Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

Christianity and the White Anti-Racist: a few thoughts on the conflation of sin and privilege

April 30, 2008

Some months ago I was participating in a discussion at the Debunking White community on livejournal about white privilege, and noticed a commenter talking about their desire for redemption. This was a white commenter, and suddenly something clicked inside me, another white, also attempting to be anti-racist. I, too, had experienced desire for redemption. And I realized that many, many white Americans who attempt to become anti-racists and who examine their own privilege find themselves confronting their privilege within a framework heavily influenced by Christian thought.

As a sophomore at St John’s College I have studied pretty extensively the Bible and various Christian theologists – Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther. In my spare time I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the way in which the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. originated organically largely from black churches in the South. This past year caused me to confront Christianity as never before, also as I was confronting my white privilege as never before. It has been a tremendous journey for me as a white woman raised in a secular American family. In direct descent along my maternal and paternal lines, I have to go a hundred years back before I can find a religious, theistic relative – a Baptist circuit rider to the sheep stations in Queensland, a colonizer and woman-hater who preached the evils of alcohol, sex, and playing cards.

Many white people who try to confront their white privilege begin to think of their privilege in terms of sin, and view anti-racism as a path to salvation and/or redemption. This is a natural process, intuitive and easy to think of. Sin, after all, as understood by Christianity, is a burden we have from birth, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. No human being can escape Sin, and all must struggle to overcome it. We are all fundamentally responsible for the crucifixion of the Christ, because all of us would have been capable of crucifying him, or remaining complicit by our silence. The parallels to privilege are obvious: white people cannot “help” being born with privilege, but privilege is evil and we must strive to overcome it. All white people will at some point do something racist because of their white privilege, just as all humans, Christianity leads us to believe, will sin, because while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

This Christian framework for understanding white privilege is particularly accessible to Americans because of a particular interpretation of American History which has become a great, powerful, and beautiful American myth. In this mythology, slavery becomes the original sin of America, against the Founders’ ideals of liberty and equality. Abraham Lincoln is a sort of Moses, leading the nation out of slavery but dying before he came into the promised land, much of the war still to be fought. John Brown remains in the American psyche as an uneasy part of our past, a sort of Old Testament prophet, angry as Amos and visionary as Isaiah. Who, then, is Christ? None other than Martin Luther King, made a martyr for Civil Rights, dying in his thirties as a young, beautiful man, weighed down by the world, dedicated to peace and righteousness, a visionary unappreciated by his contemporary Americans. This imagery of race in America seen through the lens of Christianity has enriched the work of historians such as Taylor Branch – a man who entitled his three-volume work on Civil Rights and especially Dr. King, Parting of the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At the Edge of Canaan.

This myth has obvious appeal, particularly to white Americans who feel that they live in a somehow post-racial world, or at least a world transformed since the brief and brilliant 1960s. We are the people who live after the Christ, and who seek desperately for redemption now that we know so thoroughly our nature as sinners, as people with privilege. The myth is potent, and it seeps into our souls on a level below direct consciousness.

Most white Americans – the overwhelming majority – are either Christian, or have been raised in a Christian culture. Secular Americans, lacking any meaningful secular traditions, frequently adopt those of Christianity; my family celebrated Christmas and Easter despite our various atheisms and agnosticisms. I knew a family, growing up, that was of Jewish descent and secular belief that nevertheless had a Christmas Tree every year. You cannot escape Christianity easily as a non-Jewish white American, and it’s hard to avoid even if you aren’t white, I’ve been told. Christianity is pervasive and deeply entrenched in American culture, and it shapes the way we think about the world. Sin makes our understanding of morality often very black and white, and treats immoral actions as stains on the soul which we must find redemption for; guilt is a deep and powerful emotion, far more present, I’ve found, than shame.

All of which means that when white Americans stumble – we usually stumble – upon anti-racist literature, thought, and discussion, we confront our privilege in a number of predictable ways. Either we deny the existence of privilege, we say that we were poor growing up or we “sure ain’t driving around a Mercedes-Benz!” or we ask “so, now what?” I was very much a member of the latter camp. Indeed, my first real encounter with the theory of white privilege can be found here, at the livejournal feminist_101 community. I look back at what I wrote then and can’t help but laugh at myself a little – so predictable, so obvious. As the past two years proceeded – it is almost two years now – I read a lot and learned to listen and not demand answers, and I think I understand myself (and the question) a bit better. But – now what?

