I’ve been trying to write a blog post for the last few weeks now… ever since a good friend of mine pointed out this post to me, where Bo Sanders offers a proposal arguing that “privilege is not racism, sexism, or oppression.”  In his post, Bo suggests that:

The conversation around issues of Race-Gender-Class and Identity Politics usually breaks down and becomes unfruitful due to two fatal flaws in how the conversation is framed.

Bo sugests that the first flaw is “the use of either-or binaries and dualisms that are too limiting,” and the second flaw is “the sloppy mixing of words and categories without clear distinction.” He goes on to argue that we should make a change from our dualistic thinking, moving instead to delineation between a) privilege, b) racism/sexism, and c) oppression/marginalization.

I’ve struggled with where, and how, to begin to respond to this post… Luckily for me, and my writer’s block, someone already beat me to it—Sarah Moon wrote an excellent blog post on “Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, and the trend of ‘don’t call me a racist!’”

While her post was in response to a different (though ostensibly related/overlapping) set of authors, it was definitely in response to the same trend… as she puts it, the “trend among white, straight academic cis men in progressive or emergent Christianity where calling someone racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is a bigger problem than the existence of racism, sexism, and homophobia.” (emphasis mine).

I did, however, briefly want to elaborate on some of what Sarah has said, and make some connections with some other things I’ve read in the blogosphere this week.

My frustration with Bo’s post isn’t even with whether I agree with their claims about what constitutes racism or privilege or oppression, etc… that is a whole other conversation. Rather, I think my fellow WIT blogger Amaryah Shaye raises the more foundational point. As she writes in the comment section of Bo’s post:

I guess I’m interested in what work this distinction is supposed to do? Off the bat, I don’t really think it clarifies relations of power as much as it mystifies them under the guise of nuance. Does one being an active vs. passive participant in white supremacy have any practical effect for anyone other than those who get offended at being called racist? I’m all for better language and analyses, and I think Identity Politics and conversations about privilege have been coopted by neo-liberalism to further itself, but I’m curious as to how this is actually doing better analysis rather than repeating the same analysis with a *lite version–an attention to intention–to go along so as to not offend folks who aren’t good white liberals yet but will hopefully one day arrive. That is, the focus of this seems to be how to talk to “privileged” folks without their taking offense and shutting down conversation but is that the same thing as anti-oppression work?

Put more simply (/my own paraphrase): Y’all are missing the point.

And missing the point, as I think Amaryah and Sarah both point out, is neither neutral nor innocent, even if it is intended as such. (Ignorance is bliss?) As Sarah so simply and yet so eloquently says:

So many (and again, not all) privileged people (and, honestly, though I focused on two dudes in this piece this often includes privileged white women as well) who claim to be progressive Christians act like they want a world where everyone has a “seat at the table.” But they want it on their terms.

Of course, this then resulted in Rollins writing a lengthy comment about all the ways in which he is not privileged… And this is my (biggest) problem with Bo’s post—what is the point of making the distinctions between privilege and oppression and racism other than to be defensive, make yourself feel better, and/or let yourself off the hook? What good do such distinctions do? Do they do anything to help those who are privileged in various ways take responsibility to work against pervasive systemic structural systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of privilege from which they (/we) benefit? As one of my colleagues so eloquently put it, the net effect of all this hand-wringing over being called racist or sexist or homophobic has continued to make white men, yet again, the center of the conversation.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, this whole topic has frustrated and exhausted me… So, when I saw news about the San Diego woman who was a survivor of domestic violence being fired from her job because of her ex-husband’s actions, I thought, I’ll write about that instead. As if such a story doesn’t exhaust and/or frustrate me any less. As if such a story isn’t intricately connected to the ways we think and talk about privilege and sexism/racism/heterosexism/etc…

What might it mean to take seriously and work against the structures of privilege and violence that result in woman getting fired because of her abusive husband? What might it mean to take seriously the ways in which the “Stand your ground law” helps white defendants a heck of a lot more than black defendants?

