Category Archives: White Privilege

BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me.

I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

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Filed under Beloved Community, Christian, conversion, cultural insensitivity, culture, Damascus road, diversity, DOOR, faith, gender equality, God questions, ideologies, inclusion, political, political debate, politics, racism, racist, sexist, theology, Uncategorized, urban tour, White Privilege

Revisiting Finding Nemo

The election is over and progressive Americans are in shock. This wasn’t their expected outcome. Now what?

As a white, straight male I want people to know that I am not a racist, hater, Islamophobic, or misogynist. If you were to look at my social media feed there are lots of ways that people who look like me are trying to say, “I not who you think I am.”

This week my mind drifted back to one of my favorite Pixar movies, Finding Nemo. It tells the story of a father’s love for his ever maturing and adventurous child. One day in a fit of frustration with his father’s overprotective nature, Nemo ventures away from the reef to touch the bottom of a fishing boat. He is captured by a scuba diver and taken away. The rest of the movie tells the story of Marlin, Nemo’s father, and Dory, an unexpected friend, as they search for Nemo.

One of the first characters they meet is Bruce the shark. Marlin and Dory are immediately brought to an AA-type meeting for sharks. The gathering begins with a pledge “fish are friends not food.”

As I have been replaying this scene in my mind, one question keeps surfacing. When a great white shark tells a small fish that he has become a vegetarian (read – I didn’t vote for him), who has to have the faith that the relationship will work out? Bruce can change his convictions at any time and without any warning. What assurances do Marlin and Dory have that Bruce will stick to his new diet?

Since last Tuesday those of us who are white have been exposed. How do we demonstrate that we aren’t racist? I can no more quit being white than some of my staff can quit being people of color, women, or gay. I never asked to be born with the power and privilege that comes to me simply because of the color of my skin. But I still have it.  Is it possible that under all my best intentions there are still whiffs of unconscious racism and privilege?

Should I wear a safety pin? Maybe. Will that make you safe? Maybe.

In many ways to be white is much like being Bruce, a great white shark. When we reach out to others asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and honestly desiring relationship, it is critical to never forget who we are – sharks, people with access to power and privilege.

Just because I reach out to a person of color, a woman, or a GLBTQI person with an honest desire to be friends does not immediately mean that I have quit being scary. It is important to never forget that it takes a tremendous amount of faith to look past the teeth of a great white shark and see a potential friend.

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Filed under Christian, citizenship, diversity, DOOR, Finding Nemo, forgiveness, racial equality, racism, racist, religion, Uncategorized, White Privilege

Fatigue

Have you ever found yourself eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? Every once in a while I catch myself doing this. Generally it happens at a coffee shop when the people next to me are chatting a bit too loudly.

It doesn’t always happen at coffee shops. The office is also a fertile location. In the course of a day it is not unusual to hear half an exchange or walk in to the middle of a discussion. Once people realize I am present one of two things happens (a) the topic changes quickly, or (b) the conversation just keeps moving forward. One of the special things about the staff who work for me is that they are about as diverse a group as can be found anywhere. As you might imagine the conversations can become quite animated and intense.

“White people fatigue” is one of those topics that our staff and board members of color talk about on a regular basis. When I first overheard folks talking about this I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Mostly I saw it as a way to blow off steam or make a challenging reference simply because I walked in to the conversation. I am slowly coming to see this perspective as erroneous at best and demeaning at worst.

White people fatigue is a real condition. It is time that (we) Anglos begin to own the pain and frustration that is too often visited on our brothers and sisters of color. With this as background, I want to offer some ideas to consider:

