In his “Dear White America” letter to The New York Times, Emory University Professor George Yancy wrote, “If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable.”
He also reminds whites, “Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. … Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again.”
The view that all whites are racist is common in the world today. The intrinsic racism of whites today stems from white privilege, which of course comes from white racism from the past: “Whites start out with an advantage: They tend to get more and larger inheritances. Also, generations of discrimination—including redlining, mass incarceration and predatory finance—have prevented blacks from building up wealth,” explains Mark Whitehouse in Bloomberg.
It is not surprising that this worldly view of whites has infiltrated mainline denominations. Here is what the United Methodist Church says in its resolution on White Privilege in the United States:
European Americans enjoy a broad range of privileges denied to persons of color in our society, privileges that often permit them to dominate others who do not enjoy such privileges. While there are many issues that reflect the racism in US society, there are some cases where racism is the issue, such as affirmative action, housing, job discrimination, hate crimes, and criminal justice. In addition, there are many broader social issues where racism is one factor in the equation, albeit often the major one.
But this view has also taken hold in some evangelical churches as well. Alexander Jun is a professor who was elected as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America’s 2017 General Assembly. In the video above, he explains the concept by telling a story about an elephant and a giraffe. His main point in the story is that because whites have constructed the system of whiteness in which we live, whites are blind to how our system does not work for non-whites. That’s also the message from Professor Yancy.
Jun’s story begins at about the four-minute mark of the video. You can watch it above, click through to the link, or read a transcript of it below:
Once upon a time, there was a giraffe. The giraffe had a beautiful house that won these wonderful awards, House of the Year, probably from Giraffe Magazine. … One day he looks outside and sees an elephant and he says, “Hey, I know that elephant. We did PTA together, our kids are in soccer…. I’m going to invite him in.” …
He yells out the window. The elephant is delighted; he had always wanted to come spend some time with this colleague. So he comes to the door and encounters a problem. The first problem is the elephant can’t get in the door.
So the giraffe says, “I know the problem. I’ll make accommodation.” … He unhinged the doors, made it a little wider. The elephant came on in. Make themselves at home, they started talking about different things. And then Mrs. Giraffe calls and says, “There is a phone call for you upstairs.”
[The giraffe] says, “Make yourself at home,” to the elephant, and he goes upstairs.
Meantime, the elephant tries to make himself at home. Kinda walking around, walking through the halls. And he realizes another problem. The halls are really narrow, right, because it is built for giraffes. Can’t look out the windows because it is for long-necked giraffes. Tries to walk up the stairs but he is too heavy—the stairs start to break. He backs down and knocks over furniture cause its so narrow and small.
Giraffe comes back downstairs and says, “What’s going on!” [The elephant] says, “I don’t know. You said to make myself at home. I was trying to.”
And the giraffe says, “Ah! I know the problem. You’re too fat. If you lost some weight, you’d fit in here just fine. Or maybe if you took ballet lessons you’d get light on your feet. I love having you here and I’d love for you to keep coming back but you kinda have to change if you are going to stay here.”
But the elephant obviously is not convinced. The elephant said, “I am not so sure that a house that’s built for giraffes is good for elephants.”
So you kinda feel sorry for the giraffe, don’t you, right? The giraffe was being hospitable. The giraffe welcomed the elephant in … said, “Make yourself at home.” But a fundamental problem, and this is sort of the tone I’d love to carry out for the talk is, it’s not the individual necessarily who is at fault. It is not that you are a bad person. You’re not a bad giraffe. But your worldview is that of a giraffe. And all the people who may have complimented you on the structure of the building and the way it was built maybe affirming from other giraffes. And if you’re not surrounding yourself with other animals then that’s your perspective of the world.
Now think about your own context. It’s always nice to start with a story like this because … it deflates this argument about hospitality and a sense of belonging. When I have these conversations with people who are in the majority group, the dominant culture they say, “I don’t understand, why can’t you change? What is it about African American students who can’t be successful? What is it about women in leadership that makes it so difficult for them?
That’s the window that we are looking at. But let’s flip it around. Let’s ask it another way. What is it about the institution that makes it so difficult for African Americans? … What is it about the culture that makes it so difficult for women to succeed?
You shift the blame and you shift the gaze away from the individual and onto a system.