White Privilege

Kevin McGill

I am White and I have certain privileges because of my race. This comment may come off as provocative to some, but it is a reality. The reality of privilege should not cause those who experience its benefits to immediately feel shame. It would only be shameful if I was aware of my privilege and tried to keep it for myself.

If you are a White person reading this you may be rolling your eyes thinking, “Here we go again,” but stay with me, this isn’t a guilt trip. I need to make something crystal clear. Not all people who are White have had advantages handed to them on a platter. Many White people have faced incredible hardship, have lost jobs, and have experienced discrimination. To such people, calling them "privileged" seems ignorant and like a slap in the face. We should respect their experiences and perspectives as well. In this sense, it would be good to get past a muzzling political correctness that chastises people for not immediately agreeing with certain terms like White Privilege. As Bonhoeffer said, “We need to regard people less by what they do or omit to do and more in light of what they suffer” (p. 46).[1] It is not correcting people but rather connecting with people that should motivate us. We need more empathy as opposed to guilt trips.

However, if it is true that some people have privileges because of their race, once we become aware of that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to acknowledge it. What should the Christian response be to those who don’t share inherent privileges? Martin Luther King put it this way: “It’s all right to tell a man to pull himself up by his own boot straps but it is a cruel jest to say that to someone who doesn't have any boots.”[2]

My question for the White Church is this: why is it so difficult to apologize for not standing up for our Black friends? During the Civil Rights era, White Adventists were largely silent. We should have been marching in Selma, standing by Dr. King, preaching the dream from our own pulpits and including it as part of the Three Angels’ Message of everlasting love for every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Instead, we were largely silent, and regrettably King’s words could apply to us: "[i]n the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

Today, the silence continues. Every time a Black person is killed in a police-involved shooting, most White people remain silent or defend the police. Shouldn't there be some empathy for the Black families that have lost loved ones? If we emphasize justice at the neglect of mercy, we are not preaching the everlasting gospel. We surely need justice and mercy to operate together. We must be careful not to abuse justice where we should be applying mercy.

Ellen White makes it clear, "If we error let it be on the side of mercy, rather than on the side of harsh dealing and condemnation.[3]" Could it be that God is not using the church to heal racial tensions and instead is using racial tensions as an opportunity to heal the church? It is time to have an honest conversation about race. We can't just sweep past mistakes under the rug. We could start by seeking to understand our differences. We should try and understand the way color affects us. It is only when we recognize and then accept the truth that we are ultimately set free.[4] With this in mind, here are ten privileges I now recognize I have access to because of the color of my skin.

1. I Have the Privilege of (Generally) Having a Positive Relationship with the Police.

Last month my wife and I got pulled over. I immediately thought, "oh no" because my wife was speeding. Then, because my wife was driving I thought, "Maybe we will get away with it." She always seems to get away with it. Not for a second was I concerned about our safety during this encounter. I have never been asked if I have any weapons in my vehicle – a question my Black friends have been asked numerous times. My Black friends are often afraid during these encounters. I will reiterate that I have never, ever been afraid. That is a privilege. By the way, my wife got off with a warning... she always does.

2. I Have the Privilege of Being Favored by School Authorities

“What sets the US apart from any other country is the idea that opportunity is universal. The data shows that we still fall far short of that ideal.”[5] In the United States, Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as White students for similar conduct. Studies show that these trends begin to manifest in the earliest grade levels.

3. White People Have the Privilege of Attending Segregated Schools of Affluence

That’s true, even for poor White people, a demographic rarely forced to live in “concentrated poverty.” If you are Black and poor, however, you are nearly five times more likely to live in concentrated poverty than poor White Americans.[6]

Furthermore, even though segregation “ended” in 1954, segregation is the norm in 2017. It is regulated by a caste system of affluence that negatively effects Black children in disproportionate numbers. Even though studies show that integration in affluent schools benefit everyone. [7] Racial prejudice and fear continues to be a barrier to achieving mutually beneficial segregation.

4. I Have the Privilege of Learning History through a Western, Caucasian Lens

Most of the most sobering historical facts I have learned were not taught in school. The more I learned, the more I discovered how revisionist history truly can be. For example, I never learned about Black military veterans in school. “No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.”[8] Due to their military service, Black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.

The disproportionate abuse and assaults against black veterans have never been fully acknowledged. The Equal Justice Initiative is doing its best to bring this white-washed history back to light.

5. Children's Books All Reflected the Way I Look. Even Jesus Looked Like Me.

This may seem like a small thing, but it means I never had to reflect on my race. Everyone looked like me in cartoons and books. I never had to ask my parents about the color of Jesus. To me, Jesus basically looked like a hippie from the Northwest.  In reality, Jesus came as a dark-skinned man and He lived in the Middle East. God is not a White man no matter how frequently our idolatrous images paint Him that way.

