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Standing in place

A viral video about privilege isn’t loving toward anybody

Standing in place

A scene from the video (YouTube)

Loving your neighbor, and thus fulfilling the Great Commandment, requires the proper diagnosis. If your neighbor is hungry, give him food (James 2:15-16). If he is idle, admonish him (1 Thessalonians 5:14). If he is fainthearted, encourage him (5:14). If he is weak, help him (5:14). If he is doing good, commend him (2 Corinthians 12:11).

I rehearse these basics as a preface to discussing a four-minute viral video sent to me, which at first blush seems like love, until you question the diagnosis.

“Life of Privilege Explained in a $100 Race” will choke you up with tears. But caution: The late Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan rightly noted that the medium is not neutral; the medium itself plays a role in the message and shapes the message in subtle and powerful ways. Everything about this short production is calculated for a particular effect. This is not a controversial observation: Why else would the creator create if not to produce a desired effect?

At first blush the video’s message seems like love, until you question the diagnosis.

The morning after, if your abiding desire is to think Biblically and to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), you will ask yourself if the video has the proper diagnosis on two fronts: First, does it analyze the problem correctly? Second, does its widespread dissemination tend to heal or tend to exacerbate our nation’s societal problems?

The setting is a college foot race, in which students are lined up and offered a $100 bill to the winner. But before the signal to go, the instructor reveals that this race will proceed according to specific instructions, which he now begins to announce: “Take two steps forward if both your parents are still married.” (A winnowing begins, as a handful of students, notably dark-skinned ones, stay put.) “Take two steps forward if you grew up with a father figure at home.” (More fragmenting of the line after some take giant steps and others, mostly black, don’t budge.) “Take two steps forward if you never had to worry about your cell phone being turned off.” You get the drift.

At this point the instructor tells the white kids at the head of the group to turn around and look back at the starting line. He begins lecturing them: “Every statement I’ve made has nothing to do with anything any of you have done. … We all know these people up here have a better opportunity to win this hundred dollars. Does this mean these people back here can’t race? No. We would be foolish not to realize we’ve been given more opportunity. We don’t want to recognize that we’ve been given a head start. But the reality is we have. … Whoever wins this hundred dollars, I think it would be extremely foolish of you not to utilize that in learning more about somebody else’s story. Because the reality is, if this was a fair race … I guarantee you some of these black dudes would smoke all of you. And it’s only because you have this big head start that you’re possibly going to win this race called life. Nothing you’ve done has put you in the lead.”

But who is this man to say to any student that “nothing you’ve done has put you in the lead”? And who is he to judge anyone’s heart and assert, “We don’t want to recognize that we’ve been given a head start”? And what kind of divisive racism is it to say that some of the black students would “smoke all of you [white students]” if it were a fair race?

So the white students are made to feel guilty and ashamed. And the black students are made to feel forever the victim who cannot possibly be expected to do anything. And how, pray tell, does this love anybody well?

One commenter posts: “Take two steps forward if you grew up in a two-parent household. Take two steps backward if your parents fought every night. Take two steps forward if your father didn’t abandon you. Take two steps backward if he set forth unreasonable, unattainable, and demoralizing expectations.” Everyone has obstacles.

What I personally take from the video is that if you want your kids to flourish, work hard, save childbearing for marriage, and stay married.

Whether you’re black, white, or green.


  • Ed Schick
    Posted: Fri, 06/15/2018 09:41 am

    I agree we all can have many different kinds of inherent advantages and disadvantages in life.  All of life’s “races” are like that no matter who competes. The Bible tells us not to be arrogant if we are a “natural branch” with advantages because we can be pruned and an “unnatural branch” can be grafted into place (see the Apostle Paul’s illustration in Romans) “Unnatural branches” like we Gentiles and groups like immigrants can feel meager in what we start with.  But God looks for our stewardship of opportunity and humility of attitude. The result will be joy in reward not guilt if others don't run well.

    Posted: Fri, 06/15/2018 10:54 pm

    The leader of the exercise uses overly broad brushstrokes and could stand to be a bit more nuanced and precise in his language.  Of course, so do a lot of Christians when talking about various issues, and we all wish that the world would extend grace to them instead of seizing on one or two sentences.  So I think you protest a bit too much here, and in so doing, you are essentially proving the point that the exercise is trying to make.  

    You say, "who is he to judge anyone’s heart and assert, “We don’t want to recognize that we’ve been given a head start”?" But isn't that exactly what you're doing in this column--not wanting to recognize that people who have grown up in a middle or upper class home have been given a head start? So if you're doing it in this column, some of those kids probably were too.  

    As a white male who grew up in a middle class home, none of these discussions about white privilege or male privilege or class privilege have ever made me feel guilty or ashamed, as you imply that they must.  Instead they inspire me to want to push to strengthen our public schools and our labor laws and to fight hiring discrimination so that everyone at least has something much, much closer to equal opportunity that we currently have now.