Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, 2015. The day after rioters tore through Baltimore, the city's mayor was criticized on Tuesday for a slow police response to some of the worst U.S. urban unrest in years after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he had called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly Monday but that she held off calling in the National Guard until three hours after violence first erupted. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Bourg *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WHITE-PRIVILEGE, originally transmitted on April 19, 2016.

Churches examine white privilege

(RNS) A year ago, when the death of Freddie Gray and resulting unrest in Baltimore filled the news, the Rev. Kathy Dwyer felt she had to do something.

“Every time I turned on the TV, I just felt like I was getting punched in the gut from watching the issue of racism just escalate in our country,” said the white pastor of a predominantly white United Church of Christ congregation in Arlington, Va.

In the wake of the continuing deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers, some white church leaders say they can no longer check off their racial-justice to-do list by hosting a Black History Month event. Instead, they are holding workshops that address white privilege -- not experiencing or knowing the unfair treatment endured by nonwhites.

Dwyer’s church started a yearlong racial justice conversation and posted a Black Lives Matter sign that was vandalized. More than 40 members began reading books such as “The New Jim Crow” and “Between the World and Me” to better understand white privilege. And they invited people of color to speak at “sacred suppers” about their personal experiences with discrimination.

Vandalized Black Lives Matter sign at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Va. Photo courtesy of Kathy Dwyer

Vandalized Black Lives Matter sign at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Va. Photo courtesy of Kathy Dwyer


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Rev. Leonard L. Hamlin Sr., a black pastor of a National Baptist Convention, USA, congregation in Arlington, said being invited to Dwyer’s church -- where he spoke of being awarded one of two silver medals instead of a gold in a high school oratory competition -- was different from many of the times he’s explained his experiences to others.


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“You had persons who really wanted to hear it,” he said, “persons who gave more time for it.”

On Sunday (April 17), at the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference, about 60 mainline Protestants and Catholics gathered in a hotel ballroom in suburban Washington for a 90-minute session called “Face to Face with Racism.”

Yvonne Platts, left, and Pam Nath, right, lead “Face to Face with Racism” workshop at Ecumenical Advocacy Days on April 17, 2016. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Yvonne Platts, left, and Pam Nath, center, lead “Face to Face with Racism” workshop at Ecumenical Advocacy Days on April 17, 2016. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Co-facilitators Pam Nath and Yvonne Platts took turns discussing the image of an iceberg on a flip chart at the front of the room. They said it was a symbol of how oppressive power is like the tip of an iceberg, with white power looming just underneath.

“The stuff that’s hidden below the surface is bigger and more powerful and more dangerous than the stuff we can see above the waters,” said Nath, who is white, and who works with Platts, a black woman, in the Mennonite-based group Roots of Justice.

At a later point in the workshop, they led a role-playing exercise about power, in which a black woman depicted Jesus and a white man took the part of Jairus, a synagogue leader who sought Jesus out to heal his daughter.

“How are they addressing oppressive power -- in the places you work and more particularly the places where you worship?” Platts asked.

In the last half-century, there have been other examples of whites addressing racial justice -- from the Freedom Summer voting registration project in the South in the 1960s to anti-racism efforts in mainline Protestant denominations in the 1990s. But the focus on white privilege seems sharper now, propelled in part by the calls for change by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Most of us don’t think about our whiteness until something brings it to our attention and sometimes that’s things like Freddie Gray,” said Kevin Skwira-Brown, a white facilitator of the “Cracking the Shell of Whiteness” class held for six weeks earlier this year at Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth, Minn.

Since the 15 people concluded the class, Skwira-Brown has received reports of how they have tried to apply what they’ve learned. One person has encouraged a medical professional to include more inviting artwork in an office instead of only images of white people.

Dwyer said a member of her church left a store without purchasing a desired item after hearing the salesclerk utter a racially derogatory statement.


RELATED STORY: ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs at churches vandalized


Rev. Rob Keithan preaching at All Souls Church Unitarian. Photo courtesy of Ben David Johnson

The Rev. Rob Keithan preaching at All Souls Church Unitarian. Photo courtesy of Ben David Johnson


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Rev. Rob Keithan is teaching a “White Ally Course” to 21 people at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington in hopes of helping other whites strategize on using the strength of their faith to work more effectively on racial justice.

“White people have the responsibility to educate white people about race and racism,” he said. “We can’t place all that burden on people of color. … We have to do the education.”

