It has taken me over a month to send something about the racial challenges that our nation and church face. I had to overcome in me the inclination not to listen to our Black neighbors, who in anger and frustration, in desperation have called America to wake up. I over focused on parts of the message with which I disagreed and so effectively I did not hear. I’m asking you to read this and consider it, I am not asking you to accept it as Gospel Truth, or to see in it judgment or condemnation. I am hoping it will give you something more as you live and search for truth and harmony.
White Privilege is the notion which becomes codified in cultural norms and mores, that because I am white, I am superior. And so, in social situations I win (I’m white) people of color lose, and this is ordained to be so by the social contract which has been created over time often unrecognized and unacknowledged, and becomes the accepted status quo, which requires “law and order” to maintain, this social creation supports white advantage and holds it in place.
Class Privilege, I have greater social status, I win, those of lower status lose, and this is ordained to be so by the social contract which has been created which supports class supremacy. Mostly class is about wealth, though not entirely, e.g. the nouveau riche, who are wealthy but “uncultured”, but in the US class distinctions are mostly about wealth, status is determined by net worth. And so working class whites may have white privilege but they certainly do not have class privilege, and so often are aggrieved and angered when accused of benefitting from “white privilege”. However, what a double whammy of grief for people in the US who are poor or working class and yes today even middle class, and people who are not white. To understand the stance of Black Lives Matter rather than All Lives Matter, requires some understanding about privilege, both white and class.
I contend that in our world in the United States, we overemphasize the role of the individual in how we think and act, and so many reject the notion that systems and cultures create ways of thinking, judging, expecting and operating that benefit some at the cost to others. We may blithely state “the devil made me do it”, but fight tooth and nail the idea that our social constructs have great power. Systemic analysis is routinely rejected. Rather, we cling to the myth that it is all on us individually, to succeed or prevail, we fail to observe, accept or understand the manifold instances of prejudice that benefit some and oppress others. The individual does matter and so do the choices individuals make, but so also there is a corporate reality that matters often even more, that often limits choices and opportunities by way of racial or class distinctions. Equal opportunity, education, employment are ways in which upward mobility can be achieved, but the harms of bias and prejudice still can and do bind and enslave. The privilege conversation is about this social and systemic reality.
We also struggle to own a social system and culture which we have inherited and which we did not create; we struggle to own a system which in part runs counter to our religious and civic principles and ideals. We struggle to see the real benefits we do in fact receive from these two privileges while we are sincerely trying to reject and disagree with them. We struggle to see the challenge and reconciliation necessary to move from being opposed to racism or classism, to the dismantling the social contract and systems of reward and punishment which hold them in place with full effect and with our continuing to benefit even as we criticize it, disagree with it, even pray for its demise. Given our social organizations that evolve from explicit and implicit assumptions and privileges, the status quo if you will, it is powerfully true that if you are not a part of the solution, of the changes needed; you then are truly a part of the problem. That is the dark side of privilege we so often refuse to see and own; it’s not my creation and it’s not my fault we say, ignoring the ongoing injustice that benefits me, at the price of the dignity, the equality, the opportunities, the justice denied those who are not of the privileged group. I get the benefit whether I want it or not, it is how the social construct works, and so unless I am helping to change the construct, my intentions no matter how noble, are worse than useless, Ouch.
But, is it my fate (as a white person) to be now the subject of the opprobrium, anger and rage of deprivileged humans, those who are people of color, or people of lower class, with no venue for my repentance and renewal? In my experience if you ask many whites why they want to move too quickly to All Lives Matter, it may have something to do with quick redemption, but it also has to do with the notion of grace and redemption. Let me explain, my heritage is Irish mostly, though 6th generation living in the US, I’m Roman Catholic and so have been a minority persecuted in the not distant past here, and in Ireland, I’m not sure who in charge is supposed to be apologizing to me, recognizing the injustices my ancestors have endured, and by their abjection and owning of the injustice, make right these many wrongs. And yes, I can flip the card and detail the manifold sins of my Irish ancestors. When does this “reckoning” become counterproductive? What is my penance that will free me from the stain of my sinfulness? To know nothing of the perversity of human behavior in regard to how we treat one another is willful ignorance, to choose to live constantly in its systemic aftereffects is in my judgment, a poor life strategy and in many ways heretical; it denies the power of grace to heal. Forgiveness given because forgiveness heals, is grace; forgiveness earned is much less, though surely not nothing. The strongest most grace filled people I know are those who live in the present, understand the impact of the past and its structural influence on the present, and choose to heal. Sadly, if you want to move beyond the specter of evil and victimhood, a plan to heal and to leave the weight of sin no longer a burden, is not something of which I hear much. I hear many good plans of social reconstruction, of redistributive justice, of economic systems that are neither zero sum nor systemically rigged for the wealthy, all necessary and good, but I contend that forgiveness and salvation are essential components of the healing necessary to change the status quo into something that embraces the ideals and moral commitments of our Faith and Founding ancestors.
So change to what? I’m going to suggest the concept of privilege can used for the good. Could we construct a system and culture that rewards harmony? Since it seems humans prefer the “privilege” approach, could we build something that operates with as much power and reward, as white or class privilege, dependent on the very values and behaviors we long to see? With harmony privilege one need only act in harmonious ways to experience the benefits, could we create disincentives to destructive and unharmonious behaviors that are not punitive but rather restorative. Could this be a way forward?
I’m curious to know the markers of institutional repentance that are required to accept that the sins of the past are indeed recognized, repented and amended with firm purpose, so that a new reality can thrive and grow in the institution. I’m reminded of the hard work of the people of color of South Africa who created a way for moving past apartheid and moving forward to a new South Africa, the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. No, not all accepted the process of reconciliation, and not all that is required to heal has been accomplished, but they moved miles ahead of endless anger and the removing of statues.
It is probably naïve to note that resurrection faith leads to joy, and that over emphasis on the effect of sin requires hate; but naïve or not it is surely instructive. “Can’t we all just get along” without true acceptance of complicity, repentance and amendment is cheap grace; being forever bound by the past and its sinfulness is not just poor strategy it is dangerously deficient in knowing what grace can accomplish. Once again Jesus weeps. If we deconstruct white privilege powered by God’s grace, what are we capable of building if the communion that flows from God’s life in us is that which leads and guides us.
So, maybe it is not time yet for harmony privilege, maybe the challenge of deconstruction is much greater than I want to admit, but our young: black and brown and yellow and red and white deserve our living trust in the Goodness of God and the power of grace.