The past few weeks have been hard to find motivation to write. This post was supposed to be about ‘being spiritual but not religious’ (that will come later), but it seemed like a trivial topic when considering events in Baltimore, events here in Winnipeg – the city where I live – and other issues of systematic oppression of non-white people in North America.
I will be honest, I don’t think it actually helps for white, male bloggers like myself to weigh in much on these issues. As a couple of other bloggers I respect, Mark Sandlin and David R Henson, point out in their Moonshine Jesus podcast, that there is a certain irony and hypocrisy in white males talking about race issues.
Baltimore is just another in a string of incidents (Ferguson, Staten Island etc…) that has brought to public attention the systematic discrimination of African-American people at the hands of the police, the judicial system and by legislators. And while it would be easy to wag my finger from Canada at these American issues, Desmond Cole recently published a scathing editorial recounting how he has been stopped by the police in Toronto more than 50 times, simply for being black. Not too long before that, a national magazine named the city I live in – Winnipeg, Manitoba – as the most racist city in Canada. Winnipeg is at heart of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, we have recently had a serial killer (seriously!) arrested for murdering vulnerable indigenous homeless men and we have a number of incidents involving the violent assaults and deaths of young indigenous girls, some in the care of the government.
As all these issues swirl about the news cycle and water cooler, I cannot help but have the sense to let those closest to the issues (not this middle class white guy) speak to them.
And sure, it is uncomfortable because listening and learning can feel a lot like doing nothing at times. But I also know just how important it is to refrain from speaking authoritatively about these realities (I am hoping that statement doesn’t make this whole post ironic) and instead listen and model listening for other white people like me.
It also uncomfortable to go against my social conditioning as a white male to contribute to the conversation, to make my voice heard, to speak out because my voice “counts”.
So with all my hesitation and discomfort around the issues that concern my white male privilege (ironic to say that this causes me discomfort, I get it), there have recently been a couple of things in my professional life that have forced me to operate in these systems of privilege despite my discomfort.
Now, it is has taken me a while to get to my point of writing this post, but here it is: As much as I try to escape or downplay my privilege, I cannot avoid it.
David Henson said in the Moonshine Jesus podcast that when he is asked to comment on the protests in Baltimore and the morality of “rioting”, his response is that “as a white guy who has done precious little to combat racism,” he doesn’t have the moral authority to pass judgement. I could feel the weight of that comment land on my chest as I listened to the podcast.
I couldn’t agree more – I do not have the moral authority to be the arbiter of these kinds of issues. Especially because I am a white male!
And yet, in a completely messed up way, because of the systems we live in, I am placed in that position regardless.
In the past few weeks, despite my hesitancy to comment as an “expert” or to judge as some kind of “moral authority”, our social systems push white males into these roles.
Recently, I was asked to give presentations, on two occasions, to concerned church groups about Islam and ISIS. I am no expert on the topic, other than a few religious studies classes in undergrad and a little research. Yet, for a group of concerned Christians, attempting to faithfully wrestle with these issues of the “other”, I offered the safety of being a “trustworthy” expert. Now obviously being a pastor made me trustworthy to these groups, but I am also certain being a white male contributed to my “expert” status. People are just used to trusting, following and listening to me. Yet, a muslim person would have been far better choice to speak to these issues.
And again, I was recently forced to face my complicity in systems of white middle class Christian privilege. I cannot give many details, other than to say I was responding pastoral request from someone on the margins, someone who was ethnically and religiously different from the privileged class – from me.
In that moment sitting at my desk across from the person making the request, I became incredibly aware of what it was to be put in a position of power simply because of my race and gender. I was being asked to make a moral judgement, that had little bearing on my life, but that held the balance of wellbeing for the “other”, for people on the margins, people with little social capital, people whose livelihood depended on the arbitrary decision of an un-invested white male authority figure.
To say that it was beyond uncomfortable for me misses the point. The reality is that I simply do not and cannot fully know what it is like to have to be subject to anther person’s authority simply based on their gender, and race. I cannot imagine the indignity, the sense of powerlessness, the unfairness, the frustration and rage, the resentment. I cannot know what it is like to feel that way.
