Tim Keller explains the systemic problem of white privilege

Back in March 2012, during an event titled “Race and the Christian” with John Piper, Tim Keller, and Anthony Bradley, they surfaced a number of the challenges and difficulties about the topic of race in the Christian ministry and church contexts.

One particular segment during the Q&A portion was particularly poignant (and insightful, to me, so much so, I’ve transcribed it below), where Anthony Bradley raised the question of how difficult it is to be discussing topics related to race, due to the power differential between the whites and non-whites. Tim Keller makes quite the effort to explain the systemic problem of white privilege [ed.note: emphasis added]:

That’s a very hard question.. I’m going back to what I was trying to say about systems… (this isn’t quite the same.. you were starting to move in the direction of discussions). But, for example, the evangelical world is based on raising your own support… you go out and you raise support from amongst your friends. This, of course, is systemic; it excludes, it marginalizes people who aren’t white. Because what happens is.. white people that don’t think of themselves as very well off can do it, they can raise their own support. And not just black, Hispanic, Asian people.. (and most people think of Asian people as very prosperous).. Asian people have trouble raising support for various cultural reasons, that whole model privileges white people… privilege cultures in which that kind of volunteerism works; it certainly doesn’t privilege Black [or] Hispanic people who don’t have lots of well off friends. And yet the system assumes that everyone who goes out there has equal social power and they don’t. Now I would call that a systemic problem, a big systemic problem…

… very often, these organizations, huge parachurch organizations, that you have to raise your support, and you come up in the power structure, having raised your support, then you kind of go on staff, and you move on your way up. Now I know about InterVarsity and plenty of places understand this, and they’re trying to do everything they can to recognize the fact that people don’t start with the same amount of social power. And therefore we can’t, we say it’s a level playing field, we’re meritocratic, we’re individualistic, that is to say, everybody has an equal chance, we’re not giving anybody an extra leg up in any way, and of course what that immediately does is destroy the people who already don’t have a leg up…

Maybe somebody is offended by what I just said… The system.. it doesn’t mean, for example, that everybody in a ministry in which everybody has to raise their support is deliberately, intentionally, trying to marginalize people, but, nevertheless, the system is worse than the individuals in the system. And just by being a part of it, you’re participating in this… white people have got to learn how to have those kind of spectacles, is what I was trying to say, they have to be thinking about that…

Same thing happens inside churches… Very often, what it means to say, we want to have multiracial churches, we want everybody to become white — culturally white, act white, think white, make decisions like white people… without knowing we’re saying, why are you always protesting, why are you having a problem with, we’re open to everybody..

… [as] a white person in an urban setting, is that even though white people are not the majority, they’re still the dominant minority, that have vast amounts of social power… over the 23 years here, I’ve been forced to see, over and over again, I’m being insensitive, I’m being blind…

A couple people have said, “… all I want from you as a white man is not to be anything else.. I just want you to be surprising me; in other words, as a Christian white leader, I just want you to surprise me.. you know a little more about what it’s like not to be white, because most white people have no idea.” … all that I’m struggling for, is just to surprise non-white people a little bit, that I would even notice that kind of thing.. that’s how bad it is.



27 responses to “Tim Keller explains the systemic problem of white privilege”

  1. facebook_coachjefflee Avatar

    Great article. Love the thinking.

  2. Great post. Thanks DJ!

  3. Paul Chou Avatar
    Paul Chou

    I worked at Bell Labs in the 70’s. We recognized that for the future of Bell Labs and the employees, we started to talk about the evilness of the system, the so-called “Old Boy’s Network” – the social power or the “the system” that was among the white managers. For today, the Asians need to know how to build such a network and together we need to “integrate such networks by being “giving each other little surprise” as Tim is committed to do for other people groups. Learn how to build and how to integrate by “little surprise” to each other…learn how to appreciate the difference and learn how to create the synergy among us.

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