Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/8 2016

White Privilege in a World Where Black Lives Matter

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blacklivesmatterI don’t know what it’s like to be a Black person in this country.

I don’t know what it’s like to have others see me as suspicious or dangerous simply because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to wonder if I will experience discrimination or even overt hatred or violence everywhere I go, simply because of who I am.

I don’t know what it’s like to have “the talk” with my son—the one where I have to try to tell him exactly how to stay alive if he is ever confronted by the police.

The fact that I don’t know these things is a mark of privilege. As a White person in a racist society, I really don’t have to think about such things if I choose not to. This week alone, we have witnessed the killing of two Black men in two days, and a violent ambush that took the lives of five police officers in the midst of a peaceful protest. If I want to, I can choose simply to ignore the newscasts, occupy myself with the details of my own life, and remain blissfully unaware of what is happening in faraway places like Louisiana and Minnesota and Texas. White privilege is what allows me to make this choice.

Two Main Mistakes That Well-Meaning White People Make

It seems to me that when horrific things like this happen, there are two main mistakes that well-meaning White people make. The first is not acknowledging our privilege—a privilege we are granted at birth, which we didn’t earn and which we can’t refuse, even if we are inclined to. White privilege allows us to labor under the illusion that human experience is monolithic, that somehow because we have grown up in the same country, we all have had the same chances and have borne the same consequences for our choices. It allows us to think that, ultimately, we’re all “the same,” without acknowledging that the color of one’s skin actually makes a huge difference in how a person experiences the world and how that person is treated.

Even among White people who are committed to fighting against racism, there is a temptation—in the wake of the kind of violence we’ve seen this week—to assume that the grief and rage and pain we feel is “the same” as what people of color are feeling. We assume that our outrage over the slaying of police officers is exactly the same as the outrage communities of color feel about the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But it’s not. It’s not the same because the society we live in overwhelmingly condemns the former but not the latter. It’s not the same because most of us have confidence that those responsible for killing the Dallas police officers will be brought to justice swiftly.

The families and friends of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile probably don’t share that confidence because they’ve seen this before. They’ve seen that in this country, it’s possible for a grand jury to watch a video of a police officer choking an unarmed man to death, and still find that no one is criminally responsible. (Read more.) To be clear: I am not saying that the lives of the Dallas police officers are any less precious than the lives of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile or Eric Garner or any other victim of violence. I am simply saying that in this country, the color of a person’s skin still seems to influence how seriously that person’s death is taken, and the lengths to which we will go to see justice done.

Differences Matter

Differences matter. To deny this truth is to refuse to see what is right in front of us: that, despite our rhetoric to the contrary, all people in our society are not treated equally. But if we’re not careful, we can make the opposite mistake as well; we can become convinced that the differences between us are so great that we can no longer imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes. We become convinced that “us” and “them” are two completely separate groups that have nothing to do with one another, that we share nothing that could help us to understand what the other is going through.

This is what threatens to happen now, in the aftermath of the Dallas shootings. We’re being asked whether we stand with “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Yet, if we go to this other extreme, we lose the ability to have compassion for one another—literally, to “feel with” others in their suffering. We become desensitized to the violence and marginalization experienced by people of color because we come to believe that the world they inhabit has nothing to do with our own.

But that is a lie. As a spouse, I can imagine how traumatic it would be to watch my partner die right before my eyes. As a mother, I can imagine my heart being ripped in two by my son’s anguished cries for his slain father. If I let them, these resonances can inspire me to take action to try to make sure they never happen again to any other spouse, to any other mother or child. Yet, allowing myself to be touched deeply by experiences I will likely never have requires a kind of courage and a willingness to endure discomfort that, if I’m honest, I’m not always sure I have.

Ways to End White Privilege

Even so, I’ve decided that saying nothing is no longer a viable option for me. So, here is my suggestion for other well-meaning White people: When you are talking with people of color, listen. Listen to what they have to say about their own lives. Learn about things you never could have known before, because you have never had the firsthand experience of being Black. When you are talking to other White people, speak up and speak out. Name your own privilege and challenge racism wherever you see it. Use whatever position or platform you have to educate yourself and others about the realities of racism in our country. (If you’re looking for resources to help you do this, the “Charleston syllabus” project is a great place to start. A fair warning: doing this may make people you love uncomfortable; you may lose some Facebook friends over it. But I am becoming more and more convinced that the way forward lies not in violence or endless cycles of retaliation, but in more love, more truthfulness, and more willingness to let go of my own privilege for the sake of justice and peace. May it be so.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

Comments ( 25 )

    • One person did the shooting; hundreds were walking peacefully protesting, which is our right as Americans to do. Don’t blame the BLM for the actions of one man.

