Not Getting It
While a student at Moody, I was given many gifts. One aspect of my time there was the exposure to dynamics of downtown Chicago, one of America’s largest metropolitan centers. Stepping off the rural boat from Canada and onto Moody’s campus, I was immediately interested in getting involved in a ministry with the African American community. In rural Canada, there were very few opportunities to become friends with anyone from the Black community. After arriving at Moody I found the first opportunity to become involved by joining the Little Brother/Little Sister volunteer organization which partnered with the Cabrini Green community, a public housing complex 2 blocks from our campus. As a mentor, I was paired up with 10 year old boy, and then a year later with a 5 year old, who I stayed in touch with for years. I then joined the council of the Big Brother/Big Sister organization and started looking for a church in the community that I could take these boys to. I found it. St Luke Church of God in Christ (COGIC). COGIC is a historically Black pentecostal denomination, one of the largest in the world. My little brothers never came with me, but I kept going in hopes that they would eventually. Honestly, I didn’t like being there for the first three months. The services were 4 hours long, we only sang 3-4 songs for over an hour. It started too early and was too pentecostal for my taste. I had trouble really connecting with anyone even though I was warmly welcomed every week. I joined a Sunday School class to begin teaching 4th-5th graders which was fun, but it always felt laborious. But I knew in my heart that God wanted me there so I stayed, took membership and bought a KJV/NIV interlinear Bible. Then one day it happened, I fell in love with the church, the music, the cultural differences and especially the people. I couldn’t wait to get there every morning to sing along with the choir and hear the sermonic solo.
At some point during those first two years at Moody, I stopped glamorizing my experience in the Black community, stopped objectifying “Blackness”, and just became friends with my little brother’s family. Interest started to build between me and another student from Ethiopia leading to a friendship and dating relationship. In my sophomore year, I was asked by the Afro-Awareness Fellowship to consider being their chaplain. Though I turned it down, I was honored. While I had always glamorized and objectified the Black community, I was starting to feel like we were all just people with real differences. I felt like I was getting it.
Then it happened, I roomed with two friends over the summer in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen. We were two white guys and a black guy in a small unfinished apartment. While setting up my room, I proudly hung my confederate flag above my bed. I know right. What was I thinking? Though I was from Canada, my father was a southern boy who celebrated the history of the American south, the civil war and had memorabilia hanging in our home from that era. I inherited a small confederate flag, only knowing that this represented the side of the American civil war that lost, that it was “heritage not hate” and nothing else. As soon as my friend saw it, he sat me down and asked very bluntly why I thought hanging that in our apartment was ok. I argued with him for nearly two hours about why it wasn’t a racist symbol. I obviously didn’t win him over and for the rest of the summer, I didn’t see him in our apartment much. I eventually took down the flag, but not soon enough. And from that moment on, I didn’t see him very much at all. Our friendship was finished. He couldn’t understand why something that was so offensive to him could be so important to me. What had I missed? Was I really getting it?
Not Really Getting It
In part 1 of this series, I addressed the first two blunders of Moody Bible Institute’s professor of theology, Dr. Brian Litfin. While Dr. Litfin is a good man, has good intentions, his submission, Letter to the Editor: rescinding the term white privilege, demonstrates that he doesn’t seem like he’s getting it. He’s not alone. Many of us have struggled to “get it”. At the same time, Dr. Litfin has the ability to communicate to and influence students from all backgrounds and as such is compelled to take such a responsibility with brevity. Though he may have felt his letter was challenging a societal norm about the unhelpful use of “white” privilege, his letter to the editor at the Moody Standard has served instead to reinforce destructive norms. In what follows, I will continue responding with the last 3 of his 5 blunders.
The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming. In scripture, the act of naming something claims authority over its identity and destiny. Jesus did this when he gave Simon a new name: Peter (Matthew 16:18)…But can billions of people really be described with the catch-all term “white” and then uniformly be assigned certain privileges? No. Such behavior is unloving because it forces simplistic categories on others that they themselves do not embrace.
It is important to concede the point made in this statement. Billions of people who have white skin cannot be lumped into one category and be described accurately apart from those who do not have white skin. At the same time, I am thankful he has taken this conversation globally. In traveling to every arable continent and 35+ countries around the globe, I have learned that “white privilege”, though different, is everywhere. Ask any African American who has travelled abroad and most of them will recount a story of racial stereotyping of the likes that they never experienced in a Western country. In Singapore City, the most famous mall has primarily white models in its display windows, a reality in many countries in Asia and Africa. White skinned models sells more product.
In India, the hue of your skin can determine your marriageability, regardless of your personality, education, good looks, wealth, etc. The lighter the better and of course to marry someone from the West is very prestigious. All over Asia, there is a billion dollar industry of makeup just to make your skin lighter. I have personally experienced being given preferential treatment as a white male who makes about $25,000 USD a year on average over and against Indian men my senior who are more educated and make more than I’ll ever make, simply because of my skin color. While there can be social angst against white travelers in some countries, being white in a global setting affords you privileges solely based upon your skin color that no one else has. Out there, no one knows your socio-economic status, no one knows your education, they just have enough time to know your skin color and that makes all the difference. So Dr. Litfin, of course the issue is more complicated than the simplicity the term seems to afford, but if you travel, it is also much more real, prevalent and in your face.
In reality, the doors are not entirely shut to minorities today, nor are white people universally trying to close them. In fact, I often see a lot of “white love” as the American church reaches out to the needy. Why must we criticize our Caucasian brothers and sisters? The secular world does this, but it is unworthy of Christians. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” Where sin does exist, the answer is not the ungodly modern practice of “calling it out.” Instead we are to offer gentle critique (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) and cover the offense in love (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8).
