On White Privilege

This post is quite different from my usual blog posts about life, faith, and running personal thoughts. For one of my classes last semester, I made this video on the subject of white privilege. A huge theme of my semester was racism, race issues, and how those play out in everyday life and in humanity over time. So, here is the article I wrote to go with the video and the video itself.

White people in general, in my experience, do not think about what it means to be white. We don’t operate with our race in the front of our minds or even think about it consciously on a daily basis. We don’t see the little advantages that we receive. White people are granted certain privileges simply, and not-so-simply, because we are white. The simple version says that whites are just treated better by society because they are white, and that’s it. The more complex, more realistic version says that American institutions (education, health care, economy, etc.) are set up in such a way that white people have an arguably unintentional advantage over “non-white” people, or people of minority groups, even though I don’t think most whites actually think of themselves as more deserving or inherently better than people of color.

I grew up in the south, in both Alabama and Texas. Moving to Nebraska for college opened my eyes to cultural differences between the South and the Midwest, most notably a relative lack of diversity. I was blatantly aware that most of my interactions were with other white people, which had not always been the case for me growing up. There have been a few uncomfortable moments in groups of friends where “black people” were referred to as a group, not in a particularly offensive way (at least not intentionally), but in a way that definitely made me uncomfortable.

This semester, my classes have opened my eyes to more pervasive and systemic racial issues going on in the United States. (As a white person in the U.S., I had to have my eyes opened to those things.) After learning about white privilege in the classroom and hearing some students and professors comment on white privilege, I was interested in hearing what my friends had to say. I wondered, What do the WASP kids I know think about this idea? Would they be comfortable talking about it? Would they even know what I was talking about? So, I decided to interview a few of them. This video includes some of their responses to several questions that I posed on the subject.

Listening to my friends talk about white privilege and process the concept for themselves helped me process my own thoughts, which have been scattered. It also helped me deal with my own emotions, which have changed from guilt to anger to acceptance to impatience. I agree with what most people said in the end – in their answers to the final question. I asked them because I don’t have the answer myself. I don’t know what to do about white privilege and the role it has in my life and in American society as a whole. But I am encouraged that having these conversations and addressing the issue, even in this small way, is a baby step in the right direction.

Below are the questions and my own responses. If you haven’t yet, please watch the video before reading my answers!

1. How would you define white privilege?
I would define white privilege as the general advantages that white people receive on the basis of race, or factors such as class that have become racialized in our country. This can be intentionally bestowed through discriminatory practices or unintentionally through systemic injustice.

2. Do you see white privilege at work in your own life?
I don’t overtly see its effects in my life on a day-to-day basis. The reason I have come to see it is through the classes I am taking this semester. So, I have definitely been made aware of its effects. I know that it functions in my own life, even when I am unaware of it. The mere fact that I don’t see it and that race is something I never have to think about if I don’t want to is a trace of white privilege.

3. Do you ever think about the fact that you’re white?
Before moving to Nebraska, the only time I ever thought about my whiteness was when learning about slavery, civil rights, and racism in school. I grew up in the South, in more diverse areas, which meant that interacting with people different from me was a daily occurrence and not something to analyze or feel uncomfortable about. I think about my whiteness now when I’m around people who are not white, because it becomes obvious. I think about my whiteness more often in general because I notice the lack of diversity where I live, so I think about the fact that all of my friends in Nebraska are white, and that begins to make me uncomfortable.

4. Do you think about race in your daily life? Are you comfortable talking about race?
I do think about race in my daily life, though I am not  sure in what capacity I tend to think about it. This semester in particular, I am in two classes centered around racial topics, so I am inundated with such information on an every-other-day basis. I am realizing that as a white person, this is the only time I might be forced to think about it, but that people who are not white think about race so much more often.

5. Do you think that white privilege is an urgent problem?
Yes

6. Do you think white privilege will ever NOT be an issue?
Not anytime soon. I think it is possible because I see more young people getting concerned about issues of social justice, and I think that as time goes on and our society does become more diverse, it will be something we are forced to confront, and something that people will have to see is an issue. I have no idea when this might be, but I really hope that white culture does not try to retain its dominance. When I say white culture, I mean that American culture is currently racialized and leans toward whiteness. I believe that it must necessarily change and become more accepting of other cultural values in order to lessen the emphasis on and privilege given to whiteness.

