White Privilege?

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wpthumbRecently, in a sermon, I said that I was not then going to wade into the current debate in our country about “white privilege.” But with this article, I am now entering what some may view as turbulent waters. I am persuaded that what follows is truthful. And rather than being turbulent, my desire is that it will stir us up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).

A while back, I was standing in the queue at the SAA counter in Mumbai to check in for my flight back home. It was a busy time and I noticed that the counter designated for business class check-in was empty of customers. I also noticed many of my fellow economy class passengers looking longingly in that direction with hope of being served. Though the workers at the counter noticed the passengers, they ignored them. That is, until I moved into their line of sight. I was immediately given an inviting smile and beckoned to the counter. It had nothing to do with my looks. Well, actually it did. For you see, I was the only person in the queue who was not a person of “colour.” That is not the first time I have experienced “passenger privilege” due to my skin colour. It probably won’t be the last.

The phase “white privilege” is prevalent in our country. It is not a particularly helpful phrase, in my opinion. I would suggest “white advantaged.” Regardless, too often the concept being communicated is too easily dismissed—by “whites,” who are privileged/advantaged.

I have noticed in my travels that, regardless of the country, those with lighter skin are on the billboards. The popular actors and singers are often of a lighter hue. In our own country skin lighteners are still marketed, even though much of this is about as helpful as snake oil. Sadly, skin colour is a factor in our society. Sinfully so.

I am aware that socioeconomic matters of “advantage” and “disadvantage” are not exclusively related to skin colour. In South Africa, there are many amongst the minority suffering from a lack of both opportunities and material goods. But not anywhere near the percentage of those of the majority. Generally speaking, to have grown up in South Africa as a white person, and in many cases as a non-black person, was to have been in a position of advantage. I don’t understand how this can be denied. I guess the old saying is correct: There are none so blind as those who will not see.

White people sometimes argue, when it comes to education, for example, that their black peers had as much opportunity as they did. Perhaps in some cases this was true. But probably not in most cases. Even in cases where they attended the same schools. I wonder how long it took for your black classmate to get to school that morning? I wonder what kind of educational hindrances she faced when she went home? In fact, if your schooling was twenty or more years ago, I wonder what hoops your black schoolmates would have had to jump through to even be enrolled at your equal-opportunity-for-all-students school?

To cling to the belief that those in the townships had the same advantages as did the majority of white students in their suburban primary and secondary schools is to deny and defy reality. But this matrix of “advantage/disadvantage” is not, of course, limited to educational opportunities; in far too many cases, it historically involved employment opportunities, opportunities for upward mobility in many companies, and even in the realm of sports.

In our day, the reality remains that there are segments of our society that are far more advantaged than others. It is indisputable that many have advantages and others face stark disadvantages. And generally speaking, the first group is far lighter in complexion than the latter. Ignoring this may make one feel better, at least for a while. The naked emperor also felt fine, at least until an honest bystander told the uncomfortable truth.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the phrase “white privilege” is not particularly helpful. It too often unjustly alleges a sinister discrimination on the part of those who are more advantaged than others. It is sometimes used to imply that those who are better off materially, academically, etc., have either cut corners to get there or have simply inherited what they have. The truth is that, in most cases, those who are better off than others have worked hard—very hard—in order to achieve what they have. Their skin colour was not the cause of their achievements, and it is unfair and unjust to make such a conclusion. Class envy is always ugly, regardless of where it is found.

But, back to the theses, it is factually indisputable that many in our nation are advantaged because of pigmentation. It is undeniable that the lighter have historically had a brighter future. So, how do we face this, biblically? How do we respond as Christians?

First, stop denying it. The “Scriptures of truth” (Daniel 10:21) call upon us to honestly face the facts. To deny the many advantages that we have due to our skin colour merely creates unnecessary and counterproductive barriers to otherwise constructive understanding and dialogue.

Second, if you have been advantaged, don’t apologise. Rather, thank God for this kind providence. God ordains where people are born, the families in which they are raised, as well as the geographic borders in which we live (Acts 17:26). And if, in comparison, you are disadvantaged, then thank God that He too ordains this—for the same reasons that that He advantages others: that we might seek Him (Acts 17:27).

