The Myth of Equality | Is it a Moral Responsibility to Think About Privilege?

By Ken Wytsma

Ken Wytsma is the founder of The Justice Conference, the global pastor of Antioch Church, and the president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He is the author of Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and recently released, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and PrivilegeThe Myth of Equality was the feature of a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review.

Want to stir up a heated conversation? Just bring up the word “privilege.” Want to go farther, bring up “white privilege.” The contentious—possibly confusing—nature of the conversation on white privilege has caused many people to dismiss it as unhelpful, unnecessary, or not within the purview of Christian dialogue.

From my experience, it would be a tragic mistake to keep the conversation about white privilege at arm’s length.

I’ve been working in justice circles for over a decade, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that acknowledging and understanding my own privilege has been an essential part of authentically exploring injustice and my location within the American racial narrative.

White privilege could be explained a million ways, but I like to say it this way: it is the privilege given to white persons—both historically and in contemporary society—based on the normative place the white race was afforded through colonialism and several hundreds of years of policy, law, and cultural norms. These structures and their vestiges were created by white supremacists over hundreds of years in a highly racialized American society.

White privilege doesn’t mean white people have it easy or that they haven’t worked hard to achieve what they have attained in life. Rather, it simply means that person of color, due to historical injustices and contemporary biases, most likely, would have had to work harder for the same results. Statistically, white people tend to fare better when interviewing for jobs, applying for schools, and being sentenced by judges. To put it simply, a white person pulled over at 2 a.m. on a rural road in Mississippi is probably going to feel more at ease than if they were a minority. Or, to illustrate it another way, AirBnB didn’t just update their discrimination policies because too many of its users were discriminating against people with Anglo-Saxon sounding Christian names.

Not suffering the same disadvantages as minorities, or people of color is an advantage or privilege.

Recently, several authors have argued that the privilege conversation has gone too far and become counter-productive to helpful discourse.

One such author argues that “privilege awareness has become a status symbol” and injustice can’t be solved by accusing others of advantage. She adds, “I’ve never quite sorted out by what mechanism awareness of privilege is meant to inspire a desire to shed oneself of it.”[1]

To the first point, I don’t claim to be an authority on what’s helpful or unhelpful for disadvantaged communities. I have friends who are qualified through living with their tribe on the reservation or by spending decades doing community development work in inner cities, and I defer to them. Whether it’s helpful or not to others, however, I do tend to think it’s helpful for me—as a moral agent—to have an accurate accounting of who I am in the world. Acknowledging privilege has nothing to do with my “status.”

In a conversation I recently had with my daughters after a mix-up in a Phoenix ice cream shop, I told them, “It might be unhealthy for your sister to brood on the fact that her ice cream scoop isn’t as big as yours, but that doesn’t mean isn’t valuable for you to understand and be aware that your ice cream scoop is twice as big as hers. And now you are faced with a moral obligation to steward this situation in the best possible way so you achieve fairness and maintain relationship.” We can’t offer ourselves up relationally if we don’t take seriously the injustices our neighbors experience—injustices that would be painfully obvious to us if circumstances were reversed.

The biblical text is clear on this point of responsibility: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”[2] Or, “ . . . anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none.”[3] The list of verses calling us to practical acts of sacrifice and justice for others—when and where we are able—could go on for pages. And each of them, it seems, gets its start by helping us see our blessings and resources—i.e., our privilege.

If we don’t think we have enough shirts, we’re unlikely to be generous with the extra ones. If we don’t realize we have benefited from systems of injustice, we’re unlikely to have empathy for those struggling to overcome those same systems. If we’re blind to one side of the coin (our privilege), we’re probably going to be blind to the other (the disadvantage or oppression of others).

We are stewards of whatever historical or spiritual blessings we have been given or inherited.

Recently, I was counseling the chaplain of a Christian college, who asked me how to understand and walk faithfully as a white man having come to a realization of the reality of white privilege. Later in the conversation, when he asked me to speak at his college’s chapel service, I quickly responded that a chapel service might be a great place for us to bring in a panel to lean into a conversation with students on some of the trickier parts of race and privilege. His reply shocked me. “We can’t do that,” he said, “because our new college president specifically forbade me from ever having the words white privilege mentioned from our chapel stage.”

