Acton Institute Powerblog

No Racial Reconciliation Without Intersectionality and Privilege

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WhitePrivilegeIn 1988, Peggy McIntosh gave us “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to expand our thinking about the reality that being born white in America means that one is free from a host of pressures and burdens that racial minorities have no choice but to face. In 1989, UCLA Law professor Kimberlé W. Crenshaw coined the phrase “intersectionality” to help us see that American life is best understood from an integrative perspective, emphasizing the intersection of several attributes like gender, race, class, and nation. There is not one aspect of our lives that defines who we are. For nearly 25 years, “white privilege” and “intersectionality” have been standard categories in discussions of race in American life. After reading about these ideas I am wondering why Christians do not use these themes when talking about “racial reconciliation.”

Perhaps the cause of this reticence is that progressives see inequality and privilege as something to be remedied–as something abnormal — whereas a more virtuous understanding of these issues in an imperfect world sees privilege and inequality as a opportunity to practice charity and spread shalom.

Since the release of my book Aliens In The Promise Land in 2013, I am bringing to a close my work on race and evangelicalism. If the goal is to demonstrate that being made in the image of God and having equality in the gospel (Gen 1:26-28; Gal 3:28) has implications for daily life, there needs be a more dynamic discussion beyond “racial reconciliation.” In fact, it seems to me that evangelicals will not make progress on race until the discussion advances integrative concepts like “white privilege” and “intersectionality.” “Racial reconciliation” does not cut deep enough and often ignores the intersections and the roles of class and social power.

I was delighted to stumble upon a provocative article last week by Gina Crosley-Corcoran, who is white and grew up very poor in rural Illinois in a camper with no hot water or heat. Titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person” (language warning), the article is specifically written for those of us with friends who, upon hearing the phrase “white privilege,” get defensive and believe that because their parents were immigrants, or because they were from a lower social class, they are now somehow immune to the privileges of what it means to be white in America:

The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have. For example:

Citizenship – Simply being born in this country affords you certain privileges non-citizens will never access. Class – Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities. Sexual Orientation – By being born straight, every state in this country affords you privileges that non-straight folks have to fight the Supreme Court for. Sex – By being born male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying you’ll be raped and that a defense attorney will then blame it on what you were wearing. Ability – By being born able bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around handicap access, braille, or other special needs. Gender – By being born cisgendered, you aren’t worried that the restroom or locker room you use will invoke public outrage.

The point, then, of Christian racial discourse and the necessary inclusion of white privilege and intersectionality, as Crosley-Corcoran points out, is not “to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with white skin and experience these privileges.” The point is, for white American, financially stable, fully heterosexual males and females, “Whether you realize it or not, you DO benefit from white privilege, and it IS your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.” In other words, to be an able-bodied, heterosexual, financially stable, evangelical white person walking around in America denying that he or she directly benefits from white privilege, regardless of family background, is to deny the truth. Perhaps the defensiveness is rooted in a particular form of Christian cowardliness because owning privilege means owning responsibility–the responsibility of charity. After all, it is easier to act like the truth is not true. To deny the existence of race or class privilege, then, is to practice truth suppression. Or, perhaps, the reticence comes from not knowing what to do in response. This is completely understandable.

As I have said before, whatever cultural privileges we have been given, either by race or class, what matters is whether or not we use our privileges to help those who do not have them. Our economic, genetic, or socially-conditioned privileges are not for the purpose of protecting and conserving said privileges for ourselves, but rather to pass on the benefits to others who are on the margins. Our privileges are bestowed upon us by God so that we may use them to love our neighbors well (Matt 22:36-40). It is by embracing God’s providence in this way that we are protected from the poison of envy or a sense of entitlement. Privilege is an opportunity to honor God through reciprocity and charity. For example, Daniel the Prophet used his privileged status to accomplish much for the kingdom of God as did Paul the Apostle.

