Invisible Famine and the Whiteness Project

About a year ago I published a post here called The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It has become one of my most popular posts. The article discusses my thoughts on discovering that most Americans are unaware that there is a famine in the parable of the prodigal son.  When you ask Russians what happens in the tale of the Prodigal Son you get a different result. Russians have strong recent memories of the horrors of the second world war in which thousands died of starvation and exposure. Famine is part of their cultural experience and understanding. This illustration from a blog called The Gospel Project makes it clear:

The American hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
The Russian hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.

My reason for pointing this out, however, is not theological. The point is that human beings find it hard to understand problems with which we are not personally acquainted.  As I wrote in my original article:

I did not remember the famine. Like an optical illusion that reveals the existence of a vision void on the retina, this study made me aware that I have blind spots.  I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but it is clear that suffering that I have not experienced personally is not fully real to me.   I can read a story and not even notice that it is there.   I can relate to the pain of your divorce, because I’ve had a break up.  I can grieve with you because I have suffered loss, but when you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.  This does not make me exceptionally blase, it makes me human.

I was made aware of the invisible famine again today as I was reading an article about something called The Whiteness Project on a site called About Education. The project consists of white people discussing what it means to be white in the U.S.  The author of the About Education article, Nikki Lisa Cole summed up what she saw in the videos: “Racism does not exist. ‘White privilege’ is a myth. In fact, racial minorities have more privileges than whites. Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems.”

White privilege is an invisible famine. Being white means you do not have to deal with racial discrimination.  As the parable demonstrates, people only really see problems that they have personally experienced. White privilege means not having to be aware of white privilege. That makes it a tricky thing.

Let me give you an example from my own life. I was having a conversation once with an African-American friend. She was talking about a place I had lived (I will not say where). She said she had heard people were very racist there.  I started to say, “That was not my experience,” but then it occurred to me that my experience was not a particularly valuable measure of whether people were racist or not.  I would notice, of course, if there were signs for “colored” washrooms. But anything short of that could go on in my community and I would never know because I am white– it would never come up.

The fact that I tuned out the detail of the famine in the Prodigal Son does not mean it did not exist. Likewise, the fact that I can go through life mostly unaware of racism does not mean it does not exist. So what is a conscientious white person to do?

I will conclude with something I wrote in my original post on this topic: “The best I can do, now that I am aware of this fact, is to do my best not to forget it.  I may think I have a seamless image, but I don’t see everything.”

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