Discover more from Contents and Containers
The problem with using your privilege
The other night one of our teams who is focusing on helping our church limit racial harm met and we were discussing new recruits we would join. The team has lost some members for a variety of reasons, and they happened to be white men. Someone remarked that it might be good to add more white men to the group because they are helpful in talking to people like them.
It’s a popular idea. People with privilege, or put more clearly, power, should use that power to disrupt forces of death like racism, patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, and so on. The rationality is that those in power can address these forces without feeling their effects as potently. If you’re a white man, talk to a white man about racism and sexism.
I responded in the meeting strongly because I have consistently been met with this argument. Even if it has merit, the idea can quickly become paternalistic and patronizing. Sometimes BIPOC who are racially abused and traumatized are seen as too vulnerable (or worse, too volatile) to share their truths. But the fact is that white people not being able to hear our truth may be a result of their prejudice, as opposed to our approach. They can’t hear the pain they caused, and they can’t hear it from people that they don’t respect. If you can only listen to a white person who is gentle with you about racism, you’re starting on the wrong foot in your recovery from white supremacy. In fact, you may be taking a step backward.
When those in power seemingly offer more grace and empathy to their counterparts, they do so at the expense of the oppressed. If they contrast their approach too greatly from the oppressed, they further their power, in fact. Offering more “love” or “empathy” than minorities puts minorities who are sharing their real and lived experience at a disadvantage and it centers again the voices of the privileged and powerful. It is antithetical to our cause and it is not good allyship.
In fact, in the incident at Antioch in Galatians 2, Paul rebukes Cephas for treating the Gentiles one way and the Jews another way. The hypocrisy in Cephas’s actions, electing to dine with Gentiles, and then separating from them when the circumcision faction came, he “drew back,” from the Gentiles. Paul names this as hypocrisy. The same is true here: when white allies hear the experiences of minorities, and then translate them in better terms of other white people, they are being hypocritical and ultimately making it seem like the experiences of the minorities are wrong and not worthy to be listened to. Cephas furthered anti-Gentile hostility, and in our case, we may be furthering anti-BIPOC hostility.
White supremacy is furthered when we try to use our privilege to counter it. Rather than white folks empathizing more with the people who oppress minorities in order to change them, they need to empathize more with the oppressed and assume their posture.
When the privileged assume the posture of the oppressed, they self-empty, which actually helps them to lose some power that they inherited from white supremacy. And further, they confront other white people with the same message as minorities do. When we assume the posture of the least of these, we stand in solidarity with them. When we follow their lead, we disrupt white supremacy and empower its victims. We ensure that those victims can’t be gaslit or have their oppression psychologized away.
It’s critically important that we follow the lead of racial minorities in these conversations if we want to be allies. To claim we have a more gracious or loving approach, or to even wield our power to advance the cause of antiracism, may actually send us backward. Backing up marginalized people, elevating their voices and perspectives, makes us stronger.
That road is a challenging one to walk, because when you assume the posture of a minority and speak on their behalf, and share their experience, you’ll likely be reacted strongly to. Someone may call you loveless, or ideological, or partisan, or too political – or any number of things. I think white allies feel this most because it is not apparent that they are speaking based on their experience, and so sometimes they’ll be derided as simply being doctrinaire or ideological pure or even loveless. But remember, when you speak on behalf of the marginalized, you are being personal and relational and loving (even when you are accused of being loveless and not relational and impersonal). Remember, that antiracism is loving—racism is hateful and loveless. And when you face pushback for that, you are indeed experiencing, to an extent, what is daily life for oppressed and marginalized groups people.
When you assume that posture, we can get some relief from constantly doing it ourselves. When you take on a posture that uses your privilege to interpret the experiences of minorities, it makes us feel like something is wrong with us, which furthers our oppression.
Too often, we think of the efficacy of our anti-oppression work in terms of the comfort of the oppressors, instead of the liberation of the oppressed. Our outcomes need to be strictly focused on empowering the marginalized and elevating their voices. It will come at a cost to the oppressor, but that is hardly a reason to shy away from it. In fact, it’s a reason to engage in it. When you let go of your privilege and allow marginalized folks to lead you, it will also come at a cost, but that is the sort of humility that we need if we are doing to disrupt our racial order and hierarchy.
We aren’t more effective at antiracism when racist people can listen to us, but rather when victims of racism are liberated. Our tone isn’t what needs to be addressed, racism is what needs to be addressed. Tone policing someone disguises the resistance to antiracism as resistance to an approach or a tenor. But let’s keep acting in solidarity, in unity, so that white supremacy cannot obfuscate its resistance to us. People resistant to antiracism, or critical race theory, or whatever they want to name it, aren’t critiquing a style or an ideology or an approach, they are demonstrating their recalcitrance. They actually disagree about racism and the fact that they are complicit in it. We need white allies to stand with us, assertively, and confidently, without fear of the backlash. That approach will empower all of us. Check your privilege, self-empty, and follow our lead. Act in solidarity.