Subversive White Privilege
My recent op-ed for the Herald Leader was edited down to make it fit in the newspaper. Here is the full length submission:
I have spent most of my life ignorant of racism. On a personal level, I was certainly naïve to my own prejudice. But on a cultural level, it was more than naivety; it was blindness. I saw the “race card” as an excessively overplayed narrative with little substance, and I rolled my eyes at the notion of white privilege.
But then I became a Christian, the surest doom to all forms of hatred.
Soon thereafter I was convicted of personal racism and began the journey of my own repentance, a journey that continues to this day. But I was slower to see and admit racial injustice as a social phenomenon. However the descent of our nation into the madness of animosity and violence has led me into a season asking God and others: What am I missing?
The answer began in the most unlikely of places. I was putting a band-aid on my son when he asked why band-aids were always the same color.
“So that it will blend in with your skin and people won’t notice”
“What if my skin wasn’t white?”
Stunned. Thirty-five years of life and I had never noticed that band-aids are the color of my skin. Thirty-five years and I had never considered that black children have their “boo-boos” accentuated by band-aids, while white children have theirs hidden.
For some reason it was this seemingly insignificant privilege that got me to consider that perhaps there was more privilege I was blind to. And once I confessed blindness, I began to see.
I saw that my partying phase in high school carried the “boys will be boys” label rather than the “thug” label.
I saw that my failures were precisely that—my failures, not an indictment on my entire race.
I saw that when I write and speak people are never amazed that someone who looks like me could be so articulate; they actually just listen and consider my words.
I saw tragedies that impact my culture—such as Pearl Harbor and September 11th—are remembered with “never forget” solemnization, while slavery and Jim Crow are suppressed with “it’s time to move on” patronization.
I saw that white westerners get to know the history and traditions of other cultures as a fun experience in this world, but other cultures get to know our history and traditions as a way to survive in this world.
I saw that all my children’s cartoons, toys, super heroes, and even their Jesus, looked like them. (As if her virgin conception wasn’t bewildering enough, imagine Mary’s surprise when she gave birth to a white baby)
I have seen so much, and there is yet more to see. And all that I see points to the same conclusion. Indeed, this world is easier for me. Who knows, perhaps the tables of culture will turn in generations to come, and my own heritage will know the sting of marginalization. But that has not been my experience. My experience has been privileged.
And all of this has left me asking one question: What am I to do with my privilege? That may sound like an odd question, but it seems to me the most appropriate one.
I see a lot of people like me blissfully unaware of their privilege. I see a lot of people like me wallowing in guilt over their privilege. I see a lot of people like me raging against the impending loss of their privilege. But rarely do I see people like me asking what to do with cultural privilege.
I have a suggestion. What if privilege were viewed, not as a status to enjoy, but as a responsibility to steward? I call it subversive privilege, and I learned it from the Middle Eastern man I call Lord.
Every week at our church I proclaim the gospel story of ultimate privilege laid aside that others may flourish. He, who had all power, laid aside his power for the powerless. He, who had all glory, laid aside his glory for the outcasts. He, who had all riches, laid aside his riches for the poor. And I, the benefactor of his subversive privilege, am now called to do the same.
So practically speaking, what would that look like for me? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I plan to spend this year asking people of color that very question. But for now, I’m committed to the ideal.
I cannot escape the reality of privilege, but I am committed to doing privilege differently. I am committed to the ways of subversive privilege expressed in life of Jesus—not the white one, the real one.