In the late 1990’s many of the highly charged terms we use to describe each other weren’t around. “Racist” was about as descriptive as it got. This struck home with me as I was in a graduate school class called “Social and Cultural Exegesis.” It was a class dealing with cultural analysis in light of biblical principles. The professor was a brilliant Chinese man. The class was populated mostly by Koreans, black men and white women; there were two white men in the class and I was one of them.
At one point in our discussion, I said something that prompted a black man in my class to say to me from across the room, “You’re a racist.” This hit me in two ways. First, being born and raised in my part of the Midwest meant I wasn’t exposed to racial tensions like in the South (for example). I went to school with black folks, women, Asian folks and, I am Hispanic. I didn’t have the oppressed experiences at the hands of others so I didn’t develop a skin-level animosity towards them. So, the charge of being a racist didn’t even make sense to me. Secondly, I had done some thinking on cultural issues and concluded that my views were surely friendly to other minorities. After all, I was half-Hispanic, so to be called a “racist” was offensive to me given my genealogy and self-reflection.
I stood up and said (indelicately), “You’re the racist. You hate white people.” To which, a Korean man stood up and told me I was out of my mind. Continuing to ramp up our defenses, the three of us, equal in height and build and passion, closed the distance until we were face-to-face-to-face. A lull in our yelling happened and I turned to the shocked professor and strongly recommended he pray to end the class (I was in training for ministry after all!).
The three of us were rattled. I don’t think any of us believed the charges we hurled at each other. What I mean is: each of us were stopped in our tracks and forced to contemplate each other’s words. We were surprised and doubtful of ourselves. It was certainly a movement of God since at one point we were just about at blows with each other. After class, we decided to meet regularly to discuss each other’s perspective. I for one wanted to show them I was not a racist (not a good motive).
Over time and discussion, those men became some of my closest friends for the rest of my time in seminary. They patiently taught me something very important – something I wish we’d currently contemplate instead of “white privilege.” That is, in most cultures, certainly in our own, there are “majority” populations and “minority” ones.
Majority populations are the greatest in number of a particular people group. European-descended whites are the majority population in our culture (currently). But, apart from being the most numerous, the white majority population built our culture (as many are pointing out these days). While, they built it in a way that was consistent with their values, priorities and purposes, they built it imperfectly. They knowingly and unknowingly built it to suit them. Of course, this makes sense: any majority population would build and, as long as it was the majority, maintain its culture to suit itself. This “maintenance” could be just (if it benefits all) or terribly unjust (if it oppresses some to benefit others). In either case, it is knowingly and unknowingly done with the benefit of the majority population in mind.
To recast this dynamic in terms of “white privilege” is unhelpful and short-sighted. This is because it confuses race with a sociological dynamic of majority population / minority population that is present in every culture. Similar categories of violence, oppression and injustice minority populations in this country battle are present in every country in its own minority populations. To be sure, the struggles and injustices of minority populations will vary depending on the country, but the fact of their existence across cultures remains.
To be the majority population “culture-builder” means to be blind to much of the impact of what was built on minority populations. This blindness has many causes but sin is its root. Here I have in mind sins of “omission” as well as those of “commission.” We purposely curate our lives for our own benefit while at the same time we make those who are in our lives fit in what we’ve made. The same is true for all of us: this is why marriage is so hard so often. What we’ve also seen is while this is happening on a micro-level, it is happening at a macro-level: culture-building is happening in the same way. To be in the majority means doors that open to us were fashioned by us to open to us and for those like us. Again, this makes sense, persisting in some amount of blindness means we have no other way to build. For those not in the majority, those doors might or might not open, might or might not “fit.” They know it keenly whereas the majority does not (“omission”). (On an important side-note: this is why the kingdom of God is built by the Lord, according to His Law and for His glory. He asks all who come into it, to fit into what He has done not what we are doing.)
To accuse those in the majority population of racial culpability simply for being in the majority may be unjust and certainly will not lead to discussion and enlightenment. In the moment, when the men called me “racist” I only wanted to prove to them that they were wrong; I wasn’t interested in listening. Am I unique? Can we say our national discourse is characterized by those who want to listen? It was only after time and Holy Spirit-wrought humility in my heart did I hear those men say:
What we mean is: you are blind because you are not a minority. Since you are not a minority – not like we are – you cannot see what we see. Your “cultural glasses” weren’t made to see it. And you might never be able to see it as we do.
Their expectation of me wasn’t that I become part of their minority population since that was impossible: I was born a white male and I remain that way. Instead, they wanted me to recalibrate my approach to minorities: to interact with all minority populations as a self-conscious member of the majority population. Not a value statement, a fact: European whites built this culture and I’m one of their descendants. Among other things, that would mean, (and they didn’t put it this way) they needed me as an advocate for them in the majority population. In one sense, minorities are “strangers” in the majority population. Likewise, they needed me to be a humble sojourner with them in their minority spaces where I am a “stranger.” I believe the only way this is truly possible is not engaging in “privilege redistribution” but that we become citizens of something completely different than anything we have made: the kingdom of God. (I digress again.)
But today in our culture, many try to press the point by slinging out terms like “white privilege” or “white theology” or “white supremacy.” And then, demanding the overturning of them all. For those of us in the majority population, what we hear is sweeping racial disgust solved only by the stripping away of what our forebears have made – that we all enjoy in some measure. This is no solution. As cultural slurs or political talking points, these aren’t helpful as they aren’t precise: they are subjective terms the users get to define holding the debate hostage. “White privilege” when it is used as an accusation or put down will not help those in the majority population to see and to correct the disadvantages present in the minority ones. It will not further the discussion to the point where blindnesses are overcome and change can happen. It furthers suspicion and distrust. It will most often simply lead to making more walls, creating more distance.
Is it possible for majority and minority populations to live justly together? It’s hard to conceive but it is worth working for. Perhaps what is gained in the current divisive cultural conversation is the reminder that there will always be work to be done. Surely, the starting point for this isn’t (again) in privilege policing or racial shaming.