Posts tagged privilege
American Mythology

A few weeks ago Moody Bible Institute found themselves at the center of a twitter storm for an all too familiar reason: a white person denying the existence of white privilege. To find more on this story, you can read the background Here in the Chicago Trib or search the hashtag #MBIprivilege.

The story essentially died down over the last few weeks, but the same person, a professor, dug his heels in deeper. Last week he penned a letter to the editor in The Moody Standard defending his remarks (and apologizing for his tone) in five points which can be found here

Truth be told, there is nothing surprising in the remarks. These are all familiar reasonings for resistance to the term white privilege. Some of them Peggy McIntosh had herself just before she popularized the term! The reason I turn to his comments here is because it is quite rare that someone takes the time to write out the reasoning where I can take a screenshot. Usually these are statements made in workshops and classes, in hallways and forums where the best I can do is paraphrase the exchange. But since we have been provided the ability to screenshot the argument, I figure we should use it. There is one particular point that really makes my skin crawl in how commonly its used and how problematic it is. Please note it is not my desire to have a conversation about the professor. I dont know him at all. I want only to use his comments to showcase how American Mythology is used to replace history when discussing the devastating effect of racism in this country. Following is the point I wish to address:

I was going to take this apart piece by piece but I got annoyed and couldn't do it. So I will just make 3 points to all of this and go enjoy the beautiful weather! 

1. God didn't have anything to do with the historic racial injustice that afforded white Americans their economic privileges. God didn't sanction slavery. God didn't sanction black codes. God didn't sanction jim crow. Trying to spiritualize the level of injustice that is America's history simply because you enjoy the results of that injustice is gross.

2. No ones American story is created in a vacuum. Whenever arguments like this are made, do you notice how insular the story is? Its as if there was nothing happening in American history other than the life of the grandparent toiling away to make ends meet. As if all of America was a neutral "playing field" if you will, white folks just happened (by the grace of God, of course) to do well in life. The assumption is: as long as your ancestor wasnt a slave owner, then racial injustice couldn't be a part of your family's story. Incorrect. Lets revisit history, shall we? 

My ancestors have worked hard for centuries in this country, but were not paid for it. While white folks (as defined at that time) could apply for jobs anywhere, mine had to avoid signs that read "coloreds need not apply". While white people were earning a living wage, mine were being paid far, far less with absolutely no legal recourse. My grandparents would have loved to finish college. Some of them did graduate from universities- all of them with the word "colored" in the title. While white people were purchasing homes, my grandparents were navigating legal discriminations that would not offer them loans, would change the terms of contracts on a whim, only allowed them to live in certain neighborhoods through redlining and housing covenants, and refused to grant them homeownership altogether. My great grandmother who lived in a West Virginia mining town was evicted from her home every few years because of her gorgeous gardens and hard work to make the house livable. As soon as she did, she would find herself evicted, having to start all over, with no legal recourse and no equity or wealth gained from the home. My ancestors would have loved to pass down the amount of wealth they generated, but instead it lined the pockets of the white people for whom they worked, paid a mortgage/contract and really attempted to avoid whenever possible. The wealth that should have profited black families instead became part of the "stewardship" of white families- of business owners and real estate agents, of government workers and factory owners, of landlords and bankers, of lawyers and home owners, of court officials and many others who followed the "rules" of America's policy of discrimination in every area of American life. You're welcome, by the way.  

So forgive me for not being impressed by the "morality" and "hard work" of any ancestral tales that ignore the systemic injustice that is America's history. Forgive me for not being impressed by families who didn't own slaves. Forgive me for not being impressed by family stories overflowing with privileges not given to my family and millions of other families of color. You can celebrate the ease with which your family earned its wealth in the midst of legal discriminations of all kinds against people of color, but please don't tell me that God celebrates with you. 

3. I am so sick of these underhanded insinuations that black people (or people of color) just need to work harder, that we are lazy, unethical and selfish. That your families are the hard working ones, that your families are the ethical ones, that your families are the self-sacrificing ones. There is nothing moral about slavery. There is nothing moral about jim crow. There is nothing moral about legalized discrimination. There is nothing moral about the centuries old, two-tiered system America created for whites and for others. There is nothing moral about how white privilege came to be. This moral high ground is sinking sand. There is nothing "right" about it. 

It is an American myth that racial injustice ended with slavery. It is an American myth that the fruits of slavery died on the vine of abolition. It is an American myth that Jim Crow was nothing more than some really mean signs on parks and swimming pools, water fountains and bathrooms. It is an American myth that there are families who were somehow untouched by Americas system of inequality. It is an American myth that God has only blessed "hardworking" folks and that people of color would be wealthy, too, if we just learned the value of hard work. It is an American myth that the wealth incurred in the midst of tremendous injustice is simply a blessing from God.

