From “guilt,” “racism,” “privilege,” and “fragility” to justice, responsibility, realism, and hope
The internet is telling me that as a white person I should feel guilty for all the bad things that have happened to BIPOC people in North America not only as far back as 1619 but all the way back to 1492.
I have been told that, no matter what convictions, stereotypes, and values I might hold about various ethnicities, and no matter what my own individual record may be of treating nonwhites in my public and personal lives, I am (a) racist. How so? By dint of being white in a culture that not only historically, but still systemically, has treated BIPOC folk far worse than white people.
Dozens of times I have been informed of my white privilege. I may not feel I am privileged and may not be able to point to any actual instance of racial privilege in my life. But I am privileged all the same because I don’t have to endure what is routinely experienced by my BIPOC neighbours.
And if I deny that I should feel guilty, or am racist, or enjoy privilege, it is then asserted that I am reacting out of a pathetic and immoral sense of fragility. I can’t bear the truth and I am defensively refusing it.
A column cannot possibly deal with these huge issues as they deserve. So let’s call this a report card along the way, with a lesson plan for what good steps I might take in future.
First, I reject “white guilt.” While some cultures hold descendants responsible for the sins of their ancestors, the Bible’s vision of justice is that “they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins” (Jeremiah 31:29-30; see also Ezekiel 18:1-4). Likewise, in the New Testament it is individuals, not families or other groups, who are and will be confronted by God’s judgment (Revelation 20-21).
To be sure, I can mourn in solidarity with my ancestors. As a patriotic Canadian I lament the bloodstains on our heritage: the manifold and manifest injustices in our history, and particularly the history of my English and Scottish forebears who over the centuries mistreated so many who were not like us.
But I don’t feel guilty about what I didn’t do. That doesn’t seem the right feeling to have about all that regret.
Second, I don’t think it’s accurate to call individuals racist unless each one clearly behaves in a racist way. I also doubt that it’s helpful to call them that, since arguments usually ignite around this contention . . . without any underprivileged person being helped or any unjust structure being changed.
Third, whatever I myself might think, feel, and do, it is nonetheless true that aspects of Canadian life today are still distorted by racism, and that racism manifests itself in white privilege. Friends have helped me to see, furthermore, that what I experience as privilege is sometimes truly that, and other times simply justice that is routinely (systemically) denied BIPOC citizens.
I’m stopped by a cop for speeding. (Purely hypothetical, to be sure.) The police officer comes to my window, takes my license and registration to check on his computer, and returns to my car with a mere warning.
Maybe he’s an affable sort and treats everyone this way. But if he’s letting me off easy because I’m white, that’s privilege.
If instead he writes me a ticket and courteously hands it over, that’s justice.
But if I’m black, or indigenous, or a person of colour and he yells at me to get out of my car, hurls me against its side, and warns me to spread my arms and legs while he searches me roughly at gunpoint—all ostensibly because of a speeding ticket—then something else is going on, and it might well be racism. (It might be something else: a case of mistaken identity. But it might not be something else.)
Too many acquaintances of mine have confirmed from their experience what the news media report: that such instances of both privilege and injustice are still rife in Canada today. So, yes, I’m a member of a society infected yet with racism and I enjoy a happier experience in it because I’m white.
As for fragility, this concept might explain some people’s behaviour. It might explain mine. But “white fragility” is also a rhetorical weapon too often deployed to win verbal battles especially in the absence of actual evidence and argument. “You’re a racist, I know you are, and all of your attempts to demonstrate otherwise merely indicate false consciousness. You just don’t know what I know, and you should wake up, bub.” So I’m not yet convinced of its validity or utility.
Here is what I am convinced of.
The Bible calls us to pursue justice (Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8). When I encounter a situation, if something about it is wrong, I am to try to put it right. How it got that way isn’t the central point. Accurate blaming isn’t the desired outcome. Justice is.
More particularly, the Bible calls on those who have more to use their “more” on behalf of those who have less. The strong, the rich, the intelligent, or the privileged are not to revel in their good fortune nor their sense of achievement. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (I Corinthians 4:7). They are to expend their power for the benefit of the less powerful.
To be sure, only the eventual global reign of the Lord Jesus will rid the world, and each of our hearts, of racism—and sexism, and self-righteousness, and our other favourite sins. High-minded talk of “eradicating racism” in Canada is utopian until Jesus returns.
In the meanwhile, however, we should realistically aim at making things better. (In next week’s column we’ll talk more about realism.) And we should do so with the encouraging hope that we are pulling in the direction of the universe under God’s sovereign rule. As Dr. King put it, echoing abolitionist Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I’m trying nowadays to listen to BIPOC critics as fairly as I can. I may well be more guilty, or racist, or privileged, or fragile than I currently think I am.
In the meanwhile, however, the call of God upon me, and upon us all, is not obscure, nor is it up for debate. Jesus hasn’t returned yet, so I can be sure that I, and Canadian society with me, still needs serious reformation toward justice.
So let’s keep at it, however we feel.