  1. When it comes to defining diversity too often it is white people who get to say what diversity is and isn’t. I have found this to be an interesting issue for the more progressive (read liberal) folks. For many reasons, both good and bad, this is the group that has defined the extent and limits of “true diversity” – whether it be about skin color, theology, class, gender, or orientation. As you might imagine this is interestingly ironic. To add even more irony to the situation when people of color do not accept these progressive Anglo ideas as to the nature and extent of diversity, it is people of color get written off as immature or uneducated. This creates fatigue.
  2. The “you’re my best friend” pressure. Being everyone’s best “Hispanic” (or Black, Asian, etc.) friend can be taxing. The truth of the matter is, best friendship takes time, lots of time. When a cross cultural element is added it is probably best to assume that it will take twice as much time. When white folks pressure people of color to be friends, stress and fatigue are natural outcomes.
  3.  The “I get what you are thinking.” Again, really? I have lived in a Hispanic neighborhood for 20 years and attended a Hispanic church for 10. One of the important lessons I have learned is that it is best not to assume anything, particularly that I would understand how and why someone believes and acts the way they do. When we assume that we understand the other, particularly people of color, we disrespect their culture, background, and history. These assumptions create fatigue.
  4.  The pressure to understand popular culture, at least white popular culture. This includes quoting lyrics from current songs to reenacting a scene from The Princess Bride. As Anglos we have the privilege of assuming that everyone else relates to, knows, and appreciates our particular slice of popular culture. Quite simply this is misguided. I don’t know many people of color who fixate on old Seinfeld episodes or current story lines from The Big Bang Theory. It creates fatigue when Anglos expect everyone to understand their particular cultural references but rarely take the time to understand other cultures. When we don’t understand a broader world it demonstrates both privilege and ignorance.
  5. Don’t assume that to be Hispanic (African American, Asian American, etc.) implies that a person holds to a particular set of cultural norms. Expecting a universal Black, Hispanic or Asian “experience” is ignorant and small minded. These types of expectations create fatigue and anger.

What can be done?

  1. Diversity is what its name suggests, a whole bunch of difference. Just because that difference isn’t the kind of difference you approve of doesn’t make it wrong, evil, or less diverse. Don’t think that you have the complete picture of what diversity is and is not.
  2. Don’t assume that friendly equals best friend or even friend. Sometimes friendly is just a way to be polite or a way to avoid having to confront your insensitivity.
  3. Don’t speak for other people. Listen closely to what they have to say. Ask clarifying questions. Allow their story to be their story.
  4. For every movie directed by an Anglo watch two directed by a person of color. Apply this matrix to your TV watching, music choices, and reading. As a side note, living by this standard will reduce both movie and TV viewing.
  5. It is a good idea to start from the supposition that we are all unique children of God. Rather than force people into pre-conceived boxes be surprised by the gifts, talents, and abilities each individual brings to the table.

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Filed under A New Kind of Christian, assumptions, Beloved Community, Christian, cultural insensitivity, culture, distinctives, diversity, faith, inclusion, ministry, multicultural, questions of church, racism, racist, relationship, religion, religious system, White Privilege

A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue.

Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

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Filed under being wrong, Christian, church rules, control, culture, distinctives, diversity, Evangelical, ideologies, inclusion, meetings, multicultural, novel idea, religion, religious system, White Privilege

Why?

I am writing this entry from my front porch.  Across the street a family is gathering,  mostly to support each other.  Earlier this week Hector (not his real name) was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center.  He had slipped into unconsciousness. His liver is failing and unless he gets a new one he is going to die.  Hector is a father of four; the youngest just started kindergarten at the school down the street.

I met him the day I moved into this neighborhood, 14 years ago.  He likes to talk – a lot!  He is a good neighbor, father, worker and husband.  It is obvious that he adores his family.

On its own this is one of those situations that raise all kinds of “God” questions – Why would you allow this to happen?  Is this really just?

But there are other complicating factors as well.  You see Hector does not have “documentation” that allows him to “legally” live in this country.  The direct implication is that he is not “qualified” to be on a transplant list.  I realize that immigration is an extremely contentious political issue.  But watching this scene play out across the street and in front of my eyes moves the discussion from a disconnected political debate to a deeply personal reality.

Hector is going to die and leave behind a family that needs him, simply because of where he was born.  Somehow this makes him less worthy – less human.  Can this be moral, right or just?  Especially in a country that regularly claims to own the moral high ground.

The more I study Scripture the more the theme of “inclusion” emerges.  How we treat the stranger and alien says something about the quality of our faith.

