The inspiration for this article comes from an attempt by a black person to explain to a white friend what she means by white privilege. Much of the evangelical world resists the term, fearing its Marxist roots will poison the vine if we let it grow.
Before I get to the article explaining white privilege from anecdotal examples, I did a little research and found an article written by a Marxist critiquing of the concept, “white privilege”. Critique as I use it here means a critical (as in negative) view. (I found the article when searching for the origin of the term, thinking I would find its Marxist roots.)
I found the idea of white privilege can be traced back to a pamphlet, White Blindspot, generated by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen in 1967 in which they presented arguments for “white-skinned privilege theory”. They argued that the white working class conspired with their exploiters against the non-white working class to achieve certain privileges that the non-white working class were denied. They called on the white working class to repudiate those privileges and stand with their non-white comrades.[i]
The 2020 article from which I take this narrative is critical of the “privilege theory” that developed. It identified the “privileges” that had been gained by largely white working class people included better access to medical care, better educational opportunities, and so on. The article took umbrage with the call for those workers to forgo those hard fought “privileges” to stand with their comrades of color against the capitalist elite.
“The problem with this conception is that these measures, rather than representing undeserved ‘privileges’, were in fact reforms won by the working class through bitter struggle. These class gains represented the return of a small part of the great wealth held by capitalists that workers had produced. Privilege theory – on the basis of unequal access to these gains under racist American capitalism – converted hard-won class victories, reforms and rights into “undeserved” workers’ ‘privileges’.”
The article says that “privilege theory” is “totally flawed” because it pits the white working class against the black working class. The article blames “privilege theory” on “divisive propaganda of the capitalist class” – a kind of divide and conquer strategy that served the interests of the capitalist class by creating tension in the working class on the basis of race. (Perhaps, the fact that “liberal elites” in cloistered universities developed “privilege theory” was another strike against “privilege theory” to a true Marxist.)
This article is not even a year old. Interesting, is it not? Just as the church is leery of white privilege, so are actual Marxists!
To a certain extent, this article exposes the weakness of Marxist theory which thrives on conflict. When conflict is part of the creed, it undermines itself; conflict conflicts with itself. Perpetual conflict begets perpetual conflict. “Privilege theory” is just one example of how Marxism pits factions against each other, even among factions with common interests.
On the other hand, I can argue that the idea of white privilege is actually more gospel than Marxist. I don’t necessarily believe that, but stay with me for a second. Paul urged the Philippians to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, saying:
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges….
Philippians 2:6-7 (NLT)
Most translations say that God “emptied Himself”. The Greek word, kenoó, literally means “to empty” and is translated empty, deprive of content or make unreal.[ii] The HELPS word study adds, to be “perceived as valueless”.
The idea that God “gave up His divine privileges” captures the essence of the meaning of the Greek word in a very modern way. I think about this often when I consider the concept of white privilege.
This is the example of Jesus – that he had the attitude of emptying himself and giving up his privilege. Jesus calls us to be like him, to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. Thus, if we have any privilege (white or otherwise), our attitude should be the same as Jesus. We should be willing to give up our privileges, literally or figuratively, and empty ourselves (consider those things valueless) for the sake of the gospel and others.
In the next chapter of Philippians, Paul says,
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ ….”
Thus, the idea of recognizing the privileges we have, whether they are on account of being white, or American or whatever, actually has some biblical roots. Our willingness to recognize that privilege and to be willing to empty ourselves of it for others is consistent with Christian values and faith
The idea of recognizing privilege and being willing to empty ourselves of it may be more biblical than Marxist! (I am not completely jesting to suggest it.)
But this really isn’t the ultimate point I want to make today. I am not here to argue for the concept of white privilege in our interpretation or application of the gospel. I agree that foreign concepts, such as the notion of white privilege, should not be brought into the gospel message. The gospel message has integrity in itself and stands alone in its ability to transform lives and bear the fruit God intended of it.
I do want to argue, though, that Christians should not reflexively recoil from and demonize the notion of white privilege. It’s the language of the modern world, so demonizing it creates a divide between us and those God desires to save.
Rather, I think we can use the term to the advantage of the Gospel. If Paul used quotations from pagan poets and philosophers to bridge the gap to his Greco-Roman audience at Mars Hill (Acts 17), we can do the same with the notion of white privilege (and other words that are used in modern parlance).
To do so, we have to have some understanding of what those words mean in the modern context and be able to adapt them and use them to the communicate Gospel . (We certainly don’t want to adapt the Gospel to foreign concepts.) We can use terms like white privilege to bridge understanding from current events and modern understandings to convey the message of the cross and salvation offered to modern people.
First, though, we need to put white privilege in perspective. I really like an article written by Candace Cohn for that purpose.[iii] The context of the article is a request by a white friend of hers for examples of white privilege.