What about the reality that having children is a career advantage for men, but a career killer for women in the academy? Or that nearly 50% women are victims of some form of sexual assault at some point in their lives? What about the horrific racial injustices of the prison industrial system (see also here, here, and here)? What about the disproportionate rates of suicide and homelessness amongst LGBTQ youth? What about the terrible gun violence that rarely gets media attention? Or the millions of people in the U.S. who do not have enough food to eat?  And I could go on, and on, and on….

No offense, but I’m pretty sure long discussions about how we aren’t racist or sexist or homophobic, etc… aren’t necessarily the most helpful or useful….

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that discourse about such things is not important. I think action is very important, and I think discourse itself is also very important. Words are meaningful, and powerful (see James 3… And Foucault and Butler for that matter…). Which is precisely why I think spending time arguing about how we aren’t really that privileged, or how racism is different from privilege is so problematic.

Might I make a suggestion? Perhaps, instead of writing lengthy blog posts about how or why you are tired of being called racist, or how privilege is different from racism, that you—that we—seek to actively work against the myriad systems of power and privilege that we unfairly benefit from?

I agree with Bo that we “need to alter the way in which the conversation is framed if we want to both affect different outcomes than have already been achieved OR if we want to involve ever-increasing amounts of people in expanding rings of influence.” I’m just in serious disagreement about the frame he proposes, and where—and on whom—it places the emphasis?

So what should we speak about? How should we proceed? I certainly do not claim to have all the answers in this regard, but I was struck by something else I read this week that I think might be helpful…

Last week, one of my professors and mentors from Duke Divinity School, Willie Jennings, wrote a brilliant and wise and brave post, on his recent arrest. Jennings was arrested as part of the “Moral Mondays” actions first sparked by the North Carolina NAACP, against, as he puts it, “the most comprehensive set of right wing draconian bills and laws that anyone in [North Carolina] has ever seen.”[i]


Jennings reflects on his decision to get arrested, and muses on how such a decision came to him—as he puts it, “an inescapable fact hit him”—when he was working on a commentary on Acts. In reflecting on Acts 4:1-13, he writes:

Speaking holy words has serious consequences. These are not words that simply speak of God. There is nothing inherently serious or holy in God talk. The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people. Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power. 

He continues, later, noting that:

Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation. Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy.

What might it mean to speak such boldness in our various communities? What might it mean to embody a joined boldness, born of intimacy? Does this mean arguing about whether we really are privileged or racist or sexist? Or, might it mean, as Dr. Jennings suggests, “becoming the common,” supporting and entering into community and solidarity with those who are oppressed; becoming “secular critics” who “unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions.”

Some resources for further reading:

–       8 Ways Not to be an Ally: A Non-Comprehensive List

–       On doing the emotional work of being a male feminist

–       Stop! Collaborate and LISTEN! On Gendered Absences in the Theological Blogosphere

16 thoughts

  1. I could discuss this with you for hours, but since that’s not possible I will just comment on two things: 1. Re: wanting a seat for everyone at the table ON THEIR TERMS–we all want everything on our terms. A good part of walking with Jesus means allowing that attitude to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into wanting it on HIS TERMS. Learning to listen and “stepping back” is a learned skill, not taught widely enough. 2. The “isms” may be a big part of the problem. While problems need to be identified, being on the receiving end of being called an “ist” is to immediately put one on the defensive. Does anyone like to be called names? Perhaps if we left the lingo on the side of the road and began to speak in terms that help people to hear, it might go a long way. I don’t have answers, just thoughts.

  2. Wow. This is so excellent. I read this same post by Bo Sanders – who I also know personally and attended graduate school with – and have been struggling/wrestling/wondering about how to respond as well. I also read the post by Sarah Moon. I’ve also attended several conferences where planners, etc. got very defensive and angry when a racial and gender biases up onstage were pointed out. I personally was told on several occasions that it was not fair to raise these critiques and to call “good people” who I did not know personally racist/sexist/homophobic. That wasn’t considered fair. Some of the strongest critiques actually came from other prominent women at the event.