6. If I Became a Criminal, the Criminal Justice System would Treat Me More Favorably than My Black and Brown Counterparts

White men are most often depicted in the media as lone wolfs when they shoot people. Black people are described as violent thugs. Muslims are often depicted as radical terrorists.[9]

These assumptions are based on appearance alone and it also affects sentencing for drug use. White people are consistently given shorter prison sentences even though drug use is about the same across racial lines. Black people are also sentenced at a much higher rate and their communities are raided more frequently.[10]

The consequences of this are perpetuated within families. When parents end up in jail, children grow up in single-parent homes and the problems become cyclical.

7. I Have the Privilege of Escaping Violent Stereotypes Associated with My Race

The famous movie The Birth of a Nation[11] was a critically acclaimed movie from 1915 that depicted a Black man (who was portrayed by a White actor who wore “Blackface” makeup) raping a White woman. This movie glorified the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), and demonized Black people. It resulted in a resurgence of the KKK and an irrational fear of Black men. The documentary 13th[12] explores the resurgence of the KKK and how racism became systematized and codified into our legal system (it is a must watch).

A few years ago, the implications of this stereotype played out during the case of Brock Turner.[13] Turner was a White rapist who "looked innocent." His dad said his life shouldn’t be ruined for this one mistake. Brock was released after serving only three months in jail.

Compare that reaction to the case of the Central Park Five.[14] These five African American young men, all in their early teens, were accused of rape. They served jail time. Donald Trump took out a front-page advertisement in the New York Times which essentially said they should be killed.[15] All five men (now grown adults) were acquitted after serving years in prison. They were presumed guilty largely because they are Black, while Turner was presumed innocent largely because he is White. The Central Park Five documentary by Ken Burns is fascinating and worth checking out as it explores the advantages and disadvantages of race in detail.[16]

8. I Have the Privilege of Playing the Colorblind Card, Wiping the Slate Clean of Centuries of Racism

Being color blind is not a virtue. We need to acknowledge color, recognize its societal effects, and seek to love each other while acknowledging our differences. If we come to realize how policy has hurt people from another race adversely, we should address it. If we come to recognize one race has privileges others don’t we should seek to make the privileges equitable. Being colorblind sounds good in theory, but it actually has an adverse effect and perpetuates ignorance. Our goal should not be colorblindness. In order to address these problems, we need to try and see, even if doing so makes us uncomfortable. MLK put it this way: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”[17]

9. I Have the Privilege of Playing the God Card

When conversations get uncomfortable, I hear a lot of people say, "we don't have a race problem, we have a sin problem." This is an over-simplification of the issue of systemic racism. It is rooted in White privilege and stifles the potential for growth & progress. We need to stop spiritualizing the pain of others. Racism is a part of the sin problem that needs to be addressed directly.  

It is a privilege for one group to be able to say "we need to move past this" when other groups are not ready to do so. If we were to really take God seriously we wouldn't shut our eyes. We would pray that God would open our eyes and heal our Laodicean condition.

10. I Have the Privilege of Being Alive at a Time When God is Trying to Heal His Church of the Sin of Racism

Could it be that God is not using the church to heal racial tensions, but is instead using racial tensions as an opportunity to heal the church? If you have ever wondered what you would have done if you were alive during the Civil Rights era, understand that what you are doing right now, is most likely what you would have done then. Those critical moments in our country’s history have always existed. The solution is never simple, but we can't allow the complexity and the polarization to lead to apathy. The ministry of the church is reconciliation, and it has been called to be the head — not the tail.

Kevin is a pastor from the Northwest. He is married to his wife Danelle and they have two children, Grady and Mira. Kevin loves being a pastor and is excited to participate in this movement. Read his Against the Wall declaration here.

Photo by MICHAEL FRATTAROLI on Unsplash

Notes & References:

[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). Letters and Papers from Prison. Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press

[2] King, M. (1968). Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. Retrieved from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10

[3] White, E. (1989). Testimonies on Sexual Behavior Adultery and Divorce. Ellen G White Estate. Retrieved from http://centrowhite.org.br/files/ebooks/egw-english/books/Testimonies%20on%20Sexual%20Behavior,%20Adultery,%20and%20Divorce.pdf

[4] (John 8:32)

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jun/08/us-education-survey-race-student-suspensions-absenteeism

[6] http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/08/americas-biggest-problem-is-concentrated-poverty-not-inequality/400892/

[7] https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with

[8] http://eji.org/reports/lynching-in-america-targeting-black-veterans

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omar-alnatour/muslims-are-not-terrorist_b_8718000.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003

[10] http://www.vox.com/2014/7/1/5850830/war-on-drugs-racist-minorities

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13th_(film)

[13] http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/02/us/brock-turner-release-jail/

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_jogger_case

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/17/central-park-five-donald-trump-jogger-rape-case-new-york

[16] http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/

[17] http://blogs.ncte.org/index.php/2017/01/martin-luther-king-jr/