Third, if you are among the advantaged then be a good steward of those blessings (Genesis 12:1–3; 1 Timothy 6:17–19). Don’t be like the fool who concludes that he deserves all he has and is a “self-made” man. Even the Tin Man knew that he needed a heart. Perhaps some of us should humble ourselves and ask for one. It was precisely because geopolitical Israel failed to humbly live in the light of her advantages that she lost her stewardship of God’s blessings (Matthew 21:33–44). Those advantages are now held by the church. Let’s remember that we are blessed to be a blessing. As we pay it forward, we will have even more blessings to share.

Finally, stop with the class envy. If others have advantages which you do not, then practice Christian love and be glad for them (Romans 12:15; 1 Timothy 6:1–2). Practice your faith and trust God that He knows what you need and what you can handle. God does make a difference between people; stop criticising His management of the world.

The idea of egalitarianism (complete equality of giftedness, opportunities, etc.) is not a biblical concept. There is nothing in the Bible that remotely implies that, in the eternally glorious state, we will all be the same size, speak one common language, or be the same colour. It is clear that gender distinctions, which God established at creation (male and female), will remain. Even the rewards will vary. Yes, some will receive more than others (Matthew 25:14–23; Luke 12:48). And yet everyone will be perfectly happy. There will be no class envy and no angst over privilege. Rather, there will be joyous contentment and unending praise that, in the end, we all get far more than we ever deserved: forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the wrath of God, and reconciliation with the Father. We don’t call that privilege; we call that grace.

10 Replies to “White Privilege?”

  1. Thank you Doug.

    I find the bible helpful on this issue in its handling of one of the most oppressed people groups of all times – gentile slaves. The greater blessing though is its handling of the most oppressed people group of all times – slaves to sin.

  2. Thank you Doug.
    Yes we can bring in laws which are helpful to calm prejudices, yet what is needed is a change of heart, this the gospel can do thanks be to God almighty who has broken down the middle wall of seperation through His son!

  3. Surely the historical basis of this “privilege” can’t be overlooked as we apply the Bible? There is context that (it seems) you have overlooked Doug.

    This hard work you refer of is off the backs of people of colour who were treated in sinful and non-Biblical ways. Surely restitution is a Biblical imperative even as we wait for the Lord to ultimately avenge and make all right?

    To say that white people worked hard is to ignore the fact that people of colour also work hard but the system is unjustly set up against them. And I think attempts to make this right aren’t necessarily a fight for an egali society but rather Christians rightly displaying the equal dignity of all men before the Lord and therefore no partiality can be okay.

    Even as we trust in the Sovereignty of God, we cannot shirk our responsibility to do better.

    To make an example – is it the Lord’s will for children to be aborted? Then why do we rage against that sin? Let’s see sin everywhere and fight equally for justice. Surely that is loving our black neighbours?

    1. Ntombi:

      Thank you for your comment.

      I do not dispute that there is a context to the matter of white privilege and I am cognisant of the reality that much of the privilege has been the result of the abuse of people of colour. But your statement “To say that white people worked hard is to ignore the fact that people of colour also work hard but the system is unjustly set up against them” illustrates one of my concerns in this whole matter: unhelpful intemperate generalisations. No honest, thinking person disputes the reality of injustice towards people of colour; especially in our own country. Yet to generalise that all people of colour are always treated unjustly and all white people are all and always oppressive towards people of colour is not a biblical approach.

      Perhaps you should read the article again, for nowhere do I imply that Christians should do nothing about righting the wrongs in society. We are called to pursue justice. But justice is not measured necessarily by economic equality. Rather a part of justice, it seems to me, is to pursue equal opportunity. No one should be privileged merely because of their pigmentation. Privilege, in one sense, should be earned–by diligence to the opportunities that God has given to us. No doubt those who have been privileged by pigmentation should be proactive to “level the playing field” so that opportunities to diligently apply oneself will transcend culture and colour, for all.

      Thanks for stimulating my thinking.

      1. Hi Doug

        Thank you so much for responding.

        I think part of the problem (on both our sides) is that this a really big conversation and when we try and put it down, there are some things that are lost in translation.

