Wyt(sma) Privilege: a ★★★★★ book review

Recently a friend and mentor, who is a person of color, posted on social media of a recent invitation he had to explain white privilege. To white people.  My friend is a justice advocate, an activist, and well-known Christian leader. He declined the invitation to write about something he doesn’t have. He decided instead to spend his creative energy supporting leaders of color instead of educating us white folk.

4482But Ken Wytsma, on the other hand, is uniquely gifted and qualified to describe white privilege. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he lectures in philosophy), an author of several quality Christian books, a father of four, and founder of the Justice Conference. He is also pretty darn pasty white. He was asked by Helen Lee at IVP to write a book on White Privilege that would help bridge the gap between those on the forefront of race relations and us white evangelicals who are only beginning to awaken to our racist history (3). In response to both her request and a couple of recent examples of racial bias (in the media, and against folks he knew personally), he wrote The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Wytsma probes the reality of privilege and race, theology and justice and the responsibility of the privileged.

In Part 1, Wytsma reviews the history of race and racial attitudes in America. He describes immigration policies which favored white Europeans, the history of racism in European thought, slavery and Jim Crow, law enforcement practices (e.g. how the War on Drugs disproportionately attacked communities of color), and how urban development has reinforced modern segregation.  He offers a pretty solid analysis of America’s racial story—how we got here and how people of color still are affected by ongoing systemic injustice.

Part 2 brings this American story into conversation with our theology and the values of the Kingdom of God. Wytsma challenges the church’s silence about race and the status quo and calls us to more prophetic engagement (94).  He describes how justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus and his cross, and he challenges our transactional and individualized view on faith and spirituality (and the ways privilege plays into it).

In Part 3, Wytsma discusses how white Christians can become more aware of their implicit racial biases, make space for diversity in sharing power and laying down our privilege. This involves intentionally listening and making space for the other, lamenting our troubled history, confessing, and beginning the hard work of dismantling privilege.

This is the fourth book I’ve read from Wytsma and thus far, I think this is, without a doubt, his best book. He discusses the issues of race without making himself the ‘expert’ and without offering pat answers to tough questions. Wytsma gives space for the complexity of race and privilege:

Everyone wants to think they have a good understanding of race. We often treat it like a yes-or-no category. Are you a racist?  No. Therefore, are you good with race? Yes. The problem is, it’s not a yes-or-no category but something with a hundred layers of nuance. . . . As a white man writing a book on privilege, I’ve had to admit from the beginning that my understanding and knowledge of racism end when conversation turns to the firsthand experiences of people of color. (132-33).

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of how I benefited from privilege and all the ways that communities of color were affected by institutionalized racial bias and ongoing systemic injustice. I’m still learning, mostly because I have friendships with people of color that have opened my eyes to some things I may not have otherwise seen. But I have other friends and family which are unaware of the dynamics of privilege and race (either through willful ignorance or because their social circles are almost entirely white). Privilege is at play in American race relations. Opportunities that have been afforded us white guys have not historically, and are not, even now, extended to people of color. We can’t dismantle privilege if we aren’t able to name how it has penetrated our culture and the church. Wytsma does a wonderful job confronting our troubled history and faulty theological assumptions.

This is a short book (only about two hundred pages) so therefore unable to say everything that needs to be said about race and privilege. Wytsma addresses dynamics between whites and blacks most directly, and touches on the Native American/ colonial experience (with a nod toward the late Richard Twiss). He deals with how white privilege affects other minorities more tangentially (i.e. the experiences Latinos and Asians are not in sharp focus here). This isn’t a criticism so much as naming the limits of what Wytsma is able to accomplish through this book. I’d also note that this book is more conceptual than practical, aimed at enlarging our understanding of racial dynamics more than providing a road map of what to do about it.

Everybody I know values diversity and multi-culturalism until it costs something. We love when minorities come to our (mostly white) church, but often we demand minorities change and conform to our way before they really belong. Dismantling Privilege involves real partnership, listening and sharing of power.  It means listening to and sharing in the burdens of those who have suffered discrimination and shame. It means to change. I recommend Wytsma’s book for anyone interested in moving beyond how the dynamics of racism affects us, to effecting real change. All royalties from this book go to The Voices Project, an organization working to empower voices of color.  I give this book Five stars ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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