Why White Privilege Isn’t Going Away

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15 mins read

A Theological Reflection

Author Rev. Dr. Mark Boswell
Author Rev. Dr. Mark Boswell

Why can’t white folks in general – and white Christians in particular – be rid of the problems of white privilege and racism? Why can’t a board, a vestry, a session, or pastors and Christian Educators simply do the things necessary to solve the problem of ‘race relations?’ When the dominant narrative among many white people is that racism mostly has been overcome, how do we even begin to consider the fact that whiteness and white privilege permeate our congregations and denominational institutions – even ones that consider themselves to be sensitive to and concerned about the plight of people of color?

Given the title of this article, I’m making a claim that white privilege and white supremacy need to be understood as deeply intractable social and theological problems. But first, what do I mean by the terms privilege and supremacy?

White privilege points to the ways that our society grants certain active or passive benefits to those who are racially identified as white: greater access to quality schools, bank loans, jobs, lower chances of being harassed by the police, receiving more generous sentences when convicted of a crime, etc. White privilege doesn’t mean that one’s life is easy, but it does mean that one’s life is not made harder because one is white. [1] Of course, class, gender, sexuality, and random circumstances can coalesce in a variety of ways such that unjust things happen to white people. However, many of these things aren’t being visited upon our bodies, our homes, our psyches, our pocketbooks, our children, and our institutions by another dominant group simply because of our skin tone.

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White people must understand that racism is more than the holding of negative prejudices about another person or group of people based on their race.
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These privileges, it must be remembered, do not manifest out of thin air. There are generational legacies, ‘powers and principalities’ that accumulate strength through social structures to ensure that these privileges are maintained. White supremacy refers to the social machinations that produce and re-create these contexts of privilege. According to theologian and pastor Robin Hawley Gorsline, “White supremacy is, then, the matrix of structures, attitudes, and behaviors that keep white people supreme, on top – no matter what challenges are offered by peoples of colors (or even by some white people).” [2] Systems of white supremacy have been in place for centuries. And, like trying to turn around an ocean liner, dismantling these systems doesn’t happen easily; especially if many remain convinced the ocean liner is heading in the right direction (or at least isn’t causing any real damage).

Idisruptingwhitesupremacyn other words, white people must understand that racism is more than the holding of negative prejudices about another person or group of people based on their race. White racism must be understood as something that cannot be reduced to singular phenomena – a racist slur here, a racist joke there. These are symptoms and expressions of a society hierarchically structured around ideas of race. We can call white racism societal and structural because it is reproduced and maintained at a broad level regardless of the intentions and desires of any singular individual or group. [3]

A more robust understanding of white supremacy, therefore, can help us see that there is a moral responsibility for white Christians to address the problem in ways that go beyond not thinking prejudicial thoughts or avoiding telling prejudice-based jokes or stories. This must also include the avoidance of what Joseph Barndt calls a “patronizing theology of charity,” in which outreach to disadvantaged communities can become “a substitute for doing justice.” [4] When needs and disadvantages are caused by a systemic social injustice like white supremacy, charity can become “a palliative alternative for correcting the causes of injustice.” [5] As Barndt claims in his book, Becoming An Anti-Racist Church, “Charity is a biblical mandate, but it becomes a twisted and stolen story when it is a substitute for dealing with injustices that caused the need for charity in the first place.” [6]

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A more robust understanding of white supremacy can help us see that there is a moral responsibility for white Christians to address the problem in ways that go beyond not thinking prejudicial thoughts or avoiding telling prejudice-based jokes or stories.
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Up to this point, I have claimed that white Christians need to appreciate the complexity and deep seated nature of white supremacy in our society. While I’ve appealed to social scientific ways of thinking about whiteness to make this claim, there are also resources in the Christian tradition that can provide a theological lens through which to better understand white supremacy’s enduring legacy. Many modern, Western people, including myself, tend to assume that people basically would be willing to do the right thing if only they know the right ways to think about a subject and are given the tools necessary to deal with the problem. Here is where a bit of Reformed theology, in particular, becomes helpful in addressing the lingering persistence of whiteness in our congregations and institutions.