7. How can we address white privilege? How can we raise awareness?
I don’t know. I suppose, since I am aware and concerned, that gives me a responsibility to talk to others about it whenever I have the chance. I think my friends did a good job of expressing my opinion on this question. I think that people have to be personally confronted and moved in order to care about issues enough to want change, and I think that those who are aware should confront people with this issue. This video, in some small way, makes me feel like I am addressing the issue, even if it is just a start.

say it out loud

This isn’t really a reflection on the year 2013. This isn’t really a recap of the events or the time in my life. I’m not sure what this is. I just hope it’s coherent. I don’t have a way to organize my year, other than with segments of time known as semesters, with which we are all familiar and which, if I used them to organize this post, would just remind me that the end of semesters is coming for me in May.
I don’t take pictures consistently, and I don’t generally remember everything that happened in a given year. I got one of those One-Line-a-Day books, and I filled out April – August last year, so that’s where I am.
Something that I do use to mark periods of my life is music. I go through obsessive phases with music all the time. At any given time, there is probably something I can’t stop listening to. So, in an effort to reminisce the year somehow, I decided to create a 12-song playlist. One song per month to sum up my experiences of the year.

But then I started crating the playlist, and I discovered that a 12-song limit is not only impossible, but also silly.
So, I have a playlist to accompany this post, but it is 3 hours and 3 minutes long, consisting of 43 tracks. ha. If you’re looking for some new music, or if you just want another playlist to add to your stash, you can follow it on Spotify. (It is missing a few songs that are not offered on Spotify, which will be discussed later.) In an effort to follow (loosely) the guidelines of my original attempt, at the bottom is a list of 15 songs, in an order that makes sense with my timeline but obviously doesn’t correspond to the actual months.

I think I am afraid to start writing again, mostly for the same reasons that I’m always afraid after a dry spell. I won’t have anything to say. The words won’t come out right anymore. I won’t be a writer anymore. I haven’t learned anything. I don’t have anything worth saying.

“I am content.” I said out loud, more for myself than the person next to me to hear.
“I am content,” I said, and I realized what that meant.
I laughed a little, incredulous, and thought about how many months I had wasted not making myself say that every day. And I thought about  how many people my attitude might have affected lately. Sometimes I forget that I am not as isolated as I would like to believe. My actions and attitude have a greater effect on others than I realize and take responsibility for.

The first…approximately two-thirds of the year 2013 were wonderful. That’s not to say the rest of the year wasn’t good, but it definitely became more challenging to stay content and joyful, and I wasn’t quite up to the challenge.

Spring semester brought loads of writing and creative critical thinking. I felt hugely purposeful. My community was effortless and flourishing – the best friends permeated my life with their joy and showed me so much love. At the very beginning of the summer, I started dating someone for the first time ever. And that I credit and blame for a lot of what happened next. I credit that relationship with showing me how to communicate, how much effort it takes to be vulnerable and honest, and how selfish I tend to be.

The summer was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of getting to know my boyfriend and building the foundation for our relationship. I took a 3-week summer class on International Human Rights, and I learned more information than my brain could process in that amount of time.

But then I began to dread the start of classes in the fall. I think I had taken what was only a summer vacation to be a time out of reality. I watched myself go back to classes as many of my best friends began to move on, and I took it personally. I began to dread. I began to resent. I began the self-pity spiral that got out of control. I forgot to seek contentment – that contentment was something you had to seek. It’s easy to “practice” contentment when you’ve got everything you want. Not so much when you wish things were different. I minimized the effects of my attitude shift because the things that were happening seemed very small-scale. Not really real-life yet. And that allowed the discontentment and fear of what might happen to displace…well, everything else.

It has taken this winter break and these few weeks away from school for me to realize how deep-set was my negativity. Maybe it didn’t come out so obviously that way, but it was always in my mind. I have to imagine that it infected my interactions with people somehow, with a tinge of selfishness-poison or a distracted look.
I let (even the smallest) things bother me, and I let myself get annoyed, or upset, or feel down. It felt inevitable because things weren’t all perfectly aligned in my life.

