“I don’t know what it’s like, so I can’t speak…”
“What if I’m misunderstood?”
“I don’t want to seem too political…”
“What can I do? What can I say?”
“I don’t want to sound patronizing or condescending…”
And the list could go on and on and on. This is what the perceived paralysis of white privilege looks like. Let me break this down.
Now, I know that “white privilege” can trigger many responses in some people. People may say, “I don’t see color,” or “why do you have to make it a racism thing?” or “I’m not racist. We’re all human…” Which may be how you truly feel, but the very fact that there is a choice in whether or not to CHOOSE to say something, proves that there is a privilege. So if you’re feeling offended by the term “white privilege”, just keep listening with an open mind and maybe see it through a new lens.
Let’s analyze this term privilege. Privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” (Oxford Dictionary) Privilege is proven when we can sit from our couches and criticize cities being destroyed by “those people.” Privilege is proven when I don’t understand why people are “rioting” and “destroying property”, but I didn’t say anything about the unjust violence that led to the protests, cuz it was too political. Privilege is proven when the conversation is uncomfortable and I can leave, and it stays where I left it. Privilege is proven when I feel I may receive backlash for saying something or doing something, and I choose not to so that I can protect myself or my family, my job, my title, etc. Basically, to have privilege means that someone has freedom to choose or not choose certain actions, and there will be little or no repercussions to those choices.
And this brings up the whole Black Lives Matter debate. Stay with me, as this can also be a triggering phrase. But take your emotions out of it for a minute, and put on your learning lens. So what’s the Black Lives Matter debate again? In a nutshell, privileged people who aren’t aware of their privilege will say “All Lives Matter”. This statement is very true; however it is not being lived out in reality, as we see people of different races being treated unjustly, and even murdered. Therefore, “Black Lives Matter” is a call for justice, a call for the reality of “All Lives Matter”, not just in concept, but in practice. If “All Lives Matter” was a true reality, we wouldn’t need to say “Black Lives Matter.”
I want to share a personal experience I’ve had with someone using their privilege to benefit me. I don’t know firsthand what it is to be discriminated against based on the color of my skin. But I do know what gender discrimination feels like. As a female pastor, I have been called names by church people that are definitely not PG-rated. I have been told I’m going to hell. I have been told that God doesn’t approve of me because of being a female pastor. I have been physically accosted at events for being a female pastor. I’ve been personally attacked on social media and even people who have worked at the highest levels of the church have personally attacked me to my face. At times, I would wonder when my brothers in ministry would rise up and have my back? Why would I ask about them? Because they had the respect of the men (and even sometimes women) who would only hear them because they were a man. They had the privilege of being male to that specific audience. If I spoke up to defend myself, which I have and still do, I would many times be seen as an angry feminist or a liberal, or … you fill in the blank. I couldn’t defend my validity to some because they already saw me as flawed and wouldn’t hear my voice. But they would hear a man’s voice.
Then something amazing happened. About 10 years ago it really surfaced. Men started speaking up for female pastors. And not just any men, but fellow pastors, conference workers, and men who had titles and positions that they could lose if they spoke up. Some men turned in their ordination credentials and asked for commissioning credentials (what many women are only endorsed with) in a move of solidarity. Once when I was attacked by a male pastor, I had other male pastors who came to my defense. They used their privilege of being male to not just defend me, but to support me. There would be times we would even hear men say “now I’m not a female and I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I stand with you and this is wrong! I will raise my voice with yours.” That was privilege being used. And it felt amazing. It felt like suddenly we weren’t alone in this fight. It gave me energy to keep fighting for what I knew was right, to keep using my God-given gifts to change the world, and to keep moving forward, even amongst the critical, misogynistic and sexist voices. We felt empowered as we now had others, others who had the ear of those who were mistreating us, who JOINED us in the fight. We weren’t alone. They used their privilege to do what was right. They saw us as sisters and fellow colleagues. We weren’t offended by their privilege: we were encouraged by it.
Now I imagine, and at times we even heard it, the men would say “now I’m not a female, so I can’t help you…” or “what if I’m misunderstood…” or, quietly and privately “this thing is so crazy that is happening! We got your back” but then when it came down to it, didn’t follow through. Or “I wish I could do more but it’s bad optics…” Or even worse, the silence. Not knowing where someone stood. The silence was louder at times than the critics. So, I use this personal illustration as a way of making a comparison. To use our “white privileged” voice is actually a compliment. It’s a secret weapon against discrimination, bigotry, fear, racism, hatred, etc. To use white privilege is not condescending: it’s empowering. It’s voicing and reminding the FACT that we are ALL children of God and so why be afraid to voice it? It’s a powerful way to encourage our fellow sisters and brothers. To stay silent makes our privilege evident, and I would say is worse than the racist actions and comments of others. Why? Because we hold the key to helping stop the hatred, so our silence is complicit.
There is this perceived paralysis of white privilege, but remember it’s only perceived. Which is good news, because in reality it is a powerful weapon. It’s not something to be offended about. It’s something to wield that is a powerful weapon in the fight against bigotry. Yes perception is powerful, but the good news is that perception can be changed, if we are willing to do so. We may not be able to change other’s perceptions, but we can begin to change our own.
Let’s look at the word paralysis. Paralysis, or inaction or silence, can happen because of the perceived fear of misunderstanding that we will receive. And, let’s be honest: There will be misunderstandings when we take action and raise our voices, so in some ways this fear is legitimate and it’s ok to take an honest look at it. There will be people who won’t get it. There will be people who will ask you why you are being “political”. There will be people who will try to shame you by saying things like “all lives matter” or “stop being racist” or “I don’t see color”, or start another rabbit trail argument about a totally different issue. And there will be some people who don’t want your white privilege voice, or who are offended in the way you choose to raise your voice against injustice. There may be some who say what you are doing is bad optics. There may be some who ask you to tone it down. There may be some who don’t want a white voice, for fear that you may encroach upon their story or experience. There may be some who say you are not black, so you don’t have a right to speak. But there also may be some who will die if you don’t use your privilege. There may be some who need your voice to translate what racism looks like, and the ones who are racist will only hear it from your voice. There may be some who will deny their privilege, until it is revealed by you, and they are invited in the fight for love and justice.
So, I invite you to join me in continuing to raise our voices. This will look different to everyone. Not everyone can march. Not everyone can rally. Some people, like me, can raise awareness through written words. Some people, like me, can be proactive in raising kids who are aware of and enthusiastic about diversity. Some of us can open up conversations, ask questions, and LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. Some of us can video an injustice as it happens and speak out that way. Some of us can widen our circle of friends. Some of us can VOTE. Some of us can read and educate ourselves. Some of us can join the fight on the front lines, behind the scenes, in the home, the neighborhood, the church, the school, the city counsel, the county, the state, the country, or the world. But it all starts in our own mind. In our own perception. May we not be those who hide behind our perceived paralysis of privilege.