Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Racism, White Supremacy and White Privilege

Over the weekend, there was a bit of a media firestorm about comments out of the NAACP that there are elements of the Tea Party that are racist. Despite the protestations of Sarah Palin and the denial by VP Biden, it's clear that there are certainly elements of racism in the Tea Party. Denial of this is not good, but so is over-generalizing. But this has had me thinking about racial issues in our society, and how ill-equipped we are at having real conversations.

Coincidentally, two weeks prior, some friends and I were having dinner, and the conversation turned to race. I made the distinctions between racism, white supremacy and white privilege. One friend said that these are all racism, and the effort to distinguish them was more to placate myself. Maybe so, but as I pointed out to him (also a gay man), people that are for 90% of gay rights are not in the same category as people like Fred Phelps who think the glbt community should have no rights.

But I think these are good questions for conversation: what are the differences between these terms, and why does it matter? I would say that the differences of these have to do with variations on two scales: intent and consciousness. For conversation sake, I'll apply this to blacks and whites, but we could, with adaptation, apply it to gender and sexual orientation. Racism, to me, suggests intent to keep others down based on race. White Supremacy is a belief that white people are a superior race to black people, but that does not necessarily mean people should not have the same rights. Abraham Lincoln and many of the Republican abolitionists of his time were white supremacists, and were more driven by the ideals of freedom for all than out of concern for blacks. No doubt, Lincoln detested the institution of slavery, but he did not view the black race as equal. (Lincoln was truly remarkable and was very much a product of his time; this is not to knock him, but to try and look at him objectively, compared to the "liberals" of his time).

White privilege seems to be a bit trickier and elusive but, to me, is rampant in our society. It is trickier because there are many of us who believe that all are created equal and should have equal opportunities, but are perhaps not aware of the privileges our own skin color affords us. Nor are we willing to perhaps give up these privileges so that we can work towards the true equality we believe in.

Working at William Penn House continues to give me an opportunity to explore these issues - not with a vision to the past but a vision to the future. I work with and interact with many Friends organizations and meetings and there is rarely much in the way of racial diversity. Often these groups may lament the lack of diversity in their "body", but do little to go out and be a part of creating that diversity - not by having people "come here", but by going there, congregating at other places, moving to different neighborhoods, etc.

I think all of this is tricky, and certainly not easy. But as Friends, I do think that we would do well in times like this not to jump on the "Tea Party=Racists" bandwagon, but to instead reflect on our own white privilege and what we can do about that.

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