In 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.