        I’ll respond to one more thing and then lay this matter to rest: “The truth is that, in most cases, those who are better off than others have worked hard—very hard—in order to achieve what they have. Class envy is always ugly, regardless of where it is found.” that statement feels like it negates any admission of the unfairness of society and instead synthesizes the problem as merely class envy. And that is where my generalisation came in. That equivalently, there are many people of colour who have worked extremely hard and yet have not seen the results of their labour. It was stated in general terms, but that was to convey the point that as a person of colour (esp in South Africa) you aren’t poor because that is just the way things go. You are likely poor as a result of the terrible history in this country.

        As a Christian, black lady in South Africa struggling with what social justice means in the context of a Sovereign God and also dealing with instances of ignorance (bordering on racism) from white counterparts both in and outside of the church, I will admit that I am touchy on matters of race. Especially when it seems that someone who is not black and although can empathise cannot fully grasp how deeply ingrained in our culture institutional racism/privilege seems to say “such is the will of the Lord, be grateful and move on”.

        That being said, I really appreciate that this is something you spoke about and I think there is definitely scope for the church to engage with societal matters and to have a Biblical view on such things.

        Hopefully many discussions and hard conversations will be had within the church and those would then foster a beautiful unity with church brothers.

        1. Thank you Ntombi for your reply to my reply! I appreciate your transparency and your comments have helped me to be more careful to communicate accurately.

          I can see how my statement may give the impression that as long as anyone works hard they can achieve equitably with the others. Clearly this is not the case, and it is particularly not the case historically in South Africa. I tried to make that point but I can see that I should have been more careful.

          I am not sure where you live, but I am preaching on the issue of racism this Sunday night (25 September) at Brackenhurst Baptist Church, The service commences at 18h00. Would love to have you here and to meet you.

          Every blessing
          Doug

  4. on a practical level I think we must all be conscious of our situation and state especially in the church. Before we comment on such sensitive matters we try to put each other in the shoes of other people which I trust the Doug did. I think that we all acknowledge this is a problem in society and the world at Large. Now my problem is that most people who are privileged fail to acknowledge that they have done so through the indirect help of the gospel. The west had it not had the gospel first in comparison to Africa would not be better off. But also wrong teaching like humanism and evolution did not help matters which are they themselves the instrument of satan. Remember there is your own sinful heart and another force which works to exploit that sinful heart. We must thus in both side of the wall be conscious of our behavior and what we say. Are we truly seeking justice or being envious or if you are white are you being prideful or being simply content.

    I think white people should acknowledge in the South African context that yes they may have worked hard or not directly oppressed anyone but the system did assist them in the way it was designed and they are still benefiting from those fruits. what then should this produce? A spirit of being humble and also since historically it was difficult to mix with other races they should get out of their comfort zone and really invest in other Christian to create that heavenly picture. The same also applies to people of color since these barriers will not easily go away by themselves. It is part of sanctification and unique to our situation so we must use it to grow and do good so that we reach for the crown by the help of the spirit. finally how a privileged (not just white) handle people and their finances should scream that their reserve bank is in heaven. It is difficult even if a person envies you if they see a selfless spirit in you to be tempted by such sin so in a sense a selfless spirit may help certain brother not to sin.

    A massage for black brothers and sisters

    Firstly God will judge all injustices even those of the past so we should not take matters into our own hands but instead we should rely on God. We should be conscious of our own sins and of how we treat others are we not displaying the same spirit of pride? we should seek harmony with other Christians regardless of color and we should work hard at this for heaven displays such relations. We should work hard but not just for material gain but to evangelize Africa at large and not rely too much or foreign aid. The gospel will bring about social change in our sphere of influence and in the hearts of Christians of color.

    The role of elders

    put yourself in the shoes of the oppress and show sympathy with them but use the bible as a tool they cannot go against that. I also think in the right instance racism is a call for church discipline and should be treated like any other sins. finally usually we tend to concentrate on certain sins in certain generations so we should let the word lead us and not the culture. But in matters or race be sensitive but preach the truth in love and bring healing.

    1. Thanks Tiyani:

      Your words are helpful. It is important for Christians to learn to listen and to learn from one another. In some recent study and reflection on this matter in Acts 6 it is clear that the privileged (in this case, Hebrew speaking segment of the church) listened to the real pain of the Greek speaking segment. They then used their privilege to meet the needs of the less privileged, They listened, learned and loved. This led to unity and to a greater impact of the gospel. The same principles hold true for the church today–including in South Africa!

      Blessings!

      Doug

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