Making White Privilege Work for Good

Dear Joel,

I’ve been thinking this week about your recent post on the casting for Hellboy. For the reboot, handsome and not at all Asian actor Ed Skrein was originally slated for the role of Ben Daimio, a biracial Asian-white character. He gave it up to make space for an Asian actor to play the role instead, and it appears (as of Monday) that Daniel Dae Kim will star instead. (Kim left his work on CBS’s Hawaii Five-o due to pay disparity between the white and Asian actors on the show, so this is especially gratifying.) As you note, this is laudable and relatively easy for Skrein. He’s not giving up his livelihood, just this one role. And, frankly, it’s a smart move–he gets a pat on the back for being aware of racial privilege and doesn’t have to deal with the criticism that other actors who have donned yellowface–Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.

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Above, Daniel Dae Kim, on the set of Hawaii Five-o. 

Anyway, the real point of your post was that it’s easy for Skrein to do this because he’s a handsome white actor who’s going to have plenty of work ahead of him. How do those of us who have benefited, in terms of our employment, from our whiteness, at the expense of people of color, do the same?

To be clear, this is all of us. You can’t untangle capitalism and race in the US, because our system of capitalism was built upon the removal, genocide, and enslavement of people of color. We would have no US economy as we understand it today had the first hundreds of years of our history been determined, not merely shaped, by assaults on (and too often the destruction of) indigenous cultures and the the selling and buying of Africans and their descendants. That didn’t go away with slavery or even with the end of Jim Crow. By and large, unions preserved good jobs for whites. In 1945, we voted against a robust social welfare program and instead chose a system that links benefits to jobs, insuring that only those who had “good jobs” would be protected in sickness and old age; those jobs, of course, were (and still primarily are) for white people.

This isn’t hard to see, but it’s hard to fight, on an individual level. You can explain white privilege to “a broke white person,” but that doesn’t mean he’s going to enthusiastically give up his $7.25 job so that a person of color can work it instead and he can be unemployed.

White men out-earn black and Hispanic men and all groups of women

Above, data from the Pew Research Center highlights the wage gap between whites and people of color. Black men earn 73% of what white men earn, while Hispanic men earn just 69% of what white men earn. Black women earn 65% of what white men earn, while Hispanic women earn 58% of white men’s earnings. 

Which brings us to the central conflict: the difficulty recognizing and then acting on our own agency (We can do things to change the system.) in the context of a system that is very hard to change.

It’s a simple comparison, but I think of this kind of work kind of like caring for the environment: I must do what I can, but I also recognizing that doing all I can still won’t stop climate change. It’s up to me, but I can’t only act alone.

So, to get toward (if not to) an answer to the challenge you pose: As white people, we can do individual acts that work against a racist system–we have that power, and those acts will make a positive difference. We also have to act collectively.

What are some of the things you do to remedy this? Here are some of mine, not always executed perfectly:

I patronize businesses owned by people of color. If, for some reason, I need to use a ride share service, I choose Moovn, which is black-owned. If I’m looking for an artsy gift or a set of notecards for myself, I search for products crafted by artists of color. I give a lot of books as gifts, and I select books by and about people of color. When I need a realtor, auto mechanic, or piano teacher for my child, I ask around specifically for people of color. I choose to eat at restaurants owned by people of color.

You get the idea: get this white woman’s money flowing into the wallets of people of color.

Here’s another one: just as I seek out people of color for work, I seek to recommend people of color. For example, I serve on the editorial board of a major journal in my field. My main job is to suggest books for review and to locate reviewers for them. I work hard to identify books by scholars of color for review, and I locate reviewers of color to review books (and not just books about race or books by people of color). As much as possible, I make my top choice for a reviewer a person of color. Since a lot of academic work is done via networking, this brings more people of color into the journal’s network.

