Can We Use the “A” Word, Instead?

In the current climate of social upheaval and change (a large part of which surrounds issues of race), I have noted a reactionary disconnect between what some are saying and what others are hearing. It’s as if those on each side are trying to build bridges to the other side of a chasm which separates them. Imagine each group trying to connect with (or hear the words of) the other group from opposite banks of a river. The problem is that they’ve begun their effort from different places, sometimes miles apart. Even in cases where they’ve gotten close enough to those on the other side to hear them, it’s as if there’s a kind of filter between the two that seems to corrupt the messages being heard from those on the far bank.

Maybe a simple two-column chart will help illustrate:

WHAT’S SAID: Black lives matter. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: Why are black lives more important than other lives?

WHAT’S SAID: Systemic racism in America. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: America is not (as a whole) a racist system or nation.

WHAT’S SAID: White privilege. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: I am white but have not led a privileged life. To say I’ve enjoyed “white privilege” means you don’t know me. To assumed I’ve led a privileged life is, in fact a racist statement.

Words carry meaning, and I enjoy the fact that some words carry arcane meanings. I’ve got nothing against having a broad and picturesque vocabulary. But when it comes to communications among large(-r) groups of people, we must pay attention to common meanings and popularly held interpretations. That’s why I’d like to offer a suggestion for the last one on the list, “white privilege”.

White privilege is a real thing, but in only one (perhaps two) sense(s) of the word “privilege”. Because the words “privilege” and “privileged” carry commonly-understood meanings, the description is understandably rejected by most white people, since most white people (I believe) have not lived privileged lives in the sense of not working hard or being given many things they didn’t earn. No wonder there’s an authentic rejection and misunderstanding of the term.

What if we were to use the word “advantage” instead of “privilege”? I don’t think I’ve lived a privileged life, but I can and do recognize that I have enjoyed certain advantages as a white person.

There are two worries I have about this suggestion: 1. That it may not be acceptable to my non-white friends who have become used to using the term “white privilege”. They may see this as softening the reality of the situation. 2. That the term may be co-opted by racist persons who want to corrupt what I’m offering to imply something that is genetic or biologically factual – that white persons do have an actual, inborn advantage over other races. This has been done in the past, and there is much factual information that shows how white people have said things such as “black are physically superior, and white people are intellectually and/or socially superior”.

So… there’s my suggestion, and it comes with a question: Can we use the “A” word? Do you think that changing our discussion from “white privilege” to “white advantage” would help bridge the gaps in our speaking to and hearing from one another? I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

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Dr. Kevin Tully is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Waxahachie, Texas.

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