Straight White Men Shouldn’t Write about Power and Privilege, Right?


This post is part of the Patheos Book Club. To see more posts about this book, see an interview with the author, and add your own review, see the Patheos Book Club.

On this blog and elsewhere, I have been repeatedly told that I am blind to my own privilege. Of course, it’s hard to see what you’re blinded to, and if you protest a statement like that, you’re being obstinate and defensive. That’s why a lot of straight, white men like me — and especially those of us employed by the academy — avoid writing about such things, so we can avoid the charge, “Who the hell are you to write about such things?!?” Instead, we choose other things to write about.

Evangelicalism isn’t as beset with political correctness as the progressive academy, so maybe that’s why Andy Crouch could unashamedly tackle the subject of power and privilege in his new and compelling book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Also, Andy is a journalist, so he can claim a bit of objectivity in his approach.

Andy Crouch

But Andy’s a confessional journalist, not a newspaper reporter. He does have a dog in this fight. While he has a more conservative tack on Christianity, he and I are similar in many respects — well bred, well educated, well connected. In other words, privileged. From this charge, Andy does not shy away. In a section of the book entitled, “The Neutrality of Privilege,” Andy writes,

“Privilege is not bad. To the contrary, it comes in the form of benefits. And privilege is not necessarily exclusive — it can be widely shared. We all benefit from countless past exercises of cultural power, from the invention of indoor plumbing to the translating of the King James Version of the Bible to the first person who dared to eat the allegedly poisonous tomato and found that it was very good. All of the human cultural inheritance is privilege, in this sense, and every person, not just those from dominant cultures, benefits from past exercises of power by their parents and more distant ancestors”

This excerpt is indicative of the book as a whole. Andy is clear-eyed and forthright in his writing, and he avoids the constant caveats and backtracking that too often laces the writing of straight, white men in this era. His point is that power is real. It cannot be avoided or wished away. In fact, he claims that power is a great gift from God, and it should be used as such.

I first encountered this argument many years ago in the writing of Jacques Ellul. Andy take a very different path out of the conversation, however, than Ellul (and me). Ellul ended his career by basically advocating Christian anarchy as a way to restore freedom to the world, and I lean to more Marxist and Foucauldian readings of power. Andy heads more in a direction laid out by the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank, a theology of which I am none too fond. For example, Andy is too sanguine about the potential of institutions, IMHO.

But in spite of our differences in conclusion, Andy’s book is essential reading. An Andy Crouch book is always a long time in coming, but always worth the wait. Playing God is no exception.

A couple weeks ago, I used this space to criticize a piece published by Leadership Journal about how pastors should respond to gay parishioners. One of the editors of that magazine took to Twitter to wonder aloud if I’d appreciate anything written on that subject by anyone more conservative than me. The answer is yes, something by Andy Crouch.

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  • Thursday1

    A lot of claims about male privilige are questionable, or, at the very least, things are a lot more complex than feminists will allow. See this book from OUP for the details. The gist is available here.

    • Tony, when MRA’s start agreeing with you, YOU’RE GONNA HAVE A BAD TIME.

      • Craig

        Can someone please expand on this well-received comment?

      • Um, what’s an MRA? And based on the PW and Amazon reviews of that book, it’s both terrible and offensive.

        • Lita

          A Men’s Rights Activist. Google is your friend.

          • Craig

            So Luke’s observation provides a good reason for Tony to do what?

            • Lita

              Tony chose to engage Luke’s comment. I would consider that a reason to do some 30 second research, but our opinions must differ.

              • Craig

                That’s cheap Lita. Let me rephrase: so, now that we all understand “MRA”, Luke’s observation provides a good reason for Tony to do what?

                • Lita

                  Your question was not clear. I answered what you seemed to be asking. As I see above, Luke himself has answered your query.

            • Perhaps reconsider the merits of the particular framing of this conversation on power?

              • Craig

                Fair enough. It’s helpful to be sensitive to context, social agendas and cultural influences. But isn’t it also sometimes refreshing when someone weighs in on an issue candidly–blissfully unaware of (or consciously disregarding) the surrounding political and social factions?

                Being overly faction-conscious comes with a risk. For the progressives here it would be this: seeing an idea that might support the MRA folks, and then opposing or dismissing it just for that reason. Let’s avoid that.