As John Calvin once wrote, “Humanity’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols.” [7] Sin, as a debilitating part of the human condition, leaves us in a place where we’re disconnected from God and neighbor. We have some dim awareness of this, and, in response, we reach out for things that can shore up the anxiety and fear that we experience as part of this condition. An idol, therefore, can be any inherently good, finite thing that seductively masquerades as something which can provide the answers to the problems that come with being finite, estranged creatures.

shutterstock_923502The idol in question for this essay is the myth of the category of race, in general, and the supremacy and normalcy granted to the so-called white race, in particular. Calling whiteness an idol speaks to the elevation of the idea such that it garners social power and leaves death and destruction in its wake, both in overt and passive ways. We often assume that idols are impotent gods compared to the living God of Christian worship, but to assume such a thing would mean that idols are powerless and ineffective, not meriting our attention. This is hardly the case. Just consider recently Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, the people of Flint, Michigan, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, rollbacks on voting rights, systems of mass incarceration, the Oscars, etc.

For white Christians, we have to contend with the legacy of our past (and present) that has idolatrously conflated the values and norms of white people with the God of the Christian tradition. We have constructed our ideas of God and Jesus in such a way that our worship practices and theologies often reinforce white supremacy. This doesn’t at all mean that such things are conscious or intentional. In fact, they may appear harmless. But this brings us back to why the theological category of idolatry is a helpful analytical tool. Idols mesmerize and lure us into a place where we can’t see the nature in which they work, especially as they materialize in things that are taken as commonsense or benign.

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Remembering the deep operations of sin and idolatry reminds us that good intentions and education are not the only tools which will be needed to combat such pervasive social demons.
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If all white people collectively saw and understood the damaging nature of white racism (on ourselves and, more importantly, on others), then, I truly believe, it would be much easier to dismantle and discard it. It could have been gone several centuries ago. But a) it’s not easy to see, b) it reemerges under new guises, and c) it does in fact provide those it benefits/white people with certain real, sought after social goods: social prominence, access to social networks, greater access to goods and resources, and the ability to avoid the negative consequences with which people of color have to contend. In other words, the idol of whiteness will be especially hard to dismantle as long as it continues to mask itself in ways that we don’t see it, and as long as it has cash value – both psychically and materially.

Becoming an Anti-Racist ChurchBy foregrounding sin and idolatry, I want simply to reinforce the idea that white racism in the United States (and beyond) is rooted deeply both in social structures and in the souls of all who live under its regime of power. That white people often cannot see (and don’t have to see) the way whiteness works is a characteristic symptom of the sinfulness of the human condition. It also points to the difficulty of its eradication even with the advances made in the social sciences to bring light to the systemic function of racism. Remembering the deep operations of sin and idolatry, in other words, reminds us that good intentions and education are not the only tools which will be needed to combat such pervasive social demons.

This is not to suggest that attempts by white folks to take responsibility for these operations are not necessary. But, before we look for a how-to program to combat this social evil, we need to chasten our all-too-hopeful optimism that white racism will be easily conquerable with just the right amount of sensitivity training. We who are white Christians, can do any number of things to work toward amelioration of racial injustice, e.g., deep listening, reparations, respectfully supporting racial justice movements, taking seriously mass incarceration and predatory lending practices. Still, we must grasp the depth and breadth of the idol with which we contend, remembering that the siren song of the idol will continue to be heard for quite some time. The lure of the song will continue to charm and seduce many people – yes, even white Christians. Let us pray for the Spirit’s quickening of our souls so that we might contend faithfully day by day.

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[1] http://occupywallstreet.net/story/explaining-white-privilege-broke-white-person.
[2] Robin Hawley Gorsline, “Shaking the Foundations: White Supremacy in the Theological Academy,” in Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need to Do, edited by Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 36.
[3] Gorsline, “Shaking,” 37.
[4] Joseph Barndt, Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying Toward Wholeness (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 98.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.8.

AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Dr. Marc Boswell is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Marc also works with The Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. An ordained Baptist, he recently completed his Ph.D. in Theology and American Religious History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

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