    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpack that experience, as well as lot of the discourses that I see throughout the “blogosphere” — whatever that means. I am so glad that this conversation is taking place, and that you and folks like Sarah Moon are able to pull together some concrete reflections and make some recommendations for a way forward.

    I love the image of “becoming the common” and speaking truth to power through intimate communities. You’ve given me much food for thought today. Thanks.

  3. Brandy,

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I too find it despairing that words for equality are often not followed by actions and changed behavior. Have you considered that claims to “I’m not such-and-such,” may be born out of a great fear that admitting to such will result in a final exclusion from the table? That there is a deeper, more entrenched conception of “purity” and “perfection” as the marker of leadership, and that any admittance of habitual wrongdoing within the labels of “-ist” and “-ism” will cause one to lose any claim to good opinion at all? What if there was a culture in which openly admitting to one’s “-isms” and repeated wrong actions could also provide a way forward to reconciliation?

    Granted, I am wary of even posting this possibility, because I am highly aware by way of Katie Cannon how often this method of admission, repentance, and reconciliation is abused by those in power–especially in real instances of abuse and adultery, which you mention at the top of your post. To actually admit one’s habitual patterns of wrongdoing and submit to consequences with commitment to changing one’s habits is a very hard road to travel. It is much harder than naming one isolated incident and saying your sorry, or jumping on the equality bandwagon and hoping no one looks closely at your life or your actions.

    And then yes, your call to actual change of structural forms of oppression are another step entirely that must be done and I am grateful for those who do them on my behalf, even as I speak out for others. But I continue to wonder if there is a mid-point between personal identity and structural systems of oppression that must be attended to for these people to “get the point”, as you rightly say.


    1. Laura, thanks for your thoughts. I think you are right on as to the fear behind it… which is what makes it so frustrating and insidious, as it seems to be more a play for power and a defensiveness, as opposed to a real desire for reconciliation. And great reference to Katie Cannon… I think that brings up the definite difficulty of doing real antiracist/antisexist/antiheterosexist work–as so much of it is really masked (even to oneself) grabs at power.

  4. Good post, Brandy. My tentative and subject-to-revision thoughts: In the original back-and-forth, I thought Christena misunderstood Tony’s remarks, but his response was just petulant and dumb. I agree that Pete, Tony, and Bo’s responses have been pretty whiny, particularly since they should know better. I found all that much more disappointing and problematic than whatever the original offense is supposed to have been.

    But, practically speaking, I think there is a lot of wisdom to discussing privilege with privileged people (like me!) in a way that eases them (/us) into it, although I understand that that itself is a form of privilege. I quite like this post: http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/12/how-to-talk-to-someone-about-privilege/

    I also really like the analogy that I read somewhere about privilege as playing the video game of life on the “easy” setting. Because it’s not the case that you get any sort of bonus for being a white straight male, you just aren’t penalized the way women, lgbt folk, and minorities are. The reason these conversations often go off the rails is that straight white males don’t “feel” privileged. Obama’s big race speech in the 2008 campaign explained this perfectly (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-th_n_92077.html). One’s subjective experience is of course irrelevant to whether we actually are objectively privileged (The answer is Yes). But even as bearers of privilege, we are still beholden to the construct that is White Masculinity in ways nobody but nobody can measure up to (nor should they). I don’t believe anyone actually feels like a White Male(tm). I’ve read several progressive types who are not privileged in various ways argue that white men are threatened when underprivileged people claim their space. I’m not convinced that’s it most of the time, if my own experience as a white male who tries to own up to his complicity in the various -isms is at all typical. It’s that it hurts to confess. I agree with Laura that often great fear on the side of the privileged fuels these conflicts, and I don’t think it’s about fear of losing privilege.

    It’s not that we want to secretly keep our privilege while pretending we don’t have it, except insofar as people claim to be “colorblind” because, of course, they can. At the risk of sounding overly pious, it’s that it sucks to repent, even when we should. I hope that when inevitably somebody points out to me my own racist/sexist baggage, I will respond with something better than defensiveness and denial. I also hope it happens in a genuine community of love, not the semi-anonymous half-scholarly blog world that thrives on controversy (he said in a response on a blog post).

