White Privilege and Me
by Sr. Jeannette Buehler
Racism was a topic all of us Precious Blood Sisters reflected on during the last year, and the recent Leadership Conference of Women Religious Virtual 2021 Assembly also discussed it. This complex topic continues to need attention, so this short piece continues our conversation about race.
An African-American woman I knew in my ministry in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati told me this story. When her mother was growing up in the South, she used to play with a little white girl. One day the girl told her, “I can’t play with you after eight o’clock at night.” “Why is that?” “Because after that, you grow a tail.”
This was just one story of many I heard that contributed to my awareness of the advantages of being white. I took for granted living in a world dominated by white: my family was white; I attended a white Catholic church and school; all my friends were white; I joined a white religious congregation; movie and TV stars were basically white; etc. I didn’t notice that white people also made up the majority of power in business, government, even the church.
Privilege is defined as a right or immunity granted as a peculiar advantage or favor. For those of us born white, that we had privilege was something we never considered. Today the term white privilege — defined as the set of social and economic advantages that white people have by virtue of their race in a culture characterized by racial inequality — has become a phrase that can generate anger, denial, feelings of guilt, defensiveness and other negative emotions. On the positive side it can raise awareness and understanding, generate conversations, and lead to collaborative actions that bring about personal, cultural and even systemic change.
In facilitating white privilege workshops as a member of the Dayton Catholic Social Action anti-racism task force, composed of both black and white participants, I found how meaningful such workshops could be. Viewing Tim Wise’s “White Like Me” YouTube presentation served as the springboard for conversations. In a nonthreatening way, participants were led to an awareness of how white our world is, what that has meant, and what it continues to mean, for persons of color. Evaluations following the workshops revealed that attendees had initial fears about coming to the workshop: will I be judged; will Black members be angry; will I feel guilty or defensive; will I honestly share my experiences; will others share theirs? Almost unanimously the highlights identified as the most valuable were the video and the conversations that followed. Conversations are key to understanding differences and coming to respect one another’s experiences. We fear what we do not know.
Pope Francis often speaks of the need for a “culture of encounter.” What better way to encounter than to “converse”?
Suggested resources To take advantage of the many, many varied ways of learning about white privilege, I’m suggesting the following as resources that could make great starters for initiating conversations with family and friends:
Article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh Novel: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult Film on Netflix: American Son Nonfiction bestseller: Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. For a good overview of this book, I recommend this article from The New York Times.