I think it’s important to explain the title of this post before proceeding. Firstly, biblically speaking there is no such thing as a white Christian or a black Christian that would somehow imply a distinct availability of blessing, benefit, and promise in the gospel for each respective race. In other words, the gospel and all its glorious benefits are for the-whosoever believes. However, it is true on the level of social and cultural experience that there are to a certain degree unfortunate differences in background, opportunities, and “privileges” based on the superficiality of skin color and hair type, i.e., whether you’re black or white. So while in the former instance there are no significant differences on the latter level there are, and it is with these two understanding that I use the term “colored Christian” very tentatively and only to serve the argument of this post.
Disclaimer: This is not necessarily an argument against the term “White-privilege” but an explanation of why I choose not to use the term. So while I may be discussing the [de]merits of the term in passing – thinking about this as a case against the term “white privilege” will probably result in missing the point I’m making.
The term white privilege has found its way into the social dialogue among many engaging issues of racial tension and unity. Wikipedia has a helpful entry that explains what is meant by white privilege:
“White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.”
One common example from everyday experience that I can think of is the perception white people enjoy when entering certain places (e.g., a store) purely on the basis of having white skin compared to the suspicion people of color endure purely because they are black and colored.
So, white privilege refers to ways in which white skinned people can be (but not always are, as we cannot absolutize it) privileged socially, economically and politically purely on the basis of their skin. I think it also has to do with what has been referred to as unearned benefits white-skinned people have due to the consequence of an unjust system in some form of the other. An example of this would be how the evil and unjust apartheid system ensured that white people benefit in a way that people of colour could not and that even today many white people who may not necessarily have been perpetrators in that unjust system still experience the privileges and benefits that system has earned for them over against the grave disadvantages black and coloured people have inherited.
Now the contentious and polarizing nature of the term aside – the realities the term “white privilege” seek to capture (whether successfully or not) have merit and can be attested to in the everyday experience of ordinary life. However, I am not willing to use the term, and I am particularly reluctant to use the term in addressing a white person’s advantages or aspects in his or her life where they are perceivably more privileged than I am. Here are a few reasons I’m not willing to throw around the term white privilege:
1. IT IS SUSCEPTIBLE TO MISUNDERSTANDING.
As an ethic for Christian communication, I aim to not be deliberately offensive or give cause for stumbling – especially when there are other better and more helpful ways of communicating. The term white privilege tends to be inflammatory, aggravate and lead to a misunderstanding that is not helpful to effective charitable communication. Just on a side note: One thing that always bothers me when I observe white Christians engage other whites on the issue of privilege (especially on social media) is how little patience and gentleness is shown toward white people who sincerely have a hard time coming to terms with the realities the white privilege concept seek to communicate. It almost appears to me that because they are white and enjoy some unearned (as well as un-asked for) privilege that somehow precludes them from being engaged within a spirit of grace, gentleness, and patience. From a Christian perspective, this is unacceptable and uncharitable engagement.
I think the term white privilege generally comes across as insulting, offensive and accusatory and thereby cause more heat than light on the issue of race. The term is also generally used to show the disparity between race groups. However, the use of the term itself became counterproductive in the efforts to create an awareness of the circumstances of those disadvantaged and discriminated, in that it is a conversation-ending term and not a conversation-opening term.
Firstly, the term can be construed as an insult in that it fails to appreciate that even though there may be unearned privileges it is also unasked-for-privileges (in many cases today), and it does not discount a diligent and an honourable work ethic on the part of the white person being called out for his or her privilege.
While it may be true that many blacks and those of other colors can exert the same amount of diligence and not necessarily acquire what a white person could, the diligence, effort, and sacrifice of a white person are still that and not somehow less only because it is supposedly marred by their white skin. Not only does the term white privilege tend to discount honesty and diligence it also tends to depreciate the life built by a white person in considering what they have and acquired as somehow less qualitatively because it is largely due to their unearned privilege.
Let me add that while it may be true on more occasions than not, that when a white person enters a store the attention he receives is generally free from any suspicion, whereas a person of colour generally receives the suspicious kind of attention, the white person has never asked for this, and those I know (generally) do not encourage this. Therefore the problem in many cases like this is not necessarily with white privilege but with the racist person granting that privilege to the white person – this person can be of any color in my experience.