    I’m open to critique if anything I’ve said is part of the problem.

  5. Excellently asserted, Brandy. And, though it pains me, I’d like to engage in a comment-section cross-fire, as it were. Thanks for your openness, commentor Travis; please allow me the opportunity to respond to your final remark welcoming critique (acknowledging as well your point on the paradigm of blog post commentary). I do in fact find something you’ve said a part of the problem.

    Earlier you say “… it’s not the case that you get any sort of bonus for being a white straight male, you just aren’t penalized the way women, lgbt folk, and minorities are. The reason these conversations often go off the rails is that straight white males don’t ‘feel’ privileged.”

    Perhaps it’s a picky a matter of semantics, but in the same way that a-b = a+(-b), not being penalized where others are on account of holding one’s place of privilege is precisely equivalent to receiving a bonus for it that others do not receive. It’s just a matter of bookkeeping. As you brush on immediately afterward, somewhat inherent to privilege is to not feel privileged. I spent most of my years not wondering at all about the fact that I could walk into any store and find a Band-Aid or other brand of bandage that roughly matched my skintone. That’s the point. Privilege is a luxury item. If it is my(/our) privilege to have a given advantage, it is by the same token a privilege not to have to think about it every time it is exercised.

    To borrow from another paradigm, the first step to recovery is admitting (or being made aware, and accepting) that there is a problem. So what do we do? How as individuals perhaps born into privilege, of no inherent fault of ours, do we respond? I hope gracefully. Being a caring individual, as I intuit you (and readers of this blog) are, it is perhaps even more hurtful to discover your/our shortcomings. Consider “Our Boys,” by Maya Angelou in Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey (NY: Random House, 1993, p119-125). Don’t hang up the phone. Walk gracefully into criticism and try to understand from where it comes, as you understand too from where you come, and reconcile those both. To (I think) Brandy’s point, arguing over minutia of which counts as what takes second stage to acknowledging that we fit into larger systems of power and oppression and working to address those inequalities.

    I’m grateful to find people engaging in this conversation at such a stimulating level. Again, comments and criticisms welcome. Thanks Brandy, thanks all.

    1. @Matt,

      Yeah, I wouldn’t want to push the bonus/penalize distinction too hard. I just mean that “privilege” does not mean everything is instantly handed to you with no effort on your part. It’s like the Louis C.K. bit where he says it’s not that if you’re white you can’t complain, it’s just that if you’re black you can complain more. Privilege to most people means something like being George W. Bush or one of Warren Buffet’s kids, who would have to work pretty damn hard to not be successful, when in reality it’s much more subtle and thus more pervasive (particularly in aesthetic matters like the Band-Aid thing you point out). A simplistic definition of privilege lets us off the hook too easily. As does a simplistic definition of racism.

      And I hope I wasn’t arguing over minutiae. I fully agree that psychologizing about why people respond so ungracefully to criticism of this sort is less important than acknowledging the reality of privilege and working to eliminate it. But to the extent that people have been psychologizing about white men (or whoever) feeling threatened by loss of privilege, I really think that’s not it. What’s threatening is being made *aware* of one’s privilege.

      To return to Brandy’s post, I guess I’m going to have to disagree about this passage: “what is the point of making the distinctions between privilege and oppression and racism other than to be defensive, make yourself feel better, and/or let yourself off the hook? What good do such distinctions do? Do they do anything to help those who are privileged in various ways take responsibility to work against pervasive systemic structural systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of privilege from which they (/we) benefit? ”

      Can some of this analysis be mostly defensive and obfuscatory? Sure, especially if it’s coming from the person who says “Don’t call me a racist”. But I don’t think looking at how the same person can be privileged and unprivileged depending on what lens you’re looking through is avoiding the problem, but acknowledging its complexity. Is a poor white woman in Appalachia privileged or not? Are President Obama’s kids privileged? I think it actually is part of attacking privilege(s) to see it as the Gordian knot it is rather than approach it as some kind of monolithic thing with clear and discrete sides. Privilege/unprivilege (as such) is not a binary.

