In her book, White Fragility, sociologist Robin DiAngelo encourages white liberals, people like herself, to overcome their instinctive reluctance to face the systemic racism that automatically grants them “white privilege.” She claims that white progressives who do not recognize their privileged position cause deadly damage to people of color by perpetuating the “color blindness” argument that race does not matter, which prevents society from seeing how much it does.
The respected moral theologian Charles Curran wrote an autobiographical essay in 2013 confessing that through much of his theological career he was “blatantly unaware of his own white privilege.” He prided himself on going out of his way to support African-American students working on their doctorates and black theologians giving presentations at conferences, quite satisfied that he was doing what he could to counter systemic racism. He credited a black female theologian, Shawn Copeland, with raising his consciousness on racism. Fundamentally he thought of himself as the subject who was graciously doing what he could to help “them,” an approach that “absolutized” his own limited position, making others the “object of my good will.” He saw his own white theological standpoint as normative for judging all other perspectives.
Drawing on Copeland’s appropriation of the astute analysis of various conversions by Canadian Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, Curran began a process of “personal conversion” which recognized the privilege he enjoyed throughout his whole life. For example, he had parents who encouraged him to study and sent him to excellent Catholic schools taught by dedicated sisters, and the Church paid for all his college, theology and doctoral studies, relieving him of the need to have a job and carrying the burden of student loans – a privilege enjoyed by very few others.
In addition to a personal conversion, Curran began a process of “intellectual conversion” that enabled him to see the limitations of his own culturally conditioned theological perspective as well as what he could learn from the distinctive perspectives of African-American theologians.
Finally, Curran spoke of a “spiritual conversion” which for him meant recalling a forgotten truth that American society is threatened by social sins including racism. This enabled him to see how racial bias is embedded in societal institutions which produce false consciousness oblivious to the plight of victims. Charles Curran concluded by saying he hopes to learn more about racism from dialogue with black theologians and their distinctive experiences of systemic racism.
Although the American bishops have not directly addressed the problem of white privilege, they have provided in their pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” some helpful points to guide further reflection. They point out that for many people the real problem is not overt racism but the temptation to assume an attitude of superiority toward others. They remind us of the fundamental biblical truth that all people possess an intrinsic worth and dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God. And they encourage us to reflect on the life and example of Jesus Christ who taught us to love our neighbor as ourself.
What is my own reaction to the claim that white Americans enjoy “white privilege?”
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.