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United Methodist video examines ‘white privilege’

The Rev. Marion Miller leads participants in Indianapolis in an exercise to help
white people understand a truth that may be invisible to them.
A UMNS photo by John Coleman.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

April 9, 2008

In a church fellowship hall, a long line of people are beginning to realize that many of them live with "an invisible, unearned advantage" based on the color of their skin.

They listen and respond as the Rev. Marion Miller, pastor at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, reads a list of commands in an exercise on “white privilege” in the United States.

"If you should need to move," she asks, "can you be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area you can afford and in which you would want to live? If this is true, take one step forward."

"If you can go shopping alone most of the time pretty well assured you will not be followed or harassed, take another step forward."

Leaders at the 2004 General Conference
in Pittsburgh hold hands during a service
of appreciation for African Americans
who stayed despite institutional racism within the Methodist Church. A UMNS
file photo by Mike DuBose.

"If you can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of your race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with your cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut your hair, take three steps forward."

By the end of the exercise, all of the white participants are steps ahead of the people of color in the line.

"Sensitizing white people to an invisible system of advantage is a healthy beginning in the journey," said Blenda Smith, conference lay leader of the Wyoming Annual (regional) Conference and a white board member of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

A different viewpoint

To help people in the journey, a DVD called "Truth and Wholeness: Replacing White Privilege With God's Promise" has been developed by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race and the denomination’s Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

"We pray that the DVD will bring understanding and insights to white people who live with an advantage that is truly invisible to them," Smith said. "People have no reason to change systemic, invisible circumstances until they actually come to see and accept their reality."

Barbara Isaacs, a white staff member of the Commission on Religion and Race, said many whites do not feel privileged.

"It is the truth of our everyday white lives that we fail to see," she said. "We do not understand the daily reality of friends and colleagues who are not white––how they are constantly treated differently by sites of economic, political and social power."

“We pray that the DVD will bring understanding and insights to white people who live with an advantage that is truly invisible to them.”
–Blenda Smith

The DVD will be given to every United Methodist annual conference delegation attending the 2008 General Conference meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, April 23-May 2. It also will be used during the April 29 morning worship service at the churchwide legislative assembly. Isaacs said conferences can burn a copy of the DVD for every church.

In addition, Isaacs and Smith are developing an accompanying study guide to be made available on both commissions' Web sites later this year. 

"The two agencies partnering on this is another example of the church's commitment to confront racism that is still being experienced today," said Erin Hawkins, top executive of the Commission on Religion and Race.

"I think this will be an important tool to help white leadership see the impact that privilege has on all people."

Fruit inspectors

"Truth and Wholeness" follows up on the Service of Repentance for the History of Racism in The United Methodist Church, held at the 2000 General Conference, and The Service of Appreciation For Those Who Stayed, held at the 2004 assembly.

Bishop Clarence Carr, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, accepted the corporate act of repentance from The United Methodist Church at the 2000 General Conference. "I am not going to be a judge, but I want you to know that we will be fruit inspectors," Carr said, suggesting that the church will be monitored on its efforts to change.

"The next logical step for the 2008 General Conference is for white people to begin understanding what 'white privilege' is and how it affects people of color and themselves," Smith said.

The 16-minute video features diverse interviews ranging from a teenager in Indianapolis to a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington.

When white people become truthful and share their feelings, "the healing process with the racial-ethnic persons and their communities will begin," said the Rev. Taka Ishii, New York Annual Conference.

Alice Glenn (right) embraces fellow delegate Angela Brown at the 2000
General Conference during a service
of repentance for racism. A UMNS
file photo by Mike DuBose.

Ishii, a board member of the Commission on Religion and Race, previewed the DVD during its board of directors meeting in March. The video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

"We've seen recently how different perspectives rooted in our personal experiences can affect the way we see the world, and how we live out our lives," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. "Race plays a key role.

"We hope this video will provide a way to reflect upon perceptions of privilege and lead beyond reflection to dialogue that builds new awareness about our everyday experiences in a multi-ethnic society," he said.

Sharing stories

"A powerful story in the DVD is when Dr. Sondra Wheeler shares her story about the African-American mother who has to school her newly licensed 16-year-old son about how polite he had better be to a policeman because she believes with good reason that just being an African-American boy behind the wheel of the car is enough to put him at risk," said the Rev. DeeDee Azhikakath, Desert Southwest Annual Conference.

A typical response by some white people was defensiveness, according to Smith.

"The sense of 'I have earned everything I have' is a common reaction by some white people who have worked hard to attain better lifestyles," Smith said. "However, that perception indicates a lack of understanding the effects of hundreds of years of history––be it African-American slavery or global colonialism by white people.

"When a society has a long history of invisible, unearned advantage, it is hard for people to suddenly accept a new reality."

More information is available at info@gcorr.org.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Mike Coppes: “When I faced up to my judgments ... it hurt, it just really hurt."

The Rev. Marion Miller: "Take a step forward or back depending on how the question affects you."

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