Recently, I was leading a class discussion on White Privilege. We had been discussing the history of racism and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and I raised the question, “After all that has happened and all that is changed in regard to race relations, where are we today?” To prompt the discussion I assigned the students readings from Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, and Tim Wise’s White Like Me. The excerpt from Obama described the evidences of institutional racism present in a low- income neighborhood of Chicago where he worked as a community organizer. The excerpt from Wise discussed his perception as to how his whiteness afforded him opportunities he otherwise would not have had. As you can imagine these readings prompted a lively discussion.
A common statement made by whites in such conversations is “I haven’t oppressed anyone, so why must I be held accountable?” Almost inevitably in such conversations people tell stories of “reverse discrimination” where white persons were somehow held back or denied an opportunity because persons of color was chosen ahead of them. Additionally, we whites tend to react defensively, because we feel that concepts are simply designed to make us feel guilty and no more. Actually, I don’t think guilt has anything to do with it.
When Peggy McIntosh first wrote her classic piece on white privilege in the 1980’s, for many of us it was an eye opener as to how often we who are white are not aware of how our whiteness opens doors that are closed to others. However, as time goes on, I am increasingly convinced that coming to grips with the implications of White Privilege is not only the right thing to do, but also a necessary thing to do. As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse, and as the world becomes increasingly connected through commerce and technology, white people are going to have adjust to a new reality: we folks who are white can’t call the shots any more. The war on terror, the shift of manufacturing to less developed countries, the immigration debate, the challenge in race relations and so many other issues share a common thread: the world is no longer willing to play by the rules set by people of European descent. And while today’s Europeans and Euro-Americans did not create the current situation, they have inherited it, and must move through a changing paradigm of how to relate to the rest of the world.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian victim of Serbian violence, has written a powerful book on justice and reconciliation entitled Exclusion and Embrace. In that book he proposes that the way to a more equitable justice for all people is for both victims and oppressors to embrace what he calls “double vision.” He describes the concept this way:
“…we [must] enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives. Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached. We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other. Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.” (p. 213)
While Volf undergirds this concept from a theological perspective, one need not be a theologian or a religious person to grasp the essence of his proposal. Our perspective is only one perspective, and until we begin to grasp the perspective of the other, and get a glimpse of how the other sees us, understanding and reconciliation are not possible.
In terms of White Privilege, what this means is that we who are white need to accept that how we see ourselves and our position in the world, is not how others see us. We must try to understand the privileges we consider to be “normal,” are the not the norm for others. Furthermore, these privileges are not our rights, but rather luxuries. Given the relative inequity, we then must ask ourselves, “how do we respond?” We need to ask how will we choose to live in a world where we don’t enjoy such privileges? For many white people, this is the frightening, unnerving and uncomfortable challenge facing us as the world becomes more interconnected and our society become increasingly multi-cultural.