Letter to the Editor: Rescinding the term “white privilege”

by Brian Litfin professor of theology

The topic of “white privilege” recently became a subject of campus discussion after a poster from the student group Embrace was vandalized. I contributed negatively to that discussion when I criticized the poster on Facebook. My post then went viral on Twitter and was picked up by the news media.

Although that gossip-fest involved a lot of sinful slander, it doesn’t excuse my own sin of having used harsh words against a respectable student group. The Lord used Colossians 4:6 to remind me that my speech should always be gracious. Under the Spirit’s conviction, I made a point of seeking forgiveness from all involved.

Underneath my snarky Facebook post, however, lies an issue that requires critique. While social media is a ridiculous place for this, a campus newspaper is the perfect venue. I would like to propose five reasons why the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t appropriate for Christian discourse. This language is taken straight from a radical and divisive secular agenda. As such, it should be subjected to the penetrating light of God’s Word.

Before I list my reasons, let me acknowledge that the term “white privilege” is intended to address an important topic. The problem is, the term itself is inflammatory, so the real topic goes unheard because of the offense. Here are five ways the term “white privilege” is objectionable to many in our community:

The term can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin. Collective sin was operative in the covenant community of Israel, such as with Achan (Joshua 7). However, with the arrival of the New Covenant, individuals now stand or fall before God for their own actions (Jeremiah 31:29-30). According to scripture, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat … each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10, 12). Therefore, an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals. It doesn’t work like that anymore.

The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming. In scripture, the act of naming something claims authority over its identity and destiny. Jesus did this when he gave Simon a new name: Peter (Matthew 16:18). However, it is one thing to name a friend or one’s own community for the sake of encouragement, and another to name someone for the purpose of criticism or shame. In so doing, we aggressively define others, stigmatize them, lump them together. But can billions of people really be described with the catch-all term “white” and then uniformly be assigned certain privileges? No. Such behavior is unloving because it forces simplistic categories on others that they themselves do not embrace.

The term can contradict God’s approval of the very things that convey historic privileges. Consider how some Americans of all races have reached privileged positions today: through stable family units that saved money and passed wealth to their descendants. Most Caucasians aren’t the offspring of slave owners, but merely of hard-working forefathers who did what was right. My own grandfather was an immigrant from Canada who scrimped and saved as a dry cleaner in Detroit. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. He went on to earn Ph.D.s at Purdue and Oxford. This certainly gave me privileges — but that is something God celebrates! The book of Proverbs repeatedly tells us that a life of diligent labor, careful family stewardship, and wise foresight will reap earthly rewards. “All hard work brings a profit” (Proverbs 14:23), and rightly so. Privilege is not something to be scorned, but only its exclusive and unjust use.

The term can display a critical spirit that misconstrues reality by highlighting only the negative. We must not buy into a Hunger Games mythology of vapid suburban elites entertaining themselves at the expense of others. In reality, the doors are not entirely shut to minorities today, nor are white people universally trying to close them. In fact, I often see a lot of “white love” as the American church reaches out to the needy. Why must we criticize our Caucasian brothers and sisters? The secular world does this, but it is unworthy of Christians. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” Where sin does exist, the answer is not the ungodly modern practice of “calling it out.” Instead we are to offer gentle critique (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) and cover the offense in love (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8).

The term can blind us to the cry for social justice from the white oppressed. If white people are characterized as doing just fine, we can safely ignore them. But what about the Caucasian widow, the orphan, the sex trafficking victim, the mentally ill, the homeless, the imprisoned, the handicapped, the physically abused, the addict, the rural poor? All of these populations are filled with white people whose cry of suffering rises to the ear of God. Acts 6:1 speaks against the sin of excluding some from social justice based on racial divisions. When we characterize “white people” as being privileged, we unintentionally squelch the voices of the oppressed and make them invisible. This is a harmful by-product of using imprecise language borrowed from worldly unbelievers.

I suggest we should rip the term “white privilege” out of our discourse at Moody. The underlying issues that need to be addressed should be described with more wholesome, less divisive terminology. Though I grant my fellow Christians the right to disagree, I know I stand with many in our community who find this language repugnant. Why employ terms that divide the body of Christ? As students of God’s Word, let us draw our terminology from the Bible, not the wisdom of man.

