Category Archives: Race Matters

Race Matters, Ch. 2: Defining White Supremacy

This is the second of three Race Matters posts in which I intend to define some troublesome terms often involved in the contemporary discussion of race in America.  The material for these posts was originally developed for a panel called “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in January of 2017.  Although I am white, I was invited by a friend to join four Christian brothers of color to offer some introductory thoughts on this subject, because I’ve been reading pretty deeply in the history of African Americans and listening carefully to my neighbors of color in the present.  (I don’t claim to be an expert, but now I know the basics.)

I’ve included these thoughts about race and history here in my Bible Journal because of my conviction that we believers are called to love our neighbors knowledgeably. It’s my hope that defining these terms will increase our understanding, and improve that neighborly love.

I’ll review a little below before I get into the topic of White Supremacy, but if you want to read more you can find my post about White Privilege here.  Eventually I will also write about White Guilt (describing the complex feelings of discomfort that tend to be bound up in this discussion for many white people).  By the way, these terms are not typically capitalized when people write about these topics; I’ve chosen to do so here to make sure they stand out in the text.

In my previous post, I noted that terms like “White Privilege” and “White Supremacy” have been in use for some time, and if we don’t realize this when we enter discussions about race we might incorrectly assume that we know what they mean.  For example, the term “White Privilege” is often misunderstood to be referring to wealth, power, and prestige, when actually it was coined by a sociologist named Peggy McIntosh to describe the ease with which white people move through life in America, relative to their neighbors of color.  I compared this “privilege” to having an invisible EZ-Pass stuck to our foreheads, allowing us to proceed smoothly through the toll plazas while our neighbors are slowed or obstructed at the Cash Only lanes.*

Similarly, the term “White Supremacy” conjures up in our minds one particular narrow reference:  White Supremacists, and White Supremacist groups, who openly advocate for the superiority of a white-male-led society.  Even if we rightly distance ourselves from such extremist views, we may miss the fact that this term is used in a much broader sense in contemporary discussions.

To put it simply, in general usage “White Supremacy” refers to the way whiteness tends to be the standard or norm for decisions that are made in our culture.  And whenever standards or norms are defined, it’s then possible to set expectations for, make evaluations of, and delimit possibilities for people.

Here’s a very, very innocuous-seeming example of White Supremacy in this sense—though it’s representative of a much larger reality about decision-making that pervades all areas of life in this country.  If I need to purchase band-aids at the grocery store, I can easily find a pack that has strips that more or less match my pale skin.  But if my skin were very dark, would I even know where to find band-aids that remotely blend in?

As I said, that’s an innocuous-seeming instance of the norm of whiteness informing decisions that were made about the production and marketing of one little item.  But multiply this by hundreds and hundreds of examples, some more life-impacting than others, and you begin to get a picture of the world our neighbors of color have to navigate every day of their lives.*

Whiteness has long defined what is “normal” in America regarding decisions about casting in television and movies, representation in classroom textbooks and children’s literature, and presentations of American history.  Historically, this standard has also informed decisions about who may access government loans, housing in middle-class neighborhoods, swimming pools, and union membership.* Participation in higher education, job hiring and promotion, and access to positions of influence in the political arena continue to be areas where being white is the norm and often informs expectations, possibilities, and decisions.  The fact that we are still numbering firsts among people of color achieving certain goals or positions should give us pause.  (Why is it, for example, that not until the year 2016 did an African American woman medal individually in Olympic swimming?  Google Simone Manuel and the story of American swimming pools for more.)

simone-manuel-swimming

Again, this normalizing of whiteness has deep, pervasive historical roots.  It’s something present generations have inherited, usually unexamined, from decision-makers in the past.  And since White Supremacy ends up being self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing—influencing, as it does, the very presentations of American history that we encountered in school and hear or read today—it requires an unusual degree of awareness and effort to recognize that we have missed great swaths of the American story, and to start to make up for lost time.  If you’re inclined to expand your view of the American experience, this list of resources that we put together for our panel should keep you busy for some time.

One example of White Privilege relative to our panel (and these posts) is the fact that if we are white, we can choose whether or not we talk or think about race.  We can also choose whether or not to accept the challenge to reexamine what we think we know about American history and life in our country, with all of the lens-adjusting discomfort that this challenge entails.

But our neighbors of color have no choice but to know, in their very skin, that whiteness is the standard for normalcy in this world that they navigate.  Recognizing that this is so is a good start to learning to love our neighbors knowledgeably.

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*For specific examples of how this plays out in contemporary American life, see my previous post on White Privilege.  You can also find a summary of Peggy McIntosh’s extensive list of the privileges she noticed, here.

* One African American friend likens this to the experience of a lefty continually reaching for scissors in a right-handed world: over and over again, you are reminded that you don’t fit.

*And no, this didn’t just happen in the South during Jim Crow.  Google “redlining” and “racist lending practices,” for a start.

The photo of Simone Manuel was found at https://mediadiversified.org.

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Race Matters, Ch. 1: Defining White Privilege

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:*

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.*

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langhorne-race-panel-2017

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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