It's a privilege
From the editorby Everett J. Thomas
The CSX railroad company likes to boast about its fuel efficiency. In radio and website ads it claims it can move one ton of freight 500 miles on one gallon of fuel. Well, of course they can.
At every railroad crossing all other vehicles must stop as they move along at the most efficient speeds. A more honest fuel mileage claim would factor in the fuel being burned as vehicles sit and wait for the train to pass.
Maybe the claim should also include the fuel used by bulldozers to make hills level or fill in valleys to create easy grades. How about amortizing in the energy used to dig the tunnels and build the bridges?
When it comes to traffic, railroads have a privileged position in our country. They are given all the advantages and then take dishonest credit for their efficiency and success.
This is analogous to another privilege. Most of us who are white have become successful because of institutions, traditions and a society that gives us privileges not afforded to underrepresented racial/ethnic people. That’s why it is called “white privilege.”
In 1995, a group of Mennonite leaders convened a conference in Chicago called “Restoring Our Sight.” The theme was linked to the story of Saul going blind on the road to Damascus and then having his sight restored—but with new eyes to see.
It is where I was first confronted by the privileged life I lead. That one-time gathering unleashed a groundswell of interest and was the genesis of the Damascus Road programs sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee.
The efforts to dismantle racism in the church since that time have given us a vocabulary we did not have before. “White privilege” is one example. It also gave us analytics to understand how churches and institutions can slowly and painfully dismantle racism.
One such analytical tool is a continuum that explains that when more overt forms of racism are addressed, the underlying attitude mutates into more subtle—and more difficult to see—forms of racism. Of course, the more subtle forms are also more difficult to prove.
So as we see people of color gain higher profiles in our denomination, I’ve been watching for this mutation. What would we feel if a majority of members on institutional boards were people of color? It could happen.
Next year we will have the first Hispanic woman to serve as Mennonite Church USA moderator. We will have one and maybe two women of color chairing churchwide agency boards. As people of color move into these positions of power, they will intuitively sniff out any covert forms of prejudice and bias based on racial differences.
But there is another phenomenon that may be more significant. Last winter, nearly 100 leaders of color from all across Mennonite Church USA met in Florida to talk about the future of the church. This gathering, entitled “Hope for the Future,” will convene again in January 2013. Participation is by invitation only; no white leaders are invited.
When I first learned of last year’s event, I was intrigued. When I discovered I wasn’t invited, I had a strange feeling of apprehension. Then I realized I was confronting the entitlement that comes with white privilege.
The challenge for the church, then, is to be vigilant about the ways racism can become covert in our attitudes and responses. After all, I’d rather boast about getting 500 miles to the gallon than have to wait at the crossing gate as a self-righteous railroad ignores my existence.
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