Growing up in the south, I didn’t experience anything that felt privileged. We, like many families across the country, often had financial concerns, which were exacerbated by the fact that we lived in one of the wealthiest parts of our city. My parents worked hard, and yet they remained in debt, causing there to be an underlying tension in our home. Reinforcing the tension, on a number of occasions my sisters and I had friends, a rather generous title, unabashedly ask, “Do you really live here?!” I had hung out with one friend almost daily until he asked me that question. Interestingly, after that moment, he never invited me to do anything again. If someone had told teenager Joel that he was privileged, he would have disagreed.
I’ve regularly heard my story in the complaints other white people levy against this idea of white privilege. How can a poor white person, someone who might have even been denied basic goods, be called privileged? Consequently, many white people reject the idea of “white privilege,” contending that it’s simply another example of how they get blamed for the problems of the world.
What is “privilege”?
There are, to be sure, many competing factors within this topic. However, I think a good starting place is to consider what one even means by “privilege.” It seems that personal wealth is one dividing line. Even if white people possess the majority of the wealth, there are still many poor white people who do not appear to benefit from their skin pigment. So are they still privileged?
There’s another significant and often overlooked aspect to privilege: representation. For example, throughout my education, whether in history, math, religion, or philosophy, white people, particularly men, have been the heroes. White men supposedly discovered most mathematical formulas while also constructing governments and philosophical understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that school felt rather natural; the system was started and maintained by white Europeans for white Europeans. And for good reason since for so many years in the U.S., the only people who qualified as “people” were white Europeans. Everyone else was either a savage or property.
Perhaps more telling, white men have dominated translations and interpretations of the Bible, meaning traditional Catholic and Protestant theology speaks directly to me. One notable expression of this is how white-European settlers viewed their conquest of the Americas. Just as God led the people out of Egypt and into the Promise Land, so too was God leading these religiously oppressed people to the “New World.” And like the Exodus story, God was calling these settlers to purify the land by eradicating its ungodly occupants.
This Exodus story was and remains white (or “pure”); consequently, darkness (or “evil”) is the constant threat. We should be aware of how this language creates divides:
Light vs. Dark. Purity vs. the Brown Dirt of Sin. White vs. Black.
Adding to this divide, every picture I saw of Jesus told me about his whiteness. His blond hair and blue eyes were familiar and reinforcing. My Pentecostal Protestant faith also told me that this white Jesus wanted to help me personally. He was singularly concerned about my life. Yes, I should help others but only in the service of making me better.
Furthermore, Jesus’ salvation message was specifically white, and I was commissioned to spread it around the world. Everyone who didn’t possess this version of Christianity was Hell-bound. Sure, the people who didn’t have what I had happened to be people of color, often living in non-European countries; but hey, I didn’t make the rules. God just happens to favor certain regions and peoples.
I never felt privileged because I was too concerned with fighting off all the things that threatened my white faith. My worldview was perfectly insular and cylindrical: I had the Truth, meaning everyone else was wrong. My view was supported by my white education and white theology. I was not privileged; in fact, I was a “slave” to my faith, at least that is what Paul told me. So how could I be called privileged?
My goal in writing this extraordinarily incomplete piece is to simply encourage white people to reconsider the idea of white privilege. It’s natural, at least to some extent, to feel defensive around the topic. However, we can’t allow defensiveness to blind us to injustice. To help move us toward redemption and life, I’ll offer some concrete examples of how white privilege plays out and then ways we can begin to correct it.
So what does white privilege look like on a daily basis? We see white privilege every time a person of color speaks out about racial injustice and is told by a white person that they are wrong. White privilege posts on facebook about how all this talk about race just needs to go away, and if it did, so would racism. White privilege seeks out one comment from a person of color that seems to accord with their own view in order to discount the millions of other voices crying out for racial justice. At the same time, white privilege also seeks out statistics about people of color that justify deportation and segregation.
So how might we change this? Perhaps the best starting place for this kind of reorientation is to look at how we read the Bible. Do I read Jesus’ words as if they were directly spoken to encourage me, a white person?
Or, do I read them as words spoken by a person of color, who was a refugee (because they were)?
Do I allow Jesus’ words to reconstruct my worldview, noticing how large systems, whether governmental or religious, are created in a way to support some and degrade others?
Do I keep reading myself into the woman who desperately needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment or do I realize that I’m the crowd, pushing her aside, reminding her of her place?
Do I keep seeing myself in Jesus’ mistreatment or do I see myself in those who mistreated a radical, Middle Eastern “threat”?
Am I shocked by how blind the religious people were or do I realize that Jesus is actually offering me, a religious person, sight?
My white theology told me that I’m the hero of the Bible. It is time that we, as white people, reconsider Jesus’ words, recognizing that while we might not be “rich,” we are privileged. And importantly, God help us use our privilege, however undeserved it is, to help others instead of condemning those who challenge it. Amen.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.