Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Invisible Knapsack

I hope by now that you have encountered, heard about, come across--somewhere in your life--the concept of the "invisible knapsack of white privilege," an idea largely attributed to Peggy McIntosh, aimed at revealing the systems of social privileges afforded to whites, in order to help white folks successfully enter the conversation on race and racism.

The invisible knapsack includes, for example:
- "I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time."
- "I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed."
- "I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race."

Reading the news online this morning, it appears that we should add "I can rest assured that, when I enter my own home, my neighbors and police officers will not assume that I am a robber or vandal." The NY Times reports that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor of African American history and one of this nation's preeminent Black scholars, was arrested at his own home when a white woman called the police to report a burglary in progress. When Gates protested, the police officer interpreted Gates' indignation as "disorderly conduct" and arrested him.

Thinking again about the invisible knapsack as I read the article this morning, and thinking about our Sacred Conversation on Race in the UCC, prompted me to realize that I've never seen an examination of the invisible knapsack carried by white churches. There are churches studying McIntosh's knapsack idea...but that's not what I mean. Here's my line of thought: the invisible knapsack unpacks systemic white racism >> the church is a social institution or system >> white churches participate in, benefit from, contribute to the invisible knapsack of white privilege.

So what are we doing, as an institution, to identify the systemic privileges that are specific to the white church? Privileges, for example, such as:
- We can easily provide illustrated bibles to our children that convey a message that whiteness prevailed among the people of biblical times. (Well, I can't--my children are African American, and racially diverse illustrated bibles are harder to come by--but white churches can do so for predominately white children's education programs.)
- We can assume that it is normative to not talk about race in the context of one's faith.
- We do not have to examine, if we do not choose to do so, Christianity's overt and covert roles in supporting and advancing racialized systems, including slavery (although the church's support of racialized systems is not just something of the past).

Surely the list of privileges carried in the white church's invisible knapsack goes on and on! What would you add?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not necessarily adding anything else from the backpack, but I agree wholeheartedly that is this structure that allows us to avoid having the conversation about race in our churches if we have no people of color. I am excited about some of the tools we have found through Penn Central and the Sacred Conversation on Race team that allow us to approach the conversation even if we are an all-white congregation.