White Privilege as Spiritual Discipline: When

When I wrote about examining white privilege as a spiritual discipline, I had no idea how unoriginal it was. Turns out, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Adventists, Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists–all acknowledge examining white privilege as a spiritual discipline. Apparently, everyone knows more about this than I do. So it almost seems I can stop here. Give you the above links and let it go at that. But I started this, so I’ll say a bit more.

Examining White Privilege: What’s First

Everyone, and I mean everyone, recommends we start this discipline by familiarizing ourselves with what white privilege is. It sounds self-evident, right? But white privilege is hard to see if we are white. Unfairness is really easy to see when the system is stacked against me–ask me about male privilege. It’s far harder to see when I’m a beneficiary. Examples are really helpful, if for no other reason than to get me thinking.

Examining White Privilege: Examples

The most basic reading about white privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It has many examples of white privilege, from the major to the almost banal. You can also listen to Robin DiAngelo on YouTube. Tim Wise is another one who’s been working with white privilege for a while. You can to listen to him here and elsewhere.

The goal of identifying where white privilege has played out in our lives is not to feel bad. Guilt is no good to anyone. In fact, if we get stuck on ourselves, we miss the point. White privilege is a benefit I receive as the result of a system set up to favor white folks. The goal is to identify those benefits so that, having seen them, I can do my part to remove them from the system. Level the playing field. This is a spiritual discipline, but not self-flagellation.

The Spiritual in Examining White Privilege

Are you familiar with Jesus’s saying, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

Once we’ve read and know what “the log” can be, then we look for it in our own eye. For me, that means asking the Spirit to please be with me as I engage in something I don’t like. Even the words—privilege, discipline, examination, being reminded we are white—have negative vibes. But self-examination is the traditional place to start in a spiritual discipline. Jesus returns to this over and over again. He wants us to be humble, a word I recently learned is derived from humus, the crumbly earth. Don’t take the seat of honor. Don’t ask if you’ll be first in heaven. Curb your ego. In the Episcopalian Beloved Community model, truth-telling is the first step. And that begins with telling the truth about ourselves.

How do we identify our own white privilege? One idea: word association. When you say privilege, what other words come to your mind? Me, the first word is trust fund (okay, that’s two words.) I inherited my dead dad’s share of my grandfather’s estate. So a trust fund paid for my time at the University of Virginia and then my stay at the University of North Carolina Law School. Yes, I worked my butt off at both institutions, but I could focus on my studies because inherited wealth was paying for my ride. Generations of a white-privileged system have prevented Black Americans from gaining economic security. So my inherited wealth is one of the most salient products of white privilege.

My final recommendation: don’t censor your emotions. Be curious about them. Sit with remembering. Be still and open. You are engaging in deep listening…to yourself. Trust in the presence of Spirit to lead you, to simply be with you. You’re taking an inventory, and we mostly don’t like that. But it’s the first step in defanging white privilege.

Next time: Resources

A red tile with an imprinted cross to remind us of the spiritual in examining white privilege
There is spiritual discipline in examining our white privilege

Examining White Privilege as Spiritual Discipline, First steps in examining white privilege, the spiritual discipline of examining white privilege

Comments (6)

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Oh, I’m so glad! I enjoyed writing it, and learned in the process about the school board chair “protecting” his son (and thus all of us) from being bused. I he knew was in my class, but not that whole backstory. Live and learn and keep learning…

  • I think this is a major step forward in your process. I was impressed that you focused on the extreme difficulty of examining your personal benefits from white supremacy. Your efforts remind me of the pain of those of us on a recovery journey through a 12 step program. I hope you will keep posting as your journey continues. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thanks, Joe. I think white privilege brings it down to the personal. Which is why it’s so important and gets such kickback. I think it’s possible to engage in monetary reparations for what my ancestors did, but never get to the gut level of my own privilege. No matter who I make the “other,” it’s always easier to blame them than examine my own self.

  • I disagree with your use.of the word “blame.” I think I understand what you mean. But I don’t think that assigning blame is part of a spiritual journey. They key words are reflecting learning and changing. I hope you keep on,and keep sharing g

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Exactly–it’s not part of the spiritual journey, but blaming others makes it easier for us to shirk our spiritual journey. Does that make sense?

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