The Problem with Privilege (Or My Public Penitence!)

11 09 2018

There’s no getting around it.  White privilege leads to White fragility!  And it’s time for us White people to own this reality!

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we White people love the privileges that our skin tone affords us.  It has ‘blessed’ us with wealth, power, and freedoms for which people of color can only hope.  Expanding – or at the very least maintaining – our wealth, upward mobility, and achieving the Great American Dream are the norm for most of White America.  The power is all ours — after all, we made the laws, enforce the laws, and resist changing the laws.  And as far as freedom goes: suffice it to say that young white boys can drive wherever they want, whenever they want, and however they want, without a care in the world.  While there are certainly exceptions, being White in America today means that wealth, power, and freedom are a given.

In her book “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to White people about racism”, Robin DiAngelo writes “The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able bodied.” Since White Europeans first set foot in Jamestown, VA, in 1607, indigenous Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and women of every skin color have all been denied a place at the governing tables of our country, and thereby excluded in ways that old, white me like me cannot even began to understand.  And as a result, we have enjoyed a prosperity that can not be denied.

Now one would think that this privileged prosperity would have strengthened us, and given us a sense of safety and security with regard to our futures.  But this is not the case at all.  In fact the opposite is true.  The problem with privilege is that it has made us fragile!  Our privilege has made us overly sensitive, and grown within us feelings and egos that are ridiculously frail.  We are fearful of the inevitable changes in the demographics of our nation, and we are defensive when we are asked to relinquish control and to share leadership, especially when such activities involve people who are not like us.

So it’s time for us White people to toughen up, especially us White men! We are living in a nation with an overtly racist past; and because everyone of us continues to benefit from this past, every one of us is racist.  We were raised to be racist, and we are raising our children to be racist.  And if we ever want to change this, we must begin by acknowledging this painful reality and then do something about it.

Upon moving moving to Alexandria, VA several years ago, I began running along the Potomac River every Saturday morning: to clear my head, reflect on my week, and become more intentionally mindful of my life and ministry.  But that all ended when one wet October morning, I tore my meniscus.  I went from being a guy who never really thought about his knees, to one who now thinks about them every single day. Two surgeries have failed to correct the problem, and so these days, my Saturday morning runs have become Saturday morning walks.

Recently, while driving home from that walk, I found myself behind a shiny new, black, Mercedes e-class sedan on the beltway.  It was moving well under the 55 mph speed limit, ‘likely because the driver was on her/his phone’ I remember thinking.  Since I was taking the next exit, I moved over into the right lane, and sped up to escape the congested 495 weekend traffic.  Passing the car, I looked over and saw that the driver was a Black woman, NOT on her phone as I had assumed, but simply driving like the rest of us.  And before I knew it, she too began speeding up!

Now because “yes”, I am a somewhat aggressive driver (yet another privilege I enjoy as a white male!), I was not about to be passed.  And – as painful as it is for me to admit – I was certainly not going to be passed by a Black woman!

That is the thought that I need to confess!

It was quick, and fleeting, and laced with as much sexism as colorism; and while I did catch myself, it was too late. My racial bias had already revealed its ugly head, and I was embarrassed. In the split second it took me to recognize the sin, I immediately took my foot off the gas, slowed down, and let the woman drive out ahead of me.  But I was angry with myself, and frustrated that something so wrong, came so naturally; which is precisely why “inherent bias” is as insidious as it is.

So White people, it’s time! It’s time to own these realities. Our privilege has made us fragile; and our inherent color bias is destroying our country as well as our very souls. It’s time for us to toughen up, confess our sin, and be about the work of reconciliation. And this doesn’t mean thinking about skin color less. It means thinking about skin color more, as much as I now think about my knees.  We need to think about it when we drive our cars, and when we see someone pulled over by the cops.  We need to think about it when sit down on the Metro, and when we see people waiting at a bus stop.  We need to think about it when we laugh at something on tv, and when we watch the local news.  We need to think about when we listen to certain songs on the radio, and when hear politicians talking about their agendas if elected.  We need to start thinking about our skin color as much as we’ve forced the non-White, soon to be majority of people in America, to think about their skin color.  And when we do, we need to be mindful of the thoughts that pop into our heads, when we see those who may not look like us, doing these very same things.


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