And this is the brilliance of a racialized society that for hundreds of years has benefited whites at the expense of people of color: you can still tell yourself that you are innocent, untouched and excused from the harm, the trauma, and the gains of racism.

For those who wish to go beyond understanding jim crow in particular as more than random signs on buildings, please begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates's article HERE. You might hate the title. Thats okay. Read it anyway. Its longer than a blog post, but shorter than committing to a book. I re-read it yesterday and it took me about an hour with a couple interruptions. Its an introduction to understanding just how thorough systemic discrimination in an era of jim crow truly was. After you finish reading it, check out his bibliography for more in depth books.

This is important. We must get beyond the idea that racial injustice ended with slavery. Its simply not so. And to pretend that there aren't vast wealth differences as a result of this legalized unequal system that lasted more than 300 years is, quite frankly, dishonest. So lets commit to truly understanding the larger American story in which our family stories sit, especially if we are going to talk about God's view on the matter. 

White Privilege Weariness (PartII)

So, I have to admit to you all, that "White Privilege Weariness" has already become one of my most read blogs… not this year but since I started blogging. I am amazed that it resonated with so many. As I have reflected on this a little more after receiving great feedback, here are a few more thoughts spinning in my head. I have a feeling this is going to make some people upset, but here we go! 

One of the responses I received came from a black woman who was brave enough to point out that conversations about white privilege were always difficult for her because she didn't share many of the "traumas" the other black people did. The conversation served to alienate her from other people of color because she did not share in their distress. 

I think this is a perfect example of why I am rethinking white privilege conversations that center on white folks. When people of color become the textbook for educating white people on their privilege, it's kind of a requirement for people of color to all share the same story in order to present a "united front" or at least a clear indication of the widespread nature of white privilege. But that assumes people of color all experience white privilege in the same ways, at the same points in time. It assumes that all people of color have the same narratives, the same experiences, the same instances of pain, shame and annoyance. And the way this conversation has been traditionally led requires that people of color find those commonalities and present them as neatly packaged as possible so that white folks can't deny our stories. Consequently, when one of those stories doesn't seem to fit, like my friend above, she becomes ostracized, tossed out of the group, a non-member. Since her story doesn't serve the common goal of teaching white folks about their privilege, her story has no place in the discussion. This is the danger of centering whiteness.

People of color are not monolithic. Our stories and experiences are not one note. But when we are required to be pawns in helping white folks get it, we must seek a monolithic narrative. Heaven forbid white privilege be complex, systemic, and impact people of color differently. 

By decentering the conversation we would give people of color the opportunity to tell our own stories. Finally our stories would not be seen through the lens of accomplishing some white ideal of success (namely, white people walking away feeling… something). We would be able to determine our own connections to one another. There would be no reason to toss out someone's story for not "matching" all others. We could seek diversity and talk about the number of various ways white privilege has effected us, or how we were teased by black people, or the wedge between asian americans and black folk, or the need for connection between blacks and latinos. If our stories become a song, let us each contribute our own verses and make up the chorus as we go.  We can make space for one another's differences because we are not required to sing the same tune. We can explore and laugh and learn. We can remind ourselves that we are not monolithic, that our varied stories are truth, that we need not conform our stories to one another. We can let them breathe. 

In the previous post I mentioned that I don't think people appreciate how traumatic race related stories can be for people of color. I have been unable to stop thinking about how much healing we need for ourselves, another reason why we must decenter whiteness. We cannot continue to teach from emotional and mental brokeness, unwinding our bandages, poking at the scars hoping they'll bleed and thereby have an emotional impact on someone else in the room. We must be given the space to seek our own healing, within our similar communities and across our colorful bodies. We have operated largely in isolation for so long. It is time to move out of our corners, and move to the center together- to validate, affirm and hold the stories of one another. To find solidarity. (I love the work Suey Park is doing in this regard.) We must be able to identify oppression no matter where it lies and work to identify and uproot it. If we spend all of our time focused on white folks, we lose the opportunity to deeply connect with one another.  