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23 Comments

  1. R.I Sweeting

    April 15, 2015

    Professor Litfin doesn’t like the label. Understandable. He doesn’t feel he should be lumped in. However if he feels lumped it was his snarky post, as he put it, that led many to believe that he may in fact be qualified for inclusion. But that’s between him and his maker.

    At its core his critique is an example of making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, he avoids the issue of privilege by attacking its (to him) over broad application or definition. Nothing about the reality of it as evidenced by the vandalism and nothing about the process to be undertaken to bring some healing. In short, he continues to Ignore the victim and chooses to exonerate his supposed allies instead. It misses the whole point. I would note that it’s importance isn’t and wasn’t lost on mbi’s president who’s comments on he topic are more appropriate than his professors.

    So what is privilege?

    “Privilege”  is the ability to conduct ones affairs without fear. That those who enjoy it are by and large unaware of it and thus question it’s existence or claim it is self made is understandable.

    It’s like that little story David Foster Wallace tells in his Kenyon College address…

    “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What is water?”
    And then he ends the address this way….”It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

    “This is water.”

    “This is water.”

    Those of us who swim in the currents of privilege fail to understand the medium in which we operate; it is simply there – like the air we breathe or the water in which a fish swims – and is not ‘visible’ to us. Doesn’t mean it isn’t there though.

    Reply
    • Pastor Raymond Dix Jr.

      May 13, 2015

      I begin this response by saying that I am a black male pastor in Gary, IN. You define privilege thusly, “So what is privilege? “Privilege” is the ability to conduct ones affairs without fear. That those who enjoy it are by and large unaware of it and thus question it’s existence or claim it is self made is understandable.” This is interesting because the dictionary does not define privilege in such a manner. The dictionary says , “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Since rights are defined under the law, what “privilege” do whites have that I do not have? If we want to say that being white gives one an advantage in America, we must also say that being rich offers the same or even more advantage. Should Christians seek to speak against wealth legally earned? The incessant focus on skin demonstrates that the church, blacks or whites, have yet to grasp the notion that we are all image bearers of the Father. The professor is correct that we as Christians should stop discussing privilege and begin discussing racism as a sin. A sin that needs forgiveness as much as acknowledgment. God addresses the issue in Scripture through the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles into His new nation (ethnos, gennos) called the church. The concept of white privilege is a politically correct term fostered by social scientists in order to try and explain inequities in society. I ask, are there not always going to be some inequity as long as we live among fallen people in a fallen world? I am not suggesting that we do not seek justice, I am simply saying the pursuit of the gospel in the city is a far better effort than debating the veracity of white privilege. The term is divisive and promotes animosity, becoming another hurdle to the gospel.

      Reply
  2. R.I. Sweeting

    April 15, 2015

    I would also point out James 2 or Christs admonishment about public prayer and giving. Those passages are directly dealing with the notion of privilege.

    Reply
  3. Heather

    April 15, 2015

    Let me start by saying, I’m a former Moody grad and I do not think this article is a good representation of people of faith. By saying you will not engage with the term ‘white privilege’ because it is a ‘secular’ term–number one, that means you are not encouraging Moody students to engage with the larger world about the significant issues of race, poverty, and the difficulties that non-Caucasian Americans have faced in this country over the centuries with repercussions that last into today. Number two, I’m not sure the author understands the term he is saying should be scrapped from the University’s terminology, as he seems to display the very misunderstandings that give rise to the term when he goes on to speak of the ‘hard work’ his father did at college in earning and then gaining a PhD that gives rise to the the privileges the author enjoys today. Does he not understand the simple logic that an African American would not have been allowed those same privileges the author’s own father experienced in being able to go to (and pay for) such higher education – much less the privilege of growing up in a school in the forties and fifties, given adequate education and school books and equipment, or that grandfather of his from Canada as well? Does he not understand that African Americans and people of other races who attempted to get jobs when his white grandfather was ‘working hard’ were not able to get good jobs and have as nice of working conditions (or learn to read) and pass down wealth so that he could have all of the privileges his family has enjoyed this entire century? This very argument is unfortunately one of the most classic examples of white privilege. I was frankly quite shocked when I read it.

    You can’t just quote that ‘all hard work brings a profit’ as if that justifies a system that has been very broken. Yes, some of the people who talk about ‘white privilege’ might not be of a similar political agenda as you, but what they are trying to bring attention to are the same agendas that Jesus would have been the first to care about. You saying – what about the poor and under privileged WHITE people who might get lost in this shuffle is a bit of a slap in the face to what this entire discussion is ATTEMPTING TO BRING LONG NEGLECTED FOCUS TO. By entering into this discussion in this manner, the light is still now shone where it ought to be, on the suffering of those in need–those whom history and privilege has ignored. Instead this article comes off as defensive and divisive, in a manner that yes, I will say, upset and even angered me.