The author used examples from her life to describe “white privilege”. What she means by white privilege is not necessarily what we might think when we hear the term.
As she goes through the examples (which are consistent with examples I have heard from my black friends), it becomes evident that white privilege (as she is using the term) means the absence of negative experiences on the basis of race. She isn’t saying that all whites are privileged. Rather, we are privileged in a way that blacks aren’t.
We are generally privileged not to have to deal with racial slights. (There are always exceptions.) We are privileged not to have to deal with negative reactions to us based on our race. We don’t have to deal with suspicions, assumptions, and attitudes that stem from a deep-seated, ingrained, gut level racial reflex that is still pervasive in our culture after centuries of actual racial animus. (For examples, please read the article.)
This isn’t to say that a white person might not feel racial animus from a black person once in a while. It’s not the norm, though, and it doesn’t carry the baggage of generations of actual oppression, the affects of which are still felt and suffered in many ways still today.
White privilege means we don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side. Not being on the receiving end of the slings and arrows of misfortune common to people of color makes it hard for people like me to notice and appreciate what it’s like to feel the weight of them.
I have been tempted at times to think that people who complain of these things are being oversensitive. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are afraid that people perceive them differently because of race; when they are treated differently (or think they are), they assume it’s only because of race. Shouldn’t they give a benefit of doubt? But, I don’t walk in their shoes.
To see it from their point of view, is to treat people of color the way I want to be treated. I don’t want people to discount and brush off my concerns of unfair treatment. I want people to take me seriously. Thus, I (as a Christian) need to take them seriously and treat them as I would want people to treat me.
Beyond that, though, it isn’t hard to see, really. Actual racism was legal in my lifetime. The law did not prohibit actual, public and intentional discrimination against people of color until 1963. I was born in 1959. Individual and collective memories and experiences of people still alive today go much further back.
The author describes a time when a neighbor boy called her older sister (who was 5) the N-word. Though the girls didn’t know what it meant, they “knew it was bad”. She says, “This was the first time I’d seen my father the kind of angry that has nowhere to go.” The hurt, anger and frustration an experience like that evokes is generational. The wounds are still present and painful.
It shouldn’t be so hard for us to understand. The author calls “white privilege” a “privilege … not to be judged, questioned, or assaulted in any way because of your race”. Most whites have this “privilege” and most blacks don’t.
Perhaps privilege is an over-used word today. It may help some people put themselves in others’ shows, but, perhaps, it is not a good tool for other people who feel underprivileged themselves in some ways. Like the Marxist who is concerned that white privilege pits white and black workers against each other.
In my opinion, we shouldn’t stumble over this phrase or let it come between us. Jesus Christ broke down the walls of separation between us and God and between us and our neighbors. Our goal in the church is love each other deeply from the heart. (1 Pet. 1:22) The goal is to be one with God and each other as Jesus was one with the Father and called us to be one with him.
One might level the charge that the “accusation” of white privilege might tend to drive a wedge into that unity…. Maybe, but only if we let it.
Yes, we all have disadvantages. Not everyone is born with the same intellect or abilities. Not everyone is born into economic privilege, social privilege or other privileges (like athleticism, good health, intellect, favorable geography, etc.). Not everyone is born into a nation in which individual freedoms are jealously protected.
We all have burdens; and so we are encouraged to bear each other’s burdens. We are not all burdened in the same way, so those who are burden free in some aspects can bear the burdens of people are burdened in those aspects.
People of color in these United States are burdened with our history of very open and intentional racism, and they still bear the weight of it. The wounds are still fresh. We can help them to bear this burden by our willingness to understand and to acknowledge it, to listen to their pain and allow them to express it, to empty ourselves enough to allow them room.
White privilege does not mean that white people do not have some individual and collective disadvantages. Those disadvantages a white person has, though, are disadvantages not caused by race.
We have a hard time seeing our “privilege” precisely because we don’t (often) experience negative treatment from others because of being white. (When we do, we are quick to react.) We don’t have negative experiences directly connected to our race on an ongoing, continual basis going back to some of our earliest memories.
Being white is not, generally a liability in our common experiences. It isn’t a thing that causes people to react to us differently.
The author of the article says that calling out white privilege doesn’t mean that people of color hate us because we are white. It means they want us to consider what they have experienced and be sensitive to it. It isn’t “Marxist” for us to do that.
It isn’t Marxist to bear the burdens of our black brothers and sisters in this way. It’s profoundly biblical. It’s the example of Jesus who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
[i] See A Marxist critique of the theory of ‘white privilege’ by Candace Cohn for Red Flag July 4, 2020.
[iii] See My White Friend Asked Me on Facebook to Explain White Privilege. I Decided to Be Honest, by Lori Lakin Hutcherson for Yes! Magazine September 8, 2017.