by Bob Lupton
We have been hearing a lot about white privilege these days. Mostly negative. Mostly accusatory. Mostly equating white privilege with power and position used to oppress minorities. As a white American male who has lived most of his adult life among minorities (mostly African Americans), I thought a few personal reflections might add balance to the discussion.
I had never heard of white privilege when I moved into the inner-city. Naively, I attempted to “fit in” by learning Ebonics, developing a taste for collard greens, and listening to rap. One of my curious neighbors asked me, “Why do you act like that?” It was apparent to him (and probably to all my neighbors) that I was a white guy trying to “act black.” It didn’t work. Instead of identifying with my African American neighbors, I was pretending to be something I was not.
There were a few things that gave me away. Skin color was the most obvious. And the size of my house. And my boat. It was immediately obvious to my neighbors that I was a person of privilege – white privilege. And if I was ever to be accepted as a trusted neighbor, I would have to become authentic. I would have to embrace who I really am – a white, educated, middle-class, connected male struggling through his own racial, cultural baggage while trying to be an engaged, non-patronizing member of the community. But this was much easier said than done.
Why had I come to this neighborhood in the first place? To help? To save? Yes, I viewed myself as a missionary. And I had the answers I was confident could fix the problems of the poor – spiritually, morally, economically. Fixing people, however, proved not a very effective way to develop healthy relationships. The subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) message that came across: I have it together, you do not. You need help, and I can give it. Neither my friendly personality, nor my façade of humility, were enough to disguise my underlying agenda or the arrogance it embodied.
There were occasions when it seemed my presence in the neighborhood was appreciated. Like one night when trouble erupted and the police swarmed in. My voice seemed to be the voice that the police listened to, the trustworthy translator of what was really going on. I felt like an advocate for my neighbors, a voice for the community. What I did not recognize was the deep-seated distrust that festered between my black neighbors and the police, animosity borne of a long history of prejudicial and even unlawful police practice. Nor was I aware of how they perceived this obvious alliance I had with the police.
From childhood, I had been taught the police were my friends. I could always count on them for help. Of course, they would listen to me and believe what I said. With that confidence, I had no hesitancy approaching the officers when they raced onto our street with blue lights flashing. I felt very good when they accepted what I said as fact. But to my black neighbors, this added insult to injury. It was one more example of the police believing the word of a white man over the word of black residents. It was the first time I became painfully aware that white privilege had an ugly underbelly.
There were, of course, many other incidents that made me aware of the inequities my white-middle-classness afforded me. The special attention my two boys received from teachers in the neighborhood school, the freedom of going into stores without security following us, friends who shared their lake homes to give us relief from the pressures of the city – that sort of thing. Privilege is nice. Really nice. But it can also separate neighbors. And when community building is an important part of one’s vision, it can become an obstacle. So what to do with this thing called white privilege? Could the benefits be somehow shared with my less privileged neighbors? I gave it a try.
Boating was our family weekend get-away. Rather than “hide” my boat in a storage shed near the lake, I could park it visibly in my backyard and invite neighbors to go to the lake with us. We were probably the only street in the city where all the kids learned to water ski! My boat – a symbol of middle-class affluence – became a community asset.
I had a new lawn mower. Rather than keep it for the exclusive cutting of my own grass, I could “rent” it to neighborhood teenage entrepreneurs who earned income mowing neighbors’ lawns. My tool became a community asset.
My employment with a nonprofit organization also became a value to the community when the neighborhood association was raising money to construct a basketball court for our youth. The community owned the land and had commitments to fund the project. But a local foundation’s grant stipulation required funds to be channeled through a 501c3 tax-exempt corporation. The neighborhood was not incorporated. But the nonprofit where I worked had the required IRS status and agreed to serve as the fiduciary. My connections proved useful to the community.
There were other ways to share as well. Like personal investment in the PTA, recruiting educated friends as volunteer tutors, getting use of a tractor for a neighborhood hay ride, convincing a developer friend to build much needed affordable housing in the community, recommending neighbors to business owners who offered decent jobs with benefits. Sharing connections actually proved to be the most empowering way to share.
I have seen that privilege, when shared, can indeed be a blessing. Even white privilege. It is certainly not something to be denied. Privilege is a given. Within every culture. There are always some who will have more than others – greater talent, more wealth, higher status, better luck. Denying such diversity is a denial of reality. So the question remains: how do those with more share wisely with those who have less? Jesus said it this way: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Sharing resources and connections is a start. A good start. But this practice does not necessarily address the underlying racial prejudices that pervade our society – prejudices on both sides of the racial divide. I weary of being viewed as the white male oppressor by blacks I encounter, even as blacks weary of being judged by whites as inferior. The only way I know of correcting such deeply imbedded attitudes is community.
When we worship together, raise our kids together, plan neighborhood block parties together, the opportunities for trust, genuine friendships, and mutual understanding increase dramatically. The “beloved community” has a chance to take root when we become neighbors. This may seem like a radical, unrealistic concept. Yet, wasn’t becoming a loving neighbor the very thing Jesus equated with loving God?