    Reply
  4. Ben Miller

    April 15, 2015

    I graduated from Moody in 2002. Since then I have worked in inner city ministry in Gary, Indiana. Articles and attitudes like this are what makes me embarrassed of my alma mater. The fact that this level of ignorance could be held by a professor worries me about the education being received by today’s Moody students. White privilege is real. Whites are treated better in America. People of color are discriminated by the Judicial system and in the workforce. I could list all of the studies that prove this, but if you are a person that believes that we are all equal in America than you won’t believe the studies anyway. The idea that this professor feels the need to protect the persecuted white people of America would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

    Dr. Liftin claims that the term makes the sins of a “few” on to the collective of all white people. However the term is “white privilege” not “white oppressor”. The term does not indicate that all white people are the cause, but that they all benefit from institutional racism.

    Dr. Litfin is also worried about the feelings of all white people, due to this name. If a person is hurt by the term white privilege, maybe they should look out how people of color feel having to deal with the reality of it. Racism is a terrible thing, but calling it something different doesn’t make it not real. Just like changing the name of white privilege to something else doesn’t change that it exists.

    And now we get to the standard conservative tagline of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and that should be acknowledged. It is admirable that Dr. Litfin’s grandfather was able to make a living as a dry cleaner. However Dr. Litfin’s black counterpart’s grandfather would still be considered less than a full citizens without all inalienable rights. Securing a loan or even opening a business may not have been available to him. Then Dr. Litfin’s father went to Cambridge, which he admits afforded him some privilege. He seems to forget that no African American graduate with a PhD from Cambridge until 1979, and that man still has to be harassed just trying to get into his own home. Dr Litfin isn’t considered a threat by police. He also whether he realizes it or not has had the benefit of hiring. Unless I’m mistaken there are still not Professors of Theology that are black at Moody.

    Once again Dr. Litfin confuses the terms privilege and oppression. Most suburban people are not plotting to keep people of color down. It doesn’t change the fact that there still is a racial problem in these communities. For example contrasting “white love” with helping the needy is a problem. Dr. Litfin didn’t say reaching out to brothers and sisters of another race; he used the term needy. This is part of the problem thinking that minority communities are all needy.

    While there are white people that are struggling, labeling the fact that it is easier to be white in this country. Dr Litfin contends that the term “white privilege” blinds people to Caucasians who are struggling. I contend that getting rid of the term will blind students to the struggles of all people of color in this country. I am a white man and my wife is black. We have a two year old daughter. Someday I have to sit her down and teach her how to do her best to not get shot by a police officer. I will have to teach her that she cannot just be as good as white counterparts, but she will have to be better. Do I wish this wasn’t the world my daughter will live in? Of course, but simply denying that “white privilege” exists won’t change the fact that it does exist.

    Reply
    • Pastor Raymond Dix Jr.

      May 13, 2015

      Ben, I pastor in Gary, IN and would love to discuss this with you. Please reach me at the email address provided.

      Reply
  5. Ryan Sather

    April 16, 2015

    Has the author of this had any input from those who would disagree with him on the subject? Not just those he views “outside the faith” but from Christian brothers and sisters who love Jesus and also feel strongly about the realities that do exist and are helpfully explained using the term “white privilege”?

    Reply
  6. Mark

    April 16, 2015

    “The term can blind us to the cry for social justice from the white oppressed. If white people are characterized as doing just fine, we can safely ignore them.” This really hits the gist on all your points. You fail to recognize that white privilege has little to do with economic status. Here is an example. When was the last time you saw the the media go bonkers over a middle class black girl of any age who turned up missing?

    Reply
  7. D

    April 16, 2015

    The notion that we aren’t complicit in the sins of the systems in which we participate and reinforce is naïve. Sin is not JUST individual but social and systemic and corporate. The privelaged of our society got there on the backs of the marginalized and oppressed.

    Reply
  8. Phil Resurreccion

    April 16, 2015

    Amen.

    Reply
  9. K.A.M.

