When I first started writing my blog, I entitled it “Black Tax and White Privilege.” I found out quickly that the term “white privilege” was a loaded term, for it elicited some very strong negative responses by white people. I didn’t mind the strong responses and tried reasoning with some of those who wrote them – pretty much to no avail.
Then I read what my trusted fellow Bible teacher and author wrote in his tremendous book, “Crossing the Line: Culture, Race and Kingdom.” In chapter 17 of the book, a chapter entitled “Forging Ahead,” he advised against saying certain things and using certain terms, white privilege being one of them. Here are his comments in that regard:
Don’t use the term “white privilege.” This is another hot-button phrase. I don’t believe it is helpful, though, because it is usually misunderstood, and it tends to shut down conversations. The phrase refers to the fact that society was built on the assumption that the white culture, and by default, white people are the norm for behavior. It doesn’t mean that all white people are rich or have had everything given to them. It means that they will typically receive the benefit of the doubt and will be accepted and understood wherever they go. It means that their skin color is not going to immediately cast them into a negative light or stereotype. I have come to understand the truth of this. As I have said previously, I can do things in this country that my black sons cannot. I get the benefit of the doubt in many situations that they do not. It does not mean that they cannot overcome those things, but that they need to overcome certain things that I never had to deal with.
Because the term is so misunderstood, though, I recommend finding other ways to express the truths behind it without using that specific phrase. When you use it, you might be referring to the privilege of coming from the dominant culture, but people will think you mean something else and become defensive. Using the term “white privilege” just leads to confusion and often elicits a negative response at this point.
After reading this, I talked to Michael and he suggested that I change the title of my blog to Black Tax and White Benefits,” which I promptly did. The other term is not just explosive to some, it is that because it is so connected to the sordid world of present politics. Being apolitical, I don’t want to enter the shifting sands of politics per se and detract from my real purpose. That being said, after reading Steve Hiddleson’s post on Facebook first thing this morning while still in bed trying to wake up, I couldn’t help feeling compelled to write an explanatory article about what white privilege really is. Before including Steve’s post, let me explain who the Hiddlesons are.
Steve and Keri Hiddleson
Steve and Keri lead a region in the Phoenix Church of Christ, a region Theresa and I once led and then remained members of when they started leading it. They are some of the finest Christians I have ever known. They are very dear personal friends whom I consider my spiritual children. I was present when they adopted Nylah (as was half the church!) nine years ago. She and her two sisters are wonderful young women. But this morning, my heart was broken as I read the following post by Steve.
Dear fellow White People. We have a ways to go my friends. I was doing a paper recently and read a recent Harvard Business School Study that showed that resumes with “white” names are twice as likely to get calls for interviews than the same exact resume with a “black name”. Huh? Some black graduates are therefore choosing to “whiten” their resumes to get calls for interviews. This week my child was called a gorilla by a fellow student. No words…How does a parent heal that comment? My hope is that the other child innocently spoke out of ignorance and a lack of exposure to being around black people, and not out of a mean spirit. There is too much of both the former and the latter. A rich and famous black athlete recently said (after receiving some choice racist slurs slung at him) that being black in America is tough. I’m getting better understanding of that. I hope we all are.
Why I Teach and Write on Racial Issues
Here was my initial response to the Facebook post: “So sorry, my friends! Given that your family is one of the closest on earth to my family, my choice to speak and write about racial issues is far more than an academic endeavor. One explanation of the term “white privilege,” admittedly a misunderstood and controversial one, is that white kids will typically not have to face what your daughter will. But Christ will make the difference as she handles the sickness in our society. Thank God for the church! I love you!
I think that was a good initial response, but I must say more. I just returned home last night about midnight (delayed flight) after teaching and preaching in Knoxville, Tennessee over the weekend. I conducted a workshop Saturday on the topics of race and gender, and then preached on Sunday. This church is a bit unique in that it has a predominantly white membership and is led by an African American couple – Anton and Sharon Ivy. I was very encouraged by the church and their openness to learn more about two very important and very sensitive topics. It was in my estimation a great weekend.
One sister there asked me a question that ties right into this article. She was sincere, sensitive and had not a hint of any racist attitudes. Being raised very poor economically, she wondered how the term white privilege could possibly apply to her when she was growing up. I explained what was made clearer in Steve’s post and in Michael’s book. White privilege is not so much what you have; it is what you don’t have – stereotypical treatment of the worst kind. A fairly recent segment of “Dr. Phil” was devoted to showing what white privilege is. He is quite in tune with the topic, as were his panelists. As Michael Burns puts it: “White privilege does not mean that you did not have obstacles and challenges in life; it means that your skin color or culture wasn’t one of them.” That’s the bottom-line issue.
Opps – Sorry, Officer!
In my sermon yesterday, I used an illustration about being stopped by a white policeman in East Texas last year for a “rolling stop” at a stop sign. I tried hard to talk the officer out of giving me a ticket. It wasn’t so much about the money; it was about my previously clean record: no tickets for moving violations in 60 years of licensed driving. So I pled my case, to the point that my wife thought I had crossed the line of common sense by a wide margin! I didn’t succeed and paid my $200 fine and an extra $60 to keep it off my record. I felt comfortable giving the seemingly nice cop a hard time.
However, if my skin had been black (especially in that rural East Texas setting), I would have responded the way that all black parents teach their children to respond in similar circumstances. I would have kept both hands on the steering wheel, spoke as respectfully as possible with plenty of “Yes Sir” and “No Sir” comments in the mix and probably would have thanked him as he handed me the ticket. You think I am being overly dramatic here? Ask your black friends about what I am saying! Or come visit East Texas where Confederate flags still fly!
By the way, I have been accused of stereotyping law enforcement officers by using illustrations like this one. That is certainly not my intent. I have brothers and sisters in Christ, black and white, male and female, who are law officers. I also believe that the majority of white officers are good people, like the one who gave me that ticket. But I also know that there are enough of the other type out there to keep black folks from feeling safe with the police, and I understand why.
Let’s Get Real!
That was an example of what I mean by white privilege. I don’t get pulled over for DWB (driving while black) in a predominantly white neighborhood. A large percentage of my black friends have, especially the males. My children didn’t have racial epithets hurled at them when they were nine years old. People don’t look at me oddly when they hear either my first or last name, because both are, you know, quite “American” (white American)! I apologize for my edginess this morning. I’m just hurting for my little friend Nylah and her family.
I don’t pretend to think that our broken society in America is going to be racially healed anytime soon. The world is the world is the world. It always has been and always will be broken in one serious way or another. We are as a society more sensitized about racial issues than ever and yet racial tensions are at the highest point since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And this is in spite of the fact that using one racial slur can cost you your job, your career, or your company.
This sensitization, combined even with legislation, may limit overt racism but it cannot eliminate it in the heart. Volatile actions and reactions are going in all directions, stirring up more and more of the same. Some of those who bemoan the fact that some younger people are being radicalized by Muslim extremists are radicalizing their own children in the racial realm. Just last week, a black disciple posted that her child was told by a white classmate that “black people should die because their skin is different.” Both children are six years of age. The only thing that can heal us is love, love of the type that only comes from imitating Jesus with his Spirit helping us to do so. Nothing short of that is going to change our world, but we in the family of God can make sure that we are both loving and informed. Let’s love Christ, live Christ and preach Christ. To that end, I write…