Depending where you are in life as a white person, you can do more. If you are part of a hiring committee,  implement a revised Rooney Rule, interviewing at least a few people of color for any job. (It turns out that if you interview just one member of a minority group, it doesn’t really increase the odds of hiring someone from that group. Instead, that single person sticks out to them as “strange”–1 woman among 9 men who were interviewed, 1 black man among 9 white ones–which doesn’t help.) Once people of color are seen as a part of a “normal” hiring pool, things start to change.

And, if you are white, take care of your colleagues of color. Ask them how you can help them advance. Protect their time. Advocate for them to take on leadership roles and limit their emotional labor. In institutions where most people are white, people of color are always doing work that white people cannot see, including the work of putting up with micoaggressions and white nonsense. Assume that they are working harder than you, because they probably are. Ask them straightforwardly how you can make their job more pleasant, more fulfilling, or easier. Ask to take an item off their to-do list. Ask them what they need to be more successful or happier at work, then find it and give it to them.

Beyond supporting your colleagues, work for a more just workplace. Make it the job of the white people there to address racism and structural inequality. You don’t even have to identify yourself as a person doing this work–in fact, it’s probably better than people come to see you (rather than you telling them) that you’re here to do this work. And here is the best part: because you are white, you are going to be more heard more easily by those white people higher up the food chain. You can exploit your whiteness here.

And, if you can do it, hand off paid work to people of color. Very often, we white people can. 

I’m interested in what our readers here suggest. White people: what do you do to insure the economic success of people of color, given the realities of our economic system? People of color: What do you need us white people to do more of?






Infamous Mennonites: Founder of the 1990s Largest White Supremacist Organization

Dear Joel,

The most recent issue of the Mennonite World Review includes an article by Rich Preheim addressing the Mennonite faith of Ben Klassen (b. 1918 and not be be confused with any other Ben Klassens out there), who founded the white supremacist Church of the Creator. The article is a nice introduction to Klassen, who was born in an Mennonite community present-day Ukraine. Facing a terrible famine, his family headed to Mexico, then to Saskatchewan when Klassen was a young child. He went on to have a successful career in real estate and as dabbled as an inventor.

And, along the way, he came to believe that Christianity was false because it was an extension of Judaism; an anti-Semite, he would never embrace Christianity. Additionally, he saw that, while white people would defend Christianity, Christianity would not defend whiteness–indeed, he saw it as too deferential to Jewish people and inclusive of nonwhites. Key Mennonite doctrines, such as the rejection of violence and loyalty to faith above state, drew more of his criticism. In the end, Mennonites were, like Jews and Roma, threatening white supremacy because of their rootlessness, though white ethnic Mennonites were not seen as racially inferior (or threatening) as Jews and Roma were.

And yet, though he rejected Christianity broadly and the Mennonite faith in particular, as Preheim explains, Klassen’s “Mennonite experiences were foundational to his development as a leading white supremacist.”

In 1973, Klassen founded the Church of the Creator (COTC), which isn’t a church at all but a racist movement; it is a religion in the sense that it provides a framework for understanding the world, but it explicitly rejects belief in the supernatural. The sum of the group’s theology is that whites are superior to nonwhites in all ways and that society should be organized for the good of whites. As point 3 in their statement of faith says, “WE BELIEVE that our Race is our Religion.”

Image result for against a rising tide ben klassen

Above, Klassen stands before a banner with the emblem of the Church of the Creator. Accoring to the Creativity Movement, which continues to use this flag, “The ‘W’ of our Emblem stands, of course, for the WHITE RACE, which we regard as the most precious treasure on the face of the earth. The Crown signifies our Aristocratic position in Nature’s scheme of things, indicating that we are the ELITE. The Halo indicates that we regard our race as being UNIQUE and SACRED above all other values.”

Klassen developed this line of white supremacy in books with titles like The White Man’s BibleNature’s Eternal Religion, This Planet is All Ours, and Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs: A History of the Church of the Creator During Its 10 Year Domicile in the State of North Carolina, Coordinated with Biographical Details During the Same Period, which, uh, sounds a lot like the full title of Martyrs Mirror. Klassen gave white supremacists the rallying crying Rahowa! (“racial holy war”), which was the title of another of his books. He was a prolific writer of white supremacy, though his ideas didn’t catch on immediately. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that his movement gained traction. During that time, COTC was linked to murders and attempted terrorist activity. This included the 1991 murder of Harold Mansfield Jr., an African American killed by a COTC leader in Florida.

