by Winfred Neely professor of pastoral studies
I have enjoyed a collegial relationship with Bryan Litfin for over 10 years. I consider him to be a valued colleague and a brother in Christ. I am responding to his letter to the editor, “Rescinding White Privilege,” not because I am obsessed with the issue of white privilege, but because I am compelled to respond and because his words have hurt a number of people on our campus.
In his letter Litfin gives us five reasons why the term white privilege is “objectionable to many in our community” and is not appropriate for Christian discourse. But one of the problems with Litfin’s rationale expressed in his letter is the implicit and glaring misunderstanding of the nature of white privilege.
White privilege is not about access to education per se; it is not about the creation of wealth; it is not about having a position of power or influence in our country. The President of the United States is black. White privilege does not mean that a white person is racist, prejudiced or unkind to men and women of other ethnic groups.
White privilege is one of the vestig- es of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism in the United States that has molded the psyche of people in such a way that people of color at face value are perceived differently in a way that is slanted in a white person’s favor.
For example, I have three degrees. I read Greek and Hebrew. I am a fluent reader and speaker of French. I am a full professor at one of the leading Bible colleges in the world. I am the program head of one of the best preaching programs at the undergraduate level in the country. But when I show up at an event and some white people in attendance know that I am coming to speak, but do not know me or what I look like, they are shocked when they see me. Since they expected someone of my credentials to be white, they are stunned to learn that Dr. Winfred Neely is black.
White privilege in various forms has negatively impacted virtually every person of color in the United States, including Barack Obama, Eric Holder, outgoing Attorney General of the United States, and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman Supreme Court Justice of our country.
Even Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and moderate Republican, is not exempt. Walking in an airport with President Bush and other members of his cabinet, a white police officer pulled Dr. Rice away from the presidential entourage. He detained her. In his thinking there was no way a black women could be part of the presidential entourage. Had she been white, it would not have been an issue. Yes, the officer later apologized, but the issue of white privilege deeply anchored in the officer’s perception was not resolved.
Litfin, who does concede that such ongoing experiences constitute an important topic, claims that the terms I and others use to share our experiences are repugnant and inflammatory. He wants to have a voice in determining the vocabulary we will use to express our own experience of the vestiges of racism. He says in essence, “I will tell you how to express yourself about the topic.” His posture is arrogant and an ironic example of the voice of white privilege.