    • By your logic, what should be done about the police force? The same way I don’t write off the entire police force as not being a “peaceful group” for the death of George Floyd or for their inaction when Ahmaud Arbery was shot in the streets for jogging, I might call for reform but not invalidate the whole organisation. Black Lives Matter.

  • If you feel so guilty about being white, if you feel you’re an oppressor, give what you have to the black community. Give your house and money, acquired solely by your privilege, you hypocrite.

  • First off I would like to say awesome blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you
    don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself
    and clear your mind prior to writing. I have had a hard time clearing
    my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it
    just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
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  • Creativity of the writer and the authenticity of information expressed in this article grab the attention of readers immediately. The artistry of thoughts is particularly interesting.

  • First of all, I would like to say awesome blog! I have enjoyed reading each and every sentence you have included within your article. Thanks for such useful content

  • Let’s come together for peace and justice we all need love human because we need our people have justice and no matter what color are you we love you and our community. Let’s fight back our freedom and justice.

  • I know a lot of white people that would love to have the benefits that black people get because they are MINORITY’S so I don’t feel that like we need to bow down to someone because they’re black we have let this Black Lives thing go to far

  • Robert Scott Walker
    Robert Scott Walker The MYTH of systemic Racial Killings is being fed to us and it is a lie!!!! In 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015. That share of black victims is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.
    The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, according to a Washington Post database, down from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015. The Post defines “unarmed” broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, N.J., who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase. In 2018 there were 7,407 black homicide victims. Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019. By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.
    On Memorial Day weekend in Chicago alone, 10 African-Americans were killed in drive-by shootings. Such routine violence has continued—a 72-year-old Chicago man shot in the face on May 29 by a gunman who fired about a dozen shots into a residence; two 19-year-old women on the South Side shot to death as they sat in a parked car a few hours earlier; a 16-year-old boy fatally stabbed with his own knife that same day. This past weekend, 80 Chicagoans were shot in drive-by shootings, 21 fatally, the victims overwhelmingly black. Police shootings are not the reason that blacks die of homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; criminal violence is.
    The latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is “no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” they concluded.
    A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects. Research by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. also found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Any evidence to the contrary fails to take into account crime rates and civilian behavior before and during interactions with police.
    The false narrative of systemic police bias resulted in targeted killings of officers during the Obama presidency. The propaganda from msm and the NWO is all a lie!!!!

  • First of all as a Christian accept the fact that God made anybody and everybody who they are. So they can by his grace accomplish anything. With Christ in the vessel you can smile at the storm. Are you really smiling? And Paul says that With Christ I can do everything. The problem here is not simply accepting the lies the left outs on your plate. Doesn’t the scripture ask us to think. “Let my people think”. Don’t it ask us not to lie. Or bear false witness. I agree it is not the same for a white man and a black persons to grow community wise. Because 75% of Blacks do not have fathers. While only 25 % of blacks don’t have a father. Anybody who does not have a father is 5 times more likely to be poor, 9 times more likely to quit college and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. So you see why the statistics are different. I have posted stats debunking systemic racism in my other comment. So what I would inplote you guys to do is stop blaming racism on anything. It is not factually correct. Didn’t the Barians go inspect whatever Paul told them. Imagine that. Paul. The greatest apostles telling them the truth and these guys go and verify and search the scriptures. Jesus himself tells so many times to search the scriptures. Instead of focussing on racism, focus please on why Blacks abort more babies than the whites. Why Abortion and crime rates are higher in left controlled states. Why the sacredness of marriage is downplayed and out of wedlock children having single mothers are encouraged to have more out of wedlock while the government hands them handouts for being a single parent. None of these issues will go away until Golden Centennial Rule is followed. First get a good education. Then get a full time job. Then never have a kid without getting married. By the way this is the same rule endorsed by Left and right educational institutions. So please stop saying things like you have extra privilege over anybody else. Gid is gonna hold the black or white equally accountable for any sin committed irrespective of what colour the person is. He is not a respect or of persons. He will not look at your skin tone and judge you with extra privilege. Oh no. Start preaching that your young black men have a little bit more responsibility than just get some girl pregnant and leave her without any moral or financial accountability.