Facing the reality of a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center over Mansfield’s murder, Klassen sold his rural compound to the William Pierce, the leader of National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, and author of The Turner Diaries, a fictionalized account of a race war–and the kind of thing that Timothy McVeigh liked to sell at gun shows.  Klassen then committed suicide. Like many white supremacists movements, COTC went several different directions after the founding leader’s death. (In general, white supremacists are pretty good at spinning paranoid fantasies and pretty terrible at leadership.) The most important descendent was the World Church of the Creator. That group fell apart after it was sued by a peace-loving TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation (“TE-TA-MA Represents The Family Unification of Mankind In All Aspects Of The Whole. We of Like Mind Join Harmoniously In Oneness, Knowing That There Is Only One Creator-Source….”) over a copyright dispute regarding the terms “Church of the Creator.” Soon, WCOTC’s leader was arrested for trying to arrange the assassination of a federal judge, and members, without changing their minds about the superiority of white people, pulled out of the endeavor. The sale of Klassen’s books was the main stream of revenue for the group, but a member in Montana who had access to $41,000 worth of books and other materials, turned them over to the Montana Human Rights Network, an anti-hate group, for a nominal fee, to negate them as a revenue source for white supremacist movements.

Still, the Creativity Movement, another variation on Klassen’s legacy, continues, and Klassen’s writing remains in circulation online.

So, how does Preheim conclude that Klassen’s Mennonite heritage matters, given that the movement he founded explicitly rejects Christianity? Preheim doesn’t answer the question directly, but I think we can make some guesses.

Klassen’s Mennonite connections enabled his survival during a period of starvation in Soviet Ukraine. It allowed him to escape to Mexico and then to Saskatchewan. If he hadn’t been Mennonite, he might not have survived starvation at all–and certainly not found his way to the Canadian prairie. It launched him to a small Mennonite college there, an experience that was important in his journey to rejecting religion. He understood the suffering of his Mennonite childhood as a result of white Mennonite’s failure to use force to defend their own interests against what Klassen imagined were powerful Jews with international influence. His experience with the Mennonite peace witness, in particular, disgusted him; his writing frequently uses violent language to call for whites to fight for their survival, to fight, fight, fight, because, otherwise, they face extinction. It’s not hard to imagine that Klassen’s family’s own fight for survival in the face of the Polvolzhye famine shaped a life-long obsession with survival. He was an avid anti-communist (oh, and a member of the Florida legislature for a bit, elected on an anti-busing/pro-Wallace platform), undoubtedly because of his family’s experience in the Soviet Union. These factors together don’t excuse his violent racism and anti-Semitism, but they might help us understand how what Mennonites so often see as the best parts of our faith–our peace witness, our willingness to suffer, our history of martyrdom–can also inspire violence.


PS. Have you read Ben Goosen’s bookChosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era?

PPS. Readers might notice that I include hardly any links in this piece. Though I read a lot of hate literature for my scholarly work, I prefer not to circulate it unless someone is really interested. If you’d like to see how white supremacists handle Klassen’s history–and specifically his Mennonite ancestry–please let me know.


What do Mennonite boys need to know?

Dear Joel,

I’ve shared here before that our oldest, 13, is one of two non-Mormon Boy Scouts in a troop organized through a LDS church.  Sometimes, it’s a little awkward, both the Boy Scout part and the Mormon part, but we’ve embraced the challenge of making this work.

Right now, members of the troop are working on their “Duty to God” badges. For the LDS members of the troop, this process is guided by a 100+ page book that outlines all the Bible and LDS-specific scriptures that the boys have to study and other things that the boys need to learn how to do–to serve in their church, to adhere to LDS dietary rules, etc.

