Disentangling Privilege image

Disentangling Privilege

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Privilege is being talked about more and more these days, which makes it increasingly important to have a wise, considered and biblically informed perspective on it. Here are three (hopefully) helpful resources to help with that.

First, Jonathan Leeman has written a superb piece on identity politics, white privilege and gospel peace. His disentangling of the three possible meanings of “white privilege,” two of which are helpful and one of which is not, is extremely helpful (emphasis added):

... white privilege can mean at least three things, two of which I accept and one of which I don’t. First, it means that I possess, by virtue of my skin color, social and material advantages. This is simply a statistical reality. I, as a white man, am less likely to be aborted as a baby, less likely to be born into poverty, more likely to have two parents, more likely to attend good schools because I live in a good neighborhood, more likely to enjoy the social conditions that make law-breaking less likely, more likely to graduate high school and be accepted into college (absent deliberate admissions policies to the contrary), more likely to be hired (all things being equal), less likely to make shop owners feel nervous when I enter, less likely to be handled roughly and invasively by police officers when pulled over instead of being given a friendly warning (as happened the last few times I was pulled over)—the list goes on.

Yet the idea of white privilege involves more than just acknowledging advantages. A man with $100,000 possess an advantage over the man with $1,000. There is nothing inherently unjust about this isolated fact. Rather, white privilege means, second of all, that I possess those advantages by virtue of systemic and historic patterns of discrimination and injustice. I possess the $100,000 and you possess the $1,000 because my grandfather and his father and his father rigged the system in favor of people who look like me.

I accept this second plank of white privilege as well. In fact, try to name a society in which one group didn’t oppress another over the cycles of generations. In the ancient world, we could have referred to Egyptian privilege, or Greek privilege, or Roman privilege. In the modern world, Russian privilege or Shia privilege.

But there is a third, more profoundly ideological and typically unstated meaning of white privilege that I do not accept. And that is the automatic transfer of guilt to anyone who possesses such advantages. I’m guilty because I was born with $100,000 in a savings account with my name on it. As author Eula Biss put it, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem. Whites are moral debtors simply by being white. If a black 4-year-old is demonstrably indicted as guilty by the structures of society, says Ta-Nehsi Coates following Malcolm X, then “it is impossible for white 4-year-olds to be innocent” ...

The bottom line here is: Identity politics, at its most careless, undermines moral agency. The white 16-year-old at Northeast High is not guilty simply for being white or for the advantages he possesses by virtue of his skin color. We cannot forsake the demands of justice at an individual level. We understand from Scripture that guilt and culpability are individual; punishment and responsibility are individual. To say otherwise is its own kind of Nietzschian power move—creating a concept of guilt for the sake of leveraging power.

Second, there is Tish Harrison Warren’s excellent review of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. Warren (like Bovy) accepts the reality of privilege in all sorts of contexts, but is concerned that it is becoming both obsessive and a needless conversation-stopper in some circles. The whole piece is well worth reading, but one paragraph that particularly struck me was this:

I wonder if our privilege obsession arises in part from an epistemic problem: In a world that considers individual experience the primary arbiter of truth, how do we navigate the cacophony of conflicting reality-claims? One way is to create a hierarchy where some voices are valued more than others. Therefore, the “privilege” framework, like fundamentalism or certain forms of religious rhetoric, can demand unquestioning adherence.

And third, this is a message I gave late last year, on generosity and privilege, from the story of Solomon in 1 Kings 3. The temptation with privilege is often to avoid making use of it, either out of entitlement (this isn’t privilege, because I earned it) or guilt (this is privilege, but don’t worry, I feel really bad about it). A more fruitful approach is to accept the reality of privilege and then look to use it on behalf of those who do not (yet) share it:

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