People want to do something upon learning that they have privilege and are perpetuating inequality. They want redemption. Christians have traditionally approached the problem of redemption in two ways: by works, and through faith. In white anti-racism, works often looks a lot like “donating to charity”, or “voting for Barack Obama” or “writing letters to my congressman”, or even “participating in grassroots organizations seeking racial equality”. Faith is trickier and in many ways more troubling; I have seen it time and time again, in others and in myself, and I have no doubt it will continue. Many, many, many white anti-racists seek a person of color whom they can emulate, and whose words they can receive as dictum. They will ask, “Is it cultural appropriation if I wear a sari, even if I spent a semester abroad studying in New Delhi, and have taken a class in Indian Literature?” They will flagellate themselves publicly to prove their self-loathing as white people with privilege, and they will fawn on a witty, wise, or simply well-known person of color within the community. Among white Americans whose anti-racism is of the banal, color-blind, just-left-of-center variety, this adulation is often directed toward a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr.

What’s so bad about this? A number of things. First, it doesn’t encourage any real learning, growth, or moral development if white people decide the answer to all their problems is to do whatever people of color tell them is the right thing. For one thing, it’s awful to demand of any person that they be the spokesman or spokeswoman for all that is good and just in the world, and have all of the answers, all of the time. If someone were to ask me, as a woman, to tell them how not to abuse male privilege, I’d be at a loss for words – particularly if the question were something more concrete, like, “As a woman, what can you tell me about the problem of prostitution?”

For another, it’s ludicrous to pretend that all people of color everywhere agree about the correct path to take when pursuing anti-racism. Clarence Thomas ought to make that clear, but even beyond the Clarences and Condoleezas of the world, you’re missing the point of anti-racism if you don’t see that what’s missing from the American dialogue on race isn’t the “Black Answer” to white America’s problems, but rather the dialogue of people of color – how many white Americans could tell you about the substance of the debate between Dubois and Booker T., or about the substantive disagreement between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? I attended a lecture this year by Andrew Young, a distinguished former civil rights leader, Ambassador to the U.N., and Mayor of Atlanta. After the lecture there was a question session, and it seemed like all of Black Annapolis had turned out. There was a fiery and fascinating debate between an audience member, an ex-con, Black Muslim, and Malcolm X supporter, and Andrew Young – a debate about the best way to confront racist white America, and advance in a world dead set against Black American advancement.

It is this debate which needs to be heard and understood more than it is, and any understanding of white privilege which relies on the previous framework of Christian understanding of sin is going to have a hard time dealing with this debate. How can you put faith in a debate? Debate, after all, doesn’t look much like scripture. Debate shows the grey, and the difficulty of the problem. Of course, any good seminarian can tell you that the medieval schoolmen, and later Protestant theologians, spent most of their time shouting at each other how they were all wrong and were all going to go to hell, but most people who are actually Christian subscribe to a particular Christian sect, and don’t subscribe to a debate – it’s hard, after all, to have faith in a disagreement between Martin Luther and John Calvin!

What’s a white anti-racist to do? Everywhere we look, civil rights and anti-racism are framed in terms of the biblical narrative – black preachers decry racism in the phrases of Amos and the Sermon on the Mount. White privilege is a stain on our souls which we are desperately trying to escape. We want redemption. We want forgiveness.

Simon Wiesenthal was a holocaust survivor and an influential writer. In his book The Sunflower he tells a story about being in a Nazi concentration camp. He was on a work detail in the garden of a local hospital. A German soldier sent a nurse out to find “a Jew, any Jew”, and Wiesenthal was brought to this German soldier’s bedside. The Nazi was dying of his wounds, painfully and away from all family and community. He was wracked with guilt. Raised Catholic but too agnosticly proud to turn to a priest, the soldier told Wiesenthal of his participation in the murder of hundreds of Jews in a Polish village. He asked for forgiveness. He asked for redemption.

Wiesenthal walked out of the room without saying a word, risking his life for the sake of his belief that he, as a human being, could not forgive a man for his sins against other human beings. Those people were dead by the German soldier’s hands, and could no more give the soldier forgiveness than his hospital bed. The soldier did not reach out to God because he was not particularly a believer – instead, he reached out to “a Jew, any Jew.”

White anti-racists in America ought to shun this behavior as best they can. In ourselves, it is too easy, and far too dehumanizing. It is dehumanizing because we are making people God, and no human being should be expected to bear the guilt of all White America. We must, as white anti-racists, learn to see people of color in America as people, as human beings, and not as animals, not as servants or victims, and not as Gods – but as people. People who debate. People who love and cry and do wrong and do good, and, yes, sin, if you believe in sin, just as white Americans do. If Jesus Christ gives you comfort and strength as you confront racism, you are within a fine tradition of Christian opposition to slavery and oppression and evil, but you – we – must not conflate sin and white privilege, sin and racism, sin and bigotry. We must reach a subtler and stronger understanding of ourselves as privileged people. We must learn to live with our privilege without being overwhelmed by our guilt.