Privilege and Mindfulness: Responding to Ken Wytsma’s “The Myth of Inequality”

Privilege and Mindfulness: Responding to Ken Wytsma’s “The Myth of Inequality” June 11, 2017

It has been said that the difference between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Today, many of us struggle with the realities of privilege related to our ethnicity, economics, employment, and gender. We may not want to admit it, but our lives have greatly enhanced by factors that we may not have chosen, just as others have struggles due to the accidents of birth and economics. We may not want to “know,” but we do, and we now must decide whether or not we “care,” whether our behaviors will be changed by our knowledge.

As I read Ken Wytsma’s irenic presentation on white privilege, “The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege.” I reflected on the many interdependent forms of privilege I experience. First, there is the privilege of being white. As white male, slightly overweight in my mid-sixties I am a law enforcement officer’s dream. When the police drive past me or stop me or my wife for a minor traffic infraction, they expect me to be law-abiding and harmless. They treat me with respect and engage in conversation. This experience is far from universal, especially among persons of color. A few years back, a successful Latino colleague and I were walking through my upper middle class neighborhood when a patrol car drove by. The drive by inspired a conversation. I confessed that as long-haired hippie over forty years ago, I was often stopped by local constables, but that these days, the local police see me as a harmless burgher. My Latino friend, typically well-dressed and professional in every way, shook his head and admitted that he’s still nervous when he encounters a law officer. I was astounded as we shared everything in terms of respect, status, and economics, except the impact of race.

Although affirmative action and breakthrough appointments may have cost me a few jobs, my race has paved my way to professional success and accessibility to services. Moreover, I experience a number of other privileges that add zest and freedom to my life – the privileges of being a self-regulating professional, advanced education, and economic status. With only a handful of limitations, I choose my own hours, don’t have to apologize for going to the doctor or taking time off to support my grandchildren, and come and go from work, for the most part, as I wish. I have enough largesse to travel, enjoy recreational opportunities, and pay my bills most months with ease.
Although these are not necessary racial issues, they are benefits that I have, some of which I worked for, that many must fight for or never experience. Whether or not I deserve these is beside the point; I enjoy and benefit from these privileges others lack. It has been an ethical imperative for me to maximize these same privileges, congruent with institutional necessities and rules, among those whom I have supervised.

While we should not feel guilty for our race, for being white, the realities of white privilege, and other privileges we enjoy, call us to mindfulness, that is, to be aware that we have benefits due to accidents of birth and realities of history. Our privileges are not a matter of desert or something we achieve on our own. What we enjoy as blessings of birth and history challenge us to self-aware social, political, and relational involvement. They challenge us to find common ground with others rather than build walls of ideology or entitlement. This is especially imperative for those who call themselves followers of Jesus. In the body of Christ, there is no “other.” We are joined with all creation and every person, regardless of race, sex, and background. We cannot boast of our race or background, nor can we use this to diminish others. In fact, our calling is to do all we can to expand our privileges to include the well-being of others, especially those who have been marginalized, neglected, or diminished historically. This may involve political involvement for some, but for all of us it involves minimizing economic, process, justice, and opportunity privilege.

In the era of Trump, racial and economic, indeed accessibility differences, are increasing. The gap between rich and poor are increasing and we are moving toward oligarchy and away from equality. Hate speech and polarization are on the rise. Today’s Christians, in particular, need to be countercultural, challenging inequalities of all kinds, noticing how persons of color are treated, expanding the circle of welcome, and building communities of care that embrace diversity in all its wonder and challenge. We need to stand by those who are forgotten or harmed by social policies. We need to be mindful of our own biases and preconceptions, our own susceptibility to blame the poor for their poverty, and support “welfare” programs for the welfare. We need to be aware of disparities in the justice system and police responses, especially toward African American males.

Knowing and caring are essential as we seek to transcend the sins of the past and move from self-interest and unconscious racism and entitlement to embracing God’s image that joins humanity in all its diversity. Mindfulness may not produce miracles, but it will begin a process of personal and hopefully national healing and a commitment to uplifting all God’s children. Without mindfulness, we will continue to perpetuate the destructive divisions that shape our current cultural, economic, and racial landscape.

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  • Tomi Jacobs-Ziobro

    So nicely articulated! Thank you for sharing your words.