Each Sunday before I enter worship, Ms. Ruth holds my hands and prays for me. Ms. Ruth, or “Mama Ruth” as I affectionately call her, is a senior member of our church who happens to be a white woman. She grew up in the Cliftondale community and has remained a faithful member throughout the over 50 year history of our church. Ms. Ruth not only attends worship but nearly every Bible study, mission and fellowship event that our church hosts. In other words, she is all in.
But she also sticks out. She is easily noticed in a church full of black worshippers. Yet, she is a part of this beloved community of believers seeking to live out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
In recent weeks, I have had conversations with many of my white colleagues about white privilege. The ethos of these conversations hinges on the inarguable fact that because of a person’s skin color, they are afforded more equity in our culture.
To be honest, these conversations have not yielded much hope for better days to come.
There seems to be a shift in how many view the acknowledgment of their white privilege. For many, this acknowledgment is important and it appears liberating—to finally admit that “I am white, and I have privileges black people do not.” So strong is this ideology among many white church leaders, those in theological circles, and some in society, that it rings loudly of “White Liberation!” suggesting that acknowledging ones’ privilege has liberated the individual from the bondage of systems that work on their behalf.
This is a fallacy.
The thought hit me recently as I witnessed the insensible comments of Mr. Trump as he finally recanted his role in the “Birther” controversy regarding the citizenship of our already two-term black president. My thought, like many, was, “I suppose President Obama’s citizenship is now validated since a white man who could possibly become our next Commander-in-Chief has said so.”
This type of unintelligible and nescient language is what keeps our country in the pit of racial injustice and division. It also gives more breath to white privilege.
If I may go out on a ledge and state what most black people think each time we hear a white person say, “I am privileged and I feel guilty about it;” please do not insult the intelligence of black people by telling us what we already know, feel, internalize, live in, struggle with, fight against, tolerate, mourn over, protest about, march and die for. As if black people should give a philanthropic or ethical achievement award to every white person who feels liberated by the acknowledgment of their privilege.
And the timing of these comments makes them seem inauthentic. If it takes black blood to spill on the streets and unarmed black and brown people to die for white people to admit they are privileged, there is something seriously wrong with such a liberating theology.
Black people do not only struggle against racial profiling and injustice, we are unequal economically, professionally and institutionally—all of which relate directly to white privilege.
When a white man, who is a major party nominee for president states unashamedly that our black president (eight years later) was born in the United States without fear of reprimand or loss of support, he is operating in white privilege.
In the potent work of liberation theologian James Cone titled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he suggests that:
In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.
I argue that not much has changed today. I am concerned with the white Christian who can worship Jesus and not spend time with or get to the know the culture of Christians who are black.
I am concerned with the white Christian who in the same breath can acknowledge their privilege and condemn someone for peacefully protesting racial injustice wearing a football uniform while the national anthem plays.
I am concerned with the white Christian who wants to do something prophetic like telling other white people in their churches that they are privileged while at the same time only communing with white people.
I am concerned with the white Christian who has never been the minority for an extended period of time in any setting.
These are but the genesis of my concerns.
Yet I am truly concerned with the white Christian who thinks they are liberated by knowing they are white and privileged (which makes that privilege more dangerous).
The Lord revealed something unique the last time Ms. Ruth prayed for me. God asked me, “have you noticed that she never apologizes for being white or the horrendous history she is associated with because of her skin color? Have you noticed that she never acknowledges openly that she is privileged? Do you see how she hugs you and all the other black folks with whom she worships? Do you hear how she greets you with the words, ‘my pastor?’ Are you noticing how she sits and eats with you and wants to know more about your likes and dislikes?”
In that moment I received this revelation: She is not seeking liberation, she is modeling reconciliation through genuine love.
To my white brothers and sisters, focus less on explaining your privilege and start being in community with black people. Perhaps that is the best path towards the prophetic.