should be a useful tool for us to use but how many of us have read it? How many of us have cared enough to work through it?
And therein lies the problem. For if our clergy, our spiritual leaders, aren’t willing to speak up for justice, to call for systemic change, and be willing to offend the sensibilities of their own flocks to speak truth in love, then what hope is there for the rest of the church? So today I’m speaking up. I’m going on the record and stating what needs to be stated. We need to take a good long look in the mirror and ask ourselves what our responsibility is at this time. We need to ask ourselves about the ways in which we are contributing—both actively and passively—in systems of injustice. And we need to start to listen to other voices to tell us things about ourselves that we would rather not hear. It’s time for me to listen. It’s time for me to learn. I know the good that I ought to do at this time, and for a change I’m trying to do it.
What about you?