Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Witnesses to White Privilege: Race and the Emergent Church, Part 3

In a previous post I argued that despite the positive and important gestures the Emergent church has made with respect to creating a more diverse and multicultural composition, structural changes will not emerge without a profound, sustained, and rigorous recognition and interrogation of white privilege.

To push this part of the conversation further, in another post I offered, via David Roediger's keen observation, and through the words of Ralph Ellison, bell hooks, and James Baldwin, a definiton of whiteness.

Today, I would like to continue looking at whiteness, but now through the words of white observers.

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen prefers the term “white supremacist” to write about white privilege. In The Heart of Whiteness he writes: “I mean a society whose founding is based in an ideology of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites, an ideology that was used to justify the crimes against indigenous people and Africans that created the nation. That ideology also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation of every non-white citizen immigrant group, and is used to this day to rationalize the racialized disparities in the distribution of wealth and well-being in this society. It is a society in which white people occupy most of the top positions in powerful institutions, with similar privilege available in limited ways to non-white people who fit themselves into white society” (pp. 3-4).

The website WhitePrivilege.com defines white privilege as a “social relation” and offers a 7-part definition (found here):

1. a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.
b. A special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.

2. A privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non–white persons.

3. a. The special right or immunity attaching to white persons as a social relation; prerogative.
b. display of white privilege, a social expression of a white person or persons demanding to be treated as a member or members of the socially privileged class.

4. a. To invest white persons with a privilege or privileges; to grant to white persons a particular right or immunity; to benefit or favor specially white persons; to invest white persons with special honorable distinctions.
b. To avail oneself of a privilege owing to one as a white person.

5. To authorize or license of white person or persons what is forbidden or wrong for non–whites; to justify, excuse.

6. To give to white persons special freedom or immunity from some liability or burden to which non–white persons are subject; to exempt.

Here, academician Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as “unpacking the invisible knapsack,” and observes: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

She also has a list of 50 benefits (“daily effects”) that accrue from white privilege. A feminist scholar, McIntosh’s comments also refer to gender privilege, a crucial corollary the conversational direction I propose.

Musician Derek Webb sings about white privilege this way, from a song titled "I Repent":

i repent, i repent of my pursuit of america's dream
i repent, i repent of living like i deserve anything
of my house, my fence, my kids, my wife
in our suburb where we're safe and white
i am wrong and of these things i repent

i repent, i repent of parading my liberty
i repent. i repent of paying for what i get for free
and for the way i believe that i am living right
by trading sins for others that are easier to hide
i am wrong and of these things i repent

i repent judging by a law that even i can't keep
of wearing righteousness like a disguise
to see through the planks in my own eyes

i repent, i repent of trading truth for false unity
i repent, i repent of confusing peace and idolatry
by caring more of what they think than what i know of what we need
by domesticating you until you look just like me
i am wrong and of these things i repent
(from I See the Things Upside Down [INO Records])

And, in a bit of a different way, philosopher-turned-Afro-American-Studies-professor Robert Paul Wolff defines white privilege in a riveting memoir, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man (2005).

From the Preface: “Kierkegaard observes somewhere -- I think it is in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript – that just as it is harder to jump into the air and land exactly on the spot from which you took off, so it is more difficult to become a Christian when you have the misfortune to have been born a Christian [Wolff is a secular, seventy-year-old Jew]. I faced just such a problem with regard to the subject of race in America. Before I began my journey, I thought of myself as a sensitive, knowlegeable, politically committed advocate of racial justice. But as I took the first steps along the way, I began to realize that I understood little or nothing at all about that color line called by W.E.B. Du Bois the problem of the twentieth century. So, rather like the conventional Christian who seeks to become truly Christian, my task was to undergo a difficult process of reeducation and self-examination, in order to end up where I thought I was – as a committed advocate of racial justice. Perhaps I can take comfort from Socrates’ tecaching that the first step of the journey toward wisdom is the acknowledgment that one is ignorant” (xii).

Previous posts provide several angles from which we might discuss whiteness, white privilege, and race and forthcoming posts will explicate how I think all of this relates to the Emergent church.

Any thoughts?


becomingme said...

thank you for such an enlightened post. alice mcintyre, in a PAR project with white preservice teachers, asserts that whiteness cannot be defined without the voices of people of color to point out where and how privilege exists in ways that whites would be oblivious to. i ask you to check out my blog...evethinking.blogspot.com and leave your thoughts. thank you.

Jon said...

These are helpful posts, Phil. Thanks for them.