Discussing white privilege in an effort to bring unity and reconciliation is like walking on a high wire coated with random landmines. You say the wrong thing, the wrong trigger word, and BOOM: end of conversation.
I’m going to try my best to navigate this wire, please bear with me with grace.
Why this is important
Imagine a population of color, who has always been the numerical minority, who feels that those in the dominant majority (in this case: white skin) relieves a person of certain stressors and thus provides them with certain advantages.
But, that white population who is the majority doesn’t see a difference.
The minority feels there is a difference.
The majority doesn’t.
Off the bat, can you crystallize the conflict and tension on both sides?
The majority thinks the minority needs to stop complaining, or to stop making things up, or to take responsibility. The majority thinks that the very conversation about the minority having more stress and resistance in life is an excuse to blame someone else for their problems and not try, and the conversation gets categorized accordingly. In addition, the majority often feels like they are being accused or attacked.
Meanwhile, the minority feels unheard. Like they have no voice. Negative feelings arise toward a majority that doesn’t care about them or their situation, and worse, thinks of them as complainers or liars.
This is not a good formula for a unified, loving society.
1. Stuff it
The minority decides to not talk about it and just get by, having to put on a facade that everything is okay when they are around the majority, knowing they can only be honest when they are with other members of the minority.
2. Ignore it
Many in the majority choose to ignore it altogether. It’s not a conscious act of ignoring, it is a genuine feeling that this is all fabricated and doesn’t actually exist.
An important concept for this majority to understand is one of logic. Whether there actually was privilege attributed to a majority or not, logically the person in privilege (or alleged privilege) would never experience it, only those who were facing the perceived resistance would. While the minority would say, “There is resistance,” the majority would say, “No, there is not.” Because the majority has not felt or experienced the specific resistance the minority is alleging, so how they could acknowledge if it were there or not? I lay this out to try to help the majority see that basing their views of privilege off of their individual experience isn’t the best approach as it will inevitably lead to concluding that privilege doesn’t exist, rather than giving it the fairer look that it deserves. Examples of throwing out the concept of privilege based on personal experience include statements like:
“I get pulled over too. It has nothing to do with skin color.”
“I got the job because I worked hard and am qualified.”
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges in life, it’s not unique to skin color.”
Those can all be true statements, but shouldn’t be our response to the privilege conversation. They do not address what’s being brought up; they are the conversation-killing landmines.
For those who are in the “ignore” boat, a few things are important to remember when we discuss privilege:
It’s not saying you didn’t work hard.
It’s not saying you were handed things.
It’s not saying you didn’t have obstacles in your path.
It’s not giving those in the minority a free pass.
I’ve written on privilege before and have found it’s not very helpful when I talk about the economic elements of privilege. Instead, I think it’s more helpful that the majority try to wrap their minds around what it would be like to be a minority. Where wherever you go, you are in “majority space,” not your own space. It would feel different. You would stand out, rather than blending in. You would have to accommodate to another culture’s values (of beauty, of style, of operation), rather than unnoticeably and unconsciously swimming in the waters you are always in. Yes, there’s more to privilege than this, but this is a start.
I also think it’s important to quantify what the advantage is of arguing against privilege is if you are in the majority. What is the fruit of this? I don’t say this accusationally at all. I think it’s a genuinely helpful exercise to spell out what you win if you are right and you prove there is no privilege. I know that your argument will definitely make those in the minority feel unloved and feel like they can’t trust you. So you’ll have that, plus whatever other fruit you’d get from being right. If you are a Christian as I am, think about what that type of hurt and mistrust does within the Church, a body of many members.
Often when the idea of majority privilege is talked about, members of the majority feel guilty and this guilt leads to frustration. “What am I supposed to do about it? I didn’t choose this or cause this. Can we stop bringing it up all the time?”
My encouragement to those who feel this way is to not take it as personal guilt, but just see the experience of others (the minority) and what can be done about it. Guilt is an action killer. It festers and eventually turns to anger. I think we often get our ducks scattered when we first hear about privilege. We think in political terms, or in an us vs. them mindset. I wonder if we feel this way about other injustice issues? If I hear about a justice issue, my first thought is not guilt, it’s motivation to see what I can do to help. If we can bypass the emotion of guilt in conversations of privilege, it will help the majority be a neighbor to the minority.
If you feel attacked when the topic of privilege comes up, know that no one is calling you a slave-owner or a racist, so try hard not to respond like they are. Consider: if you acknowledge you have privilege by being a part of the majority culture, what part of this feels like an attack? Think of it more as an acknowledgement of what is, something you didn’t cause, but was caused by others in our past. What is there to feel guilty (or attacked) about if you weren’t the one who caused it?
4. Get Political
I recently wrote an article to Christians about how political parties have brainwashed us to the point that we value the authority of our party above that of Jesus himself. This manifests itself in different ways depending on the issue and on which political party one has hitched their wagon to. In the particular case study of privilege, I’ve found that time and time again this political allegiance often comes out as an automated response, rather than an ability to humbly pause, listen and love. It’s like our political allegiance is more important than anything else, more important than love of neighbor, more important than unity and more important than people (if they are of the other political party). One of the purposes of my article on Jesus and politics is to question how such random issues get tied together, like a bundle of 20 different kinds of groceries, so if we like one, we have to swear by them all. I’m just going to be honest, whenever I hear that black people need to “take responsibility” and stop blaming things on “white privilege,” it is always from a white Republican. This is honestly not to pick on white Republicans, but to look at how this principle works in this particular case study. It’s as if the mantra of individual responsibility has been so ingrained in someone that whatever issue comes along the way, their automatic response is always “individual responsibility” regardless of any context. Like a paranoid person who always thinks everyone is out to get them, “individual responsibility” is the correct answer every time, all the time. No matter what the issue or political party, this type of automatic response does not reflect humility, love, or a desire to be teachable. My point is this, if we could get rid of the “individual responsibility” status quo answer to all conversations about privilege, we’d be able to make a lot more progress together.
As a pastor of a multi-racial church, I do not think we can be in diverse community together without talking openly about privilege. This is not only true of an individual local church, it’s also true of all other communities in society. There are some key knee-jerk, automated responses to the “P-word” that if we could remove, we could move from visceral and divisive to learning, humility, and love.