“White Privilege”: Why The Church Must Protect The Use Of This Term

by Janay Garrick, professor: communications department

None of my children in the inner-city were white. Teaching third grade to Ernesto, Jennifer, Alvaro… Black children, Latino children, each of them born or immigrated to one of the toughest neighborhoods in the United States: South Central Los Angeles. Their daily reality? Food scarcity (food deserts), limited access to medical care, poverty, and the constant possibility of gang violence. The children’s stories after Christmas break? “My pitbull ate my kitten.” “A bullet came through our house.” Jennifer’s mother died giving birth to her baby brother. Jennifer hardly spoke.

Every day, at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon, after the children left the premises, Parmelee Elementary School would enter into “lock down,” securing the outside perimeter and the interior halls: essentially locking the teachers in, in order to keep the violence out while we finished our prep for the next day. The only white people in “the hood”? The teachers. Every day, I would drive in at dawn and drive out before dusk to my safe suburban condo in the Malibu hills. This was my privilege; this was my burden.

And, I’d like to suggest, that it’s yours, too.

As a white person, admittedly a person of privilege within my culture of birth, I recognize and welcome the continuation of the conversation that gained momentum during the Civil Rights era. We cannot, we must not, lie to ourselves that this conversation has ended, for it has only just begun. As Professor Bryan Litfin admits in his recent article, “Rescinding the term ‘white privilege’”: “the doors (of access) are not entirely shut” and therefore, still partially closed to those within minority cultures. As members of the Church gathered here at Moody Bible Institute, we cannot rest until those doors of liberation are fully open for each and every person.

Defining the Term

Perhaps “white privilege” is evocative. It’s meant to be. It describes, gives name to, an unjust aspect of reality. I think it is important to note that the term will only shame a person, culture, or institution, if there is something shameful that must be dismantled and re-ordered.

The term “white privilege” is, at best, honest and catalytic for change; at worst, and misapplied by imperfect people, it shames and defames. The term is honest because it describes a socio-political reality: greater access, advantage, and position experienced by the majority culture within the United States.

In my opinion, this term offers a prophetic critique to the U.S. Church and to our surrounding culture. Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination explains that prophetic critique is invaluable in nurturing, nourishing, and evoking “a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (3).

While Professor Litfin and I will meet in person to discuss this issue and I’ve created in-class opportunities for dialogue among my students, I’d like to respond in writing to the five main points that he makes about why the term “white privilege” is unhelpful. It is my hope that this will foster further civil discourse about the issue, rather than taking insult and injury to Twitter.

Litfin Point 1: The term can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin.

Counterpoint 1: Corporate moral responsibility exists where systemic injustice exists.

While I agree with Litfin’s point that individuals are not personally responsible for the sins of others, as the Church in the world – shining the light in the darkness – we must ask ourselves, “What is our moral responsibility for systemic injustices which takes expression in social, political, and cultural spheres?” To this point, I think it’s vital to look to global, ecumenical theologians to inform our understanding. The theology of Miroslav Volf, informed by “revolution and war” in the Balkans, comes from a context deeply divided by ethnicity (Bosnia/Croatia) and can therefore, offer key insights here.

In Volf’s theology, sin is systemic and deeply entrenched in systems that do not work for the well-being or freedom of the people. His concept of sin or evil is social, cultural, and corporate more than individual and non-contextual. This is helpful for our current discussion here at Moody for while you, personally, may not be responsible for practicing racially motivated exclusion, prejudice, or “white privilege” (either consciously or unknowingly done), we must stop and ask ourselves if some (granted, not all) of the social, cultural, and political practices of our “majority culture” (whites) contribute to ongoing, systemic injustice. The answer in my mind and experience is unequivocally, yes.

Litfin Point 2: The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming.

Counterpoint 2: The term is a loving use of the power of naming because it is an honest descriptor of a reality experienced by persons within minority cultures and necessary for providing access to justice.

Words have power and words provide access to justice. All people, not just those in power, or the biblically astute, have the God-given right and role to name things, “to call it as they see it,” to use descriptors that properly frame and give voice to their reality. If we take away a person’s power to name things, to describe the world from their eyes, then we are attempting to assert dominance and control. However uncomfortable it makes us feel, all people must be afforded the right to use their voices and their words to navigate and make sense of the world. There is no safer place to create and use rhetoric for justice than within the Church. As Walter Brueggemann proposes in The Prophetic Imagination:

“The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done, not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one. Prophetic criticism aims to create an alternative consciousness with its own rhetoric and field of perception.” (99)

If you take away a person’s right to name things, to make meaning through language, you ultimately take away their access to justice and reconciliation. Why do you think the writers, philosophers, and educators are always the first to be silenced and imprisoned when a dictator is rising to power? Because words have power.

Furthermore, each person, made in the image of God, has the right and the call to “speak truth to power” as witnessed in the lives of Moses, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jesus. When the “centers of power” are not acting justly and for the well being of all people, it is our moral imperative as Christ followers to act. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, defend, ensure justice – not silence, rescind, or control – the rights of the destitute or those being crushed (Prov. 31:8).

Language does not belong to the Church any more than language belongs to the secular world. As a writer and a person who loves words, I agree with Eugene Peterson in Tell It Slant, when he insists on “continuity of language between the words we use in Bible studies and the words we use when we’re out fishing for rainbow trout” (4). We pull from the same language pool when praying or speaking with the people in our lives. Through language, we construct shared meaning by which we form relationships and make meaning.

As the Church, we are not borrowing “from a radical, secular agenda” when we use the term “white privilege” to have honest, difficult conversations about where our community truly stands in seeking justice, equality, and the redemption of sinful structures that do not work for our well being. The apostle Paul at the Aeropagus “borrows” (to use Litfin’s language) from secular culture to compose one of the most compelling Gospel messages recorded (Acts 17). One of our most beloved and quoted Scriptures is “borrowed” from the Cretan philosopher Epimenides and brilliantly quoted by Paul in order to connect with his listeners: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).

Litfin Point 3: The term can contradict God’s approval of the very things that convey historic privileges.

Counterpoint 3: The term intentionally highlights the exclusive and unjust use of privilege by those in the majority culture.

While I agree with Professor Litfin’s point that hard work, approved by God, can lead to gain and oftentimes, privilege; I disagree with removing the term from civil discourse because it can be misapplied or misused. That is not a sound basis or justification for removing language from civil discourse. The term does intend to contradict, call out, and critique the exclusive and unjust use of privilege by the majority culture as well as the continued lack of access, advantage, and position for those belonging to minority cultures. That is precisely the point of applying the term to a larger cultural conversation on race and race relations.

Litfin Point 4: The term can display a critical spirit that misconstrues reality by highlighting only the negative.

Counterpoint 4: The term embodies an appropriate cultural critique of a current and ever-present reality in the United States and in the Church.

In the face of injustice, how should those within minority cultures describe a door that is “not entirely shut,” thus admittedly partially closed? It is not “ungodly,” nor “modern,” as Litfin contends, to “call out” the existence of unlevel playing fields, racial disadvantage and continued systemic injustice. Let us be honest and risk using the language “white privilege” to describe this reality, and then begin to construct an alternative, Christ-centered community from this newfound understanding.

As Professor Litfin exemplified, he himself has benefited from a position of privilege by having access to elite educational systems. This might positively be termed white privilege or majority culture privilege. Because of his “birth right,” he was positioned to receive and pursue a wider educational and career path. This example, provided by him, does not display a critical spirit, nor one that “highlights only the negative.”

The polarities of privilege must be allowed to exist in tension in our discourse until the negative examples of white, or majority culture, privilege are eradicated from the structures within our culture and context. As Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination, there is language to be given and “there is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech” (119).

Litfin Point 5: The term can blind us to the cry for social justice from the white oppressed.

Counterpoint 5: The term does not dismiss the sociocultural reality that there are whites, or people within the majority culture, who suffer under oppression or unjust systems.

Granted, there are whites or people within the majority culture who suffer under oppression or unjust circumstances and situations. The term “white privilege” does not, as Litfin suggests, seek to “squelch the voices of the (white) oppressed and make them invisible,” quite the contrary! The term intends to give voice to the voices of the oppressed and make them visible. However, in this instance, the term is speaking for the majority of those who are suffering under oppression or unjust systems in the United States, this majority being comprised of minority cultures or the nonwhite.

Let Us Continue to Speak the Truth in Love

In conclusion, as Christians, we must protect the use of this term. Speaking the truth in love should not compel us to avoid using uncomfortable terminology. Instead, it should compel us to enter into the discomfort and pain of others, standing with them in solidarity as they find their voices, name their realities, and seek, with God’s power, to move beyond them. If we refuse to use the terms or the language that the disenfranchised or the minority cultures are using, then we hinder and halt the justice and reconciliation conversation from continuing. Is that what we desire?

Regardless of how the center of power in a culture, government, or institution responds, the voiceless must continue to voice their reality before a God who makes all things new. This act is not ultimately divisive, but constructive, a necessary breaking down and building up of new systems and new realities that work for the well being of all of God’s children, not just a select few.

Works Cited

Volf, Miroslav. “Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Reflections in the Wake of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’” in Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology, edited by William Dyrness. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Print

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978. Print.

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    3 Comments

    1. Eric C. Redmond

      May 13, 2015

      Thank you, Prof. Garrick, for an outstanding article!

      Reply
    2. Jamie Janosz

      August 28, 2015

      Somehow I missed this article – but it is such an excellent and balanced response to previous articles on this issue in the Moody Standard. Thank you for calmly and clearly explaining this view of white privilege. I agree that – when seen clearly and through the lens of God’s grace – the truth can ultimately unite and not divide.

      Reply
    3. M Oliver

      November 29, 2016

      “The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done, not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one. Prophetic criticism aims to create an alternative consciousness with its own rhetoric and field of perception.” (99)

      If you take away a person’s right to name things, to make meaning through language, you ultimately take away their access to justice and reconciliation. Why do you think the writers, philosophers, and educators are always the first to be silenced and imprisoned when a dictator is rising to power? Because words have power.

      My concern with this assertion is that it suggests that whites are somehow disempowered by the statement that ‘white privilege’ isn’t a Christian concept. If white privilege is real, than they are the one racial group which had, by definition, the power to self-name. That is a power not shared by the oppressed. How does the self-assertion of white privilege, as a powerful activity itself, counter the privilege it seeks to highlight?

      Second issue is the use of Bruggemann in this manner. Assigning guilt to one’s self by naming does not ‘enter into the death’ of the oppressed. It is a self directed action only, and has to be taken an extra step to turn into action. Convincing myself my race is particularly sinful is different than actually stepping into relationship with the oppressed, where I can actually enter into the death they experience.

      So, how do those with a voice calling themselves out on white privilege give the voiceless a different standing before God? It is a penny short of the actual call on the Christian. It also implies some degree of inescapable sin. Sin can be repented of, but ‘white privilege’ as sin, because it is racially designated, can never be washed clean.

      As a person who has been on the receiving end of that white racism, I’m not interested in having you tell me how aware you are of your culpability under the ‘white privilege’ label. What I want is relationship where we stand reconciled before God, both of us redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and convicted of our fundamental value because of Christ. I can not see any coherent way that ‘white privilege’ gets you to that point because it does not, ultimately, point to the cross.

      Reply

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