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