    April 22, 2015

    Embracing the Term “White Privilege”: A Response to Brian Litfin

    Brian Litfin published a letter to the editor, calling upon the Christian community at Moody Bible Institute to refrain from using the term “white privilege”, calling it inflammatory and divisive.
    I would like to call upon the Christian community at Moody and elsewhere, to embrace this term, learn from it, and grow in the awareness of systemic injustice.

    1. First, Litfin says “The term can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin.” That’s the thing with systemic sin. We are all contributors on an individual level to something that is occurring on a systemic level. In the same way that my purchase of coffee can support corporations who make use of child labor and slavery, my choices as a white citizen can either support or oppress people of color here in the United States.

    2. “The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming.” Yes, it is powerful to name a thing, which is exactly why we must name it. For centuries “white” has been synonymous with power, good, decency, neutrality. Naming it “privilege” opens the door to understanding what is happening as some groups rise and some groups suffer. It is not pejorative to name it. It is pejorative to let it fester and grow.

    3. “The term can contradict God’s approval of the very things that convey historic privileges.” This is, perhaps, the most insidious of all of Brian Litfin’s points. If people are successful because of good decisions and God’s blessings, then that means people suffer from poverty and oppression because of bad decisions that their ancestors made. “You suffer and it’s your fault, or the fault of your dad.” This is not biblical, this is not Jesus, this is not Christian. When a family rises out of poverty to success and education, we can celebrate that, but we must also be aware of the part that privilege played in that growth.

    4. “The term can display a critical spirit that misconstrues reality by highlighting only the negative.” The church has a calling to lament injustice. Only a privileged person can see the pain, suffering, and oppression in the world and complain that we highlight the negative too much. Acknowledging white privilege is not negative. It’s a hopeful step in the right direction.

    5. “The term can blind us to the cry for social justice from the white oppressed.” Call me when people aren’t paying attention to white problems anymore. This is a farce. Yes, white poverty exists, yes some white people are privileged more than other white people, but that does not negate the existence of white privilege, nor the positive impact of the redemptive proclamation of that term.

    Reply
  10. Bryndan

    April 22, 2015

    “White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in western countries **beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.**”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_privilege

    Reply
    • Pastor Raymond Dix Jr.

      May 13, 2015

      What are those privileges and how are they important for believers in a God that has all power?

      Reply
  11. Timothy Halls

    April 22, 2015

    That a professor at Moody would write this saddens me. It smacks of an attempt to propose politically correct language. It uses the Bible, not as it was intended, to teach, correct, and us to account before God, but to defend the righteousness of the position in which one stands. I agree with professor Litfin’s words “an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals”, but this overlooks what the concept of white privilege points out–that some of us still benefit from the sins of others, and that we are still capable of sinning ourselves.

    Reply
  12. J. R. Barlow

    April 22, 2015

    The professor does not believe there is corporate responsibility for others’ sin. While one could dispute that point, I think it is much more in keeping with the character of Christ to reject the question “who sinned, this man or his parents?” and instead be the ear that hears the voice of the oppressed and that the hand that reaches out. To blame the oppressed for their circumstances is the way of the Pharisees; Jesus’ ministry shows us all a better way.

    In his paragraph discussing the power of naming, the professor ignores the extensive theological work of Walter Wink on “naming the powers”. In brief, the New Testament translated of “power and principalities” refers to oppressive systems, and naming those powers as Paul does is an entirely appropriate step in exposing them. Under Wink’s theology, the professor defends oppressive, systemic racism, by refusing to allow it to be named.

    I hope the professor is aware that had he been black, his ancestors would have been systemically excluded from the sort of opportunities that made his current privileged position a possibility. No one is denying him the privileges that come from hard-working ancestors; “white privilege” emphasizes that Caucasian heritage confers a higher level of privilege in what is still a racist society.

    The professor wishes for a more positive term, claiming that “white privilege” highlights only the negative. His argument against the term “white privilege” offers only a negative view of the term, and does not explore the possibility that its name has positive effects. He also offers no alternative term that addresses the deficiencies he perceives. I would say he is not being consistent with his own principles here.

    I suggest that the term “white privilege” belongs in discourse at Moody and any Christian institution. A white professor calling for suppression of language he finds offensive serves as evidence for the existence of “white privilege”. Whatever its name, white privilege exists, and is already dividing the body of Christ. Rather than insisting that people change the language they use, it would be more productive to acknowledge the people and ask can we change ourselves to address the issue.