  • So much hate on both sides. To form a great movement you spread ideas peacefully and don’t judge anyone for any different beliefs. For you judging and discriminating others beliefs is condradictury to the movement of making all lives meaningful

  • Totally agree with yous Gerald, I am a white person and the last time i checked i have the same privilege as any race/gender in my country, all BLM is doing is categorising all white people as racists and in turn will probably insight racism.

  • Pingback: WHAT? Fox Streaming Platform Will Feature Farrakhan’s ‘Message’ from ‘God’ On July 4 – Right Rant
  • When the BLM movement finally acknowledges that 95% of the violence and killing of blacks is done by other blacks; when they admit that blacks really are guilty of a disproportionate amount of the murders, rapes, assaults, abuses and other crimes in our society and their communities: when they finally figure out that fear and dis-respect of violent and intolerant blacks who are little more than thugs is their issue, not mine; when they refocus their effort to end this cycle of violence and crime, maybe then the movement will EARN the respect and support of the rest of society be it white, yellow, red, and yes, black also. Your character, your conduct and your tolerance of others does matter. You can protest and demand respect all you want but until you admit your own systemic racism, you will not get that respect.

  • Wow,so because of the death of a “career”criminal,a person who had no concern for human life or her unborn child,(,the lady held at gunpoint by him and his friends),we are suppose to tolerate the rioting and destruction to monuments ,buldings etc.We the white people should have rioted because they treated Floyd like a freaking hero,televised funeral?Really,no we didn’t and we should of,the blacks went on a tantrum and we whites should retaliate however we are not,and why don’t ALL LIVES MATTER?

  • We need to address the harm the criminal justice system has inflicted on people of color. Poverty has left them vulnerable to the ravages of a justice system that operates by socioeconomic level instead of the same treatment for crimes. The problem is not the police but the system. The police are expected to go to calls and handle unrest, violence, and torture. Then they bring perpetrators to justice and the system releases them to the point they no longer know what is just and what is not. Prisons should not be private institutions. Children should not go to jail for having drugs. People should not serve time because they are black. Black people are not criminals. People are people and stop looking at skin color as a way to define and categorize them. My best friend is Zambian and dutch. She is very dark and you would never know she is 1/2 white. She is not different than me but people think she is because she is dark. I believe if we looked at DNA and identified how multi we are we could look beyond what we see.

  • Make right choices, stay in school ,stay away from drugs, stay away from gangs. Follow the Golden Rule . Bad Company corrupts that’s what the Bible says. There are many successful black people because they have followed the above rules. Criminals stop resisting arrest, the police want to go home to their families. There are sinful and bad people race has nothing to do with it. Obey the laws submit to God and His holy wisdom.

  • I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black person in this country. But I do know what it’s like to be a white person living, going to school and working in a predominately black neighborhood in this country.
    I don’t know what it’s like to have others see me as suspicious or dangerous simply because of the color of my skin. I but I do know what it’s like to walk in a black neighborhood with them yelling out racial slurs, following me, taking my possessions and getting physical while I’m just trying to get home, to school or work. I do know what it’s like to wonder if I will experience discrimination or even overt hatred or violence everywhere I go, simply because of who I am and the color of my skin.

    I do know what it’s like to have “the talk” with my son—the one where I have to try to tell him exactly how to stay alive if he is ever confronted by a black person and I tell him to look for or to call the police if there is any trouble. I was mugged a block from a federal bldg in Newark, NJ. My son was mugged for $20 by a group of black men. So brave. They attack the vulnerable, elderly, frail or people who are alone.
    Not all police are out to harm Black People. If you obey the law you’re good. Stop planting the seed of fear and hate.
    If people like you would stop posting articles like this, our nation would heal. How about talking points to unite usinstead of dividing us?
    To address other comments. If you break the law, yes, you go to prison or a detention center. Assault, rioting, looting, Robbery, murder, sexual assault, drugs, fraud… All against the law. Don’t want to go to prison or have a record? Don’t break the law. Simple.

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