        • Thursday1

          Why not read the article and judge for yourself?

          • Thursday1

            I can’t believe people downvoted a suggestion to read a fairly short article by one of the most distinguished and widely cited psychologists in the U.S. today. Wasn’t it J.S. Mill who said that if you only know your own side of an argument you don’t even know that?

            • Elisabeth M

              I didn’t down-vote your suggestion – but I did look over the article and notice some very familiar worms from a very familiar can, and concluded that I don’t want to spend my time diving into that can. I do know that side of the argument – I’ve swum in that swamp before – so while I could invest the time reading it and figuring out how to articulate its problems, I just don’t anticipate much return on that investment. I assume the down-voters above did a similar triage on the book & article and drew a similar conclusion.

      • Thursday1

        Uh, how about actually dealing with the arguments instead of namecalling. You don’t even need to read the book. The summary is right there.

        • Because I’ve read Baumeister’s nonsense (probably too generous a characterization, to be sure) before. I don’t engage his ideas for the same reasons I don’t engage those of flat-earth proponents or KJV-only folks, because to do so is to give those ideas a level of credibility that is wholly undeserved.

          • Thursday1

            I think this says more about you than Baumeister, who is one of the most widely cited psychologists out there.

            • Thursday1

              Incidentally, for those who haven’t actually read the article, Baumeister argues, among other things, that society slots men in for high risk, high reward roles, so more men tend to end up at the top . . . or chewed-up, or dead, or at the bottom. Women tend to be slotted in for safer roles, without either the big payoffs . . . or the bigger downsides. (And, guess what, the data supports him.) So, the mere preponderance of men at the top is not an indication that men have some automatic level of privilege.

              Now, Baumeister’s argument may be wrong, but it ain’t on the level of creationism. You’re gonna have to deal with it.

          • Craig

            “Too generous a characterization,” really? Your dismissal also sends a message that you surely don’t intend.

            • Four sentences in to the summary, reading it as nonsense as opposed to deliberate obfuscation is actually charitable.

              • Craig

                Are we talking about the same thing? Here are the first four sentences of what was called “the gist”:

                You’re probably thinking that a talk called “Is there anything good about men” will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like Men Are Not Cost Effective speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd’s book was called Are Men Necessary?

                Can you explain?

    • Elisabeth M

      “…more complex than feminists will allow.”

      That’s a bit of a broad brush. Among those who call themselves feminists, there are a whole lotta different viewpoints on just about every topic imaginable, male privilege included.

      However, I do find the title and premise of the book you linked to fairly sickening. But that is a whole different conversation.

      • Thursday1

        Among those who call themselves feminists, there are a whole lotta different viewpoints on just about every topic imaginable, male privilege included.

        Yes, yes, nobody can keep the story straight. Perhaps an indication of trouble with the whole concept.

        • Elisabeth M

          What whole concept? Equality?

          The goal of feminism is straightforward. But the applications are many, and for each application, the “how” is complex. Hence the many viewpoints.

          • Thursday1

            What whole concept?

            Male privilege.

            [EDIT: Why are people downvoting a clarifying statement?]

            • Elisabeth M

              Gotcha, thanks for clarifying.

  • Craig

    What are the political implications of viewing power as a gift from God?

    These days power is often attached to gratuitous inequalities in both opportunity and political representation. But if these are gifts from God, how can we view them as injustices? It’s the sort of perspective that has all-too-easily supported monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorships, slavery, institutionalized sexism and racism, etc.

    Here’s a fairly reliable rule: rely on substantive theological assumptions for guidance, and bad ideas tend to follow. (In practice, progressives like Tony are usually making their theological premises harmonize with independently good ideas–reinterpreting, altering, and weakening the former as the need arises.)

    • Yes, I’d say that Andy, and RO writ large, have rejected the correlational model of progressive theology, developed at U Chicago and followed by me.

      • Craig

        I didn’t realize there was a name for this. That’s helpful.

  • Guest

    Total idiocy packaged for total idiots.

  • CJ

    I love how there is no dialogue or curiosity in this article about the importance of acknowledging privilege as power that was bestowed on you not for any special effort on your own part, and not innocently passed on from previous generations, but because of unjust political and social heirarchies. Maybe this is why women such as myself cringe when reading your blog, Tony. I have enjoyed many a man’s critique on power and privilege, including Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges (a white, Christian male), Cornel West and Tony Campolo. They all have a certain quality that you lack…….non-defensiveness.

