Wednesday, March 07, 2007

White Privilege and Amazing Grace

I grew up a child of privilege: upper middle class, educated the finest schools, belonging to a healthy loving family, white in a society that discriminated on the basis of skin color. Yet, as I matured and became aware of the advantages afforded me on the basis of my privilege, I came to loathe aspects of that privilege and see it as a burden. For instance, when I was in college and began awakening to the horrors of institutional racism, I remember wishing I had been born black, so that I didn’t have to bear the burden of guilt for the terrible atrocities committed by whites against African-Americans throughout European and U.S. history. In a way that many not born to privilege would find odd, I tried to shed the clothing of that privilege, only to find that it was not removable, that in fact it was literally part of my skin, my bones, and my genes.

I have long admired people such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. They are included in my personal “hall of heroes” and inform my social vision and inspire me to act and speak out against in injustice wherever possible. However, there has always been a point of disconnect for me with these folks. Unlike me, these “heroes” have not been people of privilege. I recognize that their courage and sacrifice was infinitely greater than mine could ever be. As people of color they were and have been easy targets for the maintainers of racial status quo to single out, to defame, and in many cases to kill. I have never had to, nor probably ever will have to, live under the threat of such unjust treatment. I have come to realize that as large as these folks are in my personal and social vision, they are not sufficient guides.

Recently, I viewed the film “Amazing Grace,” the story of British politician William Wilberforce and his struggle to abolish slavery in England. At a cost to his friendships, his political capital, and his health, Wilberforce led a small band that was able to overturn the laws of slavery after 20 years of effort. As I watched the movie, I consciously realized something I had tacitly embraced long ago: that Wilberforce (another one of my heroes) represented a different kind of guide for me. Like me, Wilberforce was a person of privilege, and yet in a paraphrase of the apostle Paul “did not count [that privilege] something to be grasped, but emptied himself and became a servant.”(Philippians 2.6)

Thinking of Wilberforce reminded me of so many other folks who were/are people of privilege who in their limited way have sought to undo the very systems that gave them their privilege. People such as the following:
- John Woolman, a Quaker in the 18the century who traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, personally convincing Quakers to free their slaves.
- The unnamed whites living near the Mason-Dixon line who served as stops along the Underground Railroad
- Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist journalist in Alton, IL beaten to death by an angry mob for outspoken stance on slavery.
- Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Catholic intellectuals who founded the Catholic Worker movement serving the urban poor.
- Clarence Jordan, a man with two PhD’s (in agricultural and Biblical Greek), who in the 1950’s and 60’s built Koinonia Farms, an interracial community in segregationist Georgia.

All of these, like Wilberforce were people who used the benefits of their wealth, position and education to work for justice. My guess is that none of them would equate their sacrifice or courage to those people of color whom they allied themselves. Yet, they are examples for those who are from the privileged set of how to respond.

While the movie makes it appear that Wilberforce’s social vision was always clear, I tend to believe that his clarity was more Hollywood than truth. One of the things I continually reach to attain is a clarity of social vision. I am often reminded by people of color that while my heart may be in the right place, that I don’t fully “get it.” That’s why concerned people of privilege and courageous folks of color must be in constant dialogue and partnership. Folks of privilege can never consider the work of justice to be completed as long as the victims of injustice claim that racism and oppression still exist. As a result my vision is continually being refined, seemingly unfolding more clearly as I work more faithfully toward it. I “see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13), and need others to bring clarity to what needs to be done.

Another one of my heroes is my mother, who in her own way sought to use her privilege to bring about change. Through her involvement with an organization called A Better Chance (ABC) she brought students of poverty and color into our upper middle class home and community. She thought justice and equity could be achieved by giving aspiring students from poor urban school districts a chance at a decent education could bring about change in society. While I never said this to her directly, I was inwardly critical of her shortsightedness in not seeing that simply helping individuals did not change a system that benefited a few to the disadvantage of the many. Even so, I admired her persistence, commitment and courage to use her upper middle class status to benefit others. At the same time I have come to accept that I am similarly shortsighted, and that as a person of privilege, I must continually unpack the ways my background has blinded me to the injustice built into our system. I have come to see my mother as yet another hero, like Wilberforce and the others, who seek to use their privilege to dismantle the system that creates that privilege. Their examples are truly a form of “Amazing Grace” that keeps me going, and provides me guidance.


WP Boyd said...
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WP Boyd said...

I very much appreciated your words Drick. I have often felt the same tension of my own privilege. I remember sitting in Bethlehem a year ago at an international conference on justice - using the context of the Palestinian struggle as the vehicle for reflection and discussion. The conference gathered people from all corners of the world. Sitting in a Beaudouin hut with Muslim Palestinians, Black South Africans, American Indians and a female Catholic priest from the Philippines, I was deeply moved by the way they found common themes in their stories. Their ability to overcome oppression and discrimination was amazing, and it was beautiful for them to find partners in the struggle with one another. I, on the other hand, felt like an observer. It was an important place to be, but it wasn't my story.

I found the German theologian who struggled to move beyond the sins of the Nazi's to be much more akin to my story. He was also a man of privlege and it was our common struggle with that privledge that was enlightening for me.

In the end, I deeply valued both sets of stories. Of course, the stories of oppressed and privileged overlap and both are necessary to hear. I can't imagine living without either.

WP Boyd said...

I appreciate your words and as you may know, have struggled with many of the same issues. I remember just a year ago sitting in Bethlehem at a conference designed to use the Palestinian experience as a metaphor for faith based justice work. The conference gathered folks from around the world, literally every corner. It was breathtaking to sit with South African blacks, American Indians, Filipino women and Palestinian Bedouins all in the same room. And yet, the speaker that touched me most deeply was the German who spoke of how he had moved beyond the guilt of Nazism. I realized that while all of these others were deeply inspiring and while I need them in my life, their story is quite different from mine. I felt most in sync with the German, privileged white male. His work was inspiring, but his very presence in the dialogue and struggle was powerful beyond words.

Daniel Leonard said...


I resonate with much of what you said. I recently went to Messiah College to listen to Tim Wise speak about white privilege. What he had to say was extremely powerful, and he managed to give me a means or example of understanding the place of a white person is dismanteling racism. He wrote a book which I haven't read but have heard great things about, called White Like Me. Might be worth checking out if its as good as his talk was.

Anonymous said...

Drick, your words on this subject were eloquent and powerful. Thanks for sharing your insightful ideas on this subject. I enjoyed reading them, and resonate with your thoughts.
Breck A. Harris ED.D.
Fresno Pacific University