I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with words like “privilege” or “bias.” There was little about my childhood that could be described as privileged—at least not in the way some might use the term. Middle class, certainly, but hardly privileged. And while I’m far from perfect, I tend to think my biases are primarily focused positively in favor of certain baseball teams and warmer climates and negatively against a particular chain of restaurants.
That’s not unlike a lot of people I’ve encountered. Few persons I’ve known in ministry feel comfortable defining themselves as privileged. They are the first to tell you they have worked hard to overcome obstacles in achieving success. They point to ways that others had advantages they never had. Their lives reflect grit and determination and the can-do spirit of many middle-class families.
Privileged? Nope. Nah. Not me.
But then I remember the time as a teenager that I spent an afternoon wandering through one of Los Angeles’ finest department stores. The store clerks didn’t watch my every move; they handed me a credit card application. Likewise, unlike some of my friends who are black, I have never been questioned by the police when I was parked outside a west St. Louis county grocery store or at a church. I’ve sat unnoticed in coffee shops for hours.
Got privilege? It’s time to realize how these invisible systems and structures are present everywhere, and they disrupt life in the kindom of God.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 19th annual White Privilege Conference, a large national gathering of students, educators, school employees, social workers, activists and others. The conference is an intentional gathering of diverse perspectives and voices and is dedicated to exploring solutions to achieving a more equitable world. In a very broad sense, it’s a chance to check your privilege.
I’m immensely grateful to both the Presbytery’s Dismantling Racism and Privilege Team and my congregation for offering me the opportunity to attend. While WPC is a secular conference, faith groups were represented. At a time when divisions in our world seem to be growing, I was amazed at the way organizers worked to be truly inclusive—much more inclusive, in fact, than most church gatherings.
It didn’t escape the attention of leaders and attendees that this year’s gathering was held in a Grand Rapids, MI convention center that bears the family name of our current Secretary of Education. Likewise, the convention’s main hotel was the prestigious Amway Grand Hotel, which is also owned by that same family. I joked that I couldn’t afford to stay there because I was unable to recruit at least three other potential business partners. Privilege drips from the walls of those buildings.
But the conveners reminded us that this is perhaps the point. Privilege is an everyday reality that benefits white people and creates disadvantages for persons of color. It’s the silent part of structural racism which many white people either don’t see or choose to ignore. Either way, it is antithetical to the sort of world God envisions.
Yet, as we well know, these are not the sort of conversations that happen enough within our congregations. We may feel overwhelmed by the topic, unsure of where to begin. Additionally, we’re nice Presbyterians whose stomachs get queasy thinking about potentially controversial topics. Given the divisions in our world, sometimes we’re just not willing to broach topics like racism and privilege.
What I’ve learned—both through our own congregation’s efforts and through conversations at the conference—is that reaching beyond our silos of isolation results in unimaginable blessings.
Rev. Steve Miller, an African-American graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, offered reflections about the racial reconciliation ministry he leads in East Texas. In his words, Miller works nearly exclusively with “groups of white, conservative Trump-loving Republicans” to create dialogue and lasting change. He has learned what we have learned at Woodlawn Chapel: the best conversations begin by focusing on building relationships. By hearing and honoring each other’s stories, trust emerges. Focusing on love brings people together.
This work is not about making white people feel guilty. It’s not about bashing each other. It’s about creating community. That theme was reiterated in workshops that brought together film makers and world-renowned educators. Researchers and activists mingled with high school students and middle-aged white guys like me. Keynote speakers connected racism to environmental justice, awareness of differing abilities, and sexuality and gender issues.
I was moved beyond words by the witness of the 125 or so high school youth from across the country. They came from every sector of society and offered a witness for change through storytelling, hip-hop poetry slams, spontaneous laughter and heart-felt tears. Their experiences and commitment are reasons for hope.
Listening to the youth is also where I heard the greatest challenge. Often conversations about racism in the church exclude youth. Yet the organizers of WPC have found success in empowering youth, motivating them to undertake change. It’s astonishing. Their voices are valued, their presence is encouraged.
I wondered if these same passionate and committed youth would feel welcomed in our churches? Would we see them as leaders? Would we listen to their stories? Or would we instead ask them why they don’t show up to Sunday school more often? Any effective strategy for racial reconciliation must include youth.
I left Grand Rapids with a suitcase full of resources and plenty to think about. I left more aware of my privilege, and less hesitant to examine it. I have begun assessing my own automatic responses, and unchallenged assumptions. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But there are plenty of ways I have benefitted from being white—even when I did not know it.
Privilege is as wild and pernicious as brush honeysuckle. It’s time to name it, own it, and begin to understand just how damaging it is to our environment.
Privilege? Me? Yes, Lord, yes.
Rev. Dr. Chris Keating