As far as I’m aware, no one I know has ever indicated that “white privilege” entails your statement, “the doors are not entirely shut to minorities today, nor are white people universally trying to close them.” The absolutizing in this statement is not helpful to this discussion. It’s actually a straw man at best, if not a caricature, that you’ve seemingly set up to knock down and it’s not the first time you did this in your letter.
Secondly, I understand you to believe that, though complicated to describe, unfair forms of privilege do exist. Your problem is with qualifying term, “white”. So when you describe love from the American church, why not stay consistent? Why is it “white love” you see. Honestly, I don’t care if that term is used, but it demonstrates an inconsistency in your approach.
Thirdly, the ability to criticize a brother or sister in Christ and to do so even publicly, is not off limits biblically. In fact the Jewish and Christian traditions are known for the ability to practice healthy self criticism. Jesus did it, Paul did it and in fact, Paul published and circulated letters filled with criticisms to churches which were then provided for public reading. He named names, specific details and still today, you and I read the dirty laundry of the early church because it was published and circulated by Paul. I understand that Scripture also points to the importance of kindness, honesty, not slandering, not causing internal strife, etc., but these are aligned with other circumstances to the contrary, requiring us to understand the precedent of context. Paul’s letter to Galatians is his most angry letter and he has some choice words for the “Christian” Judaizers that he makes very public. On top of that, he counters Peter publicly for distorting the boundaries of the new community God had created in Christ, and then again publishes his criticism. We don’t even need to go into how Jesus publicly and privately criticized the disciples, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, etc. In the Old Testament, the prophets were exemplary at self-criticism when it came to the Jewish community. Richard Rohr explains this dynamic well,
The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions you don’t find major texts that are largely critical of that religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. Even today, one of the most common judgments I hear from other priests is, “You criticize the Church.” But criticizing the Church, as such, is just being faithful to the pattern set by the prophets and Jesus. That’s exactly what they did (see Matthew 23)…The presumption for anyone with a dualistic mind is that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite…I think it is fair to say that the prophetic charism was repressed in almost all of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. None of us have been known for criticizing ourselves. We only criticize one another, sinners, and heretics–who were always elsewhere! Yet, Paul says the prophetic gift is the second most important charism for the building up of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11).
Typically, open criticism was done in the NT for two reasons.
1. The distortion of the Gospel and
2. The distortion of the boundaries of the New Humanity God had created in Christ.
You might counter and say that “white privilege” at least distorts #2. The problem with that is that “white privilege” is the distortion – the distortion is not naming or recognizing it. And while we’re are at it, I have to add another term that Dr. Robin DiAgnelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University coined – “white fragility”, of which your letter demonstrates key signals. One of the strongest signals is what is called, “Entitlement to racial comfort”.
White Fragility – White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
The problem is that the occasional stress or angst you experience from the term “white privilege” is completely unmatched to the ongoing radicalized stress, or “racial battle fatigue“, that many minorities experience 24-7 in the United States. I have Native and Black friends who fear for their life when they are pulled over by law enforcement. I have Black friends who experience depression when they travel abroad because of ardent racial profiling. Those two examples can only be based on skin color and there’s many more where those came from. These are things you and I will rarely, if ever, encounter. That privilege is based up on the color of or skin, our “white” skin.
This one I’ll keep short. Benevolent “white love” will never replace the need for justice in minority communities. In fact, benevolence from the white community has all to often been the answer to the cry for justice thereby placating the white community. This also relieves us of our responsibility to justice and allows us to bide our time until another cry for justice rings out only to be met by a nice card, a casserole or an invitation to a conversation without consequences. Seeking equality with minorities as a majority individual, doesn’t achieve equality. Joining the conversation doesn’t give us the right to determine the parameters of the conversation. Being benevolent in the face of a stark need for justice, does not make us act justly – in fact it only perpetuates the injustice. Benevolence is not justice and by checking our “white privilege”, we participate in naming that which we are complicit in, that which we benefit from. Even if we aren’t individually responsible, we will always be complicity responsible. Experiencing the collective implications of destructive choices based upon the actions of another is an experience we can choose to engage or disengage. Minority communities rarely, if ever, have that same choice.
When the norms are set and the scales are tipped in our favor because of the hue of our skin and the traditions we were born into, like Paul, in Romans, we need to favor the Gentiles and criticize the traditioned-privileged Judaizers, even though Paul’s aim was equality between Jew and Gentile. Like Paul in Galatians, we need to yell out that emasculation would be better than having to listen to petty arguments of the circumcision party, i.e. sometime we need to tell white people shut up when they argue and whine about the terms used to describe them pejoratively, when for hundreds of years, and still today, the terminology used to pejoratively describe minorities remain common speak. Sometimes we as white people have to choose to collectively endure the implications of our ancestor’s destructive choices, while minorities rarely have the choice to collectively endure anything. And that is why it is called privilege, “white privilege”, because we have a choice and they don’t.
5 Suggestions For Going Forward:
1. As white people, we should be radical & embrace the term “white privilege”, imbibing the shame and pain it brings into our discourse, Christian or not.
2. We need to travel more abroad with people who are not white, recognizing that traveling abroad is a privilege enjoyed by white Westerners more than anyone on the planet.
3. Ask at least three friends who are in a minority community to read our letters to the editor before we publish them.
4. Embrace our racism, admit we don’t get it and ask for forgiveness without expecting anything in return. Expect, as all white majorities in the West should, that we will struggle with racism, that we have choices minorities don’t and that we are going to make mistakes. Then make sure that when we are “called out”, we take those criticisms seriously, asking others to help us see our blind spots – assuming they exist.
5. As white Westerners, we need to quit trying to determine the parameters of Christian Discourse for others and just practice them on our own, especially when most Christians live in the Global South, are not Western and don’t have our privilege, white or not.