Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rant Take 2: The Problem with White Male Privilege

So, I’m kind of on an angsty Feminist-Hulk-smash kick at the moment. I’m not trying to be, y’all. Buy you white dudes just keep screwing it up. Seriously. I can’t describe it any other way. I love white guys. I’ve almost married white guys. But sometimes, I really just want to SMASH WHITE PATRIARCHY OMG!
What’s gotten underneath my skin this time?

THIS article. And the fact that it was published and no one in the whole writing-editing-publishing process saw any reason that the analogy being used might be…questionable. Insensitive. Down-right ignorant.

The 3/5th Compromise, for those of you who slept through high school history, was the compromise between Northern and Southern states about how to “count” the slave population in Southern states in regards to assigning representatives to the Congressional House. If the Southern states could count the entire population of slaves, they would then outnumber the Northern states in influence. So, the Northern states argued that since slaves couldn’t vote, they shouldn’t be counted as a whole person.
Think about that, for a moment, shall we.

According to the law, you aren’t a whole person. You are only 3/5th a person. You, by legal definition, are a sub-person.[i]

 So the Compromise was that 3/5ths the slave population would be counted. For every 5 slaves, three “people” were counted as part of the population.

This is some great compromise that we are supposed to lift up in history? This is supposed to be a shining example of democracy at work?

We’re just going to gloss over the fact that HUMAN BEINGS were being counted as only 3/5ths a person? We’re not going to touch that this “compromise” existed so that Southerners could still own slaves and Northerners didn’t have to worry about the increasing population of enslaved persons would overthrow their white, male grip on American politics.

But it was 1787.And he’s not trying to talk history, he’s trying to make this great point about compromise.
It pains me to claim it, but James Wagner is one of my folk – he’s a Presbyterian (and his daughter is a Presbyterian pastor!). And, when I’ve met the man I’ve liked him. But what this article smack of is that complete oblivion to privilege and to the harm/power of words that is so much a part of white male privilege.
Did President Wagner not think that this example of compromise might be offensive to the great-grandchildren of freed slaves, slaves who weren’t a whole person under the law? Did he not think that such a complex and painful political struggle might be a poor example of how we can come to agreement? Did he not notice that fundamental to the compromise was the assertion that entire group of people, based solely on their skin color, were deemed – under the law – as less than human?
Not to mention the irony of this week’s lectionary text (Luke 4: 1-13), in which Jesus is tempted – and one of those temptations is to compromise faithfulness to God for power and authority (4:5-8).
Is that unholy compromise exactly what the 3/5th Agreement embodies? Compromising faithfulness (in this case Galatians 3:28 and Romans 10:12) which declares that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male or female? Is this not compromising the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) which reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all our strength AND love our neighbors as ourselves?
This is why I am constantly irritated by patriarchy. This is the problem of privilege. It is so utterly blind to the unholy reality that surrounds itself. [ii] There is no (discernible) self-testing of whether or not one is living, speaking, writing in such a way that we are manifesting the Great Commandment (or the Shema for all you Hebrew Bible scholars).
President Wagner should know better. But he doesn’t. And, as I suspect no one will make a forceful call for his resignation, he won’t have to know better. And that is problem. A huge, white, male privilege problem.
For all our blindness, Lord, have mercy.  

[i] There is the argument that those proposing the law did not actually consider slaves to be less than human, but merely saw this as a legal proviso. But, these same men also allowed an entire ethic group of people to be in bondage simply because they had dark skin. Just sayin’

[ii] Let me be clear here: I know that I too have blind spots because of my white, middle-class privilege; it is precisely because we ARE blind that our privilege is so dangerous. We assume all people experience our level of agency in society, and therefore we don’t stop to look deeper are socio-cultural-political situations.


  1. I left a question on therapeutic preaching at RevGals which I hope you'll see.

    But I wanted to comment on this, if only to say that I believe that this article reflected something other than the genuine Jim Wagner. Jim and his family were members of my home church, the church from which I was ordained 1.5 years ago. It's a strong social justice church committed to the diverse community in which it is located; in fact, for the past year or two, one of its programs has been a series of honest conversations on race. It's difficult to believe that anyone could emerge from that church without a sensitivity to issues of race at any time since the 60s, when it was a leader in housing integration in our city.

    I have no explanation for Jim's use of the 3/5 compromise as an example of anything other than racist politics at its worst. I would like to think that either someone else wrote the offending paragraphs or that, whoever wrote them did not understand the history being cited. Of course, they're indefensible no matter who wrote them or what he or she did or didn't understand. And Jim is responsible for what appears under his name.

    It may be that the best that can be said here is that Jim Wagner is a good guy who made a terrible mistake. And that we all need to know our history before we try to use its more egregious moments as support for something positive.