It appears the impression the term white privilege conveys is that receiving privileged attention and treatment on the basis of having white skin, somehow makes the white person who never asked for this, perhaps unaware of this, and most certainly is not encouraging this complicit in such unfairness and this I think is unfair toward that particular white person!
Secondly and building on from the first reason, I find the term can be offensive in that it fails on the basic human level of respect. If I reduce everything that a person is and have to some unearned privilege (they never asked for nor had any control over) as a result of their skin color I cannot at the same time convey any sense of respect for that person, and it necessarily leads to offense. I’m essentially negating every effort, sacrifice, show of commitment and dedication that person genuinely put in for them to be able to obtain and have what they are enjoying and experiencing. I must respect the virtues of diligence, sacrifice, dedication, commitment – even if I’m not willing to respect the person.
Thirdly, the term strikes me as accusatory. I cannot escape the accusatory tone when I consider the term white privilege in that it almost implicates all white people in the injustices of the past due to a perceived benefit they are experiencing – not to mention the vilifying nature of the term. There are most certainly many white people, especially in South Africa with its history of race-based discrimination who are benefitting because of an unjust system and blacks and those of other colors, who are not because of the same unjust system. The reality now though, is that white people today irrespective of how or what they have benefitted from are not all necessarily guilty of the injustices of the past and I cannot view them through eyes filled with grievances of past injustice – that is not fair nor just. (for more see the facebook comment)
I suppose it would help to note that I’m referring to white people who never supported the injustices of apartheid, even during apartheid and did as much as they can with the means that they have to demonstrate their opposition to apartheid and also those who have come to repent if they had any part in these past injustices. Whites (these ones in particular) who benefitted from the unjust apartheid system may have a moral responsibility to use their privilege to help those who are underprivileged but they cannot be held morally responsible for past injustices, and the term white privilege reeks of an accusatory tone I would rather stay clear of.
While I am not the topic: I often hear this point conceded, namely, that whites today are not necessarily guilty of the injustices from which they are benefitting but must use their “privilege” to serve the underprivileged. I have to ask myself, is that not the Christian expectation for every believer – irrespective of perceived socio-economic privilege or race– to do good to others and selflessly seek the benefit of others? Are all Christians not specially privileged in Christ and therefore responsible for using this privilege to serve others? I’m uncomfortable in receiving the good works of those who act out of the guilt of privilege, especially if their good works are only directed toward a person of color.
A white Christian’s good works and acts of love to a black Christian should be out of obedience to Scripture to do good to all and love for God and neighbor– and not merely black Christians and certainly not at the exclusion of white Christians. A white Christian must do good to a black Christian because He is also doing good to a white Christian – it must be his life that is given in service to all that bears fruit in his good works towards blacks and coloureds, If motivated by guilt provoked by the term white privilege the white Christian is moved to only be (overly above more) charitable towards a black Christian does he not show partiality towards his own white skinned people? In short, irrespective of the background or skin color hard work, diligence, taking responsibility and applying wisdom in life contributes significantly towards advancement in life and this must be, shown to be, appreciated. However, the term white privilege tends to disregard this and consequently breeds disregard and disrespect.
2. IT DOES NOT SUFFICIENTLY APPRECIATE THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.
Do we sufficiently account for the providence of God and thereby the wisdom of God in executing the benevolent will of God, when we frame the advancement and material well-being of certain people-groups or races as only due to skin-based-privileges obtained through oppressive and unjust means? I don’t mean to suggest I’ve got this issue pinned down but I’m trying to think through it. I think we can affirm both providence and injustices as a reality in the world and do not necessarily have to see them as mutually exclusive in its reality in the God’s world. However, in many of the discussions by Christians on social issues like privilege and race I rarely hear a robust theological exposition of the doctrine of providence and divine sovereignty that ought to inform these things and that ought to provide comfort and hope.
