These reflections were inspired by a recent episode of Unbelievable featuring a debate between Owen Strachan and Jermaine Marshall on CRT and Woke Christianity. I found it to be an engaging listen but also very frustrating as regards Strachan’s analysis. For example, he seemed much more interested in labeling things “Marxist” (as if the label itself is sufficient to negate a concept or movement as verboten) rather than confronting the overt racism woven throughout the American evangelical church that has supported such noxious movements as birtherism and MAGA Christianity.
In my comments, I decided not to engage the debate as such, but rather to offer some general reflections on the concept of white privilege.
If we are going to talk about “white privilege” we should first be clear on what it is we’re talking about. Here is a definition courtesy of Merriam Websters: “the set of social and economic advantages that white people have by virtue of their race.” (source) Thus, by this definition white privilege obtains whenever a person enjoys certain advantages in virtue of the social perception of their race as being Caucasian. It is important to appreciate that a person may enjoy privilege whilst being unaware that they do enjoy such privileges. And thus, the status of white privilege is wholly distinct from the self-perception of one as being privileged. The hillbilly living in a trailer in the Appalachians may not perceive himself to be privileged in virtue of his skin color, but whether he is privileged or not is an independent question from whether he perceives himself as enjoying some degree of privilege.
The Reality of White Privilege
I hope we can agree that white privilege has undeniably been a part of the history of North America back to the Jim Crow south and antebellum slavery. But many people seem to think that white privilege is no longer a reality. There is a germ of truth in that observation, to be sure: it is no longer a reality in the way it was during the Jim Crow era and antebellum slavery. But it seems to me to be deluded to extrapolate from this fact that white privilege no longer exists as such. Consider, for example, “The Talk”. This is a sort of rite of passage that is very common in black households in the United States at which point the parents sit their children down and discuss what to do if they ever have an encounter with the police. For some discussions of “the Talk” see this NPR segment and this Vox article and New York Times video.
The Talk does not exist in Caucasian households for whom the police are generally viewed favorably as protectors and helpers. So we must decide whether the Talk is perpetuated by a vast collective delusion regarding the presence of prejudice in policing or whether it is borne of the collective wisdom of experience. It seems to me that the evidence clearly bears out the wisdom of collective experience. As a recent article in Nature reports, “By one estimate, Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police during their lifetime1. And in another study, Black people who were fatally shot by police seemed to be twice as likely as white people to be unarmed2.” (source)
To conclude, the fact that black parents have to give the Talk while white parents do not is, to my mind, clear evidence of white privilege. But the reality is that that is only the tip of the iceberg. White privilege can appear in some truly surprising places. One of my favorite examples is this short Vox film which explains how color film was originally developed for white people. For decades the family photo album privileged a particular tone of skin treating those with darker skin as a brown smudged afterthought.
Beyond White Privilege
I think one of the reasons that white people are defensive about white privilege is that whiteness is the only kind of privilege some people seem to talk about. It is important to embed this concept within a general discussion of privilege. Privilege is “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” (source) But the reality is that there are many kinds of privilege and perhaps we can all be more attune to them if we begin to identify the different types. White privilege is a token example of racial privilege, but obviously, it is not the only one. In order to proceed, we must keep in mind that a specific country like the United States or Canada is not a monolithic culture but rather a bewilderingly complex patchwork quilt of cultures including microcultures down to specific counties, towns, neighborhoods, churches, and homes. Once we recognize that fact we can begin to appreciate that there are all sorts of racial privileges that may emerge in different contexts and not all of them are limited to the majority ethnic population within the country.
I mentioned above how black parents across the United States give their children “the Talk.” Is it possible that white parents may need to give their own kids a talk that black parents don’t need to give in light of their own skin color and social circumstances? Well, consider this: according to a 2017 FBI statistic, approximately 10.5% of hate crimes in the United States are directed against white people (source). The implication is that within at least some contexts, being white is a disadvantage.
With that in mind, consider a white family that is an ethnic minority within a community defined by a majority non-Caucasian ethnic identity (e.g. black, Asian). In virtue of their minority status within that community, the white children could be at greater risk of facing prejudice and anti-white violence. Meanwhile, within that community, the dominant ethnic identity may enjoy privilege that is not enjoyed by the minority white family. This example provides a reminder that there may be many expressions of ethnic privilege that are not dominant within the country as a whole but which are dominant within particular micro-cultures within the country. Relative to those micro-cultures, being the country’s dominant privileged ethnic or racial identity may manifest as a distinct disadvantage.
To be sure, it still may be the case that white privilege deserves particular attention as the most widely and commonly manifested ethnically or racially based privilege within the country overall. But that doesn’t change the fact that other groups may enjoy some degree of privilege within other contexts and those should be discussed as well.
It is also worth noting that privilege extends far beyond race or ethnicity to any number of other significant social expressions of human being. For example, another significant expression of privilege is gendered as in male privilege and cisgender privilege. And then there is able or ability privilege and socio-economic or class privilege and familial privilege. The list goes on.
The fact is that privilege is multi-faceted and indeed ubiquitous within society and virtually all people enjoy some privileges not enjoyed by others. That said, not all privileges are the same. Being disabled may yield particular privileges (e.g. a disability parking pass) which, while not insignificant, are nonetheless disproportionate to the privileges enjoyed by those who are not in the class.
Equity and Equality
To conclude, I will say a word about the concepts of equity and equality. This will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with intersectionality. But not everyone has that familiarity, so here goes. Equality refers to the idea that everyone receives the same treatment irrespective of differences. By contrast, equity is an attempt to redress inherent advantages (or privileges) enjoyed by some groups and disadvantages experienced by others so as to ensure that everyone has the basics they require to succeed. The above-mentioned disability parking pass is an example of the principle of equity at work. We cannot make everyone able-bodied but we can provide a parking pass and wheelchair ramps for ingress/egress to make it easier for those individuals to navigate the world. Likewise, a higher tax rate for the rich manifests a concern to redress socioeconomic privilege by redistributing wealth and seeking a more equitable society.
Rather than have endless debates about “Marxism” and “CRT”, I suspect we could all make significant progress toward mutual understanding if we would reflect more intentionally on the various privileges we enjoy within society and seek ways to extend those privileges to others in order to yield a more equitable society for all. In the words of Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”