While “white privilege” is something that I have not experienced, I am very honest about the fact that I do benefit from class privilege. I am a phone call or a few internet clicks away from a house or car loan, for example. As such, I’ve had to work hard over the years to step into the lives of those who did not have those privileges and who remain where they are due to the inertia of the middle-class culture in which I was raised. With my level of privilege I have countless opportunities to show thankfulness for the grace God has given me by passing my privileges on to those without them in very ordinary ways. Perhaps this is all that James is referring to in the concept of “true religion” (James 1:26-27).

In the end, if evangelicals want to make serious progress on race, and show the world that the gospel changes the way we live here and now, it is time to bring 1988 and 1989 into 2014 and openly discuss ways to use our privileges to serve others. “Cultural engagement” is more than blogging about Duck Dynasty, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or popular movies and music. “Engaging” may mean listening well to the cultural conversation and looking for opportunities to highlight the providences of God that invite us to practice virtue and point the world to God’s mission to redeem all things.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Christena Cleveland


  • jay kay

    Could you elaborate on how we are to use our privilege?
    Would it be wrong to also work to renounce our privilege, or challenge those systems that yield privilege in the first place? For example, should I think that my status as a white American is ‘bestowed upon [me] by God’ for any other purpose than to end the privileging of whiteness?

    • jay kay

      No, but seriously: is racial inequality ‘the basis of society’? Or does Acton not help us here?

  • pduggie

    I find the inclusion of cisgender privilege kinda mucks up what privilege talk is trying to do. cisgendered people do experience the world as ‘normal’, because, well, being cisgendered is pretty normal, and its the way most cisgendered people want it. changing the expectation that ‘boy meets girl’ is a kind of ‘normal’ story, for instance, does not do much for anyone. Someone may say “Your constant assumption that people are cisgendered just because 99.99% are steps on my foot and offends me because I don’t feel included by your default story” but can we really expect very many to view that as a valid complaint? Will Christians ever approve of a world where 15% of the front page of the paper is about trans* people?

    This is where the recognition that some items in Mackintosh’s list are things that, ok, it may be one’s FAULT if you don’t recognize it, but its barely worth talking about it much. Her example of

    ” I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

    is also true in, say, china. Is this something that it is the fault of the Chinese if they don’t recognize? I don’t even THINK about how everyone on the front page of my paper shares my cisgender privilege. I hardly think I’m at fault. Maybe I am, but it would have to be argued.

    Tl;dr : it important to focus on the big picture items of privilege and not get lost in the weeds.

    • jay kay

      FWIW, I think there would be a similar dynamic in China between Han Chinese and many ethnic minorities.

    • I think the thing is that transgender discrimination hasn’t really existed before because there were no transgendered people before the 1950s – just people who were very confused. I also find the idea that sexism is just another aspect of racism unhelpful. While both are equally immoral racism is clearly more dangerous than sexism. After all it is possible to commit genocide against another race and “get away with it”. Whereas exterminating an entire sex would, of course, be impossible outside a science fiction film. Women may have been historically enslaved and dominated but they were not historically exterminated – all be it for purely cynical practical reasons. It is difficult to know the true level of danger in transexual discrimination because there is no history of such people from which we can draw historical lessons. The words cis and cisgender remind me of the 1970s attempts to remove the word men from womin. It never caught on because it was too silly.

  • Guest

    Great post, these discussions are long overdue! I’m not sure, however, that white privilege is somehow bestowed by God as much as it is evidence of a broken, sinful world, whose ruler is the enemy of all that is good, true and pure.

    • c684570

      Long overdue? Excuse me? We hear about how racist White people are literally every single day.

      • Guest

        …and thank you for proving my point.

  • Nick Cochran

    I have no idea how to accomplish this. When I think about how to do this without being a huge racist I am even more stumped.

    • Anthony Bradley

      Nick my book “Aliens In The Promised Land” gives you direction on how to accomplish this.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    In America, religion was used as THE grounds for slavery to exist.

    Granted it was also used as THE grounds for the abolitionist movement, and also had a bit to do with the work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, seeing as how he was, you know, a minister and all. And then there’s that Wilberforce guy and whatnot. Those are facts that can’t just be ignored either, even though you seem to want to do that.

