So why does it matter? What is the purpose of discussing something like white privilege? After all, is it not a subjective matter?
Yet the discussion is still important.
As I stated in my previous post, acknowledging that privilege exists does not need to be considered a value-laden assessment. The existence of privilege does not necessitate that blame be laid at the feet of those who experience any kind of privilege.
In other words, when I initiate a discussion on white privilege, I am not suggesting that all white people are evil, sinister, or hate-filled. I am suggesting, rather, that we need to consider what it means to be a member of the dominant culture.
Which is more important: perception or reality?
Reality, by definition, is real. It is quantifiable. It is empirical. Yet it is nowhere near as powerful as perception.
Perception is sometimes reality, but often perception is not—it is simply a thought or feeling that one projects so strongly they are unable to objectively see reality; which is where the power of perception lies.
Consider the reaction to the recent Trayvon Martin case. Regardless of the facts of the case, there exists a large number of black men who now believe they are open season for anyone carrying a gun. Is it true? Maybe. Are people living as if it is true because that is what they perceive to be? Absolutely.
And if members of the dominant culture simply wish to dismiss another culture’s fears and concerns, we are in essence telling the members of that culture their perception, their experience, does not matter.
Throughout my adult life, I have often struggled with the idea that privilege exists. Until I experienced it:
As a college student, I interned with a preacher at an African-American congregation. That preacher was also a staff member at the college I attended. I spent time explaining to him how his perception was wrong. Until we went to the university’s bookstore together—and he was followed.
As a preacher, I took graduate courses online. For one of those classes, Church History, I did a paper on an African-American preacher who was also an influential figure in civil rights in Rochester, NY. He told me stories such as this one: while he was in school, he worked on people’s farms. One farmer, a white man, placed this person’s plate in the barn next to the dog food bowl when it was lunchtime. My friend was not good enough to eat with other people. Or even in the house.
As a preacher, I tried to encourage cross-cultural worship experiences. My biggest struggle was with members of my own congregation who were also members of the dominant culture. Explanations of why attending these events was not important included a lot of language like “they,” “them,” and “not like us.”
I can argue all of these stories away. I can rationalize, defend, and explain how each of them is not that big a deal. I can list example after example of positive stories that show unity, acceptance, and love.
And in so doing, I tell all of those friends from other cultures that their experience does not matter: “Oh sure, you may have struggled, but let me tell you how it really is!”
So what can I do?
First, I can listen to my non-white friends and neighbors. Not listen and respond. Not listen and defend. Not listen and say, “There, there.” Just…listen. Listen and learn what it means to experience life from a perspective different than my own. (For a great exercise in listening, check out Christena Cleveland’s current blog series, “Black to School.”)
Second, I can speak. I must learn to speak up and not be afraid to point out injustice when I see it. In the year 2000, there were more African-American males in prison (829,000) than in higher education (717,000). In 2010, those numbers improved: although there were higher numbers in prison (844,000) there were now more than 1.3 million enrolled in higher education. Although that is improvement, those numbers are still too close.*
How have we created an environment in this country where African-American males are almost as likely to go to prison as they are to go to college? Could it start in the school system with the ways students are treated? Could it start in our churches with activities that sometimes separate and sometimes make light of cultural differences? Could it start with a political system that speaks words of promise to the common person yet acts in deference to the person with money or influence?
However it starts, I must speak up when I see an injustice. It is not enough to only listen. It is not enough to only acknowledge. We must act for the justice of all.
Why is a discussion on white privilege important? Because we live among a large number of non-white people. To discount their perception or their reality is to discount them as people.
That is why this conversation is important.
*The numbers I cite come from: Patton, S. (2012). “From Cellblock to Campus, One Black Man Defies the Data.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 59.