Wrestling with White Privilege

Image used from Scene on Radio, Episode 37’s page.  Composite image: Chenjerai Kumanyika, left; photo by Danusia Trevino. And John Biewen, photo by Ewa Pohl.

Chenjerai Kumanyika is an ongoing partner on the podcast “Seeing White,” a series by “Scene On Radio.” In Episode 37 (part 7 of the “Seeing White” series) Kumanyika, a black man poses a question to the host John Biewen, a white man. He asks John if he feels any responsibility for what other white people do? This question has sat in my soul like a splinter deep in the bottom of my foot.

Kumanyika goes on to explain that as a black man there is a black identity that exists, a connection felt between black people. When he received his Ph.D., he said that he thought it was a victory for all black people, not just himself. When he sees a criminal that is black, he feels that he is part of that failure. He is trying to remove himself from thinking like that, but it is hard. For white people, here in America, we do not have that same connection to the events, situations, and actions of other white people.

The splinter in my foot, the question gripping my soul, is should we? Should my whiteness be attached to the actions of other white people in our society? How would our culture, society, and community change if I, and all white people, personally felt attached to what other white people do?

The truth is I never have and I am sure most of the white people reading this never have either. What I have started to understand this is one aspect of white privilege. I don’t have to look at the actions of Dylann Ruth, who murdered nine people at church and feel any attachment to his actions at all. I feel horrible that he did it but I wasn’t connected on a racial level with him.

The same is true with the actions of the people in Charlottesville, VA this last week. I never really felt connected to other white people who carried Nazi and Confederate Flags while chanting hateful, horrible things about other races. I don’t feel connected to James Alex Fields who drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

I am starting to feel connected. No, I do not agree with their ideology, their twisting of scripture, and the despicable ways they view the world and those who live in it. The connection I am feeling is that I have to limit my own privilege to remove myself from them. I can’t ignore them or their actions by simply saying, “Well, they have a horrible worldview and they are not me.” They are white Americans. I am a white American.

I have to start to acknowledge that as a white American, I have a historical advantage over people of color. Our country has in its foundation, given an advantage to people who are deemed as white. I have been born into and part of this privilege, like it or not, claimed or not.

What claiming this connection can do is to help start naming where it goes wrong or acknowledging the systems that existed and still exist today which continue to hold up this ideal.

Naming these systems, acknowledging our privilege, pulls the sins of the past, present and future, into the light. It gives a voice to what I’ve ignored, out of ignorance and privilege, for a long time. As we name these realities and shed light on the pain they caused, we can work towards reconciliation and equality on deeper levels in our society.

I don’t have answers. I’m simply naming the reality of my soul as I feel the weight of the privilege I never understood I had…until now.


Have We Moved Beyond Gender and Race?

A friend of mine was a delegate to our Jurisdictional Conference this year.  I was asking him about his experience and he vented about some of his frustrations.  He said, “There was a point when people started to simply vote for minorities and not the candidate who had the gifts and talents needed by the church.”  He went on to tell me that he had a conversation with another delegate from his conference about this issue.  She called him out on his comment about gender and race.  She was an older black women and he is a white young clergy. 
His defense is, “For my generation we don’t see race and gender as the older generations do.  We don’t get caught up in that anymore and we need to vote for who has the best talents and gifts.”  I understand where he is coming from and agree with him.  I think the younger generations, GenXers and the Millennials, see race and gender differently than those who grew up in the 50s and 60s.  We have grown up being segregated and do not know a world without leadership of mixed races and with women in key leadership roles.
Have we moved beyond race and gender?  As I appoint local church leadership in my Nominations committee I do have an eye out making sure there is equal representation of gender and generations, but that is not my main focal point.  My main objective is to get people with talents, willingness and passion into the leadership roles that will move the local church forward and not prop up past agendas or “back to Egypt” mentalities.  But then again I am a white male who turned 35 this year.
I am a firm believer in equal representation but let’s face it in the next decade or two we will become an even more white denomination (at least in my conference).  Out of the 68 young clergy we have only one who is non-white and that person is Asian.  We have no representation in our young clergy demographic of African American, Native American, Hispanic, or any other race that plays a major part in our local communities.  In twenty years when one of these 68 young clergy is put up for nomination to Bishop they will have between 20-30 years of ministerial experience. They will have helped congregations through tough transitions and want the United Methodist Church to do what it can to be relevant and vital in this world.  BUT they will be 99% white.
Have we moved beyond gender and race and/or should we?  I would love to hear your thoughts especially if you are a minority in the UMC.  Do you feel the same way or does that mentality seem like a thought from the majority to make ourselves feel better about ourselves?