Thomas Merton’s Prayer and My Intention to Do the Right Thing When It Comes to White Privileg

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By Derek Penwell

I’m supposed to go to a major corporation this afternoon and speak about white privilege.

Of course I’m going to speak about white privilege. Who better to speak about the advantages white folks in our society enjoy than an over-educated, middle-aged white guy from the suburbs? Why wouldn’t I be going?

I mean, that’s why they invited me, right?

So, why do I feel so conflicted about it?

When it comes to white privilege, I’m exhibit A. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, to be sure. My folks didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. But, let’s be honest, even when I was jobless for a time in the recent economic crisis, afraid that we might lose our house, I always secretly believed that things would turn out fine.

Why did I think that? Because, all things considered, things had always turned out fine for me.

Can you hear the assumptions at work in such a view of the world? I’ve always believed, whether or not I could articulate it, that the physical laws of the world ensured me a certain buoyancy, a manufacturer’s guarantee that things would never get so bad that somehow the world would fail to bear me up. It doesn’t mean I don’t get scared; merely that I assume the world is built to work for people like me. Somewhere along the line, something will happen to make things turn out right.

Now, the most invidious problem with such an assumption comes when the person holding it feels like that buoyancy is something earned in virtue of hard work and native wit. What’s so harmful about it, though, is it’s flip side, it’s binary opposite. If things go well for me because of my hard work and perspicacious decision-making, then when things go wrong for you, the failure is yours, because obviously. You just didn’t work as hard or make as good a decisions as me.

If things should go horribly wrong for me, though, it’s not my fault; it’s a failure of the system to work the way it’s supposed to work. I work hard, and the system’s supposed to reward hard work. When it doesn’t reward hard work, clearly something’s broken that needs fixing. But when bad things happen to other people (you know, “other” people, wink, wink), it’s because they’re lazy, because they have no impulse control, because they just don’t think through the consequences of their decisions.

See what a great system that is … if you happen to be me, or somebody who’s been “blessed by God” in the same way as me. (See there, that whole “blessed by God” thing also feels like a double-edged sword, doesn’t it? Because if you’ve spent your whole life working your butt off, only to find yourself still grabbing the short end of the socio-economic stick, what are you forced to assume? God doesn’t really give a crap about you. Otherwise, you’d be blessed like me.)

I think that’s why white privilege is such a tough nut to crack among white folks. We’re the heroes of the stories we tell about ourselves, and admitting to hitting the racial and economic lottery drains the narrative of a certain amount of heroic élan. We like to feel that we’ve somehow earned our “blessed” status (see what I did there?).

Of course God blessed us. Why wouldn’t God bless us? We, and people like us, were what God had in mind when God set the planets spinning, pulled the chain to light the stars, and slapped stripes on the zebras.

But see, there’s the problem. Being the hero of your own story is one thing; we all do that at one time or another. But when you tell God’s story, and you always wind up in the Harrison Ford role, when you make your life of relative ease sound like an inevitability of the laws of nature, when you blithely assume that other people’s tough lot in life is a measure of their poorly formed character, you’ve committed idolatry. You’ve succeeded in fashioning God in your own image.

“Ok, fine,” you say. “But why do you feel conflicted about telling people that? It may be a difficult word, in which case nervous or afraid makes sense. But conflicted?”

Ah, good point. I feel conflicted because being an over-educated middle-class white guy talking about privilege unwittingly reinforces the narrative that only over-educated middle-class white guys are able to drop the wisdom necessary to understand the world. And really, haven’t we said enough about the world, and gotten it wrong enough throughout history, that it’s time for us to just shut up?

See what I mean?

On the other hand, having occupied the heart of so much of history’s woes, isn’t incumbent upon us—when we realize the role our privilege continues to play in setting up and maintaining systems of injustice—to use every tool at our disposal to help call attention to it?

In other words, when you find out that people like you, rather than Harrison Ford, have been playing some other much less heroic role, isn’t it time to help narrate God’s story a bit more faithfully to the way God seems to have intended it?

I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.   I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.   Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.   But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.   And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it.   Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

(Perhaps even those perils I’ve played some part in helping to create.)

I’m not sure what else to do but to continue to desire to please God. I guess we’ll see.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

2 thoughts on “Thomas Merton’s Prayer and My Intention to Do the Right Thing When It Comes to White Privileg

  1. Derek, I think this is an excellent post. I think both the points you make (Why you are conflicted and on the other hand…) are excellent reasons to speak and to shut up. So, in your case, I would speak. Actually, I would do a short presentation on what privilege is….how whites privilege specifically is designed and works….read this blog entry and sit down unexpectedly, leaving them to wonder at the brevity of the presentation. (if it is a secular presentation you could leave out the prayer if need be.) Again, great thoughts and thank you for sharing them. Ona Marae.

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