I am not a politician.  I still believe that this is one of the most amazing places to live.  But we can be better and we can do better.  One of the first steps is choosing to welcome, include and allow access to all levels of services to the strangers and aliens among us.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, community, culture, Denver Health Medical Center, Family, God questions, immigration, just, liver, local communities, moral, political debate, religion, respect, responsibilities, right, rights, transplant list, urban ministry, White Privilege

Seeing and not seeing

Next Sunday I get to preach at my home church.  For the past number of months I have been working through Luke 18.  I only speak every 6-8 weeks, so takes a while to complete a series.  I am finally ready to wrap up the chapter.  Luke 18 ends with two stories; the first is a conversation with the disciples.  It must have been a frustrating discussion because the disciples didn’t understand a thing Jesus was saying.  The second story is about a blind man who receives his sight because he understands who Jesus is.

In short, the sighted don’t see and the blind see.

I have always thought of myself as an “aware” person.  Observing the world around me and understanding what is going on.  Lately I have come to discover that I am quite blind.  This has not been easy to admit.  Somewhere in the process of owing my blindness I have begun to see.  This hasn’t been easy either.

Two weeks ago while presenting a seminar on White Privilege I referred to the birth certificate questions that have been raised about our current President.  I suggested that one of the driving factors in questioning his citizenship was his skin color.  One of our city directors was in the room and overheard a teenaged boy comment under his breath, “the President needs to go back to where he came from.”

Last week we had a DOOR group arrive in Chicago.  Within hours of their arrival some in the group decided that the neighborhood was too dangerous.  It was irresponsible on our part to even suggest that they “live” in the neighborhood for one week and serve.  Our Chicago program is located in an African American neighborhood.  When the group left they presented many reasons, while carefully avoiding the real reason.  They were in a neighborhood full of folks who looked different and those differences scared them.

This week I attended a seminar that was led by an African American man.  He told the story of his wife getting pregnant with their first child.  Sometime during the second trimester they went to the doctor to find out if they were having a boy or a girl.  The news came back that they were having a boy.  Both mom and dad were excited for the first week.  By the second week his wife became severely depressed.  In a moment of brutal honesty she expressed her desire to not carry the baby to term.  Not because she didn’t want the baby, but because she feared how society would treat an African American male.

I have been involved in urban ministry for 17 years.  For all the right reasons I wanted to believe that the church has moved beyond race and racism.  Having to see a different reality is not easy -I get why the disciples chose not to understand what Jesus was saying.  Who wants to talk about pain and suffering?

In Psalm 23 we learn that the path to a new reality includes walking through the very valley of the shadow of death.  Confronting racism is not easy or comfortable, but racism is dehumanizing and dehumanization has no place in the kingdom of God.

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Filed under church, diversity, faith, label, ministry, racism, urban ministry, White Privilege

It’s time to declare a “War on Broken Bones”

It was on October 14, 1982 President Ronald Regan declared a “War on Drugs.”  It was a time in our country’s history when less than 2% of Americans viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the country.  By the 1980’s the number of arrests for all crime rose 28% while the number of arrests for drug related offenses rose 128%.  In 1999, crime statistics show that blacks were the most likely group to be arrested for drug crimes.  In some states in the mid 90’s 90% of those admitted to prison for drug offenses were either black or brown.

Let’s reimagine this for a moment.  Let’s suppose the in 1982 “broken bones due to sports” was declared the new war.  In order to get this epidemic under control the government declares all broken bones due to sports activities a felony with a new mandatory minimum sentences and an additional “3 strikes and you’re out” law.

Seems silly doesn’t it?  You don’t fix a broken bone issue by sending the person to jail.  You get them medical attention and then develop more effective pads and game rules.

Why then do we think that the drug problem can be solved by stiffer mandatory jail sentences?  Drug addiction is a problem, but putting people in jail for addiction is silly at best and morally wrong at worst.  Drugs like broken bones are best dealt with by medical professionals.  One of the more embarrassing realities of this War on Drugs is that Christians have more often than not allowed politicians to define who is criminal and what activities constitute criminal behavior.

Maybe it is time to call the War on Drugs what it really was – a political ploy designed to motivate people to vote for and support a particular President.  It is important to note that every presidential candidate since has used some form of “get tough on crime (read drugs)” rhetoric.

According to Matthews’s gospel one characteristics of Christians is how we treat the prisoner.  I can’t help but wonder if he included this in his gospel because deciding who is bad and who is good is something we will get wrong more often than right.