      1. Apologies in advance for so many comments, but Travis, i’ve got to note that the Louis CK bit you mention actually concludes by saying that what white people have to complain about is that they lost their slaves!!!!

        In other words, his point is that white complaining is founded in a position of dominance and has nothing in common with the complaint of those who were enslaved. There’s no commonality! (In fact, i take that Louis CK bit to be attacking the very point you’re making that there is a continuum between the complaints of white and black)

        for those who don’t know the bit (which is quite relevant to this): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=derzWWYf3-w

  6. Brandy, thanks for this post. The thing that strikes me right away is that in order to partition “privilege” from “racism, sexism, oppression,” it is necessary to stop talking about power. Because once you talk about power, it becomes pretty clear that “privilege, racism, sexism, oppression” all belong to the same order of power.

    Also striking to me is the sort of ethics of theoretical “optimism” that motivate Sanders’ claim — rather than say, “pessimistically,” that my being is always already implicated in domination, Sanders “optimistically” positions himself such that his being is harmed in ways that other beings have been harmed by “racism, sexism, oppression.” (And this has, i think, very much to do with Amaryah’s recent post on the analogy of civil rights and gay rights.) An analogy of harmed being (or a recognition of injured being) obscures the order of power that grants being to some and denies being to others.

  7. Or, to put it more bluntly, the concern ought to be antagonism towards “racism, sexism, oppression,” not assuaging the feeling of white people, especially white men.

    1. Dan, as to your comment to Travis above (it’s not letting me comment there for some reason) please don’t apologize for the comments! I appreciate them a lot! (The reason I didn’t “reply” to your comments before is because all I basically had to say was “yup” or “amen” or something to that regards…. :). And thanks for the Louis C.K. reference… I, shamefully, had never seen his stuff before, he’s quite hilarious (and right on).

  8. Oh, and Travis…. I appreciate your points, and I see what you are saying about the nuances and subtleties of privilege, and your point of how you “don’t think looking at how the same person can be privileged and unprivileged depending on what lens you’re looking through is avoiding the problem, but acknowledging its complexity”… I don’t disagree…. I just have to wonder if that is primarily, or even secondarily, what is going on…

    Yeah, I agree that ” there is a lot of wisdom to discussing privilege with privileged people (like me!) in a way that eases them (/us) into it,” but I think we have to do so, as Dan and Matt both pointed to (and I’m assuming you’d agree), in a way that is aimed towards recognizing and dismantling systems of oppression, and in ways that acknowledge and recognize dominance and power… I guess I just didn’t see that kind of recognition or that kind of nuance in Bo’s post, and certainly not in Tony’s.

    1. I entirely agree with your last few sentences. As I’ve said, I thought Tony’s response was bullshit, and exactly the wrong way to approach any critique, especially one around white hegemony. There has to be a way, even if you feel others are being unfair to you, to say, “You know, I don’t feel like I’m being racist/sexist/an asshole here, but of course I’m inside those systems like everyone else and I will assume you have good reason to feel the way you do, so let’s talk about it and I will listen.”

      If that sounds very emotional and pastoral and whatnot, I’m not sorry, because that’s how these things are actually instantiated. I get what y’all are saying about the hurt feelings of some being a distraction from the operations of power in grand, systemic ways (and I don’t disagree), but those don’t exist apart from concrete interpersonal relationships. I don’t think the fact that Tony is…prickly…is incidental here.

  9. I can’t help but ask a practical question:
    How does one repent, offer penance, and/or lend their voice to destroy certain modes of sexism that they have so vehemently participated in? Theoretically, how does a womanizer find ways to rectify what he has done socially (outside of the reconciliation with the individuals)? How does a once abusive husband speak out against violence against women?

    Do you feel there is space in ‘progressive’ circles for this kind of confession and repentance?

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