A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog piece prompted by a new report on the lynching of blacks from the time of Reconstruction to the World War II. The piece was also picked up and published as an op-ed by several regional newspapers in the South. While my thoughts on lynching, racial privilege, and accountability didn’t garner any comments on my blog (thought not much has – speak up people!), I got quite a number of personal emails in response to the op-ed’s that appeared in the newspaper.
Saturday, I led a Women’s Retreat at a local Baptist church. Our theme was “living the good life with our neighbors” and we focused on the question of how to develop relationships of solidarity with neighbors in our community across lines of difference (race, class, education, etc.).
For people with privilege (and most folks in the US have some sort of privilege) developing an ethic of solidarity requires that we start by thinking about the various forms of privilege that shape our lives. This is often hard because privilege gets a bad wrap in popular culture. This is understandable when privilege functions in ways that actively harm others – like, say white privilege. As a result of this, many people feel guilty about their privilege or simply uncomfortable about acknowledging and discussing their various forms of privilege.
This disdain of privilege is warranted when it is associated with categories of our identity – like race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. When these deeply personal aspects of our identity function as a source of privilege in society, that means that there are other people who are being discriminated against or even hurt based on similar aspects of their identity. White privilege is wrong, not because there is anything wrong about begin white, but because the privilege associate with whiteness is the result of conscious and unconscious racism in our society that “privileges” white people over against people of color. These privileges are a witness to the injustice in society and the danger associated with prejudice and bias.
My third grader is a white child in a Title I school in our town. She’s writing a report on Harriet Tubman for her Black History month project and has spent the week devouring information about Tubman and proudly sharing stories and facts about her life with our whole family. “Mom, did you know Harriet Tubman was a spy during the Civil War!” We have spent the week talking together about Tubman, slavery, and the history of racism in the South. As a white mother of two white daughters, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to educate my children about history and slavery and how each of these continue to shape the racism in our communities and in our lives.
It is imperative that I teach my children that their white skin is a privilege in a country where brown people are discriminated against in both conscious and unconscious ways. But, talking about privilege is hard, and not just for parents. For most people with privilege, talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Admitting that we have privilege seems unseemly at best, but worse than that, for many of us, it feels arrogant. The fact that people have difficulty even recognizing their own privilege is well documented and one of the reasons that privilege is so hard to address as a cultural phenomenon. For starters, how do I teach my children about social privilege without reinforcing social privilege? Well, its not easy, but it certainly won’t happen if we ignore it or pretend like we don’t have it.
In my book Solidarity Ethics, I explore the richness, depth, and challenge that a theology of solidarity offers as the foundation for economic and social relationships as opposed to the guiding principles of individualism, profit, and wealth accumulation that currently drive the economic structures of human society. The ethic of solidarity that flows from a theology of solidarity is both a model for first-world Christians for how to live faithfully in the midst of a globalizing world (personal complicity and behavior) as well as a framework for a new way of imagining our political economy and our social networks and interactions (structural analysis and accountability).
Solidarity ethics asks people to risk, change, and act. To risk examining our various privileges and disadvantages in order to see how these factors have shaped us and how we can leverage our power for the work of justice. To change the way we see the world by developing relationships with people who inhabit different worlds than we do, we can learn to see the world in new ways, ways that may help us to move from despair to action as we learn how to ask political and social questions that proceed from justice. To act in ways that change the shape of globalization toward justice and respect for human dignity and the integrity of creation.
Kristopher Norris just wrote a review for the Political Theology blog.