White Privilege, a Barrier to Building the Beloved Community
Based on the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh available here)
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Presented at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY, on February 19, 2012
In our moment for all ages this morning, the kids were divided up at random into three groups. One group of kids was given gold necklaces, and all sorts of goodies (stickers, treats, a glass stone). Another, larger group of kids was given ribbon necklaces, and a smaller assortment of goodies. And finally, the kids in the third group of kids were given just one glass stone. We talked to the kids about what they thought about this, and how it made them feel. We asked them what we might do to remedy the situation. They had some wonderful ideas. In the end, each kid left with a glass stone (the other goodies were all collected) to remind them of the experience.
Of course, kids know that life is not fair. Anyone who has been around kids for any length of time will inevitably hear the plaintive whine “It’s not fair!” Nope, it sure isn’t.
But I have noticed that I don’t hear the complaint as often– from children or from adults – when someone is on the lucky side of an unfair arrangement. When one is on the “advantaged” side.
We are talking about all this today, because a just and equitable society is an important part of building the beloved community.
This is beloved community month here at First Unitarian Church. Two weeks ago, we talked about how, if we want to build something, we first need to know what we are building ON. Sand? Rock? We looked at the history of black Louisville, and it’s connections with the history of this congregation.
This week, we are looking at what barriers might exist while we are building. Barriers like if you need to build a bridge first to get to the island you are building on. Or if you have to wait until the ground thaws somewhat to dig the foundation (probably not an issue here in KY!).
As we work to build the beloved community, we need to look at barriers that might stand in our way, barriers such as the way that some people are disadvantaged based on their skin color, and the way that others are over-advantaged because of their skin color. Since we are a (mostly) white church, we need to look at how most of us are unfairly advantaged – how we are given unfair privileges – based on the color of our skin.
We don’t hear about white privilege very much. I read a lot more in the news about people complaining about affirmative action. Complaining that someone was unfairly given a boost, accepted at a school, or given a job because of their skin color. Opponents of affirmative action cry foul and claim that the doors that were opened to someone based on the color of their skin means that doors were closed for “better” qualified candidates: mostly white men. They claim that this is not fair.
This argument ignores the fact that the doors that are opened by affirmative action are nowhere near balanced out by the doors that are closed for people of color. Doors that are closed unfairly every day.
Now I have nothing against white men. Not only are some of my friends white men, but I happen to be married to one. And this isn’t a service about affirmative action. It is a service about privilege, about the unfair advantages some of us receive based on factors we can’t control. I don’t think we can even begin to have a conversation about something as difficult as affirmative action without first looking at white privilege. And if you are white, white privilege is really squirmy to look at – more squirmy than many of the other ways that we try to oppress people based on their sex, class, sexual orientation, and much more.
That was Peggy McIntosh’s experience. In the 1980’s, Peggy McIntosh was a women’s studies professor. Through her work, she “noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though [men] may grant that women are disadvantaged.”
But she hadn’t thought about how her race might be unfairly advantaging her. Listen to her story:
They would flit right out of her mind, because they were messing up her vision of herself as a person who had earned everything she had.
That is our American myth, right? McIntosh went on to write an essay about her experience, listing the privileges she thought of. Her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” explores white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets which she could count on cashing in each day but about which she was meant to remain oblivious.”
Drawing on McIntosh’s work, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood, in her book Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability, notes that “We have been socialized to see privilege as a just reward for superior talent and effort and disadvantage as a result of individual inadequacies. Consequently, we are not tutored in uncovering the ways society reproduces unshared power arrangements that are often at the root of these privileges and disadvantages.”
What Hobgood is saying is, in sum, that if we are in the privileged class, we usually don’t even notice the inequalities that land us on top. While we are sometimes good at identifying the disadvantages some of us are burdened by, if we are in the class of people that is given unearned benefits, we usually don’t even notice them.
Yet how can those of us with unearned benefits seek to be allies in the struggle against oppression if we are not able to see how we benefit from the oppression of others? How can we work to build the beloved community if we don’t face the painful recognition that just as some people are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, others are over-advantaged for no reason other than the color of our skin.
There was nothing in McIntosh’s life that had prepared her to think of herself “as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person.” Instead, her life had followed the pattern that another of her colleagues had pointed out: “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.”
Wow. That sure is a privilege right there, isn’t it? The ability to stand in a place of superiority. To help THEM seem more like US?
Most of us who are white are probably not prepared to think of ourselves as oppressors. But if we want to build the beloved community, we need to see how we are unfairly advantaged.
In each of your orders of service, on a small yellow piece of card stock, is an unearned privilege that white people benefit from, usually, without even realizing.
Take out the privilege identified in your order of service.
Read it quietly to yourself.
What kind of emotion does just reading it raise for you? Sorrow? Denial? Anger that others get this privilege and you don’t?
Take a moment, and breathe.
Let that first impulse, that first breath of emotion, let it fade as you breathe.
Now read it again.
Recognize that perhaps your first reaction is still there, but gently move through it. Look at your life last week. Look at your trips to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, in the bank, in the classroom, at the mall. Were you in any situations similar to the one identified in your order of service? Look back further if you have to, but you probably won’t have to go back too far.
If you were the one with the privilege, you most likely didn’t even realize it at the time. But look at it now with this new information.
If you feel so moved, I invite you to come to the microphone. Read your insert and briefly share your experience with us.
Thank you all for sharing these pieces of your life, of your experience, with all of us.
I remember walking in the woods one time, in the dark. I knew where I wanted to be but wasn’t quite sure where I was. Suddenly, someone turned on a flashlight and shined it near my eyes. What little vision I had had disappeared as my pupils suddenly shrank away from the light. As they slowly adjusted, I began to see more. Eventually, because of the light, I could see where I was and knew where I needed to go.
At first, my eyes had been overwhelmed by light. Some of us may be feeling that way right about now – blinded by the realization of the privileges we enjoy, that make our lives easier, about which we had no idea.
For others of us, perhaps this is not new. We have thought about these issues before. Some of us may be in a group of people who do not enjoy these unearned benefits.
As painful as it may be, we must continue to shine this light, so that we can find our way. We can adjust, as long as we don’t go back into the darkness.
If we want to work to build the beloved community, we must be allies for those who are oppressed. We must program ourselves to notice when we are unfairly over-advantaged, and to say it out loud – to call attention to it. This is how we will remove barriers that stand in our way. To notice, pay attention to, and start say out-loud that something is not fair, even (especially) when we are the ones that are unfairly over-advantaged. May we have the strength to shine a light into the darkness, and then move on with an expanded vision toward the beloved community, where justice is a privilege available to everyone.