More than skin color

Rethinking racism means noticing white privilege

Feb 27, 2017 by

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We are hearing important statements calling Anabaptist Christians to work for racial justice. These words come from people of color at a Mennonite Church USA leadership meeting and a Bethel College lecture. They testify that being a peace church in the midst of racial inequality requires new ways of thinking. Racism is more subtle and deeply ingrained than many of us care to admit.

Rethinking racism begins with understanding white privilege. When white people notice the advantages they take for granted, they begin to realize that overcoming racism involves a lot more than avoiding overt prejudice based on skin color.

What is white privilege? For one thing, it is freedom from fear. At the sixth annual Hope for the Future conference, a gathering for MC USA leaders of color, participants recalled the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The 18-year-old’s body lay face down in the street, blood streaming from his head, for four and a half hours; police wouldn’t let his parents come near.

Can white parents imagine enduring this horror? Would this be a plausible scenario? For MC USA leaders of color, it wasn’t hard to imagine.

Jenny Castro writes in her report of the meeting: “Several people named the visceral fear that they carry all the time — fear for themselves, for their spouses, for their children. Participants shared stories of pain, discrimination and mistreatment. They spoke of a church that too often justified, minimized or avoided addressing these experiences.” This is an indictment of a church that, for the most part, can’t see the white privilege the majority of its members enjoy.

If any group of people ought to be able to speak honestly about race, it is the church, said Drew G.I. Hart, a professor at Messiah College and self-described “AnaBlacktivist,” on Feb. 12 at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. That honesty includes having a clear understanding of whiteness. Hart defines it as a privileged way of being in the world. Being white gives the right to stand at the top of society’s pecking order.

Race is not so much a skin color as a social construct, Hart said, citing this example: Irish and Germans did not at first enjoy white privilege in America, but “whiteness was malleable and expanded.”

In a society shaped by centuries of white supremacy, it is not enough to say “all lives matter,” Hart believes. Even the slaveowning U.S. founders claimed “all men are created equal.”

Do black lives matter in Mennonite churches? What about Hispanic, Native American and other minority lives? Hope for the Future participants observed these lives seem not to matter enough. A peace church must do better than its current “silence in the face of increasing discrimination, oppression and fear,” as the leaders of color described it. Hart pointed in this direction, too, calling for tearing down racial hierarchies and renouncing the world’s pattern of white privilege.

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