Of course, I’m not arguing for the justification of injustices on the grounds of providence but for the inclusion into our discussion of injustice the place of God’s providence and good purposes it intends to accomplish especially for those on the end of injustices. Much of the social agenda which inform terms such as white privilege does not sufficiently engage with theology apart from a few references to “the golden rule” or “justice” passages in the Old Testament. What we have today is more an exegesis of the socio-political realities and an exposition of racial injustices without really grounding this in the self-disclosed revelation of our personal God. I personally would like to see more theology done by Christians who are sympathetic towards the social agenda today.
Scripture makes clear that God is behind one nation rising up and another being brought down, God promotes and demotes, God makes rich and makes poor. God is never an uninvolved spectator merely watching things unfold. But surely God wouldn’t promote and advance an unjust nation or people? Well, while God is not the author of injustice or Himself unjust, we do have examples in the Bible where God raises up and prospers the unjust efforts of barbarous nations for His own sovereign and benevolent purposes.
I am not saying apartheid was God’s work. I am not saying the unjust advancement of white people during apartheid, and the unjust discrimination of black people during apartheid was God’s doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if we are able to appreciate the mystery of providence in the midst of injustices if we persist with a reductionist term such as white privilege to explain the socio-economic complexities between races in God’s good yet fallen world. I would even go further and say, I think the term white privilege is better accommodated in a deistic theological worldview instead of a biblically providential worldview.
There is a video going around on social media that seeks to explain white privilege. A group of people are about to begin a race for a $100 and it is a group made up of whites and blacks. The person calling the race notifies the white and black participants that he will be making a few statements and if it is relevant to you, you’re allowed a step forward, however, if it doesn’t you must remain where you are. He then makes a series of statements and asks questions about cultural, social and family experiences. Those to whom these statements spoke to favorably got to take steps to the front and as it were it was only the white participants to whom his questions spoke to favorably and it spoke to them favorably only because they were white. Thus the white participants constantly got an advantage, ahead of the black participants who never moved, even before the race began. This was done to illustrate how white privilege affects the lives we lead because whites typically start with an advantage whereas black does not.
The illustration is good as far as it goes for the secular person but it seriously breaks down at the introduction of God’s providence. Providence teaches me that irrespective of where I begin and irrespective of what injustices impacted me I will end up exactly where God has willed for me to end up! Perhaps it is not God’s will for my life to run for a $100 bill but to actually run for a 50 dollar bill and my life experience, which He is sovereign over, is set out in such a way that His purposes for my life is realized and not necessarily my purposes for my life. I wonder where Joseph would have been WITHOUT THE INJUSTICES HE SUFFERED. This is not to mention that God’s greatest work, our salvation, was accomplished sovereignly through the acts of atrocious injustices performed by sinful men but still within the providence of God who remained just and holy and righteous. Redemption is not only occasioned by the reality of injustice, but it was accomplished in a very real sense through acts of injustice (Acts 2:22-24)!
As a believer in a God who has not abandoned this world but instead sustains the world moving it along according to His purpose and who is working out everything providentially even numbering the very hairs on my head (which is fast disappearing) my life is purposed and lived out in God’s hands.
Since the fall in Genesis 3, God has always been working good in an unjust world, and this climaxed in God triumphing over injustice decisively at the cross and through Christ’s resurrection. The failure to set forth God’s providence in a fallen world deprives the Christian on the end of injustice to properly perceive and appreciate his life in God’s hands. I think a robust engagement with the doctrine of providence can bring a racially discriminated believer to truly rejoice in and boldly confess that his or her life is not essentially in the hands of the oppressor but in the hands of the sovereign and benevolent God who only wills good! As a colored man, I will never be defined or ultimately determined by whatever fallen earthly conditions I live in or what privileges I was deprived of. This does not mean injustice won’t affect me or discrimination won’t impede me. This does not mean I will not suffer unfair treatment. This does not even mean that I will have every opportunity available to me that is available to another person who looks outwardly lighter than me.
That God requires I live justly is not a promise that I will live free from injustice nor is to be construed that injustice binds the hands of God disabling Him to work good towards me.
