If white privilege were more widely recognized, America could be great someday.

Whose America does Donald J. Trump want to “make great again”? Confronted as I have been so regularly by news coverage of the part-spectacle, part-genuine presidential campaign, I have had many occasions to puzzle over this slogan, “Make America Great Again!” And I cannot shake the disturbing recognition of the white privilege that undergirds such a statement’s internal logic and narrowly focused appeal.

At what point in the 240-year-old history of the United States was it so great for black people that we would want to return to that “greatness” again? A similar question could be asked about the “Americas” of women more generally, religious minorities, indigenous peoples, Latino/a people, gays and lesbians, and the physically, mentally or emotionally disabled, among others. But here I want to focus my attention on the fact of white privilege and draw attention to a pervasive reality underlying Mr. Trump’s slogan, one that does not receive the attention it must, at least not from many white Christians.

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As a white male, especially one who also benefits from an unsought clerical privilege in the church, it is my responsibility to raise this subject personally and publicly and to acknowledge that I benefit from the structural sin of white privilege in a society (and, as some theologians have rightly argued, in a church) that is in deep collective denial about its existence.

The nature of my unwitting complicity with American white privilege and many of the ways I directly benefit from the color of my skin came into stark relief when I first encountered Peggy McIntosh’s now-classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” Ms. McIntosh lists dozens of daily effects of white privilege as she experienced them, including:

“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

“When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”

Reading these and other examples, I came to recognize the many previously unacknowledged benefits in my own daily life. Subsequently I have not been able to un-see the white privilege that pervades my being-in-the-world. When I am on planes or buses, in restaurants or stores, or interacting with acquaintances or strangers, I see the manifold ways structural racism marks all bodies in relationship and the disturbing ways some are advantaged while others are disadvantaged.

White privilege affords people who look like me a nearly universal benefit of the doubt while simultaneously casting a shadow of suspicion and incredulity on the motives, reasoning and experiences of black and brown people. White privilege means that people who look like me can go about the world with a sense of entitlement and belonging, whereas people of color are often considered outsiders, aliens and must explain themselves. Because of white privilege, people who look like me never have to confront our nation’s history of systemic racism, while the histories and bodies of black people are erased and ignored.

I confess I have been overwhelmed at times and frequently unsure of what to do in response to this knowledge. Like poverty, sexism, environmental degradation and other structural evils, combating white privilege seems quixotic if not impossible. But its persistence depends very much on the silence and willful ignorance of those who benefit from its reality.

It is not enough for white people merely to acknowledge the reality of white privilege, but it is the necessary starting point. As M. Shawn Copeland, the Rev. Bryan Massingale, James Cone and other black theologians have reminded the church and academy over the years, until white ministers and theologians seriously acknowledge and address white privilege and racism, not much is going to change. Furthermore, as the white Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote in his essay “Letters to a White Liberal” in 1964, until white people are willing to sacrifice their privilege, all their expressed concern about racism is effectively worthless.

It is the brilliant and unsettling work of black and antiracist theologians, as well as that of journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and poets like Claudia Rankine, that continues to inform my critical awareness of racial injustice that not only exists but also benefits me. Maybe if white privilege were more widely recognized, America could indeed be great someday.

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Richard Booth
2 years 7 months ago
Although this topic is not new, I believe the author did an excellent job with it. He may have brought it to an audience largely unacquainted with the nuances of privilege, if not the reality of it.
William Rydberg
2 years 7 months ago
As a Canadian, I am Assuming that this is not just a United States of America issue, Is it objectively and Authoritatively either a Mortal or Venial Sin universally, is it not? Ought one bring it to a Confessor. Is there a canonical problem in your opinion should a light-skinned person that perhaps suspects herself/himself to be in sin, not seek out a non-light skinned priest confessor, could they be doing wrong, thus exacerbating the sin by going to a presumably biased light- skinned confessor? Is what you are saying explicitly taught in the Bible, why wasn't this detected before you arrived at your current position? A priest I have known once told me that Jesus, born in Asia, was somewhat brown-skinned (he said like a Filipino in skin-colour), so I assume he was excluded from such a contemporaneous sin? (i.e. the Romans and perhaps the Idumeans at the time might be the equivalent of supporters of a kind of "structural" Privilege)... What about the British, does that mean that British and American, French, Chinese (Han versus other Ethnic Groups), Indian (Irdu speaker versus Tamil, Moslem versus Hindu, etc..) Kenyan (more powerful tribal aggregates), Nigerian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian, Argentinian, etc were in the past sinners due to the fact they were the dominant Culture? I am Canadian, any thoughts about the French/English issues especially in the Province of Quebec? And what about the Irish especially in the days before the Republic was freed? what about Northern Ireland now? What about the Catholic Bavarians during the time of the Kulturkamph? Are the American Jesuits and American Franciscans sinning by being in Japan (maybe not so much now, but after the WW2 aftermath/surrender)?. What about Protestants that politically ruled much of the USA and the Catholics prior to President Kennedy? A lot hangs on your determination of the severity of sin in these contexts. please advise... You ought to know that even in Gibbons Tome, "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" written centuries ago, real Power is colourblind. In fact, most of the Rulers of Constantinople were not even Italian... Generals, Leaders, Soldiers, State Leaders were multicultural. In fact, Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt was an ethnic Greek... Do you think that past Canonizations are invalid, in societies which in the past may have neglected to evaluate for white privilege (or it's contemporaneous equivalent) ? Perhaps this Issue be brought forward jointly by Jesuits and Franciscans for updating of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church? I read What you say but would be more comfortable should a Bishop to weigh-in, or at least a Senior Jesuit or Senior Franciscan in your Leadership to discern/explain further the consequences using some clearly defined objective evaluative criteria please... If what you are saying is completely true, I assume you discern the Will of God here, this needs immediate action, announcements in the various Parishes, Dioceses, Archdioceses worldwide... Based upon what you have said, unless you do something concrete to move this forward within the Church, many souls could be in jeopardy. If what you are saying is not true, then you are causing possibly great (objectively speaking) scandal and ought to clarify in my opinion. So in my opinion, you will need to act immediately lest you scandalize the weak in faith... Have you thought/considered that the issue may be Economics related. In capitalistic countries (and most others) money is a big equalizer. And Big Money is a BIG EQUALIZER... Have you been to England, France or Brazil? Judging by your picture, you look young, but as a former Bulletin Editor, photos rarely get updated often enough in my experience... Good luck with the PH.D.. Just my opinion, Pax et Bonum ...
Lisa Weber
2 years 7 months ago
"Make America Great Again" is partly a reflection of white privilege, but it is also a reflection of a failure on the part of government to work for the common good. Basing tax cuts on the idea that wealth will "trickle down" to the poor was simply fraudulent. A great many jobs have been exported, leaving people without work. We continue to fail to provide health care coverage for everyone. All of this contributes to a generalized meanness in job markets. This meanness doesn't feel "great" to the people who suffer from its effects, and a nostalgia has developed for a mythical past when America was great. Trump exploits that nostalgia and that myth.

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