The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a professor of Christian ethics at Howard University Divinity School, said issues of white privilege and white supremacy have long been discussed on the campus of her predominantly black school and in other black settings. But she celebrates the attention to them by white allies.

“To do so will make a big difference as the ascendancy of Donald Trump forces the issue upon us, that is, to acknowledge and repudiate systems that validate white male dominance while denigrating the claims and humanity of others,” she said.

But the language of “white privilege” might stop the conversation for some before it starts, said Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist minister who authored a book on racism and Southern evangelicals.

“In the South, amongst conservative evangelicals, that would be a nonstarter to use that language,” he said. “If you step back, a lot of people would agree if we talk about what we mean instead of just using the term.”

Skwira-Brown said that white attendees of classes focused on whiteness are really at the start of a long process.

“If someone is filled with pride because they see something they didn’t see six weeks ago or six months ago, they sort of have perhaps lost touch with that racial humility,” he said. “And that’s part of the challenge, is to recognize how much we have to learn.”

Comments

  1. Logically, all lives matter. But people don’t think logically. And skin is such an easy way to otherize: “we” don’t even have to look at “them” closely, let alone under the surface.

    Everybody knows white lives matter. Look at racial opinions, assumptions, likes and dislikes, public services, social programs, drinking water, communities, education, employment, positions and promotions, management and boardrooms, wealth, housing, home ownership, car ownership, history books, art books, literature, research, medicine, health and safety, technology, monuments, politicians, celebrities, entertainment, advertising, marketing, the media, law enforcement, stop-and-frisk, stand-your-ground, prison sentences, voting rights, jury selection — notice who gets selected for what.

    I’m not talking “merit”. I’m talking opportunities, means, mentors, contacts. In this century.

    I care about how we treat each other. That includes how we treat what others hold sacred, such as beliefs, rights, privacy, and equality. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the Golden Rule. So, to counter the 3 evils that I witness far too often in our society — inequality, trespass, and cruelty — I have chosen 3 guiding principles: Equality, Respect, and Empathy. I have since realized that these values come with a common-sense corollary: ” ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ breeds contempt. Familiarity breeds solutions.”

    These guiding values have been surprisingly effective at helping me evaluate so-called “complicated, contentious, controversial” issues — like how we treat others.

    I recommend these basic social principles to anyone who feels justified in breezily buzzing off “Black Lives Matter” with the stupefying sting of “All lives matter”.

  2. I am pretty sure many churches already have an understanding of white privilege. The problem is that their primary goal seems to be to reinforce it.

  3. G Key, you’ve written a wonderful synopsis of white privilege. While white males are more privileged than women and girls, any white skin holds the built in advantages of race.

    I want to applaud those churches and the people within them who are facing this critical and crippling American problem. Even more, thank you to the people of color who are willing to invest themselves by taking the risk of teaching these courses or workshops. The risk is that the white people are really serious this time.

  4. The great majority of US poor today are white, and they aren’t getting the whole “white privilege” thing. We call poor black people “disadvantaged,” and poor white people “white trash.” It has been virtual open season on our homeless for years, as they’ve been beaten, brutalized, killed, by police and citizens alike. Those deaths don’t result in marches for social justice, or weeks of liberal media outrage. We no longer regard our poor as actual human beings today, deserving of the most basic human rights (per the UN’s UDHR) of food and shelter. We don’t talk about them, don’t think about them, don’t regard their suffering and deaths as newsworthy. “Just some homeless bum.”

  5. There’s no such thing as white privilege…what we have here is brainwashing the ignorant masses into seeing white people as evil racist overlords & everyone else as “victims” of oppression. When an unarmed white man is killed by a cop (which happens all the time even though you’ll never see it on mainstream media), it’s either no big deal, or at best “police brutality”….now if it’s anot unarmed black man killed by a cop, it’s automatically “racist”. People are just looking to make everything racial (like that Gap ad)…& it’s breeding racism like crazy. Everyone else can feel guilty if they’re weak enough to be brainwashed but I won’t.

  6. Your wrong on both counts.

    1. White privilege is real and exists.
    2. White people are not “evil racist overlords.” White men don’t have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy their privilege. It’s so deeply woven into the dominant culture it’s systemic. There are evil racists in every skin color group. The difference is whites have the power to enforce it.

  7. I wonder how the numbers of white poor rank per capita. That would be interesting to know. I agree about how abysmally poor people are treated. You say that treatment doesn’t create “liberal media outrage.” Do Fox News, Brietbart, World Net Daily, Drudge or other right wing media report sympathetically on poverty?

