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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.

Comments

  • 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.

  • ALEXANDER WAGNER
    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.  

  • Rudy49
    Posted: Sun, 06/24/2018 01:29 pm

    Mr. Wagner,

    The point of the video is, I think, about racial privilege. Only people of color are behind and only white folk are ahead. If the video were truly only about privilege then there would some people of color in the lead and some white folk still on starting line.

    Yes, the concept of privilege exists. But this video is propaganda; its goal is an emotional response rather than a rationale response.

  • interpretermom
    Posted: Mon, 06/25/2018 02:30 pm

    I agree with the conclusion of Mrs. Seu Peterson, "that if you want your kids to flourish, work hard, save childbearing for marriage, and stay married."  I participated in several of these "racial" types of exercises through various organization throughout high school and college.  I was told all about my "white privilege" and how it "gave me a leg up" in society.  However, I quickly discovered that no matter how "privileged" people said I was, nothing was being handed to me.  I too grew up without an involved father.  My mother's income didn't budge above the poverty line.  I qualified for "reduced" lunches and my grandmother moved in with us to help out.  I worked three jobs, seven days a week (and took a full course load) -to put myself through college.  In the end, it all came down to discipline.  I worked hard, I waited until I was married before bearing children and I am still married eighteen years later.  It was my faith in Christ and my willingness to work that gave me the "privilege" to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

  • E Cole
    Posted: Sat, 06/30/2018 09:44 pm

    Deciding to make the world better for our kids by doing the right things gives us and them no guarantees, and it gives us no excuse for ignoring the sorrow around us. It is folly to pretend there is a level playing field, but on whatever side of the equation we find ourselves we can work to make this world better. Perhaps we should focus on doing that, rather than spending our time trying to justify a lack of compassion. Most of us have no idea what it is like growing up black in America and many have no clue what it is like to live in real poverty. So what if the video is imperfect? It is only the grace of God that kept us from being born on the other side of the wall, or in a place of hopelessness - it is time we stop pretending that we deserve all the good things we have and those other people don't. It is just mean. 

     

     

  • Vista48
    Posted: Sun, 07/01/2018 06:50 pm

    One could make the argument that all of the government programs that have nearly bankrupted us to "help" have done more harm than good. The government does charity as badly as it does everything else. 

  • Narissara
    Posted: Sun, 07/01/2018 08:19 pm

    I heard no mention of the riches we have in Christ in the video.  The whole point seems to be that some individuals can’t help the circumstances they were born into while others can, when the fact of the matter is, we’re all helpless in God’s economy.  The so-called privileged need to be ministered to differently but with the same respect and sensitivity as the less fortunate, not by lecturing and calling them fools. 

    God is well aware of our need for money to get along in this world.  There are several individuals identified in Scripture whom He blessed with wealth . . . for starters, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Esau (a very self-centered set of twins, both of whom God ultimately used for His glory). But He never promises that wealth or privilege guarantees we won’t have trouble in this life.  What He does say is that our comfortable lives could crumbling down in the blink of an eye.  (Proverbs 23:4-5; Luke 12:20). He tells us to set our minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)  I heard none of that in the video, and if these young people never heard it on or off camera, I can’t help but wonder how many of the underprivileged left feeling like they had been given a backhanded affirmation of sorts and wondering what God has to offer that the world hasn’t already made them painfully aware of.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Sun, 07/01/2018 08:47 pm

    I am a senior Christian and have seen many younger (I am talking in their 30's) Christians posting this video and "liking" it.  Some are leaders in the arena of youth ministries.  This really concerns me.  They are bright and sincere individuals but are swayed by the common mantra of being shamed because of "privilege".  They have failed to recognize how this insults the LORD who has blessed many generations because of faithfulness and obedience to Him despite color or race.  Man perverts God's order, trying to produce benevolence through guilt.  God continues to call His own to right living which leads to loving our neighbors well.