    • Actually, Andy’s chapter on privilege says just that. Maybe you neglected to read the quote from his book. It says that it is passed down, often not earned. This was a 500-word review, but his book definitely acknowledges the injustice in many institutions and social arrangements. Nevertheless, as I wrote, I think he is too sanguine about institutions. I think they’re more often harmful than Andy does.

      And where you find defensiveness in this book review, I have no idea.

      • “Evangelicalism isn’t as beset with political correctness as the progressive academy…”
        I don’t want to speak for CJ or anything, but…

        • Luke, that is a criticism of evangelicalism.

      • Libby delaCruz

        “And where you find defensiveness in this book review’… From your title, Tony! “Straight White Men Shouldn’t Write about Power and Privilege, Right?”

        I believe that whether white men can write about privilege is a question that comes from essentialism. Andy can write about privilege because he is articulate and insightful. Being a white male, a woman of color, or a green gobbler does not put you in the ‘articulate and insightful’ category (which you seem to imply over there in your book review).
        For example, according to United Statetians, I am a ‘woman of color’ so I will use my stereotypically invested upon moral superiority to put-ya-down, White Male!!! Bite my underprivileged dust, yeah!!!

        • I imply nothing other than the fact that his book is articulate and insightful.

          • Libby delaCruz

            I agree with you about that, Tony. I really feel bad about the ways conversations on privilege in your blog tend to explode. Have you thought about the PR savvy strategy of keeping yourself away from certain topics? For example I know I could never speak of privilege pragmatically as a good thing, just because I am a woman of color and white people only let me speak of oppression–and when white people want you to speak about liberating others, dare to disagree!!! if you dare they’ll tell you that you don’t get it or that you ‘have not done the work’ instead of seeing that their argument may be flawed and have an actual conversation. This may be an assumption, but according to the avatars, most people commenting here seem white-ish, or at least have the privilege of having internet connection and some significant time to spare… So I guess we are all on the same boat and none of us can talk about privilege. Or at least it seems that would be a good place for all of us to begin.

      • CJ

        Yes and yes to Libby and Luke. And I would add that, for me, your entire first paragraph read like a defensive disclaimer: “On this blog and elsewhere, I have been repeatedly told that I am blind to my own privilege. Of course, it’s hard to see what you’re blinded to, and if you protest a statement like that, you’re being obstinate and defensive.” The problem isn’t that you have blind spots regarding your own privilege. We all do, as you pointed out. I think people’s beef with you comes from your PROTEST, or the attitude in which you handle critical feedback regarding your blind spots. You can ask for clarification regarding your blind spots and even push back against other’s feedback in a way that doesn’t make you seem obstinate and defensive. Perhaps if you are being repeatedly called out for seeming defensive when the topics of power and privilege come up, just perhaps, it’s not just due to you being a white straight “well bred” male, but due to you being you.

  • Elisabeth M

    What does “well bred” mean?

    • Merriam-Webster says
      1: having or displaying good breeding : refined
      2: having a good pedigree, as in, “well–bred swine”

      It’s a pretty common literary phrase. I’m surprised you’ve never run across it before.

      • Elisabeth M

        Oh, no I have run across it before. I’m most familiar with it in terms of livestock or pedigree: animals with desirable qualities of milk production, conformation, reproductive ability, resistance to disease, etc.

        When describing humans, it’s historically pertained to class. If a family had money for lots of generations it was considered well bred, and assumed to be superior in all kinds of other ways too: artistry, intelligence, generosity, “gentility.” But if a family recently came into money, its wealth was perceived as a sham; newcomers to the upper class were not considered “well bred.” Those with fewer means, regardless of their artistic or academic potential, or their personal virtue or belief systems, were decidedly not “well bred.”

        So, I asked the question out of surprise. I’m assuming you didn’t mean what I just described, because today the notion that wealth is indicative of worth is not only antiquated, but hugely offensive to pretty much everyone in our society. I mean, if you’re saying you’re wealthy, fine, but “well bred” connotes that you’re better than others because you come from a history of wealth.