    Reply
  13. Jelani Greenidge

    April 22, 2015

    I’m all for rescinding the term “white privilege” if you agree to replace it with “white fragility” — the lack of ability to meaningfully engage when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

    Looking for an example? See the above article.

    or for more explanation, check here:

    http://www.salon.com/2015/03/17/the_white_fragility_complex_why_white_people_gets_so_defensive_about_their_privilege_partner/

    Reply
    • Nancy Knowles

      May 1, 2015

      Jelani, do tell us that you are aware of the implications of concepts that begin with “All black people are …” and “All white people are …” You do understand what bigotry actually is, do you not? And when you’re finished explaining that, perhaps you can explain to us the scientific basis for race. Of course, I’m being facetious. You’re parroting an intellectually and morally bankrupt set of refurbished talking points that descend straight from Pharisaical tradition. And, I dare say, given your political plumage, you would be among the first we would find—on another thread, perhaps—adjuring someone with the “judge not, lest you be judged” cudgel.

      Reply
  14. Calvin Chen

    April 22, 2015

    Just to clarify… Bryan are you denying the existence of white privilege or merely suggesting we use more loving terminology?

    Also when you suggest we don’t consult the “wisdom of man” and to “use the terminology of the Bible” are you suggesting we remove from Christian discourse all psychological, sociological, economic, and scientific language?

    Reply
  15. Michael Colabucci

    April 22, 2015

    In the Bible, there is no white church, black church, brown church, red church, yellow church. In Hevaen There is no Baptist church, Catholic church, Pentecostal church, Methodist Church, Lutheran or Presbyterian church, There is no Jehovah Witness for we will see Him face to face, There will be no Assemblies of God church for we will ALL be one! There is only the blood bought church of Jesus Christ. That is the message that needs to be preached in every “church” in America. Jesus did not come to save skin colors, but to save souls.

    Reply
  16. Maggie

    April 22, 2015

    I can tell that you mean well, Brother… But it is clear that you do not understand the things you’re talking about. Please take the time to really investigate the concept of White Privilege before speaking out against the use of that term. This entire piece is actually extremely harlrmful to the conversation and to many individuals. I would suggest starting here: http://www.cpt.org/files/Undoing%20Racism%20-%20Understanding%20White%20Privilege%20-%20Kendall.pdf. Email me if you’d like to continue a discourse.

    Your Sister,
    Maggie

    Reply
  17. Nancy Knowles

    May 1, 2015

    Where do we stop? I mean, if we’re going to promote division and move AWAY from loving each other (as Christ commanded), why don’t we get serious and REALLY subdivide ourselves into oblivion? For instance, here’s a good start: Age privilege. Gender Privilege. Parental Privilege. Family Privilege. Sexual Privilege. Rich Privilege. American Privilege. Hemispheric Privilege. Political Privilege. Christian Privilege. Genetic Privilege. IQ Privilege. Baccalaureate Privilege. Tenure Privilege. Continental Privilege. Talent Privilege. Sighted Privilege. Ability Privilege. Hearing Privilege.

    Reply
  18. Aaron Yusef Johnson

    May 4, 2015

    This is the reality of the America you live in. Love you my Brotha.

    “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” 1 Chronicles 12:32

    Here are 8 laser-quick facts about a recent study that was done:

    1. Individuals submitting resumes with the same qualifications as Whites yet possessing Black sounding names are 50% more likely to not be called back.

    2. Black people are charged roughly $700 higher than white people when buying cars.

    3. Multiple studies show that in general, Blacks are twice as more likely to be pulled over by police than Whites.

    4. Black clients are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale than Whites.

    5. Marijuana use is equal between Blacks and Whites, yet Blacks are 4x’s more likely to be arrested than Whites.

    6. Black people are incarcerated at nearly 6x’s the rate of White people.

    7. Doctors did not inform Black patients as often as White patients about an important heart procedure.

    8.White legislatures did not respond as frequently to constituents with Black sounding names; in both parties.

    for more, see this link:

    https://www.facebook.com/bravenewfilms/videos/10152730546222016/?pnref=story

    Reply
  19. Janay Garrick

    May 13, 2015

    In the spirit of practicing convicted civility and civil discourse on this all-important subject, please see my article “White Privilege”: Why The Church Must Protect The Use Of This Term:

    http://www.moodystandard.com/white-privilege-why-the-church-must-protect-the-use-of-this-term/

    Reply

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