Lots of religions have worked with the Boy Scouts of America to create a similar set of guidelines for children of their faith to earn their Duty to God badge. Not surprisingly, Mennonites haven’t. So, working with our local troop leaders, we’re compiling a list of things we want our child to know about religion broadly and the Mennonite faith in particular.

Image result for whoopie pie

Above, whoopie pies, which are obviously on our list of things every Mennonite child should know. 

I’m interested in hearing from others what THEY think are foundational texts, histories to know, practices to keep, etc. to understand Mennonite faith and that are understandable to a history-loving 13 year old.

Thanks for any help,


Why conservative Christian theology prohibits deporting Dreamers

Dear Joel,

There are a million reasons why deporting young adults who entered the US as children without proper documentation is a terrible idea. It sends people into the shadows of society. It’s going to cost a ton, both in terms of the cost of deporting and the loss of these people to the US. It wastes the talents of some of America’s best people. It’s cruel. It’s racist (of course–this is why it exists at all).

But here is another reason:

If you think that the parents of these young people committed a crime by bringing them here (and you aren’t connecting undocumented immigration with US foreign policy or an economic system that relies upon undocumented labor), you are punishing those children for the crimes of their parents.

If you are a conservative Christian, you should support undocumented children because Jesus was an immigrant child. And because welcoming the stranger is the story of faith. It is the most important rule ordering our relationships to other people in the entire Bible.

Image result for undocumented children

Above, Trump supporters, who probably consider themselves good Christians, hold a sign saying “Deport and Build the Wall.” The logic here is that we can punish children for their parents’ actions. You can argue that, I suppose, but it’s antithetical to Protestantism’s primary way of understanding the death of Christ. 

But, hey, if you missed that somewhere in your Christian formation, or maybe all you understand about Christianity is substitutionary atonement, perhaps this will make sense: God doesn’t punish people for the sins of their parents (It’s CENTRAL to the idea of substitutionary atonement–you stand alone before God.). And the US government doesn’t punish people for the crimes of their parents.



No compromise on DACA–or the wall

Dear Joel,

You asked earlier this week what Democrats would be willing to trade to insure that the Trump administration would not deport young people who came to the US as children without the benefits of legal immigration.


Yes, politics is the art of compromise, and I think those in Washington should do more of it. I think that well-intentioned, well-informed, caring people can genuinely disagree about how we define a problem, how we measure it, where we should place it in our national priorities, and how (or even if) we should resolve it. Most problems have more than one solution, and we know at least a few things that work toward addressing our hardest problems–racism, poverty, climate change.

Against those intractable problems, this wall isn’t terrible. I mean, it’s stupid and expensive and unnecessary, since the problem of mass illegal border crossings just isn’t happening, and it’s disruptive to those who live on the border, including the wildlife. Oh, and it will require a massive land grab that I hope prompts the Lone Star state to threaten a Texit. And, yes, it’s racist, which is the only reason it was even suggested.

But all of those are reasons to think that the border wall isn’t going to happen anyway. Most Americans oppose it. Most Texans don’t want it.  But, as November taught us, the majority doesn’t rule in our political system. What really matters is whether members of Congress can find the gumption to vote against this wall.

I think we can help them.

I think we can fight the wall and win on purely practical grounds. Texas needs help right now. Florida is about to need our help. (Yes, Puerto Rico too–and even more, but the people who live there aren’t white Republican voters who have the power to stop the wall.) Every dollar on a border wall is a dollar taken away from a person now displaced by hurricanes. Republican Senators Cornyn, Cruz, and Rubio, Florida’s 16 Republican Representatives (out of a total of 27), and Texas’s 26 Republican Representatives (out of 36) need to understand that any vote for a border wall is a vote against help for hurricane clean up and rebuilding. No member of Congress who lives on the border supports the wall, and they need to understand, from their own constituents, that dollars for the wall will hurt their home states. They need to hear it all the time, and they need to remind their friends in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama that, next time, it could be them up to their armpits in sewage and snakes.