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Filed under politics, President Ronald Regan, racism, rights, War on Drugs, White Privilege

Finding Nemo – A story about White Privilege

One of my favorite movies is Finding Nemo.  It tells the story of a father’s love for his ever maturing and adventurous child.  One day in a fit of frustration with his father’s overprotective nature, Nemo ventures away from the reef to touch the bottom of a fishing boat.  He is captured by a scuba diver and taken away.  The rest of the movie tells the story of Marlin, Nemo’s father and Dory, an unexpected friend, as they search for Nemo.

One of the first “characters” they meet is Bruce the shark.  Marlin and Dory are immediately brought to an “AA-type” meeting for sharks.  The gathering begins with a pledge “fish are friends not food.”

As I have been replaying this scene in my mind, one question keeps surfacing.  When a Great White shark tells a small fish that he has become a vegetarian, who has to have the faith that the relationship will work out?  Bruce can change his convictions at any time and without any warning.  What assurances do Marlin and Dory have that Bruce will stick to his new diet?

Some of the biggest challenges facing folks who want to move beyond the evils of White Privilege have to to with relationship and reconciliation.  How do Anglos get to a place of honest peer-to-peer relationships with persons of color?

Many who are White have owned and are owning the privilege(s) which have come simply because of skin color.  We have also recognized that privilege can be costly, especially for persons of color.  We have received preferential treatment when looking for work.  We are much less likely to be stopped for routine traffic violations.  The War on Drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color.  Life has not always been easy for White folks, but our privilege has secured as world that is clearly tilted in our favor.

In many ways to be White is much like being a Great White Shark.  When we reach out to others asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation and honesty desiring relationship, it is critical to never forget who we are – sharks, people with access to power and privilege.  I for one never asked to be born with the power and privilege that comes to me simply because of the color of my skin.

Just because I reach out to a person of color with an honest desire to be friends does immediately imply that I have quit being scary.  It is important to never forget that it takes a tremendous amount of faith to look past the teeth of a Great White Shark and see a potential friend.

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Filed under Finding Nemo, respect, responsibilities, unifying, unity, War on Drugs, White Privilege

Language

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  I still remember my mother quoting this nursery rhyme to me after being teased.  It was her way of helping me to get over the hurt of being made fun of.  On one hand she was right.  Being teased did not cause me any physical damage; I was never rushed to the emergency room because of name calling.  To this day I am still haunted by some of the labels that were given to me – loser, scardy-cat, preacher’s kid, and wimp.

In the years since, I have become convinced that the good advice this nursery rhyme appears to provide is actually horrible guidance.  It is true that sticks and stones can do a great deal of harm, but we mislead ourselves when we think of words as risk-free.

This past week I have been preparing for a seminar on White Privilege.  The power to label and define others is one of the more sinister aspects of this privilege.   Think about words like enemy, gang-banger, insurgent, drug-dealer and urban-rat.  If I were to ask you to create an image for each of these labels chances are that it would not include people of Anglo descent.  On the other hand if I were to ask you to form an image for America, apple pie, Barbie, GI Joe or a great leader chances are that an Anglo image
will form in your mind.

Words are powerful; do not let anyone tell you different.  They have the power to build up and tear down.  Labels can make us unreasonably fearful or envious.  Fear based labeling is both dehumanizing and sinful.

One of the primary images for humanity in the New Testament is family.  When we use language that dehumanizes, ridicules and looks down on other people we cease to be Christian.

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Filed under Christian, inclusion, label, language, nursery rhyme, racism, White Privilege

Seminar

Sometimes I agree to do something before I fully think through all the implications.  Months ago a coworker and I agreed to lead a seminar titled “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race” at the upcoming Mennonite Convention in Pittsburg.  Apparently we are going to talk about White Privilege.  This is one of those “elephant in the room” topics.  I want to live in the world of Martin Luther King’s dream – a world where people are only judged content of their character.

Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world has not yet arrived.  It means admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color.  This is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born White and will die White, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?  One 55 minute seminar will not solve the issue.

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces – to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by White Privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for White people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

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Filed under citizenship, faith, Martin Luther King, mennonite, Mennonite Church USA, MLK, racism, rights, White Privilege