American Idols: 3 False Beliefs That Can Blind White Men To Their Privilege
Note: Today’s post comes from my friend and pastor, Jeff Heidkamp. As a white male reconciler, Jeff spends a good amount of time talking to other white men about the realities of racial, gender and class inequality in the church and beyond. I'm grateful to Jeff for his insights, as well as his snarky, disarming humor. Even though this post is directly addressed to white men, I think all privileged people would benefit from listening to Jeff.
What makes internalizing privilege so hard, especially for white guys?
(Mild caveat: I’m going to generalize in this article about “white guys”. I am, for the record, a white guy. I realize the following things aren’t true about all white guys. But part of me is like, whatever. It’s true of almost all of us. But if you want think you are the glorious exception, knock yourself out.)
In the comings and goings of trying to be helpful for diversity in the church over the years, I made an observation. White guys seemed to have a harder time grasping their own privilege than I thought they should. I include myself in that. I have a harder time grasping my own privilege than I think I should.
There are some obvious reasons for this. Many white guys experience so much privilege, and so little marginalization, that we simply lack the imagination to grasp the concept. Understanding privilege for some of us is like trying to describe all the different kinds of snow to a Phoenix native who has never seen it. It takes some explaining.
That said, I still find that it is especially hard for white guys to buy into the idea of privilege. Including really awesome white guys- white guys who in many ways are more serious about Jesus and godliness than I am sometimes (and I’m a pastor!) I’m talking about guys who work seriously to root lust out of their lives, to stop being judgmental, and to love their families sacrificially. Even for guys who take justice seriously- who make real sacrifices for the poor- understanding racial privilege often seems to be a particularly tough hurdle.
I have come to a few thoughts about why this is. Understand that what follows is not an excuse or rationalization. It’s simply some thoughts about why, of so many things that white guys need to grasp on their road to what Jesus has for them, privilege is a particular stumbling block.
There seems to be something particular about the American white male experience that puts three blinders on our eyes that keep us from seeing privilege. They are three ideals, or theories-on-life that are deeply woven into the white guy worldview. And as ideals or theories, they aren’t entirely bad. But what is hard for white guys to grasp- in fact, almost traumatic, is that they aren’t actually true. We might wish they were true- and in some cases, it might be good to work for them to be true. The problem is, for many of us, our world view is based on the mistaken belief that these three things are already part of reality. In fact, it takes a major re-arrangement of our theory-on-life in order to grasp that they aren’t the main explanation for how things are.
Here’s an example. Let’s take a kid who grows up in an environment and family where education isn’t highly developed. There are any number of examples from any number of ethnic groups- maybe from a poor inner city neighborhood, or a depressed rural area. Take a kid who grows up there- limited access to educational resources, parents with little educational background, and a culture that doesn’t reward intellectual accomplishment. Now take my daughter. During lent this year, my wife and I fasted and prayed for 40 days over what high school my 4th grader would go to. Part of our praying and fasting was the idea that we are willing to uproot and move our entire family in order for the best educational outcomes for our kids. Compare my 4th grader with the kid from the educationally under-resourced community. Is it possible to say that both kids that the same opportunity for good outcomes.
Now, of course it’s possible that my kid drops out of school, and that the kid from the rough background ends up at Harvard. But these would both be, by their very nature, exceptions to the rule. In fact, they might make a movie in Hollywood about either example. Why? Precisely because given the context of each kid, the story is either a triumph or a tragedy. But this undermines the idea of individualism. For most kids, the educational environment is going to be a high predictor of the outcomes. The exceptions make stories precisely because they are unlikely. Individualism is an interesting theory, and it is sometimes, partially true. But it is insufficient as a theory-of-how-life-goes. Getting this into our worldview is crucial for white guys to have a more true view of how things actually work in the world.
The second blinder is meritocracy. You’ll see that the second two are related to the first, but it’s worth spelling them out explicitly. Meritocracy is the idea, particularly in America, that everybody gets what they earn. That is, your life experience, good or bad, is based on what you ‘merit’. This idea is at least partly derives from Europeans who came from highly class-conscious societies in which your social class determined your life. If you were born a noble, you lived a rich, noble life. If you were born into squalor, you lived out your days in squalor. One of the ideals of America was that instead of a class-based society, we could build a country in which you got what you deserved. Every individual could rise or fall based on their own effort.
In many ways, a meritocracy is a good idea. But it’s also very important to understand that a meritocracy doesn’t exist. America may be trying to be one, but it is not one yet. Now, on this point, a good deal of social science literature could be raised, and I lack the expertise to do it. (Though I doubt you’d find a serious social scientist who would disagree. If you can, please let me know.) But we don’t need the social science research for an obvious example. All we need is Instagram. Specifically, the Rich Kids of Instagram. Haven’t seen it? Ok, I’ll wait while you google. Ok, you’re back? You think those kids earned that stuff? Perhaps this seems an extreme example. But in our church, I could give you dozens of examples on the other side- kids born into unfair situations, whether health, family, economic, or social situations. They aren’t getting what they earn, they’re getting what life handed them.
Now, this reality can get uncomfortable for white guys. Because in general, we’re proud of what we have. We may on one hand be grateful for it, but not generally in a way that thinks we don’t deserve it. And even if we say we don’t deserve it, we usually mean it in a sort of existential way, as if to say ‘the universe didn’t have to give me anything.’ But we do believe, deep down, that whatever we did with what the universe gave us, we deserve what we got from it. And the idea that being born a guy, or in America, or white, had something to do with what we have, in opposition to someone born a woman, or not white, or in a developing nation is troublesome. To understand privilege, we have to understand that meritocracy, however noble an idea, is not a reality.
The third blinder is equality. Even more than meritocracy, equality is a good idea. And it is true in many senses, particularly theologically. All people have equal value before God. All people are made equally in his image. But because of sin and evil in the world all people do not have equality of opportunity. As we’ve seen in the previous examples, some people have opportunities and possibilities that others do not have. Some people will have to work twice as hard to get half as far as others in certain areas. A fourth grader who is learning both English and fractions for the first time is going to have a lot more on her plate than the kid who can watch English education cartoons about fractions on her parents iPhone.
Given the immense difficulty of world-view change, why would we even want to? Why not simply keep pretending that individualism, meritocracy, and equality are all already true? I can only give an experiential answer. At times I am tempted to. There are parts of life that would be easier if I could live in these comfortable half-truths. And, in all honesty, sometimes, I do simply live in them. But when I don’t, I find that life, while more complicated, is more real. Suddenly, I find that I see the world more truly. And I find that I see so much more of what God is doing in the world.
Because God’s main work is not to help a bunch of equal individuals merit blessings that they can keep for themselves. This is a shallow and sad view of the gospel. Rather, in his graciousness, God is invading our broken, unjust world, with the good news of his upside down kingdom. And in his upside down kingdom, as Mary exclaimed at the birth of Christ, many things get turned upside down. The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the high become low and the low become high. And in the kingdom of God, I realize that my privilege is actually poverty. But that poverty, when offered to God, can be redeemed into justice and beauty. Instead of living with blinders, half-truths, and shallow versions of the gospel, I find myself thrust into the messier, bigger, more beautiful reality of how God is redeeming and will one day renew his creation.