Confronting White Privilege

Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry.

In recent years, Christian colleges and universities have made significant progress on issues of race. Many would even say they are “antiracist.” At the same time, they have been inconsistent on the topic of privilege. Overt racism is condemned, but the subtler conversation about white privilege remains controversial

White privilege, as defined in social science, refers to “the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race” (Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory). Or, as Peggy McIntosh explains it, “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day.”

White privilege does not mean that every individual white person is always better off. Rather, it means that being able to claim the “white” identity in North America comes with certain social, cultural, and economic advantages, from getting a call back for a job interview to finding an apartment or booking an AirBnB. As James Bratt wrote on the Reformed blog “The Twelve,” this privilege has deep historic roots in American society, and acknowledging it is not intended to induce guilt but a sense of responsibility. As a personal example, Christina is often pigeonholed on our campus as one of the “diversity people” in ways that Joe is not, even though we both have scholarly interests in a wide variety of topics. She is often assumed to represent the views of people of color as a whole, whereas Joe is allowed a more holistic individuality.

On college campuses, part of white privilege is safety. In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, there were 781 reported hate crimes on U.S. college campuses. The single largest motivation for these crimes was race—about 40 percent. A 2011 study of hate crimes on Canadian campuses found that 40.1 percent of respondents had experienced some incidence of hate crime. Race or ethnicity was a major motivator (23.3 percent) with Aboriginal people, and Afro-Caribbeans were particularly vulnerable. 

We work at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. For us, the disparity between conversations about racism and privilege was made evident last winter, when one of our students wrote “white power” and drew a swastika in the fresh snow on the rear window of a parked car. Photos of the graffiti found their way onto social media, and our campus was confronted with a sobering reminder of the persistence of white supremacy. We came together to respond, and our president condemned the action as having “no place at Calvin College.” The primary student involved later confessed and issued an anonymous public apology. While some members of our community attempted to minimize the incident (the student was “only joking,” for example), there was almost universal condemnation for invoking white supremacist imagery. 

However, many people failed to see the link between white supremacy and white privilege. We believe that the denial of white privilege rests on an implicit assumption of white supremacy. If you deny white privilege, if society is indeed meritocratic and the game is essentially fair, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose. If the white population is not privileged in some way, how else does one explain the discrepancies between them and people of color? What’s left is assuming that white people are just smarter, more moral, work harder, or have a stronger culture.

But if you talk too much about white privilege, you’re told you’re being extreme. In some cases, you’re told that talk about racism and white privilege is actually what perpetuates racism.  Inevitably, someone quotes Dr. King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Calling attention to white privilege is holding back the dream. If you are surrounded by this sort of attitude, you begin to question yourself. Maybe trying to talk about privilege is too confrontational. Maybe you should be less “extreme.” 

We don’t think that’s the case, and it certainly isn’t what Dr. King meant. Here’s a passage from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he laments the role of “white moderates.” Given that Dr. King’s words are often reduced into easily misunderstood feel-good sentiments, we’ll quote him at length:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizen’s “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Our suspicion is that many of those working to confront white privilege on Christian campuses know something about lukewarm acceptance and how bewildering it can be. Why is this conversation so difficult?

It shouldn’t be. As Christians, we are confessional people. At many Christian Reformed churches, confession is part of the weekly liturgy. What would it look like to confess white privilege? We’d like to take this a step further. The church often talks about confessing and lamenting sins, and in the context of racism particularly, the sins of the past. That’s appropriate. But we’d like to name the subtle white supremacy that props up white privilege for what we think it is: an idol.

We think this is why the conversation about white privilege is so contentious. As Christina wrote about the controversy on our campus, “If you ever want to see somebody get . . . really mad, threaten their idol.” Idols attempt to rob God of God’s deserved glory. They minimize our needed dependence on the gospel, and they lead others astray. So what does it look like to tear down or repent of this idol?

First, we must ask for the spiritual sight to see racial injustice. For those who live it, like Christina, it is as evident as the day is long; but for those who benefit from it, like Joseph, this is harder. Our tailored history and politically aligned media sources shape worlds and worldviews that feed the idol of racism. However, seeing this idol does not require some supernatural experience but rather a willingness to learn the full narrative. To listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to turn away from the voices of “post-racial” or meritocratic false prophets.

Second, this awareness will hurt. Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry. It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears. Repentance requires real sorrow and grief. It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short. The Bible provides us with images of godly sorrow that include weeping, wailing, and the ripping of clothes. We are broken people who ought to be broken up by our sin.

Third, our lament must lead to change. Christians serve an embodied Savior. We must have an embodied faith. A faith that has real implications for not only what we confess but how we live. We must walk up to and into racist systems and structures to change them. Lament must have legs—or else it serves to prolong the suffering of others.

Turning from idols is difficult. We cannot do it in our own. But we are not alone. Christ himself provides us with the ability to see our sin, the strength to repent, and the wisdom to proceed towards justice. 

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Questions for Discussion

  1. What comes to mind when you hear “white privilege”? How do you feel and why?
  2. Have you ever experienced being “pigeonholed”? How did you feel? What can we do to minimize such experiences for others?
  3. What is your response in reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s frustrations with “moderates” and “lukewarm acceptance”?
  4. Do you agree that white privilege is an idolatry? Why or why not?
  5. If you have the power, what racist structures in society would you change and how? What potential steps can you take to make that a reality?

About the Authors

Joseph Kuilema is an assistant professor in the social work program at Calvin College.  He and his wife attend Sherman St. Christian Reformed Church.

Christina Edmondson serves as Dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College. She trains congregations and organizations nationally about implicit bias, multicultural accessibility, and leadership development.

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