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My Recommended Response to “White Privilege”

30 May 2019

Dictionary.Com gives the following definition of white privilege: “White privilege is a term used to describe unearned rights and benefits afforded white people in Western society because of the color of their skin.” At the bottom line, I give very little thought or attention to discussions of “white privilege”. Therein is my recommendation to anybody who will listen. Years of living and struggling with life have taught me that focusing on considerations that do not move a critical effort forward is a sorrowful waste of time and effort.

A friend recently shared a joke with me that illustrates how my comment in that opening paragraph looks in action. The joke has several iterations, but all of them make the same point. This from an internet post titled, “The ‘Streetlight Effect’: a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance”:

A parable featuring the Seljuk Sufi mystic Nasrudin Hodja may be the earliest form of the story: ‘Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”

It seems that at every turn, I hear or read about “white privilege”. The topic has even taken center-stage in the 2020 presidential campaign. For me, the pressing question is what productive outcome will, or might, result from the profuse back-and-forth regarding this matter? All I see is a lot of meaningless talking, increased tension between whites and non-whites, and a feeding of the notion that non-whites, especially black Americans, are victims in this country. The result is that we invest tremendous time and effort in a pursuit that does not better the condition of blacks or other non-whites. This approach excites citizens, attracts attention to seekers of power, and probably produces financial gain for some people and organizations.

What is happening is like the joke. Attention is given where it is easy and satisfies the aims of those who contend that very negative consequences result from white privilege. The efforts are not directed where they would be more difficult, far less rewarding by way of gaining power, and would set people free of the chains of victimhood. No, this is about operating where there is light, not about making a real difference in the lives of people.

Let me be clear. I do not doubt for a moment that advantages accrue to some white Americans because of their skin color. Note my use of “some”. It seems a stretch to hold that this is the case with every white person. Support for that comment simply requires honest examination of the difficult living conditions faced by many whites in our country.

Given this white privilege condition, the challenge for non-whites, and for those who claim they want to help this population, is how to best respond in this situation. I read a devotion recently that succinctly described how I respond to this hyper-emphasis on white privilege. The devotion is titled “His affirmation is our contentment” and appeared in the May 2019 Stand Firm (magazine of devotions).

The Scriptural basis for the devotion was Matthew 25:14-30. This is where Jesus gives The Parable of the Talents. In it, a man travels far from his home. Before leaving, he gives varying amounts of money (talents) to his servants. Verse 15 says: “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.” (NKJ) The man returns and wants to know how each servant used the money they were given. Each of them reports. Two made good use of the money while one buried his and produced no return.

Most of the time, when this parable is addressed in a sermon or discussion, the emphasis is on how we should make the fullest possible use of the capabilities or resources God provides to us. However, the devotion writer raised another point. That point has to do with what does not happen between the servants who received the talents. Even though they had different amounts, not one of them complained about those differences. There is no indication of jealousy. Each one decides how to use what they had been given. Two of the three make wise investments, while one does nothing productive. The success-feeding truth that is to be grabbed hold of is that they focused on what they each had and not on the possessions or advantages of others.

A fact of life is that we only have so much time and energy. Wisdom dictates that we invest that time and energy where it is productive. That point shows through in the parable. It seems to me that all the attention given to “white privilege” discussions only diminishes the capacity of non-white Americans for giving attention to endeavors that would prove productive for us.

As I review my life, I see wheel-spinning when I failed to follow the approach recommended in the opening of this column. On the other hand, when I have focused on doing my very best to make full use of my capabilities, while not complaining about the natural advantages that accrue to others, life has been pretty productive.

Again, there are some who benefit from white privilege. However, we must not allow barren discussions of the topic to distract us from productive endeavors, from actions that might assist others to successful living, and, in general, help make the world a better place. Doing so requires leaving the ease of light and turning from wasted motion while focusing on what is productive.

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