Now, I know someone is concerned that my decentering of whiteness means that white people no longer get to learn from people of color. Thats not what I'm saying. I am not suggesting that white folks get tossed out of the room while people of color commiserate together behind closed doors. What I am saying, is that I believe white people are intelligent enough to listen. I believe that white people can sit in a room and take ownership of their education. I trust that they have the ability to raise their hand and ask for a resource on a concept I just tossed into the conversation. I trust them to write down the name of the activist my friend just referred to in the discussion. I think white folks are capable of ordering a kindle book a peer says changed her life. I also trust the power of narrative. I trust the healing effect of people of color. I trust the power of our voices in unison seeking and offering healing. I trust that the healing can and will overflow. I think that white people don't need me to sit in a cage so they can poke at my wounds to see if they are real. To do this work, white people need to be able to reach into the depths of complexity no matter the cost, to realize how they have benefited from systems and structures no matter whose story is being told. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will find the thread of the truth even in narratives that sound different. White people can try harder. I am tired of presenting an incomplete story.  

And if they don't, I trust them to walk away. And thats okay, because they aren't the end. 

I don't think I am helping white folks by centering them in the conversation. I think I might be doing more harm than good by presenting a false narrative of monolithic experiences. I believe I might be setting up white folks to think that other people of color will whip out their scars on demand and submit to being on trial. I don't think centering whiteness is doing white folks any favors. I rob them of the beauty that expands across the narratives of people of color. I make it too simple, too easy. I let them off the hook. I don't teach them to take the journey, because I'm teaching that they are the journey. That capturing their hearts and minds are the ends that I seek. It cannot be. Reconciliation with all humanity is the end. White people are only a small part of humanity. They are part of the story for sure, but they are an incomplete story alone. By centering whiteness I have eliminated the complexities of race, of varied stories, of the richness and wonder and goodness and humor and strength that is the experience of people of color. 

I want to seek healing. I am tried of mini-courtrooms where people of color have to prove the existence of racism and privilege and discrimination. I want to seek healing. 

White Privilege Weariness

I am standing in the infamous white privilege line. Our class has answered all the activity's questions one by one. As usual the White participants are grouped at one end of the room, the Black and Latino participants at the other end. In between stands a handful of Asian participants. The facilitator asks a series of questions, mostly directed at the group of White participants. Their conversation continues... and continues... and continues. After a few minutes, I notice all of our bodies have naturally turned to reinforce the focus of the conversation between the White participants. The people of color form a quiet outer circle, glancing at each other as the conversation continues largely without us. One of the young women next me raises her hand; she is too far away to be noticed. Remaining unseen, she gives up. As she lowers her hand, I suddenly become very weary.

Let me pause here to note that this is not a critique of the facilitator nor the activity. I myself have led the white privilege conversation more times than I can count. I've led it. I've chosen it. I've started and ended classes with it. I've done it with young people and elderly people. I've done it when the racial mix is huge and when I'm the only person of color in the room. I am quite sure I have facilitated the resulting conversation well some days but from a place of hurt and bitterness on others. My weariness is not from being tired at the activity itself.

My weariness is rooted in realizing how often starting the race conversation with white privilege automatically centers the experience of white folks. On the day mentioned above, I so clearly saw how focusing on white privilege filled the space. There was no room left for the stories, the experiences, the realities of people of color except in service to the education of white folks. We almost served as more of a comparative study than live humans standing on the opposite side of the room.

How often have you been a room where the feelings of white people take priority? Do they feel guilt or shame? Are we making them feel guilt or shame? How uncomfortable are they? Is the room safe for them? Do they get it? In the natural occurrence of asking these questions, people of color have a tendency to become background music to the story being created for white people. As a result people of color must manage their own expectations, emotions, language, questions, frustrations. I think the trauma of racism (and recalling it during these sessions) is severely underestimated. It is such work, such risk for people of color to enter spaces created with the purpose of serving white people.  

So here's what I've been contemplating. Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center? I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake. I'm trying to recall if I have ever experienced a workshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people. Isn't it weird that white people would experience such privilege even when trying to make them aware of that same privilege? One day I would like to try hosting a workshop where people of color tell their stories, and thats it. Period.

Where people of color talk, vent, laugh, cry and affirm one another's racial realities. 

Where white people don't talk, don't justify, don't question.

Where white people are given different rules that require seeking permission to participate.

Where white people are expected to connect the dots themselves, to own their learning, to manage their emotions.

I wonder if white privilege could be taught by eliminating even the small privileges/rules that typically serve white folks well in a classroom setting.        

This is not an exercise intended to be mean or to make white people feel awful. Nor is it an exercise to minimize the stories and experiences of white people. I just want to spend a little more time asking myself what it would be like for the priority to be reversed. Rather than judging the success of my training on whether or not white people walked away understanding privilege; could I define success based on the emotional energy of people of color after the training is done? Could I so center the experience of people of color that they walk away feeling some measure of healing, of energy, of understanding about themselves and each other? Could they leave more alive then when they came? 

