Saturday, September 6, 2014
Confession and Privilege
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [I John 1:8-9]
I think some of what I've been thinking about lately was said better at this blog. So go read that, if not now, then after you read this, or soon. It has, in fact slightly shifted some of what I wanted to say.
To reiterate his salient (to this post) point: being born into a system that privileges you does not make you bad. It just makes you privileged. A lot of people want to get defensive about this term, privilege, insisting that they're not racist, and that's the thing---privilege is not intentional, it just is. Racism may or may not be unintentional but privilege definitely is.
And the above blogger's post helped me clarify that. But do read his post for other good thoughts.
There is a common belief among American Christians (and beyond, no doubt) that the way forgiveness works is that it takes confession. That is, in order to receive God's forgiveness, we have to confess our sin and ask for forgiveness.
I would never say confession is bad, in fact this post is really about confession. I do not believe, however that God's forgiveness is contingent upon our confession. I believe forgiveness is the state in which we live. We are forgiven. Full stop. Abundant grace.
What does require confession, I will assert, is repentance. Let's define that term briefly. Repentance is, simply, turning. Turning away, to, whatever. When Jesus is calling for repentance in, say, the first chapter of Mark, I would argue that Jesus is asking us turn away from the systems of the world and toward the Reign of God, which is right here, at hand.
And one of those things we need to turn away from is privilege in all it's forms, whether it be white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, or automobile privilege (as in the link above).
But a good many of us don't like to think we're hurting anyone. We don't like to think we're part of the problem. We know that racism is bad and we don't want to be bad. So we tend to protest that we're not racist or even privileged because that seems awfully close to racist (again, see above link).
Here's the thing, though: without confessing our privilege (or racism), we're never going to make real progress on this. And without making this sort of confession, the Reign of God, which is right at hand, will be elusive to us.
And for a concrete example of the type of thing I'm talking about, let me illustrate a moment of my own racism and/or privilege ( I think this incident crosses both categories).
Last winter, I was walking home from the bus stop after work and it was already dark. It was cool enough here in Houston to wear a hoodie and I had the hood up. As I walked along, I came upon a lone woman walking. I've made conscious efforts in the past to give signals that I was no threat to single women walking after dark alone, things like crossing the street to give the signal that I was not, in fact, following them.
This evening, reflexively, without thought, I reached up and pulled back my hoodie so my face was clearly seen. Almost immediately, I began questioning why that was my attempt to signal her safety with me. I quickly realized that I was showing that I was white
As if white men don't mug or rape single women walking alone.
While I tried to convince myself I was just showing my face, in the hopes that she'd get that a rapist wouldn't want his face seen, I don't think I can escape that at least some portion of my intention was to say, "hey, I'm white, I'm safe."
One, that's pretty doggone racist. Two, it's my privilege as a white man to assume that I'll be seen as at least safer than a man of color.
I told a friend about this after the fact and she agreed that it was a racist attitude lingering in my brain, but that depending upon the woman's attitudes and prejudices, she may have actually found relief in my action. This only further illustrates my privilege as a white man, but also illustrates that I'm not the only one who is racist.
As I like to say, it's not so much that anyone of us is racist, it's that the whole system is and we've all learned and internalized the system's lessons.
But as a privileged person, a white male in this culture, I have to make conscious choices to turn away from this sort of attitude. Maybe this winter, I'll still expose my face when encountering a lone woman at night, and maybe that'll be appreciated for a variety of reasons---but that's not really the point. Let's not get too bogged down in the specifics of this example, but recognize a few things in this situation:
1. As a male, I don't often fear for my safety while walking alone at night. In fact, I've very seldom felt afraid to walk alone at night. Women friends report other feelings.
2. As a white male, I'm seldom seen as a threat, either on a sidewalk at night or in store browsing the aisles with my backpack.
How do I fight against this? I'm not sure there is a simple answer. The main one is to speak out when I encounter these attitudes, gently and with humility, because I've just demonstrated that these attitudes still live within me.Googling things like "how to combat white privilege" can be a great start for more ideas. And of course, one of my practices, as outlined in this blog before, as a religious person, is to notice these instances and remind myself, over and over and over, that every human, however they look, whatever my ingrained attitude about that look, is made in the Image of God.
One last thing I want to say about privilege is that we need to recognize that it's slippery, dynamic, shifting according to circumstance and combinations of social, cultural, and physical categories. I experience a pretty good amount of privilege as a white male. I also lose some as a gay male. A black male may have some privilege when compared to a black woman, but a white woman generally experiences some privileges over anyone of color. A wealthy person generally has more privilege than a poor person, regardless of race or gender. And, depending upon the situation, all these can be reversed, but the system, like the car/bicycle analogy in the link above, will almost always favor certain people, that is white people. The history of race divisions, certainly in the United States, is so strong that we aren't going to blithely get out from under it with simple declarations that racism is over.
If we're going to make progress, we have to continue to confess, no matter how far we like to think we've come, that we have much work left to do.