        So I wanted to know what you *did* mean. Or maybe you just threw that out there without meaning it at all?

        • Chris Rose

          Kinda makes you think about what Tony is defending here doesn’t it?

          In a post about acknowledging privilege, it’s more than a little distressing to see him flaunting his own and holding it up as something so elementary that it’s absurd that you wouldn’t know it.

          I can’t actually conceive of a way for him to miss the point more actually.

          Not that this will get approved. Tony doesn’t like dissent, and in fact has deleted some of his own comments on this post to make himself look better, as he will continue to do no doubt.

          Hi Tony! Keep on deleting people who disagree with you, it makes your points stronger, really it does!

          • It’s funny, Chris. If I acknowledge my privilege, I’m “flaunting it.” If I don’t acknowledge it, I’m “blind” to it. I will leave it to the majority of readers to judge if my post was as assholic as you read it.

        • Well, I surely didn’t mean it as a way to compliment myself. There’s an implicit self-criticism in using a phrase like that on a blog like this. I think it is an accurate and also embarrassing moniker.

        • Elle

          “Well bred” made me cringe. It’s one of those formulations that manages to be both classist and gauchely aspirational. Good breeding is subjective. If you are the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire then almost no American is likely to warrant a description of being well bred, fondness for Elvis Presley notwithstanding. If you are a Catholic who has an entry in Burke’s then good breeding might involve not having a single mixed marriage since the reformation. Describing oneself as well bred is a fairly cast-iron indicator of the opposite.

          • Yes, I agree, it is cringeworthy. I didn’t use it naively.

  • This post gave me heartburn this morning when I first read it. The Crouch excerpt is just plain off-putting to me. White male privilege is at the root of many of the world’s ills, in my view. As a white male it has taken me 60+ years to gain a slight understanding of its breadth and depth – raising 2 strong, independant daughters, eventually listening (really listening) to my spouse and daughters has finally made a dent in my straight-white-male ego.

    My advice (worth virtually nothing) is do some elementary research on white male privilege and one may gain a glimpse at our blindness.

    • “Elementary research.” Thanks, Rollie.

  • John McCauslin

    From those to whom much is given, much is expected. More specifically, with power comes the responsibility to use for the benefit of the larger community, and especially the marginalized and disenfranchised. And always with humility. Isn’t this really the core of the matter?

    • Josh, that is pretty much the plot summary of Andy’s book. And, I think, is the message for any of us who’ve inherited power/privilege.

    • Craig

      The core of what matter? Even with humility, noblesse oblige would make a bad core for one’s conception of distributive justice.

      • John McCauslin

        The “matter” is not about wealth so much as privilege and power. Old white guys often have much power and privilege but little wealth. Pastors and university professors often have much power and little wealth. The question of the moment is what to do with that power and privilege, not redistribution of wealth. You can’t redistribute power and privilege.

        And while you may disparage the value of human volition in the enterprise, the truth is that unless the privileged and powerful choose, for whatever reason, to employ their power and privilege as servants for others, it will not happen. You can take away power and privilege from those who have it by force but you cannot “redistribute” it. Or you can find a way to empower more people.

        • Craig

          You are mistaken. It is not as if income and wealth are the only things that are distributed (or “redistributed”). Distributive justice concerns the distribution of rights, liberties, opportunities of advancement, and the social bases of self-respect. Power and privilege reside in all of these things–and in wealth and income too.

          • John McCauslin

            I don’t think you can “re”-distribute power, privilege and status. If one has privilege and power it can not be taken away and given to someone else.

            Moreover, and more importantly, the disposition and distribution of power and privilege is not a zero sum game. You can share and broaden the circle of the empowered and privileged but you cannot take it from one person and give it to another. Perhaps it is better to speak in terms of the empowerment of the less privileged rather that the disempowerment of the powerful.

            Privilege attributable to color and gender especially cannot be taken and given away like just another object. And all the opportunities and social capital that come into being due to circumstances of family and birth cannot be taken away and given to another.

            Its just so much more complicated than finger pointing and name calling.

            • Craig

              That the distribution isn’t a zero-sum game is neither here nor there. (No intelligent and informed person would deny it.)