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Above, a view of Hurricane Irma.

If it feels mean to trade hurricane relief for Dreamers, please trust that I’m not trying to withhold help for those whose lives have been upended by climate change. I’m trying to make sure that the wall doesn’t get built, Dreamers don’t get deported, and help is provided for those hit by hurricanes. We can do all of them because, well, call me dopey, but we’re America.


Dear Christians: Donald Trump is discrediting your witness

Dear Rebecca:


Rod Dreher is, as you’d expect, largely on board with The Nashville Statement, with some caveats. But he acknowledges it’s a disaster among young people, and you probably won’t be surprised to find out why.

An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

Indeed. My very first reaction to the statement — despite Russell Moore’s involvement — was that I wasn’t very much inclined to take moral instruction from people who supported Donald Trump for president.

The main defense of The Nashville Statement has been that it constitutes a rather orthodox expression of Christian thought on homosexuality, historically, and that while the culture has moved on, the Essential Truth of God has not.

Fair enough. But here’s the funny thing about your witness: People want to make sure that you’re consistent in it. That you’re not a hypocrite. Otherwise, they’re less inclined to believe you when you insist on orthodoxy.

So if you disdain sexual sin except when it occurs by a powerful man courting your vote and willing to pander to you, welp, that sure makes your values look terribly convenient. In short: An evangelical movement that hadn’t tied itself to Trump might’ve had more credibility with The Nashville Statement than it did.

Me? I don’t care much for the orthodox Christian view of things either way. What I see in my life, and among my friends, makes a mockery of the idea that such loving relationships are disordered. Shit, man, we’re all disordered.

But I’ve tried to respect that people with orthodox views on the topic really believe that’s what God requires of them, and they’ve got — at the very least — quite a bunch of tradition backing them up on the matter. That same tradition, though, would’ve cast Donald Trump out of polite society long ago. That’s not what happened. Which means The Nashville Statement has been accorded more or less precisely the level of respect that’s deserved.

What are we willing to trade for DACA?

Dear Rebecca:

I take it as a given that — following Donald Trump’s DACA announcement — we’d both like to see Congress pass a law giving the so-called “Dreamers” a chance to stay in the U.S. legally and even create a pathway to citizenship for them.

So. What are we willing to give up?

Republicans control Congress, after all. Not all Republicans are immigration hardliners — lots, with the business community, love them all the cheap labor that immigration, legal and otherwise provides. But it remains the case that a unified GOP is probably going to want to pass a bill that lets them tell their constituents: “See! We made the country safer!” Just giving the Dreamers a legal pathway to stay isn’t going to get the job done. Giving the GOP a win might.

So I say: Give them the wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Trump’s wall is stupid. Probably ineffective. Mexico certainly won’t pay for it. And it goes against everything we’ve been taught about our country being a hope for people around the world who needs hope.

I also think most Republicans recognize that failing to come up with a solution on DACA will be a disaster — condemning people who are here to a lawless grey zone, at best, or requiring their deportation to “home” countries they don’t know at worst. That’s why President Trump, for all his anti-immigrant bravado, punted the issue back to Congress.

Still, I don’t trust the GOP simply to do the right thing. Do you?

So. A compromise of sorts will be probably needed. One that lets them look tough on immigration. Maybe it’s increased funding for ICE, or reduced numbers of legal immigrants. Of all the options on the table, building a wall seems like it might be the least bad.

There’s going to be a temptation among Democrats to hold out. And certainly, nothing should be conceded before both sides get to the negotiating table. There’s also no reason to give away the store. But if we truly believe that anything but legal status for the Dreamers amounts to a disaster — and I do — then we probably have to be willing to compromise, to not let perfect be the enemy of accomplishing something good. That means we’ll have to give up something we’d rather not give up. In politics, this is how it often works.

So. What are we willing to give up? There are real lives depending on the answer.

Sincerely, Joel