To reject discussions about privilege is to agree with Cain, who said, “I am not my brother’s keeper.” To welcome mature conversations—to reflect on how our society has advantaged some while disadvantaging others based on skin color and culture and address the spiritual implications for life—is to agree with God that we are our brother’s keeper. Is this not one of the reasons why the “Samaritan” features so strongly in the life and teachings of Jesus?

Maybe it doesn’t help if we point fingers at other people, but that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the need for honest self-reflection on where you and I sit within the historic realities of race in America.

If we can’t have these conversations from the teaching platforms at Christian colleges, then what are we saying about our pursuit of truth and justice? If not at academic Christian institutions, then where should we look for mature Christian conversations?

Perhaps, at this point, you’re still struggling with the very idea that privilege is real. I can’t take the time—in one brief article—to unpack a complex idea like privilege—that’s why I wrote a book about it—but my point here is simply that the conversation is important.

I don’t talk about white privilege to make anyone feel guilty or as some sort of new status symbol. Just the opposite. I believe a more accurate accounting of ourselves gives us the chance to be liberated, to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters, and to see purpose where we were once blind through either ignorance, apathy, or defensiveness.

Regarding the author’s second assertion, above: “I’ve never quite sorted out by what mechanism awareness of privilege is meant to inspire a desire to shed oneself of it,”[4] I would offer that, as Christians, we do have such a mechanism.

Over the last decade, I have encountered a number of people working with and for relief and development organizations. Most of these people have a watershed, transformative story about traveling to another country or being exposed to extreme poverty, which made them aware of their own privilege. Such exposure cultivated a passion to labor in the developing world and a willingness to lay down privilege in order to see goodness flourish.

In short, the awareness of privilege and injustice overcame the base impulses of individuality and consumerism so that life trajectories were changed. Comfort was exchanged for sacrifice, and a life of plenty was traded for the bread of doing God’s will.

In the face of arguments that say we should move away from talk of privilege, I simply ask: if exposure to the developing world can create a greater sense of moral perspective and responsibility, can’t a deeper interaction with the historical and contemporary forms of racial injustice in our country also lead to a deepened moral perspective and greater sense of stewardship and responsibility?

When I was a grad student at a Christian college that forbade students from drinking—even if they were twenty-one—the rule always struck me as strange. A wise person is made, not born. Where better to train young men and women on how to handle alcohol maturely than at a Christian college? Alas, it seems rules are easier, less messy, and keep the older donor-base happy.

But isn’t this detrimental and morally unhealthy? Moral skill comes from the messy parts of life. It’s how we learn.

We all know it’s bad when we’re overprotective of children—never letting them run downhill or scrape their knees. But are we aware when we do the same to adults? Clean and tidy feels better than messy, but does it help us grow in wisdom or lead us into truth and justice?

If someone focuses on how they have been denied privilege, it may cause them to think like a victim, or it might be detrimental to moral responsibility and faith-filled forward action. I say may, because it seems like this could be different for everyone who finds themselves the victims of historical oppression. But understanding and acknowledging that we have been the beneficiaries of privilege—learning of this in religious contexts and being able to process within a religious framework—certainly creates the opportunity for deeper moral reflection and greater moral responsibility.

Without the maturity or wisdom that comes from being in—and growing through—the messiness of racial dialogue, defensiveness will drive our agendas more than truth.

If we give up on privilege because it’s viewed as politically correct language or some sort of new status symbol—or if we fatalistically think an understanding of privilege is not part of our own moral development or the reconciling work needed in society—it seems we will fall victim, over time, to discounting privilege, absolving ourselves of responsibility, and believing what I call, “the myth of equality.”

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/03/23/the-last-thing-on-privilege-youll-ever-need-to-read/?utm_term=.430c6259e14a

[2] Luke 12:48

[3] Luke 3:11

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/03/23/the-last-thing-on-privilege-youll-ever-need-to-read/?utm_term=.430c6259e14a

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