In a recent article I wrote titled, White Privilege: The Ability To Walk Away, I received a lot of feedback (one of my most read articles of all time) and I wanted to continue the thread of the article in this follow up piece. Most of the feedback was positive, but some of it was negative. Some Christians believed it was divisive and unhealthy for Christ's church, even to the point of Christians "angry" facing it on Facebook. I guess I touched a nerve.
While I personally find that the negative feedback from white Christians as disappointing, I do not find it surprising. Simply the term white privilege is such an emotionally charged phrase that often it invokes negative emotions where it is not intended to do so. Causing negative emotions is not my aim. My aim in writing about this topic, and even my use of the term white privilege, is not to try to cause shame to white Christians for being white. But unfortunately one of the most common responses from white people to the concept and term white privilege is shame (this is discussed at length in an entire chapter of Hill's book White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white). In no way do I believe that any white Christian should feel ashamed simply because they are white.
However, I do believe that as white Christians in the context of 21st century America, we are recipients and benefactors of being a part of a dominant culture. Most of the time however I have found that I, like most others, are unaware and oblivious to the systemic privileges that we have from being white in a white dominant culture, a culture that was founded on white supremacy ideologies.
But let's be honest, it isn't easy to ask critical questions about our country's origins or even about our own family tree. When we do, we may feel frustrated, defensive, or angry - or sad, defeated, or overwhelmed. If and when we do feel these things I hope that we can see it as an opportunity to embrace the tension, discomfort, and uneasy feelings. Transformation rarely comes easily.
Here is an exercise for us that can help us on this journey (see also the exercise in the first article),
"Describe the first encounter you remember having with race."
For me it was when I was a young boy growing up in the rural South and being told by a close relative that "I could be friends with black people, but I could never bring a black girl home." Whatever the intentions, motives, and cultural norms that were playing into this teaching being given to me as a young boy, it made an indelible impression on my young mind about race.
Most white people can answer this type of question with relative ease, and encounters like these play an important role in the growing consciousness of white Americans, but they must also remind us of how pervasive and normalized white culture is. What about the all-white (or almost all-white) neighborhoods many of us grew up in (the ones we typically call the good neighborhoods)? What about the all-white (or almost all-white) teachers we sat under (the ones that teach at what we typically call the good schools)? What about the all-white casts we saw on television growing up (especially for gen x-ers and earlier)? Did these not play a role in shaping our views on race and culture? Do these not also qualify as encounters with race? Of course they do, but we have been taught to internalize white culture as "normal", so we're unaware of the profound ways race shaped us during our early years.
Take as an example how we even re-tell our history's origins. Every second Monday of October we have a legal holiday recognizing "Columbus Day". Online and in almost any history book we are likely to find a description that goes something like this: "A holiday that commemorates the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492". Really? Discovery? How can he "discover" a nation already inhabited by millions? Mark Charles (theologian, speaker, and writer of Navajo heritage) aptly highlights how ludicrous this claim is by asking people to consider leaving out their wallet, phone, or iPad so they can experience what it's like to have their property "discovered". This type of conscious decision of "re-telling" our history indicates that there is trauma that we are in denial of, something that is often referred to as "white trauma". Acknowledging that all our land was stolen from Native people feels like too great a burden, so we create an alternative reality that allows us to disengage emotionally from the truth.
For myself, often like most others, when I come to grips with this I tend to immediately ask the question, "What am I supposed to do?" Hill warns that this is a dangerous question, and often not even most helpful if asked in isolation. He talks about how our tendency to even ask such a question is often due to our own cultural biases. "Left unexamined, this question suggests that moving into problem-solving mode is the logical and expedient step in the process for white people, and it simultaneously discounts the major handicap that our blindness to racial patterns, systems, and structures brings to the question." He offers a different first step, instead of asking "what should I do", he suggests to simply lament.
"there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." 1 Corinthians 12:25-26
As Christians of course we cannot divorce our faith from our deeds (James 1) and so we must have actions that coincide with our faith when it comes to cultural identity. But we must be careful that we actually see, believe, and think differently before we try to act differently. But, once we do see differently, we must act differently.
*Excerpts taken from: Daniel Hill, White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white