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  • pduggie

    interestingly, I found this reference to critics of Macintosh.

    Worth a read.

    McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism

    Harvard Educational Review Vol. 83 No. 3 Fall 2013Copyright © by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

  • Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is one of the most odious pieces of political propaganda I’ve ever read. I think it was the Master in Doctor Who who said for a lie to work it must be shrouded in truth. Therefore a lot of it is true but amongst the observations of everyday racial discrimination such as people being stopped and searched by the PoPo are a series of massive racist generalisations.

    For example line one is “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the
    time.” Apart from the fact I cant this is a loaded insinuation that I, as a white man, am a racist? I mean why would I want to arrange such a thing in the first place? The only reason would be that I am a racist. And having thought about this a lot I came to the conclusion it’s just not true.

    “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housingin an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”

    What planet’s this bird on? There’s hardly any social housing in the UK any more and hardly anyone can afford to buy a house at all no matter what their colour.

    “I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.” Doesn’t live in my street.

    We could go on and on but it’s just one long list of massive generalisations. It’s at this point that critical race theorists and intersectional feminists bleet “but it’s not all about YOU”. And this is the problem. Personal experiences, individual experiences make their narratives seem silly. It is also dangerous because it seeks to confuse rights with privileges. While it is there is inequality and some white people can get away with living by lower standards ….statements like

    “I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.”

    …are palpably absurd. If I dressed in second hand clothes, didn’t answer letters and swore all the time at work I’d get the sack. One wonders exactly what job Peggy McIntosh had. The fact is NOBODY can get away with behaving like that at work unless they own the complany.

    To be fair it is Peggy McIntos’s list based on her experiences at the time … but one wonders if these are real experiences or figmants of her hard left imagination.

    Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s idea of “intersectionality” is even more dangerous though. This postulates innocently that because someone can suffer racism and sexism they get a more raw deal than someone who only suffers from sexism. Again this is a truth. What is untrue is the extrapolation that has been added to this (to be fair to Ms Crenshaw mainly by other people) that racism and sexism always occur together and that “oppressions” are interchangable. Like the concept of white privilege this is a denial of the ideological dimensions of racism. Most racists are indeed sexists too but not always to idential degrees.

    At the bottom of this pile of obvious logical fallacies is Pat Bidol’s odious lie that racism is simply prejudice + power. There’s an old joke on the internet that the way to lose an argument is to bring up the Nazis… well, I’m going to do just that. Racism is a European word that was invented to describe Nazi ideology. Simply pretending everything is racism and everyone in a position of power is racist is obviously nonsense.

    “The point, then, of Christian racial discourse and the necessary inclusion of white privilege and intersectionality, asCrosley-Corcoran points out, is not “to make white people feel guilty
    about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with white skin
    and experience these privileges.” The point is, for white American,
    financially stable, fully heterosexual males and females, “Whether you
    realize it or not, you DO benefit from white privilege, and it IS your
    fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.””

    Guilt is exactly the right word. You have re-invented original sin. The problem is you can make the poor and the middle and power classes feel as guilty as you like … but it isn’t going to change the political landscape. Actually what you’ve invented is a system of inverted snobbery like the old Upper/Middle/Working class structure with those at the bottom constantly checking their privilege while those at the top …erm …laugh at you?

  • MB

    You also benefit from male privilege. I was deeply disappointed that you downplayed male privilege, but then, the evangelical church is still extremely patriarchal. Sad

  • Jeremy

    I think I am opposed to “white privilege” because it makes it racial. Yes, I am white. Yes, I am privileged. Yes, this is a result of my race. But I feel like so many other races in this country have this kind of privilege too (Asian especially). Why can’t we call it “class privilege” instead of “white privilege”, because it seems to be more about class than race? Maybe I am just ignorant and this is another form of “whitey” denial, I do not know. These are just my initial thoughts after reading your article.