However, what this does mean is that as a Christian everything God has purposed for me will be realized through the means of faith in Christ, diligence in effort, obedience to Scripture and observing the means of grace given me. Nothing can alter God’s good purpose for me, and He works all things together for my good (Romans 8:28) – ask Joseph! This does not necessarily mean my material, economic and social advancement in life is absolutely guaranteed despite injustices around me but it does mean that whatever God has planned for my life will not fail. My greatest threat to the flourishing of my life is not the privilege of a lighter skinned person, nor the injustices of some supposed autonomous political party, not even the faceless oppressive systemic forces of structural injustices, but the disobedience of a sin-stained heart to the sovereign Lord of all the earth.
3. IT CAN GENERATE A SELF-PITY DISPOSITION ON MY PART
I do not trust my heart to speak to any matter that I feel aggrieved in and to do so without bias and selfishness. So to grant my heart the privilege to call out the privilege of others is a privilege I have great difficulty accepting because I’m well aware that I am not able to deal fairly especially when I feel treated unfairly. The term white privilege can do me more harm than good. When I look at the advancement of any person, but for the sake of the argument let’s say a white person, and I see how well in life they are doing. They are prospering economically, they are prospering educationally, they are prospering socially, instead of being motivated to apply myself so that, within God’s determined plan, I can excel in life it is easier for me to label them as white privileged and then sulk!
When I look at my life and the dissatisfaction, I experience economically, educationally, and socially I can easily justify potential lack of diligence and use of wisdom on my part and blame it all on not being sufficiently “privileged”. I guess it also has to do with the way I was brought up. My mother taught me not to look with big eyes at what others have, i.e., to look covetously at others. My mother taught me not to think the world owes me something and not to feel sorry for myself. I cringe when I think of making my children aware of the privilege of another person – it is totally contrary to how I was brought up.
I must also be honest and say that the term white privilege has accentuated my already problematic and sinful perception of white people. I never grew up around white people during my childhood and even teenage years rarely, if ever, made contact with white people. And because of apartheid, there was this obvious separation which to me appeared solely on the grounds that white people are just better in every respect. As I grew up, I obviously realized this is not true but then shifted over the other extreme. Whenever I would receive some unfavorable reception from a white person or a “look” I regarded condescending it brought to my mind my initial impression of white people (that they are better than me) but only now I had slightly modified that perception and told myself: “they think they are better than me”. I then subtly imputed racist motives to white people I felt wasn’t engaging me as I wanted to and justified it with a notion that makes using the term white privilege only a bigger problem for me.
In fact, I think many colored and blacks are struggling with what I see and have termed: white suspicion, which I define as interpreting every seemingly unfavorable act or intention from a white person as one of superiority and suspecting, when there really is no reason, that a white person is condescending and racist. This does not mean white people aren’t capable of treating coloured or black people badly (and visa-versa), but it does not necessarily have to be race motivated, and making it race motivated and not sinful-heart motivated misdiagnosis the problem and makes it difficult for the proper treatment of the gospel to be applied as the solution. Apart from the problem, the term creates for white people I just know that I can’t trust myself with such a term.
Let me be clear, there are most certainly benefits and advantages socially in just being white that are not always there for those who are colored or black. But I think it intellectually lazy to characterize this as just a matter of white privilege and thus fail to carefully consider other aspects that may also contribute – some of which I dealt with above.
I understand that behind the inflammatory “check your privilege” idea is the notion that one would be able to be more sympathetic towards those disadvantaged and discriminated if you were to do so. However, sympathy and compassion for the marginalized and discriminated shouldn’t come from a call to look at one’s privileges but from an upward look to our Saviour which then results in an inward look passed material and social benefits to the potential corruption of the soul that deters compassion and love toward others less privileged. This then is only addressed through the application of the gospel. Checking your privilege is not comparable to Christian sanctification and embracing white privilege is not necessarily being pious.
I choose not to use the term white privilege and I think the vocabulary of the gospel gives me sufficient and charitable language to address the sins of partiality and injustice. Perhaps it is time to appropriate the grammar of Scripture to address the hearts of people instead of uncritically adopting the language of whatever social agenda comes up?
Used with Permission.
This post first appeared on Riaan Boer’s blog Expository Thoughts