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Recognizing White Privilege

I'll never forget going to see The Matrix (1999). It's still one of my top-five movies of all time. The main character, Neo, meets his guide for the journey, Morpheus. Neo is white. Morpheus is black. Morpheus is the leader for those who have escaped the Matrix and who live in reality. Neo lives in the Matrix, but is taken to see Morpheus. Morpheus then gives Neo a choice:

The Six Step Process of Reconciliation:

"You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about? . . . The matrix is everywhere. It is all around us even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth . . . you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch; a prison for your mind."

Then Morpheus asks Neo to pick one of two pills. The blue pill allows Neo to stay in the Matrix. The red pill exposes the Matrix and opens Neo's eyes.

Recognizing the behind the scenes presence of white priviliegeWhite America has two similar options today. It can continue to live in a matrix of privilege in a world coded for them. This matrix keeps them enslaved to the falsehood of white supremacy or it can come to recognize the truth. The truth is that there is systemic racism through every system in American society and that they unjustly benefit from that system.

In my first article, I presented the frame for a six-step process for racial reconciliation. Then, I wrote about the first phase, resistance. The second phase is recognition - that those who have participated in perpetuating injustice must come to acknowledge the injustice and their complicity. Recognition is essential in any effort towards racial reconciliation because you cannot reconcile what you do not recognize.[1] You can't repair something you do not know is damaged. You can't fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge. In order for there to be racial reconciliation, there needs to be a serious investment in recognizing the depths of racism.

One of my greatest frustrations is when people want to reconcile without recognizing why there is a need to do so. It's like someone apologizing without knowing what they've done. If they don't know what they've done, they cannot stop committing the infraction. Their words are empty without recognition.

Another frustration is when people who do not want to recognize the problems hide behind statements like, "don't bring me problems; bring me solutions" as a way of avoiding recognition and dealing with difficult tasks. We can't reconcile racism without dealing with the past and the present.

So, what truths do white Christian Americans need to recognize if they want to reconcile with persons of color? Let's start with these:

  • Recognize the privilege they are wrapped in. It is literally how your skin color is treated and respected at the expense of others.
  • Recognize that they have benefited from multiple systems that disadvantage large portions of the population along racial lines.
  • Recognize that racism is in almost every system and institution in our society.
  • Recognize that the white experience is not normative.
  • Recognize that we are not all the same.
  • Recognize that to be colorblind is not a goal to be achieved: being colorblind means you can't see my beautiful blackness.
  • Recognize that if you can't see my blackness (or color), you can't see me.
  • Recognize that I'm happy and proud to be black (a person of color); I don't like how black is treated.
  • Recognize that the ugly truth is still the truth and that the pretty lie is still a lie.
  • Recognize that you have been taught and indoctrinated with white supremacy since the day you were born and it is literally killing persons of color.
  • Recognize that you are as good as any and better than none.[2]
  • Recognize that there is no fence to straddle and that there can be no compromise with bigotry or injustice.
  • Recognize that you can't claim to not be racist and then support everything the racist supports and believe everything the racist believes.
  • Recognize that justice is a major component of the gospel; without justice, there is no good news for the poor or the oppressed.[3]
  • Recognize that Christianity is not under attack. It's in self-destruct mode by denying the truth and being impotent in the work of racial reconciliation.

When we recognize systemic racism and white privilege, we are ready for the important work of reconciliation that requires us to live in truth. Without recognition, repentance is void of authenticity; no repentance can come without recognition. No solutions should be sought without recognizing the gravity of the problem.

The truth ruins a lot of our plans. We often must choose between accepting the ugly truth or the gorgeous lie. The racial atmosphere in America is offering us two pills. One is white and filled with the lies that want to convince us that we can be colorblind. The other is a pill that is multicolored and takes us down a journey towards truth and recognition that what we have been living is not reality. This pill leads to a life lived in truth. The journey is not carved out for us, but is our only hope for racial reconciliation.

Which do you choose: to be a slave to white privilege or to be free and able to recognize the matrix of white privilege?

"You will know the truth and the truth will make you free."[4]

The Rev. Brian A. Tillman serves as the chair of the Commission on Religion and Race in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC and also serves as an associate pastor at Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta. He often hashtags to: #ResistToReconcile


[1] Taken from conversations with Robyn Afrik.

[2] From conversation with Rev. Dr. Dee Shelnutt, Jr.

[3] Luke 4:18.

[4] John 8:32.

Posted November 14, 2017

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