Presented by Rev. Bob Smith at the
2003 Greater New Jersey Annual Conference,
Service of Repentance for Racism
My youngest granddaughter, two and a half year old Hannah, has two older sisters. When they play together, Hannah is the one who always loses. That will change in time, but for now thatís the way it is. Her sisters are quite good about letting her play with them, but they have no awareness of the fairness or unfairness of always winning. Hannah, on the other hand, does. So Hannah, in her not so sweet outdoor voice, will often protest to her sisters and announce to everyone within hearing range, "Itís not fair!"
To us grandparent types, itís cute. To her sisters, itís both annoying and laughable. To Hannah, who has to live with the reality of that unfairness, itís anything but cute or laughable. Iím aware that the dynamics of their game-playing would radically change if Hannah wrote the rules. What do you think? A colleague writing about white racism and white privilege asks this key question: "On whose terms are we going to live together, if we are to live in harmony?"
It should not be difficult to figure out that being white in a culture and nation run mostly by white people has definite advantages for white people.
But we white people seem to have a hard time figuring out and responding to the inherent racism of such a culture, or challenging its unearned advantages because of something called "white privilege".
If youíve never heard of "white privilege", itís because you enjoy the benefits of it without needing to think about it. In fact, we simply take white privilege for granted except when itís threatened by job quotas, affirmative action, university admission policies, radically changing neighborhoods, loss of job or status to a person of color, or when racism is defined by a courageous person of color.
If you believe as a white person that youíve never benefited from white privilege, you are wrong. The opportunity to earn a living, buy a house in the community where we choose to live, vacation with our family, attend the church of our choice, or simply take control of our life is far greater for us than anyone else in our culture. Doors are opened for us before we knock.
Even after all the expectations are pointed out, the fact remains, we live in a white privileged culture. We may not want it, but weíve got it, and we benefit from it. Such privilege has made living easier for many of us, but clearly not for all.
White privilege is always being on the winning team without ever having to consider the fairness or unfairness of always winning.
White privilege is shopping without a security guard watching your every move.
White privilege is the freedom to jog in a neighborhood without people questioning whether or not youíre an intruder.
White privilege allows us to dismiss any responsibility for the legacy of slavery but proudly claim the legacy of advantage and privilege. "This land is OUR land!"
White privilege makes us think that America is becoming less and less American.
White privilege is an unearned, unfair advantage.
Iím a white male, one of the pastors at St. Peterís United Methodist Church. Iím a good pastor, reasonable preacher, fair administrator of a large membership church. I love my job. But if I thought that my race and gender had nothing to do with my appointment, I would be fooling myself. I understand the racial assumptions in regard to my appointment to St. Peterís UMC and the advantage of my gender in a predominantly male church. My point is that white privilege, and for me specifically, white male privilege, is a factor of where I am, how I feel about myself, and what I can expect to accomplish in ministry in the context of this culture.
White privilege has given me many things, but at a very high price.
White privilege has taught me to categorize people of color as somehow inferior, criminal, less motivated, and it is hard to unlearn such racist lies.
White privilege has taught me all about racial purity as a way of maintaining a demonic sense of superiority.
White privilege causes me to say things and live life in ways that can unintentionally hurt the very people I honestly love.
We say stupid things to people who are victims of white privilege like, "Donít give up, once they get to know the real you theyíll love you." Or "Keep working hard. Theyíll see that youíre as good as any white person." To a colleague in ministry we might say, "Why are you so frustrated? The ways things are going in todayís church, you have a better chance of being bishop than I do."
White privilege allows us to flirt with the idea that weíre not racist, while it insures that we are. And sadly, it makes it a lot harder for us to truly be Christian in this culture and this world.
White privilege makes it seem that we are inherently better because we are at the top of the pyramid of power, economics, education, and opportunity. However, it fails to tell us that we stand there on the backs of those who are not like us because our privilege requires that others not be as privileged. People of color pay a painful price for our privilege, and so do we pay a price.
In their book, "White Racism: Cases, Character and Cures," Joseph Feagin and Herman Vera write that "we pay a price in the form of our ignorance and fear, in the human contributions and achievements sacrificed to our privilege, in the failure to create a just and egalitarian society, in the violent response of the oppressed to unfairness and racism, and in the fundamental ideals and morality that are betrayed by a racially oppressive arrogance and advantage."
White privilege makes us afraid to go into certain neighborhoods, or to be a minority among certain people. Our privilege has created impoverished communities and assaults the character and dignity of persons of color.
So, what do we do about it? We do what weíre doing tonight. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God, and sincerely and earnestly repent. Then we commit ourselves to aggressively dismantling and profoundly changing the system. But most of all we listen, we drop our defenses and listen more than we ever have before. Some very brave sisters helped me understand the intensity of the pain they experience daily from racism and white privilege. If I had not listened to them, really listened, I would not have known.
Only those who intimately know what it means to live in an unfair culture, who have been deeply wounded by white privilege, can truthfully tell us about its tragic human cost and guide us in the building of a world that is indeed much more fair. The benefits of privilege will never motivate us to change, but opening our hearts and minds to the pain caused by that privilege may.
Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus, fill this house with your Spirit and our hearts with Your love. Open our eyes to the consequences of our sin and all the possibilities of Your wonder working grace. Amen.
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