Editor’s note—part of what makes conversations about race such as white privilege so difficult is that we seem to talk past each other. This series explores ways important words are used and provides biblical categories for the ideas behind them. Our goal is not to police language but to provide greater clarity.
I was recently invited to address a group of Christian professionals on race in the workplace. The goal was to give these brothers and sisters ideas on how to foster conversation and get Christians’ thinking about racial justice. I was one of several presenters, and one of the others mentioned white privilege in passing. He did not accuse anyone of anything. He spoke from his experience as a minority and outlined his difficulty in relating to some of his white peers. The rest of us gave our brief talks, then it was time for questions. Several of the participants were highly agitated, fixated on two sentences in a half hour of talks. Their problem was with that simple phrase: white privilege. They heard nothing that came after it.
You are probably familiar with some of the objections to the notion of white privilege:
“I’ve worked for what I have! I haven’t been handed anything.”
“I’ve been passed over for promotion in favor of a less qualified minority candidate. There is no white privilege, only reverse-discrimination.”
“If communities are not succeeding in modern America, it is because they are not doing the right things, not because anyone is holding them back.”
The trouble is that the two sides usually don’t take the time to understand each other. The term white privilege is often left undefined, leaving every participant in the conversation with their own definition. Many of us white brothers and sisters get unnecessarily defensive when the term comes up, which further stifles conversation and understanding.
I am sure there are definitions of white privilege which are completely unreasonable. That is often where many of us run when the term comes up. But that is not what is usually intended.
Love Hopes All Things
It is tempting to assume the worst about people with whom you disagree. Assuming the worst is a reflex for many of us. When presented with a challenging idea, it is easier to assign the craziest outcome you can think of to your opponent’s idea, even if that is not what he or she is advocating.
For example, in the case of white privilege, some of us hear the phrase and immediately rush to conclude that it means being handed everything, not having to work, or being morally culpable for centuries of racism. You might even be able to find someone who uses the phrase that way. But especially if you’re dealing with a brother or sister in the Lord, you have an obligation to love them and assume better of them (I Corinthians 13:7).
Understand the Disagreement
Our world allows us to retreat into ideological camps and only have conversations with people with whom we already agree. If we engage someone on the other side of an issue, it may be only in an effort to score rhetorical points. That can make us bad at listening. We foolishly formulate our predetermined arguments while the other person is talking (Proverbs 18:13). We’re not actually trying to understand, to our shame.
Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.” You may think the notion of white privilege is ridiculous. You may think anyone who uses that phrase is ideologically compromised. Those judgments might not hold up to the scrutiny of cross-examination.
White Christian, the next time a brother or sister uses the phrase white privilege, do not take it personally. Ask a follow-up. You may be surprised what you learn. Conversations can take some work, but they increase understanding. We may not all agree when the conversation is over, but we’ll understand each other and be better able to love each other as a result.
Astute readers will notice I have made it to the end of this article without defining the term. I have written previously about the disparate histories of ethnic groups in this country in the lifetime of those still living. But more than I want to convince you of my definition of the term, I want to demonstrate how we don’t need a shared definition to start talking. Let’s do that work, delighting in understanding rather than just voicing our own opinions (Proverbs 18:2).
- Pray that Christians would not be defensive, but would assume the best of our brothers and sisters (I Corinthians 13:7).
- Pray that God would make us humble and wise, willing to learn, slow to speak, quick to listen (Proverbs 18:13, James 1:19).
- Pray for greater understanding and charity between those who disagree, that they may agree in the Lord (Philippians 4:2).