White privilege and what can white people do?

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One of the questions many white people are asking these days is what can we do to combat racism? What steps can we take to understand and change systems? Yesterday Bishop Gene Robinson spoke about listening. Here are 2 other authors offering their views:


Rage Against the MiniVan blog:

White privileged (sic) is a difficult concept. It can cause a lot of confusion and defensiveness. In the diversity class I teach to graduate students, this topic is more heated than any other topic we touch on. Similarly, this week I’ve seen people pushing back against the idea of white privilege as if it’s an indictment that they are a racist (it’s not.) I even watched a blogger (who is white) criticize my friend Kelly (who is black) for her suggestion that people confront their white privilege. The blogger suggested that Kelly called white people “white supremacists” . . . as if “white privilege” and “white supremacists” were interchangeable terms (they’re not.) Confusion abounds when we talk about white privilege, and I think it’s confusion that often leads to offense at the term.

Simply put, privilege refers to an unearned advantage. It usually refers to something inherent . . . something you were born with rather than something you worked for. There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege.

Here are some of the questions I often hear asked about white privilege:

I had a hard time growing up, too. We’ve all had hardships.

I have a black friend who was raised with way more privilege so how can I be the privileged one?

What do they want me to do?

Am I supposed to feel guilt for stuff I didn’t do?

To learn more about white privilege, I really recommend reading this insightful checklist from Peggy McIntosh about “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”.

Read more at the blog.

Mia McKenzie writing at Black Girl Dangerous says:

Racism is, in reality, a huge, systemic, deeply-rooted plague that exists everywhere and affects everything, that degrades and starves and rapes and murders people without losing its breath. It is built on hundreds of years of oppression and genocide. It is in our government, in our entertainment, in our literature, in our corporations, in our language. This entire country was built on it. It is everywhere, and it is insidious and subtle just as often as it is open and obvious. It is not that crazy dude over there.

I see the appeal to white folks in thinking about racism this way. The “whack job” approach allows people to separate racist thinking and behavior from themselves. It’s that crazy screaming dude over there who’s racist. It’s your drunk uncles. It’s your he-was-so-quiet-and-seemed-so-normal-before-he-walked-into-the-mall-and-started-shooting-people neighbors. All of whom you can shake your heads at with furrowed brows while proclaiming that you’re “not like that.” But you are. White people, you need to get this: you are racist. The first step is admitting that you are part of the problem.

I am not going to tell you why or how you are racist. I’m not here for your education. If you want to understand, read a book. Read a hundred books. Take a workshop. Read as many books and take as many workshops as you need to be able to stop pretending it’s other white people and not you.

The Episcopal Church offers anti-racism training now focusing on our ministries (lay and ordained) in a diverse world. Ask your diocese to put on a training near you. Here is the info from the Diocese of Oregon’s Diverse Church Training: Course I: Foundations for Faithful Ministry in a Diverse World

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Richard Edward Helmer
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Richard Edward Helmer

Part of the trouble here is semantics. Racism is not a personal quality or character flaw, but a systemic, structural problem encompassing a society that privileges one ethnic or cultural group over another.

And privilege in this context is not a zero sum game (as in the simplistic whites have it and blacks don’t). It’s actually a spectrum or continuum of privilege that grants greater levels of access to societal goods, services, and social status based on a whole host of qualities: gender, age, sexual orientation, class, and race.

What fascinates me is how quickly we get defensive when someone like Mia McKenzie points out that we are, in effect, born into a racist system. We too easily personalize the observation and get defensive, rather than see it as a relational issue that we must work to resolve together. And even if I have lots of black friends, that doesn't mean racism hasn't privileged my life, or that I am immune from its effects on our society as a whole.

And, Chris, saying that blacks have privilege, too, doesn't cut it. The reality is that the average black man still has to work a lot harder than the average white man to achieve the same status and recognition in this country. The President pointed out that he was mistaken as a waiter once, even as a state senator. That's something I doubt a white state senator has probably ever experienced.

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Chris H.
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Chris H.

I don't know if such conversation would do anything for some. The blogger Mia McKenzie seems determined that all whites are eternally racist, the end. So what conversation can be held?

It's rather like my English classes in China and Turkey when I asked students what "racist" meant. In both countries the automatic answer was white people hating black people. Knowing many Chinese hate all Japanese, no matter what, I asked," Was that "racist"? "Nope. And Turks often hate Armenians and Kurds, racist? Definitely not. The word only applied to Whites against Black and not the reverse. So if one side refuses to look at their own behavior/opinions what can be done? If all whites admit the sins of the past and try to change, but blacks say "You will never change", then what?

Blacks don't believe it, but they have privileges too. A president and strong action groups to bring them into the limelight. The two groups in this state most discriminated/biased against are Native Americans and Hutterites(whites). I'm sure they'd love to be added to the conversation, but they won't because they don't have the privileges and ears of the powerful that the blacks do.

Chris Harwood

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tgflux
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tgflux

Respectfully, the need for such conversation can be demonstrated no further than this thread here: https://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/race/examining_our_biases_in_the_wa.html

Can we listen? Can we listen AS IF the other person were saying something we should actually "learn, mark and inwardly digest"?

JC Fisher

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Richard Edward Helmer
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Richard Edward Helmer

Adam,

I disagree. We lose something if we dispense with the word “privilege,” as we forget the sense of entitlement that often accompanies what we unconsciously can take for granted. Moreover, there are instances, when we may need to set aside our privilege in favor of those who don’t have it.

One person, “Joe” (a European-American man), was just telling me today of the experience of dining out with an African-American friend, and how the server would ask Joe what his friend wanted to eat. Without an understanding of white privilege, Joe might have plowed on and ordered for his friend. Instead, he set aside the privilege of the moment and asked the server to talk to his friend directly. That’s the kind of in-the-moment work we can be called to...

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Adam Wood
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The issues of discrimination in regards to identity are real and problematic. But I am more and more of the opinion that we should not discuss it as "privilege."

The "privileges" that accrue to me because I am white, middle-class, male (etc etc) aren't privileges. That suggests that treating other people crappy is ok, and I have some special privilege that exempts me from it.

I get the thought behind this way of describing it, and people who are not regularly treated in a crappy manner need to understand the issues at work here. I am in no way disputing that some people are getting a raw deal. Some people are getting a raw deal.

But that shouldn't be described as a privilege in favor of those of us not getting the raw deal. It should be discussed for what it is: people and institutions regularly treat some people like crap, for incredibly crappy reasons.

Talking about White Privilege makes it sound like the fact that people and systems treat me well is a bad thing. That's not the bad thing. The bad thing is people and systems not treating everyone well. The bad thing isn't White Privilege. The bad thing is personal and institutional racist crappiness.

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