Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Power and Privilege
distributed 10/10/03 & 11/20/09 - ©2003, 2009

I knew that my words were being taken the wrong way, but I couldn't think of a better way to say it.

Many years ago, we were preparing to move to Denver, Colorado, from our previous home in Iowa. We'd spent several days here looking for a house to rent, and had finally found a place that we could afford near the graduate school that I would be attending.

After signing the lease, we stayed in the house for an hour or so, trying to figure out how all of our furniture would fit. That's when the doorbell rang.

Standing on the porch was a young African-American couple, who pointed to the "For Rent" sign that was still planted in the lawn, and asked if they could look at the house. Even as I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, we just rented it," I knew that those very words are often used by landlords to turn away people of color. "No, I mean, we just rented it. Uh, we're the new tenants." But by then, the couple was already headed down the sidewalk.

As a white person, I've never had to deal with the persistent racial prejudice and discrimination that is embedded in US culture. (Racism, of course, is not only found in the US, but it does have a distinctive history and character in this country.) As the perpetual beneficiary of white privilege, I generally can coast through life without realizing the advantages that come my way.

It is only on rare occasion, like that moment on the doorstep, that I have to stop and consider my advantages. People without the benefit of white skin, though, are given frequent reason to notice that they don't have the sort of privileges that I take for granted.

  • Because I'm white, I've never had any reason to be worried about the police giving extra scrutiny to my driving habits -- unlike those who are too often pulled over for "driving while Black."

  • Because I'm white, I've been able to assume that the world is full of opportunities, that I can set my sights on any goal, and that only my own lack of abilities or resources will get in the way. That is not a reasonable assumption for people of color.

  • Because I'm white, my race is considered normal and neutral. In most settings, I'm not thought of as a "white minister" or a "white activist." My race doesn't call forth any special attention, carry any warning signs, or incur significant liabilities.
Martin Jacques wrote in the British newspaper, The Guardian, "Being top of the pile means that whites are peculiarly and uniquely insensitive to race and racism, and the power relations this involves. We are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victims. ... Whether we like it or not, in every corner of the planet we enjoy an extraordinary personal power bestowed by our color. It is something we are largely oblivious of, and consequently take for granted, irrespective of whether we are liberal or reactionary."

He went on to say, "The dominant race in a society, whether white or otherwise, ... will regard its racist attitudes as nothing more than common sense, having the force and justification of nature. Only when challenged by those on the receiving end is racism outed, and attitudes begin to change."

It has never been a pleasant experience at the moment, but in the grand scheme of things, I have appreciated the occasions that point out my own white privilege. Without that painful awareness, I'm blind to the disparities, the assumptions, the warped values and standards that maintain white racism.

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White privilege is a powerful dynamic in racism and race relations. "Human privilege" is just as important, and just as invisible, in environmental relationships.

I am generally oblivious of my human privilege, because it is always there. I can take it for granted because it is rarely challenged. To most of us, most of the time, human privilege just seems obvious and "natural."

The human population continues to swell. The human use of resources is rising ever higher. The rest of creation keeps being pushed back before the human onslaught. As Jacques said, "We are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victims."

If you want to take water out of a river, or build on a piece of land, you'll have to negotiate your plans with other people who will be affected. But you probably won't have to enter into discussions with the wildlife. Our privilege of resource use is assumed.

It is only recently that the public decision process for "development" has even considered non-human interests. The Endangered Species Act, especially, points out to us the prevailing assumptions of human privilege. It is valuable -- and often despised -- for naming and challenging what we have so long taken for granted. The ESA makes us ask, on occasion, whether some other part of creation has a legitimate claim on a piece of land. For many people, simply raising that question is a terrible attack on "how things should be."

On the moral level, at least, I am glad when my white privilege is named, and when those imbalances of power and opportunity are dismantled.

So, too, am I glad when my human privilege is brought to light. For only when my eyes are opened can I be aware of my own complicity in a great wrong, and seek to find a better way of living in relationship with those around me.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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