Prejudice, Privilege, and the Ongoing Work of Dismantling Racism

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As Black History Month 2020 nears its conclusion, I was inspired this morning to spend some time re-reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay from the late 1980s entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am asking all of the United Methodist clergy and lay leaders on the Butler District to read or re-read this essay and to reflect on its content. I also hope that church leaders on my district will continue to seek out additional resources that will help them in the work of dismantling racism (such as the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi).

This morning, I found these words from the “Invisible Knapsack” essay to be powerfully convicting:

“In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

McIntosh’s words compel me to acknowledge how frequently I have been guilty of minimizing (or, worse, ignoring altogether) both the unearned privilege I experience as a white male and the oppressions made possible by the continuing existence of systemic and institutional racism. Too often, I allow my passion for dismantling racism to be quelled by my self-satisfaction with my own avoidance of individual “acts of meanness.” In so doing, I often become inattentive to the “invisible systems” of racial dominance that continue to exploit, disenfranchise, and oppress.

I once heard a United Methodist pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, offered with the pastor’s permission:

I don’t know why we have to keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism…But when we keep making racism a point of focus, all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting an ugly thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist lay person (offered, again, with permission):

People have told me that they don’t want a black pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too.  I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the shallow belief that, because we have been delivered from our individual racist “acts of meanness,” our commitment to dismantling racism has been fulfilled.

Concerning the matter of white privilege, some have gone so far as to suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct created to further a social agenda. My own personal journey has led me to conclude that this perspective is dreadfully misguided. I have experienced far too many instances in which people of color have been confronted with racially-driven presuppositions and antagonism from which I, as a white person, am automatically exempted. As a District Superintendent, I have listened to newly-appointed clergy of color address a committee’s concerns about how the church’s first non-white pastor will be accepted, all the while knowing that I will never have to experience such scrutiny as a white United Methodist pastor in Western Pennsylvania. I have participated in far too many group conversations in which I have suddenly realized that people are making steady eye contact with me but not with the person of color standing right next to me.

Much could be added to this list. All of it bears witness to a privileged access to an unearned collection of advantages. That privileged access is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism that is thoroughly undergirded by institutional injustices and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric such as this:

“Those people of color are just as prejudiced as I am!”

Or this:

“People of color need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complexities of systemic racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often discounts the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. This much, however, is certain: United Methodism’s emphasis upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by both the American culture and the American church. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully engaged in the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few racial/ethnic United Methodist clergy in Western Pennsylvania; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God. Only then will I become a suitable laborer in the work that the dismantling of racism demands.

2 thoughts on “Prejudice, Privilege, and the Ongoing Work of Dismantling Racism

  1. Thank you for sharing your reflections and lifting up Peggy McIntosh’s invisible backpack essay again. How sad that it is still so relevant for 21st century America. BTW, one of your retired pastors in WPA, Rev. Jim Ritchie, has a revised version of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” which you reference. It is brilliantly inclusive of more skin colors and of all people.

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  2. This was an interesting read, and is just as timely today as it was in February. A thought occurred to me while reading: Is white privilege a bad thing? Or is it just because others don’t have it that it makes white people feel guilty? But shouldn’t we want people of all races to enjoy similar privileges? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? In other words, is it our goal to end white privilege, or to extend it to all people in society? Thank you for your thoughts.

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