By Ervin Stutzman
For the last several months, I’ve been writing about the pastor’s use of power. This month I’m continuing that series, but in a different vein. I will reflect on a form of power that is very real, but too seldom acknowledged in columns like this one. That is the power of white privilege.
As a white man, I have access to power that is not available to people of color in the same way. I’m confident that people of color already know this, but I’m saying it here to publically acknowledge that I know it too.
The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by a neighborhood watcher in alleged self-defense has sparked a national reaction and a debate about the role of race in the prosecution of such acts. Although I care deeply about those questions of public policy, I care even more about the way Mennonite Church USA understands and works with racial differences in our church. God calls us to show a better alternative than the dominant culture. Unless we are able to model an alternative community governed by God’s love, our public witness will ring hollow.
In my most recent blog, I reflected on one of the privileges I experience which is denied many people of color in our society. That is, I have the freedom of walking down the street in the majority of neighborhoods in this country without being followed or suspected of ulterior motives. In my blog, I give a number of examples where people of a different race and color within Mennonite Church USA were denied that privilege.
My white privilege reaches into a majority of churches in Mennonite Church USA, as well as the hallways of our institutions. I can visit most of these churches or institutions anywhere in this country, and no one automatically assumes that I may be a guest rather than at home; no one suspects that I must be an outsider because of my color or my accent; no one wonders whether or not I really belong in Mennonite Church USA.
Most people of color, even ordained pastors in our churches, do not enjoy these simple privileges with me as a white man. Consider, for example, the following situations which I experienced first-hand or were shared with me by the persons involved:
An African American attended a large public celebration, the commissioning of a leader for a significant leadership role in Mennonite Church USA. Afterward a white gentleman came up to him and called him by name, he said: “I’m so glad to see that you’re making a place for yourself in our church. I no longer think of you as being black, I just think of you as a Mennonite.” Although this was meant to be a compliment, I wonder why this black man couldn’t be viewed as black AND Mennonite, rather than as one OR the other.
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In the midst of a group discussion, a young white woman commented, “I married a Mennonite, but my sister married an African American.” Just like in the above example, her comment made me wonder why she thought of Mennonite as a separate category from African American.
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An African was strolling down the wide hallway at one of our Mennonite Church USA biennial conventions. Someone asked him if he needed assistance with anything. “No,” he replied. He was very familiar with the setting, having attended such conventions for more than twenty years. Apparently the would-be helper couldn’t readily imagine that my friend could be both African and thoroughly familiar with the convention setting.
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An African American told me along with a group of Mennonites gathered in Phoenix that in the same way that undocumented immigrants face discrimination in Arizona, African Americans often face discrimination in the life of Mennonite Church USA
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I trust that these are sufficient examples to illustrate the point: white privilege and an attitude of superiority deeply influence our interactions not only in public society, but in our church as well. My own lack of awareness of these dynamics has too often, I fear, led me to unintentionally make statements or take actions that were demeaning to people of other racial/ethnic groups.
I pledge my support to the steps that our church is taking to change this reality. This short reflection represents one of my own commitments; to own up to the power and privilege I receive by being white, and to find ways to bring a better balance of power to our church. In keeping with the Mennonite Church USA priority of “Undoing Racism and Advancing Intercultural Transformation,” I support the efforts of the Racial Healing Task Group, the training events offered by Iris de Leon-Hartshorn, director of Transformative Peacemaking, and the Damascus Road Anti-racism training process.
In my next Equipping column I will explore steps that can be taken by pastors/leaders to move toward transformative action, in light of the realities I have named above.
I am grateful for the many racial/ethnic men and women who serve as pastors/leaders in Mennonite Church USA. By God’s grace, together we can build a better society and a better church. I will lend my heart and hands to help build a missional community in which power readily extends not just to people who look like me, but to people of every ethnicity or color created by a loving God. I invite you to join me in that commitment.