  • Hans's picture
    Hans
    Posted: Tue, 07/03/2018 10:46 am

    I literally have no idea why anyone would feel "shamed" by recognizing their privilege. If anything, recognizing our privileges ought to make us grateful and compassionate. Strangely, it seems to be white American middle class evangelicals who are the most obsessed with thinking that they earned whatever they have by their own virtue. I'm not really sure where the gospel fits in there.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Mon, 07/02/2018 04:02 pm

    I believe there are substantial elements of truth in the video. In terms of worldly success, it is indisputable that some of us have advantages (is that a bit less pejorative than "privileges"?) that others don't, though the advantages/disadvantages are far more nuanced and complex than the video lets on. 

    On the other hand, did Jesus not warn us about envy? Is the book of Proverbs not full of warnings about the dangers of life taken over by the pursuit of wealth? Maybe one of the dangers of living in a land where lifestyles are subsidized by massive amounts of federal debt is that we all tend to begin the believe the lie and chase, without so much as a second though, after things we've been duly warned about chasing after. If we did not envy so profoundly, I imagine about 90% of this discussion of privilege would drift away in a vapor.

    Suppose, hypothetically, that we could raise/lower everyone to the same level of privilege. What then? Would Jesus' warning about gaining the world and forfeiting our souls suddenly cease to matter?

  • KeithT
    Posted: Tue, 07/03/2018 03:34 am

    Mrs. Peterson,

    Normally I appreciate your insights.  In this case, I think you missed the mark.  Who is this man ... you ask.  Do you not then do the same? 

    He says "nothing you've done ..."  Is he speaking of their whole lives or just the event at hand?  Contextually, I think the event at hand is the more likely answer.

    You say he is judging their hearts.  Perhaps he is speaking instead from his observations of the immediate reflexive protestations that so many white (including me) people make when any hint of a suggestion that we have some comparative advantages compared to African Americans.  To my shame, not only have I done it but seem to have a hard time not doing it.  I've also observed such protestations in far more virulent forms in other "white" Americans.

    I would say that his comment that "some of the black students would 'smoke all of you ..." is not only an unfortunate distraction, it reveals some stereotypes.

    You declare that "... the white students are made to feel guilty and ashamed."  How do you know that?  Perhaps they felt humbled and moved to compassion.  Perhaps they were appreciative that someone finally gave them a tool whereby they could understand the idea of white privilege.  

    To think that this exercise MADE the black students "to forever feel the victim" may be your most mistaken assertion.  I think it would be very difficult to find a black college student in the USA who has not ALREADY been a victim of racism or personally known someone who was.  They did not need this exercise to learn this.  

    "Everyone has obstacles."  Of course everyone does.  But please, please tell me you don't think all obstacles are created or perpetrated equally.

    I agree with your personal take away, but what does that have to do with the point the video?  It is almost like saying the proper take away from the parable of the seeds is to sow organic and never GMO.  The exercise wasn't a lesson in parenting.  It was an attempt to help people see the impact of racism and then seek a godly way to respond to it and the people who are hurt by it.

    I think that one reason many white Americans find this concept of "white privilege" is that from the time we realize we are in some kind of race, we generally look only at the people in front of us.  From such a position, we reasonably conclude we are not advantaged, they - the people in front of us - are.  What we don't commonly do is look behind us and thereby learn that we have advantages over other people, whatever the advantages may be.  So we shouldn't be shocked and needn't protest when we find that it exists.  Instead, once awakened to the reality of it, perhaps we can seek ways to apply Paul's admonition to the Philippians to ",,. in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."   (Ph 2:3b-4)

     

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sat, 07/07/2018 07:09 am

    Have read the article and the comments.  What amazes me is that we all (most of us) seem to arrive at the same definition of success.  In a race for material success there are certain factors that seem to advance some over others.  They are not racial.  They are not based on skin color.  According to the exercise they seem to be based on the moral choices of previous generations. So the present generation must make good moral choices to advance the next generation and thereby achieve success.  You can be very poor and be a success. You can be very rich and be an almost complete failure.