I often lead with conversations on white privilege because I work with predominately white institutions. It kinda feels obvious. However, I am beginning to believe that this reality makes it even more important that I not center whiteness. It's possible that my little training or class will be the only space when people of color are at the center simply because their stories are important- not so that white people can have an "aha" moment- but because people of color need to speak their truth. My weariness of white privilege is creating an energy source within for new ways of training, of leading, of being. I'm kinda excited about it. 


So last week I look through my twitter feed, and come across a ton of articles on feminism and exploring what it means to be a woman. I discovered information about Sarah Bessey's soon coming book Jesus Feminist. I read a very insightful article on feminism by Bell Hooks critiquing Sheryl Sandberg's claim that Lean In is "a (sort of) feminist manifesto," a book I thoroughly enjoyed but would not call a feminist manifesto. I also saw this piece by Osheta Moore called we are pierced women, and this piece called Dear Patriarchy by Idelette McVicker. Then I ended the week unpacking evidence of white, male privilege in the church with a girlfriend. Its been quite a week!

After all of this, here is an incredibly simple conclusion I've come to: patriarchy is not the obvious purple dragon I want it to be. Instead it is subtle, insidious and often resides just under the surface. It is only occasionally overt and mean-spirited. In the evangelical church I have found that the "he-man-woman-haters club" has adopted some much subtler language.  

When I was a child, I remember attending churches where women were not permitted to preach or teach, being relegated to the kitchen and nursery room. There were churches who would not allow ordained women to sit in the pulpit, instead deciding the first row is as close to the cross as we were allowed. While I am aware that these churches and these rules still exist, the kind of patriarchy I find myself casting off now just isn't so clear.

Instead the patriarchy I am encountering doesn't tell me that I am not permitted to teach, only that my style is not as familiar, captivating, or desirable as my male counterparts. It makes men the standard for my success. 

It includes me in the speaker line-up at conferences, the elders in leadership, the voices leading worship but not with any conviction. My presence is little more than an effort to stay out of trouble. The voices of women are not sought after, pursued, or chased.

It doesn't tell me that an all-male line up is acceptable, but that I only need one female representative at the podium, the table, the microphone.  After all, there were many sessions, meetings, and emails trying to find that one woman. Our names, our efforts, our experiences don't easily come to mind. In order to find us there must be twitter shout-outs, google searches, combing the websites of other churches to find someone who can represent that elusive female voice. 

Its in the music- God as male, masculine, fighting, battling, winning  

Its in the prayers- God as male, masculine, fighting, battling, winning  

Its in the sermons- God as male, masculine, fighting, battling, winning

It doesn't ban me from leading, but it often questions my authority, always looking for the wizard pulling the levers behind me. It asks insulting questions like, "Who is really in charge here?" or "Who should I really be talking to?"

 It thinks my ideas are truly brilliant, but only after being repeated by a man.  

It doesn't tell me I won't be successful, but it needs to protect me from myself because I am, of course, incapable of success without it. I am too emotional, trusting, and inexperienced  to make it on my own. 

Here's the kicker, my complexion only complicates things further. I must also work around its whiteness, affluence, assumptions. I must hold my culture in tension. I'll bring that "black mysticism" to the table- the eternal prophetess of the Matrix, handing you all the insight you need to succeed, but I won't go overboard. I  wouldn't want to make our largely white audience uncomfortable with my blackness.

So best not be too sing-songy, too loud, too outgoing. I won't talk directly about race or anything that might be code for race- you know words like "hip-hop" and "urban" and "collard greens"… really black things. I mean, who can relate to any of that?

I'll be mindful about my language, too. I wouldn't want to get on stage and "sound white" so its really important that I use just a dash of ebonics, so that people can see I really represent the black voice. But its also important I sound educated (whether or not I am is of little importance), here it is all about the privilege of affluence. So many rules.

And I promise not to forget about style… I mean there is only one black style, right, so I had better get that right, too. 

No, this is no dragon. It's a slow and steady poison that will produce symptoms of insecurity and indentity crises so large that losing oneself, hating oneself is a real possibility. As much as I want to break out a sword to slay this thing, I have come to realize that the only anti-potion for this poison is the truth. 

So, Sarah Bessey, keep reframing our place in the gospel story. Bell Hooks, challenge us to always analyze the system. Sheryl Sandburg, call us to claim our space. Osheta Moore, remind us how we've been pierced. Idelette McVicker, keep challenging patriarchy. And to all my girlfriends, I am so grateful for the ways you have spoken truth with me; perhaps one day the truth will set all of humanity free.