I Am White Privilege, Part 3: Rethinking the American Dream

The American Dream is a great ideal.  Everyone can own their own home, have their own things, and enjoy life to the fullest.  It is a dream that promotes hard-working, individual achievement.  It is a dream that rewards people for the things they do.

And it is a dream that was initiated by one group of people who took land away from the people who already lived here and took another group of people away from their homeland in chains, shipped them across the ocean, and had them work the “new” land.

Regardless of how true it may be that the American Dream is available to everybody, we cannot erase the years of history that indicate it is a dream created by one culture and perpetuated by that same culture.  To say that enough history has passed that it should no longer make a difference is a statement that can only be made by a dominant culture trying to escape the shame created by what has occurred in our past.

So if we cannot change history, what can we do?

First:  be aware.  While working on my degree, I took a class that assigned all of the students to participate in six cultural plunges.  These were assignments that had students experience something for one week that members of the dominant culture typically do not face (wearing a rainbow pin, attending a non-Christian worship service, attending a celebration of a different ethnic group, etc.).

These assignments made me aware of two important lessons.  One lesson was that it truly is different to experience life outside of the dominant culture.  The second lesson was that the experience of living outside the dominant culture was only a weeklong assignment for me; it is everyday life for others.

Being a member of a non-dominant culture is different—not necessarily better or worse, just different.  Let us all learn that.

Second:  be involved.  Even as we acknowledge the differences that exist based on the culture in which we are placed, we can also thrive as we live together in community.  We learn to accept, acknowledge, and appreciate those things that make us unique while learning to draw closer to one another.  We grow in the knowledge that we are people, not categories; that although we come from different cultures we learn to live with, support, and root for one another.  We do this by getting involved.

There are a number of ways to be involved.

When you receive a jury summons show up for it.  Take the time to be a part of the justice system.  Fight against the stereotype that the system is corrupt by being a part of it.  Bring integrity, respect, and justice to a system that often lacks those characteristics.

Pay attention to what is happening in your school system.  Are some schools chronically under-performing?  Why?  How can you help improve it?  What does the school need?  Is there a distinguishable difference between successful schools and under-performing ones?  How can your presence make a difference?

Become involved in your local political process.  (This comes from someone who hates all political processes!)  If there are unjust laws or practices in your community, find out how you can initiate change.  Maybe it is campaigning.  Maybe it is talking to your local representatives.  Maybe it is just deciding that you will not the fact that you are one person stop you from initiating change.

Find out what community agencies exist in your community and pick one or two to be a part of.  Look especially for those groups that work on development of the whole person.  If there are ways to help with furthering education or employability, jump on opportunities to help.  If those agencies do not exist where you live—create one.  Do not tell me it cannot be done: I am working for an agency that was created when one person had a dream of a way she could help improve employability of those most in need of work.  Ten years and 350 people later, I am about to do my part to help that dream continue.

Third:  change the dream.  The American Dream has many components that make it desirable.  But it is too individualistic.  Let us learn to dream in community.  Let us learn to dream dreams that celebrate togetherness.  Let us learn to dream of ways that instead of attaining things we are distributing things.  Let us learn to dream of a world where no one is in need because all people are sharing what they have with each other.

We cannot change our past.  But the ways we live in the present can yield substantial benefits in the future.

2 thoughts on “I Am White Privilege, Part 3: Rethinking the American Dream

  1. You know I get tired of hearing the lie the Americans enslaved millions and imported them against their will. America outlawed importing slaves in 1808. This was 27 years after the United States was formed (in 1781) and the minute it was allowed under the constitution (Article 1 Section 9). