What's Tony Thinking

Becoming Less Defensive About White Privilege


The publisher of The Christian Century, Peter Marty, has an absolutely terrific piece in the current issue on becoming less defensive about white privilege. Their pay wall may prevent you from getting the entire article free. If so, it’s worth the small price of an on-line subscription.

Here’s a key paragraph. I particularly appreciate the last sentence, which I will italicize.

“I’ve noticed that few subjects spark defensive behaviors among white people quite like white privilege. Plenty of folks take umbrage at that label because it feels to them like an accusation of personal racism, a threat to their way of life, an indictment of their niceness. To them, the word privilege connotes visible perks or benefits usually associated with class or wealth. What they don’t see is a racialized society where privilege is essentially an exemption from the weighty psychic burdens that afflict black people every day. If you’re white, you don’t have to deal with negative assumptions being made about you based on the color of your skin. If you’re black, you deal with it every day. As someone has put it: white privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.

I would add one additional reason that the topic of white privilege evokes defensiveness to those Marty listed. It threatens the idea that we deserve what we have because we have worked for it or earned it. Sure, we have worked, to get where we are. But we have also been blessed by many forms of grace, by gifts, not born of our efforts.

Marty goes on to talk about some of the resources Christian faith provides for those who would lessen their defensiveness.

“Here’s what the Christian faith helps me know and reminds me to tell my most defensive-minded friends: look, you have some tools in the toolbox of your faith life that are exciting to put to work in our world of racial inequity. Start by letting go of the defensiveness. That’s a must. It’s a constrictive survival response that only separates you from God. I know we equate letting go of something, including cherished assumptions, with deprivation. But claw marks don’t set you free. According to Jesus, relinquishment is a ticket to abundant life. Reexamining personal behaviors and perspectives isn’t just a Lenten project. We no longer have the luxury of living racially unaware lives. Where you feel uncomfortable, disempower it. Let go of your brittleness. The Lord helps us know that we don’t have to secure ourselves against insecurity. (italics added)

“So relax into the power of faith. Do some soul searching. Take what scares the hell out of you about yourself and pick it up, much like that cross Jesus mentions. Then, move your ego aside, much like that denying of self that Jesus commands. And live! Live with the mind of Christ, humbly open to changing.”

Marty’s encouragement to surrender defensiveness reminds me of the observation of a theologian of an earlier generation, H. Richard Niebuhr who said that, “Self-justification is our most prevalent source of error.” Quoting from memory. I think I have it right. One of you readers will help me out if not. Niebuhr reminded us that, as Christians, we are justified freely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not by our own efforts or achievements or virtues. The effort to justify ourselves, which is pretty much the same as defending ourselves, reliably leads us astray, separating us from God and others.

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