4 minutes reading time (823 words)

White Privilege and Youth Ministry

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Galatians 3:28

U.S. Catholic magazine recently ran an article with Sister Helen Prejean in which she says to "check your white privilege." This got me thinking… are we having this conversation with our young people?

Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J., author of best sellers Deadman Walking and River of Fire, My Spiritual Journey, is a well-known advocate who speaks out against the death penalty, racism, and injustice towards the poor. She explains white privilege as "taking for granted that anybody, no matter what color they are, will be able to walk into a place and never be turned away because of the color of their skin. White privilege is also the assumption that if a person wants to get a job and they work hard, they'll succeed regardless of their background." It is an attitude, passed down from generations, that everyone is afforded the same chance in life. Sister Helen recalls that she has never been turned away or refused anything because she is white.

As a white female, I would have to agree with her. And then the "aha" moment comes… white skin color privilege is so a part of my personal story that I don't even recognize it. Sister Helen asks us to check our white privilege. Here are a few simple questions to assist you:

  • Are you ever asked to speak for all the people of your racial group?
  • If a traffic cop pulls you over or if the IRS audits your tax return, do you think this is because you are being singled out because of your race?
  • Can you buy blemish cover-up or bandages in "flesh" color and have them match your skin?
  • Can you turn on the television and see people of your race widely represented?

Let's be honest, the term "white privilege" may make white people defensive because we are not accustomed to being defined by our skin color. White people may also struggle with the label of "privilege" because we associate it with being rich or not having to ever struggle in life. This is simply not the case, as there are many white people who have worked very hard to earn what they have and there are also white people who live below the poverty line. However, we cannot deny our American history includes the horrible reality that people of color have faced systematic injustices. It was not that long ago that drinking fountains were designated for "whites" and for "blacks." Sister Helen shares that "people think that because slavery is over, racism in the United States has ended."

We know that the issues of racism and prejudice are still very much part of our national conversation. However, attitudes may be shifting with younger generations. Studies on Generation Z illustrate that young people do not see the same dividing racial boundaries in neighborhoods as did older Americans. Additionally, more younger Americans are identifying themselves as multiracial because their parents come from two different races. This is not to say that young people are color blind, but rather their understanding of race may be different than those from previous generations.

Which brings me back to my original question: Are we having conversations about race relations with our young people? Are young white teens afforded more opportunities today than teens of color? If so, what can we do to create a more just society?

Church should bring people together and provide a safe place for meaningful conversations. As Catholics, we believe that all are created in the image and likeness of God. We also believe that we as baptized followers of Christ, we are to uphold the principle of human dignity for all. This begins with recognizing our own (and the church's) sin of racism and prejudice.  In their Pastoral Letter on Racism (1979), the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote, "Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains. In large part it is only external appearances which have changed."

As ministry leaders among young people, we must ask the hard questions.  Do our youth ministries include and welcome young people of all races? What are we teaching our young people about tolerance and inclusion in the Body of Christ? What are our own personal attitudes about white privilege?

This past week we celebrated the great Martin Luther King, Jr. He once proclaimed that "nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." White privilege does exist, racism exists, prejudice exists, and they should not be invisible. Not talking about it and pretending it is not an issue will not make it go away.
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