              You appear to have an overly narrow conception of distribution. Those who write about distributive justice are often talking about our social, legal, political, and economic institutions, which are indeed subject, to some extent, to choice and change. The current distribution of power and privilege depends, in important ways, on these structures. Change these structures to the extent that they can be changed, and you change the distribution. Call that “redistribution” if you like. To insist that it is impossible is more absurd than insisting that the current distribution is a gift from God.

              • John McCauslin

                I suspect we both desire the same end result, we just understand the forces arrayed against us differently. You seem focused on changing structures (a very worthy approach) and I see all structures as susceptible to exploitation. You focus on redistribution which I understand (perhaps as incorrectly) as subtracting power and privilege from those who currently have them, and adding power and privilege to the resources of those currently without them. For my part I focus on co-opting those with power and privilege into joining in the enterprise of widening the circle and welcoming the marginalized and disenfranchised into the circle.

                Because I see all structures as susceptible to corruption and exploitation, I fear that most any change in the structures will simply result momentary dislocation followed by exploitation and ultimately re-consolidation of power (and wealth) in the hands of the most capable. For example the destruction of slavery in the American South (undeniably the most necessary and complete systemic restructuring in our nation’s history) was followed by the evolution of American racism and the nurturing of the most incredibly robust racist structures throughout the entire country.

                I fear that if you don’t change the hearts of the people even the most elegant of structural changes is likely to fail.

  • Tony, I appreciate the fact that you did not give us an over against reading of Crouch’s book. You could easily have put him down to build yourself up, but you deliberately chose to exercise a compassionate reading of his book. Thank you for a fine example of how to engage with others whom we disagree with, an example that calls to mind the unusual exercise of power Jesus demonstrated on the cross. What looked to the world like failure and utter powerlessness turned out to be the most generative and creative act in human history. Power rooted in God’s love always looks like powerlessness, a divine paradox we would do well to remember. What that means for any of us who occupy positions of privilege and power according to the logic of this world is indeed a question that haunts.

  • Jordan M.

    As a sort of periphery question, how does Ellul’s understanding of power differ from Foucault’s or Marx’s? I haven’t read any Ellul, and besides the fact that he advocates some sort of Christian anarchism I’m not really familiar with what direction he goes in on the subject.

  • Prester John

    Wow! I have not seen such a well articulated defense for the Divine Rights of Kings since the reign of George the Third. I am not sure if I should be appalled or impressed. This is self-serving theology at its finest, rivaled only by the Carolingian monarchs’ claim that they are direct descendants of Christ.

  • Y. A. Warren

    It is impossible to see ourselves outside of our genetics and experiences. This is why I act as an editorial mentor on to people outside my experience, culture and society. I only seek to help them tell their own stories in words that we of privilege can understand.

  • Kristen

    Several years ago, a friend of mine who pastored an inner-city storefront church asked me for help. The great matriarch of his church needed professional assistance. She is one of those amazing African American women who MAKES STUFF HAPPEN in her community, meanwhile she was delighted that in her 60s she was finally at a point in her life where she had two pairs of shoes because now when one pair was wet she could wear the other one. Gulp.
    Anyway. Many years ago, she and her husband had bought some properties for almost nothing. Time and gentrification had done their thing and now they were worth quite a lot. The time had come for her to sell and develop an estate plan so that when she died her assets would continue to serve the community she loved.
    This woman was absolutely amazing. She contributed to her community in deep and powerful ways that I never could. However, she had left school in sixth grade. Property sales and estate plans were not at all her world. She was an intelligent woman but had no experience in such things, and had few community connections who had experience in such things. She was a prime target for a con artist.
    I have nothing close to her depth of character or level of Christian discipleship. Maybe someday I’ll have a fraction of it. But I do have a boatload of privilege. I have a law degree. And professional networks. And Pastor Aaron was able to bridge both worlds. And using our privilege we were able to connect her with trustworthy professionals who would help manage her property sales and develop an estate plan (and yes, would charge reasonable fees) so these transactions would proceed as they should (and as they almost certainly would for you or me, ’cause privilege) rather than her money being siphoned off by a criminal.
    This spring she went on to glory, and an estate plan was in place. And my privilege was part of what enabled that to happen. I like to think that was a good use of privilege. There are tremendous amounts she could do that I couldn’t. There’s this one thing I could contribute, but it was an important piece of the puzzle too.

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