And then I started to remember.

I started to remember everything that I learned at the beginning of the year about hoping in all circumstances, about joy that transcends everyday interactions and worries, about contentment that you have to adopt, whether it makes sense or not.
I’m thinking that, in our lives, contentment will rarely “make sense.” There will always be something else we should be doing or should have done, something or someone missing from our lives, some longing that can never quite be satiated. And somehow, we convince ourselves that contentment without that particular thing is impossible. The Bible tells us that that is simply not true.

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

“…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:11-13

If I encountered these verses at some point over the past few months, I probably minimized my selfishness and lack of contentment by contrasting them with the gravity of Paul’s situations and the trials that marked his life. Mine seem nonexistent in comparison. Allowing myself to do that left room for so much truth to leak away. I read the Bible, not allowing its truth and goodness to change my heart or shape my interactions.

These are the same passages in the Message, for further illumination or thought or something…I just find it helpful.

“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and I begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me:
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

“Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”
Philippians 4:11-13

God’s strength comes into its own in my weakness. That is such a thought. And the weaker I get, the stronger I become because it is his strength that comes to fill me up, that makes me who I am.

I am reading a tiny book called The Dangerous Duty of Delight, by John Piper. The book’s premise is that it is our duty to seek joy in God. I want to read it all in one sitting, but I think that would just cause massive mental constipation. I need time to digest the thoughts he puts out there, and I want to take time with each of them so that I really learn something – so that it’s not just another book to check off the list. As usual, half of my blog post consists of material written by others. It’s only natural that I include some quotes… Maybe I’ll leave further written contemplation of the ideas to another post (forcing myself to keep writing on this blog because I know it’s good for me) and just share like…2 quotes this time. A preview, eh?

“If it is true, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, then look at what is at stake in our pursuit of joy. The glory of God is at stake! …Whether you think of your life vertically in relation to God or horizontally in relation to man, the pursuit of pleasure in God is crucial, not optional. We will see shortly that genuine love for people and genuine worship toward God hang on the pursuit of joy” (21).

“Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. Boasting sounds self-sufficient. Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing. The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be so needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego. It doesn’t come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness” (34).

And those aren’t even the best quotes I’ve read yet. They’re just the ones I didn’t need to contextualize for you. I have not been holding true to that notion that we must glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are called to rejoice in all circumstances because we are in Christ. “Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak.” So those of us…are then inclined to pity ourselves for being weak. And then it becomes a trap. And all the time we are missing the contentment that is offered in Christ.

To me, contentment and joy are intertwined. I don’t think that we are supposed to just be sort of neutrally content. Contentment doesn’t mean lack-of-discontentment. If we are truly content, then we become joyful automatically. Joy and contentment are not things that you can simply learn about and master. I tried to do that earlier this year. And it went really well because I didn’t have anything that seriously challenged me with discontentment. But when I started my senior year of college with no fixed goal in sight, no concept of my future, and the desire to be finished with my friends who had already graduated and moved on, I forgot how to live all over again.
I think that tends to keep happening with us humans. That’s why I hope to keep learning forever. Not so that I can somehow learn everything there is to know…but so I can keep being reminded of my inadequacy and Christ’s sufficiency. So I will be able to step up to the challenge of circumstances and, with a strength that does not belong to me and a joy that transcends my life, be content.

15 Songs That Characterized my 2013 (see also, the 43 songs on my playlist “2013” on Spotify, for funsies)

1. “Below My Feet” – Mumford & Sons
2. “Demons” – Imagine Dragons
3. “Hello My Old Heart” – The Oh Hellos
4. “Washed by the Water” – NEEDTOBREATHE
5. “All My Days” – Alexi Murdoch
6. “Brother” – Lord Huron
7. “Wildfire” – John Mayer
8.  “If You Can Hear Me” – Ben Rector (not on Spotify – or else there would be much more Ben Rector on that playlist)
9. “The Fear” – Ben Howard
10. “Painting By Chagall” – The Weepies
11. “Let’s Be Still” – The Head and the Heart
12. “Magnetic North” – Aqualung
13. “Brothers” – Penny and Sparrow
14. “Weight of Living, Pt. I” – Bastille
15. “Forever Reign” – Hillsong