  8. This notion of “white privilege” is totally bogus & destructive to all races. The real privileged ones (the Elite that control the Country & World) use this garbage to divide & conquer the ignorant masses…this is a tactic that’s been used over & over throughout history (successfully). Seriously someone give me a single example of what white people have access to that any other race does not. You’d think when a black man was President of the United States we could all agree that black people aren’t being denied any privilege. I guess Beyonce/Kanye West/Oprah mistakenly got my white privilege (I don’t seem to have any), so if anyone could tell them I’d like all the money & perks that should have been bestowed on my at birth back…that would be great.

  9. Oh BTW…can someone spot all the things wrong with this caption from the picture where “a black hand holds a white hand” like it’s groundbreaking heroics? The whole Freddie Gray incident was outrageous & tragic but last time I saw the video, I didn’t see the cops hammering him with racial slurs while they attacked him…but that doesn’t stop it from being cast as racism. Cops get away with injustices every day regardless of the victims race, a cop smacked me in the head when I got arrested as a teenager & on the way to the station he was telling me how he could pull over & beat the f out of me & Nobody would do anything about it….if I was black would you assume it’s because of race?

    Caption –

    “Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, 2015. The day after rioters tore through Baltimore, the city’s mayor was criticized on Tuesday for a slow police response to some of the worst U.S. urban unrest in years after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he had called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly Monday but that she held off calling in the National Guard until three hours after violence first erupted. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Bourg *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WHITE-PRIVILEGE, originally transmitted on April 19, 2016.”

  10. I highly recommend the Huffington Post’s article entitled “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

    The insightful author addresses the issue far better than I ever could.

  11. “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” — Stephen Colbert

    Also see a commentary on this quote at http://canyoncreekonline.com/blog/post/pretending-jesus-was-as-selfish-as-us/

  12. I would just like to know where my white privilage was? I started working when I was 9. My parents made me work with them and have been working ever since. I put myself through school, saved and sacrifieced. Did Freddy Gray ever work? Quite a few of these young thugs no nothing about sacrifice. The current generation of youth have never had it so good. This is ludicruous to blame the whites of America for their situation.

  13. “Quite a few of these young thugs no nothing about sacrifice.”
    How would you know?

    Making up stories about strangers is lying. Insulting those strangers accordingly is abusive. And calling those strangers “thugs” is elitist, hateful, immoral, and racist.

    “I would just like to know where my white privilage was?”
    It’s right here: Lying abusive elitist hateful immoral racist.

  14. Yes, but the scripture is quite clear on how we should treat each other, how we should treat the poor, the imprisoned and widows and orphans. I too think the scripture is the source for how Christ followers should live. It is also clear about the role of civil government. I applaud the efforts of those making efforts to turn the conversation in a more positive direction under scripturally directed guidance. Know one should be feeling as if their skin, economic class, or other “divider” if we’re talking and leading from our Christ centered heart.

  15. Yes, a dark skinned Middle Eastern Jew, who probably would feel quite uncomfortable in many of the current established ‘Churches’.

  16. The capacity to walk into a store and not be immediately suspected of nefarious intent ?

  17. I do struggle to see the white privilege to a degree, but I know there are areas/people where it is prevalent. (I have had to pay for everything I needed since I was 16, and had a horrible childhood of abuse, and do feel jealous of others who didn’t have to struggle so much.) I do see opportunities that have been available for a couple decades to the black/colored community that would not benefit the white community.
    – Scholarships available specifically for black students on top of the other types of scholarships.
    – I have seen black people walk into the store without any second glance everywhere I’ve been, but yet my husband (white) walks into a store with predominantly black and Somalian staff and can’t get anyone to help him, even when he asks. Racism goes both ways, and this attitude is not going to break down barriers, it only separates people more. (I lived abroad teaching conversational English for 3 years, and stood out. I got looked at, even called an idiot for taking jobs from their residents of their nation, but responding negatively would not have helped in any way.)
    – I’ve worked in HR and have seen a black candidate get priority for interviewing/hiring over a more qualified candidate at the expense of creating a diverse work force. It’s great to create opportunities, but it creates other issues.
    – Attitude with a cop, will always create a problem. ALL people need to respect that they have a job to do, and the officers all need to make sure they are acting responsibly for the situation!

    No one is better over another. A bad attitude doesn’t help anyone, and does not promote a peaceful exchange.

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