Monday, July 19, 2010

Christian Privilege and White Privilege

This is yet another subject I should leave alone, but I figured what the hell I am on a roll.  Last week in a post I wrote regarding my irritations, two commenters took issue with the fact that I blatantly said that I hate Whiteness. Whiteness refers to the ability of White people to act in systemic ways to uphold their undeserved privilege. It specifically seeks to link race and or racism with power-- a distinction that is absolutely necessary to seperate it from the prejudice engaged in by POC.  Furthermore, a separation between White people and Whiteness is absolutely necessary in order to avoid unfairly lumping people into groups.  Would it really be fair of me to say that I hate all White people, when some of them are my closest friends, my lover and have acted in every way that they can think of to end racism?  Yes, privilege is attached to their bodies, but when they attempt to combat it in every way possible, holding them accountable to a system that existed before their birth and is larger than any one individual would in my mind be unfair.  This is why I can unequovically say that I hate Whiteness and not White people.  If Whiteness did not exist, the construction of race would not either.  If Whiteness did not exist, the idea that someone's race or cultural background automatically makes them an "other" would be a social anathema.

WhirlWitch left the following comment on "Things That Irritate Me":
If somebody says to you "I hate Christianity", do you really not feel at all upset or defensive? Of course you have the inside track in this matter, because you talk about Whiteness enough that the direct parallel would spring easily to mind and let you see that it's the oppression, privilege, historical wrongs, etc instead of the people being referred to, but I'm curious as to your initial, gut reaction. I ask because I still feel a bit of hurt at I-hate-Whiteness comments, even though I've been dealing with unpacking white privilege for a long time now. Probably it's just a personality thing of mine, but I was wondering if that initial flash of feeling (which I do talk myself down from) was a normal thing. 
I am a Christian and while I don't necessarily agree with the concept of universal Christian privilege, I absolutely understand when someone says that they hate Christianity.  The Church as an institution has been responsible for some of the most heinous acts historically and it continues to persecute the GLBT community.  The Catholic church is also guilty of allowing the molestation of children for centuries,  as well as promoting the marginalization of women.  The Mormon Church is enough to make me spit because I revile them for their racism, sexism, homophobia to the point of engaging in political action, and the baptizing of people after death from different faiths.   If I am perfectly honest, every single Christian denomination is guilty of intolerance and hatred in some fashion -- and so when someone says I hate Christians, I get it, and doubly so if they have a marginalization that has historically been attacked by the Church.  In fact, I will probably agree with them on most objections that they raise and this is specifically why I am a non denominational Christian. I do not believe in, nor I do support any religious institution.

I am linking White privilege and Christianity together because in this instance, they share something in common: the ability to act systemically to harm, marginalize and oppress people at will.  I can understand the hatred of a group that I am a part of, because I have hatred of other oppressive groups that others are a part of  --  and while some may say that Christianity is something I chose to believe, it is still a core part of who I am as a person.   This is specifically why I think when we talk about things like Christianity or Whiteness, we need to differentiate between the person and the institution.  While it cannot be denied that various Christians continue to act in ways that are absolutely horrendous, in contradiction with their stated beliefs, many work hard every day to bring justice to this world because that is a part of their Christian beliefs.  If Christian oppression is ever to be challenged and destroyed, it is not going to be done by atheists; it is going to be accomplished by Christians like me who speak out against oppression when we see it. I may hate every single thing that religious institutions partake in, but as an individual, I can no more rip it apart or bring it to an end, than individual White people who are fighting to bring an end to Whiteness.  

Where does this leave us?  In both instances we have individuals who belong to a group with a history of oppression, but we also have individuals in both groups that are working to subvert norms.   This is why we must begin to think of systems of oppression or institutions of oppression, because a group is made up of individuals and it is by no means homogeneous despite sharing certain characteristics.  If someone were to say that I hate Christian denominations or Christianity as an institution, it allows a separation between systemic oppression and the individual. Furthermore, a Christian that is not a supporter of the various institutions does not benefit in the same way as someone who attends Church and tithes.  We are then talking about an individual belief system vs trying to justify participating in a religious practice that actively works to maintain various isms. Does the individual deserve the same marker as the institution, when the institution existed before the birth of the individual in question and is beyond the ability of a single individual to change? As you can see this is the very same distinction I made between Whiteness and White people.  In this case the distinction is The Christian Church/Denomination and individual Christians.

The separation in no way relieves an individual of fighting against oppression or acknowledging the way in which by their very existence, they serve to perpetuate the concept of applying unjustified weight to difference. I think that when we say we hate people because of their membership in certain groups, we are acting in a way that perpetuates the very same isms that we are fighting against. I further believe that such a narrow minded view excludes the concept of the power of the collective. Power is something that infiltrates every interaction that we have -- for instance-- in terms of the internet, I may not have a lot of power, but when it comes to Womanist Musings,  I hold the power. I have the ability to decide who will comment and why.  We ignore this power in our discussions, but it is still in existence. On a daily basis we constantly ignore power, because even the acknowledgment of its existence is seen as threatening. Power works best when it appears to be invisible, rather than the coercive force that it often is. So when we seek to exclude power in our conversation about institutions that have the ability to act systemically versus the individual who cannot create change, we are not truly being honest about the function of power and how malleable it is by situation.

Just as I, a Christian, may work to change the world that I interact with, so to can White people work to reduce the affect of Whiteness.  When dealing with a group of which you are a part, you will have more power and influence than an outsider who is seeking to critique, because of the way that power is socially distrubuted.  Lets consider how many anti-racist allies study the works of Tim Wise and yet nothing he has said thus far is original.  People are listening because Wise is White, and yet all he is doing is regurgitating the thoughts that people of colour have had about Whiteness for centuries. POC have always been the ones with the experience to comment upon its perception and ability to act, due to the fact that Whiteness has always been detrimental to our lives. There are  people of colour that resent that Wise has made a living in this area; however, it cannot be denied that he is using his power to dismantle oppression. What category should we place Tim Wise in?  This exact situation applies to those that take on the label of Christian, but then justify their anti-oppression position in Christianity.  They may not be as aware as those suffering the marginalization, but their ability to be listened to and understood makes them/us valuable allies to have.  Should we simply lay upon these people the centuries of wrong committed by the various Christian denominations or should we acknowledge their effort by creating an understanding that separates them from the institution? Again, this seperation in no way negates the fact that many professing Christian beliefs continue to act in ways that are downright evil in my mind towards certain groups.

I further believe that being a part of an oppressive group certainly means that trust is something that should be earned and not granted.  I am not easily going give my faith and friendship to a White person when I have been hurt badly so many times in the past.   They will have to prove over a period of time that they can be trusted but there will always be a barrier because of Whiteness.  I expect the same treatment from the GLBT community when they learn that I am Christian.  Why wouldn't they wait for the other shoe to fall when  everyday some religious figure is making an announcement saying that they are less equal and their love is a perversion? To expect anything less would be to use my privilege against them.

Privilege is something we all live with, but it all fits somewhere within a matrix of power.  When we seek to understand privilege it is absolutely essential to recognize  that something far larger than the individual is at work. Power is everywhere we look and the moment we ignore it to only see the individual we ignore systems that are far more detrimental to our being. Privilege, power and institutions are wedded to each other and they cannot be separated if we truly want to understand how oppression works.