As these issues of race and privilege play out in American and Canadian society, I now realize that there is something more than standing in solidarity, more than re-broadcasting the voices of the marginalized, more than listening and learning and leaving room for others to be heard that white people – white males – need to do.
We need to admit our complicity in these systems. We need to see how easily we slip into positions of power and authority without evening knowing. No, I didn’t create the system.
But I participate in it. Despite my best efforts to the contrary.
These problems of racial, financial, religious and gender inequality will not change until those of us in the privileged class admit that we perpetuate the inequality. Changing the system will need hard work, it will require us to see the moments and acknowledge when become slip into the role of benevolent (or not) white overlords to the marginalized masses. We need to be willing to give up the part of our status that exists only through inequality. We need to admit that white and male privilege exists even when we feel hard done by, when are struggling, when don’t “feel” privileged. We must contribute to change by being willing to admit that we do in fact participate in these unfair systems that mostly benefit us.
As Disney tells their employees about customer service,
“It is not my fault, but it is my problem.”
Racial, religious, financial and gender inequality is not my fault, but it is my problem,
The other day on Twitter, Christian Blogger Jayson Bradley tweeted his frustration with another example of a white person not getting issues of race:
To which I responded:
I think the phrase some commonly used by white people “I am not a racist but…” needs to be banned from use.
Maybe we could instead start these ill-conceived ideas on issues of race with:
“Racism is not my fault, but it is my problem, so…”
I think the ending to that statement would be much different.
Have found yourself uncomfortable because of white privilege? How do you participate in systems of privilege and oppression? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik
8 thoughts on “The (lack of) moral authority of being a white male”
It is hard to talk about these issues. Even though I am technically a minority woman, it is difficult for me as well. I didn’t grow up in the hood. I get racism, because I’ve experienced it, but there are lots of things I cannot speak to, such as police brutality, poverty, and growing up in an unsafe environment. Sometimes I want to shut up about it, but I can’t- white people put me in a position where they will listen to me a bit more, because I am less of an other. I speak daintily and I can afford not to sound angry because I have enough privilege for self-control. So there’s that responsibility I feel to speak to something simply because I have more of a voice. Just wanted to let you know I understand what you are saying, and am grateful that you at least try. I listen and try to ferry messages where I can. Mostly, I try to understand. Thank you for trying as well. And yes, racism is everyone’s problem.
Thank you for sharing your story. I think we all need to work for change, because racism is unacceptable. I hope that I can do my part.
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IMO-First we have to take responsibility for our own actions and words. This is not situational, but by choice and not based on color or ethnic background. The rainbow does not technically include the colors balck and white. There are many colors in a rainbow, but it is always a beutiful thing. God is Love to all.
Great thoughts on a difficult situation.
I’m sixty years old, have lived most of my life in urban areas of Ohio and California, and have yet to witness a single incident of “white racism” (TV and movie portrayals don’t count). But I have frequently observed the opposite: so-called “people of color” filing false charges of racism to acquire unjustified political or economic advantages.
I spent a number of years in the hotel industry, where I was amazed to see non-white co-workers (Filipinos, light skinned African-Americans) repeatedly slandered as “racist” when they refused to rent rooms to persons with invalid credit cards and IDs, or dared to tell them to stop making noise that disturbed other guests.
This double standard of only listening to the complaints of one side must stop. It might help if everyone would define themselves in terms of what they themselves do and believe, instead of what allegedly happened to their ancestors decades and centuries ago.
What you said is entirely typical of a clueless racist white male. You are truly clueless for ignoring the topic and instead trying to distract by presenting the “Well, he did it too!”. They did not. Who exactly was this country founded for and who was supposed to have all the power and the right to vote? yes, white men. White people invented every single epithet created to insult others because they are NOT white and male. This is entirely typical of your age group. Sorry to say, but when most of your generation has died off, that will be a large part of the problem eliminated.
Rev. Erik: Allow me to recommend to you Robert Greenleaf’s essay/book, “The Servant as Leader”. In it, he discusses how we white folks of privilege may well have to simply shut up, step back, and follow for a while, only offering our experience and advice “when asked” and “as asked”. Only then might we regain some moral authority in The Great Conversation. Considering that he wrote it some 30 years ago, it is quite prescient. Thanks for your your essay! Well said.
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