This month I had the honor of participating in a panel on “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in Langhorne, PA. My friend Marcos Ortega invited me, two pastors, and a professor to speak out of our knowledge of (and, in their cases, their experience of) race/racism in America, giving us a chance to talk about the taboo subject of race in a Christian setting. The other three panelists were powerhouses. I wish I could have captured their many wise words while they spoke, but I didn’t even remember to bring a pen up front with me.
I’m sure I’ll gradually remember some of the excellent things these brothers taught us that evening, and those ideas will make their way into a few “Race Matters” posts here at the Library. I would love to share with my readers a robust vision for loving our neighbors of color knowledgeably, so I’ll start that project here with an introduction to the two terms that Marcos asked me to define during our panel conversation: White Privilege and White Supremacy. If these terms have ever bothered or confused you, read on. (I treat White Privilege in this post, and I’ll cover White Supremacy in another one soon.)
To begin, I should explain that I am white, and my presence on the panel came about because my friend Marcos had noticed that I have been diligently seeking input for several years about African American history and the black experience in America. Paying attention to these new sources and voices has paid off in a dramatic shift in my perspective on American history, the contemporary American experience, and my own life. To illustrate how profoundly my perspective has changed, I like to use the analogy of viewing a printed optical illusion:*
At first your eyes see only random lines, but then (if you’re lucky!) the lines resolve into meaning, and you perceive the word or picture that was previously hidden. And after that, you can’t go back to unseeing the meaning. That’s how it’s been for me, regarding my perspective on these matters of race: I can’t unsee what I’ve come to perceive about our history and present situation.
Early in the panel discussion, Marcos asked me to define these two troublesome terms, White Privilege and White Supremacy. As I explained that evening, the first thing to observe is that we white people are mostly coming to this conversation late—you might say we’re a couple hundred years late; but even in terms of the past few decades or half-century, we’re late. And that means that there are some words and terms that have been in use for a while, and we need to learn their meaning in context. White Privilege and White Supremacy are two such terms. In fact, our incorrect assumptions about their respective definitions can lead us to shut down or shy away from conversations where they are in use, either because we feel offended or because we figure they have nothing to do with us.
For example, when we hear or read the phrase White Privilege, our minds typically fasten on the word “privilege,” which we associate with wealth, power, and influence. We’re likely to compare ourselves to those we deem privileged, people like the Kennedys, or even the Trumps, whose vast personal wealth means that they don’t have to work very hard to get what they want. By contrast, we are hardworking people, keeping wary eyes on our bank balance; as a matter of fact, sometimes we’re barely scraping by. How could the word “privilege” describe us?
But in the context of discussions about race, White Privilege has a very specific meaning. It’s a term that was coined in 1989 by a white sociologist, Peggy McIntosh, who wrote an article that came to be known as “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” (Her figure of the “invisible knapsack” is supposed to convey the idea that it’s something that white people carry around without even realizing it.)
As sociologists will do, Peggy McIntosh observed human behavior and then wrote about it, trying to make sense of it. In this case, she began with something she had noticed while out shopping with African American friends: they were likely to be followed by staff in the stores, or even harassed, because they were suspected of being potential shoplifters. This had never happened to Peggy, and when she asked her friends about the experience they confirmed that this was typical; they pretty much expected it whenever they went shopping. She also noticed that her black friends had to be deliberate about shopping for beauty products, while she could easily walk into the local grocery store and find the hair care products or makeup that she needed.
From these small beginnings, Peggy McIntosh made a list of many, many areas of American life that she, as a white woman, sailed through easily, relative to her neighbors of color. (You can read over a summary of the list here.) In everything from assuming that her race would be represented in movies and television shows, to never wondering whether the color of her skin would interfere with her getting a bank loan or buying a house, Peggy saw that her white skin gave her an advantage: she was privileged, just by virtue of having been born white.
Of course, the other key element of her observation was the invisible nature of this privilege, at least to the white folks that carry it around. Usually we are oblivious to the difference, until someone points it out and we begin to perceive it. My own metaphor for this phenomenon is that it’s as if we white people have an invisible EZ-pass stuck to our foreheads, permitting us to sail blithely through the toll plaza while our neighbors of color have to stop and fish for quarters. Then we wonder why they can’t keep up with our achievements and progress, and fault them for not trying hard enough.
Here’s an apt illustration of White Privilege to round out this summary: Those of us who are white can go away from a panel discussion like this one, or from a blog post like this one, and not think about the topic again for a week . . . or a year . . . or ever. If we are white, the subject of race is one that we can decide to think about, or not; since it doesn’t intersect with our daily lived experience, we have the privilege of choosing to forget about it.
Not so for our neighbors of color, who cannot ignore an aspect of their existence that is constantly being brought to their attention as they navigate life in this country.* Cultivating an awareness that this is so is part of the challenging work of loving our neighbors knowledgeably.*
Participating in this panel, from left to right, were Marcos Ortega, Joe Kim, me, Luke Mason, and Keith Plummer.
*This optical illusion was found at http://www.opticalspy.com/opticals/category/interesting
*And the reason why it’s constantly in their face will be the subject of my next Race Matters post: White Supremacy.
*A good friend pointed out that terms like White Privilege and White Supremacy often come packaged with the message (spoken or implied) that individual white people are inherently guilty (blameworthy) for their position of privilege. Sometime I will write more about the subject of White Guilt (where it comes from, what we do with it, and how we might sidestep the blame game in Christian love). But for now let me say that bringing up these topics is not inevitably tied to that message, something that was stressed by the participants on our panel. These definitions of terms are offered as instruction about our neighbors’ experience, so we can begin to love these neighbors knowledgeably.
For the panel we prepared a resource list of books, films, podcasts, and topics to Google for those who want to learn more about the subject of race in America.
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