How Do We Think about Privilege? (Review)

When The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege was published earlier this year, I wanted to read it and I didn’t want to read it. I requested it from the publisher for review, because I knew it would be good, and then it sat there for most of the summer. Because as good as I knew it was going to be, I knew it would also be challenging. Even if you are committed to racial equality, it’s still hard to confront how you have benefited in life merely because of the color of your skin.

Ken Wytsma knows this, and that is why he wrote this book. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College, and founder of the Justice Conference—and he’s white. When Helen Lee at IVP asked him to write a book on racism, he balked at first. What could he say that couldn’t be said better by a person of color? But the more he thought about it, and saw racial bias in person, the more he thought that some white people were simply able to hear this message better (at least initially) coming from someone like them.

4482The book comes in three parts. In Part I, Wytsma briefly tells the story of race in America, from the age of exploration to modern segregation. In contrast to those who might argue that we have now largely moved on from our racist past, Wytsma maintains that “one of the central arguments of this book, as we uncover the roots of injustice and privilege, is that the effects of state-sponsored racism in America are very much present today” (75). But even now among the dominant evangelical culture, civil rights for minorities are not a priority: “A thin personal gospel, along with an oversimplified understanding of deeply entrenched racial systems (what I’ve called ‘the myth of equality’ in this book), has often allowed race to be made secondary to other foreign, domestic, and spiritual concerns” (65).

In Part II, Wytsma looks more closely at this “thin personal gospel.” He says that many of us have what he calls an “aristocratic itch,” where we place our own comfort above working for justice: “It is common for me to talk to people want to pursue justice but only after they have taken care of themselves first” (90). He also argues that the gospel of Jesus, properly understood, is not just about personal salvation. It is a gospel of reconciliation, which inevitably involves justice issues, but white American Christians have been blinded to this fact by our adoption of the dominant (and un-Christian) cultural narrative of consumeristic individualism. Instead of living according to this narrative, Wytsma calls the church to prophetic engagement in justice issues.

In Part III, Wytsma challenges white Christians to become more aware of implicit racial biases. Again, this goes against a commonly held narrative, and so is hard for many white Christians to hear. Wytsma writes, “I often encounter people who tell me that we may not have equality of outcome in America, but there is definitely equality of opportunity. I used to believe this, but it’s not true. Implicit racism in the United States today leads to the same results as the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era” (144, emphasis added). And again, “For Christians who are working for a society of the equality amid diversity that is God’s dream for the world, implicit bias is the battleground where we need to fight the hardest” (145). White Christians need to not stop at including different voices; we need to share power and opportunity, answering the biblical call to community. In sum,

We have to challenge the impulse and aspiration toward aristocracy—power and privilege permitting a life of leisure. We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will get it perfectly right, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor, and life in the communion of saints. (191)

This is the first book of Wytsma’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed. He does a masterful job of anticipating objections and arguing for a biblical view of racial justice. I was most grateful for his blending of humility and boldness throughout. He knows that the privileged do not always respond well to being told that they are privileged, and he does so skillfully by calling them to a higher standard rather than simply lambasting them. He also knows that his is not the last word on the subject, and ends the book with several pages of recommended resources. I recommend this book for people, especially white Christians, who want to live out the gospel but are intimidated by discussions of race in America and don’t know where to start.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

FURTHER READING:

My friend James wrote a great review of The Myth of Equality a few months ago.

Ken Wytsma was interviewed on the podcast Seminary Dropout a few weeks ago.

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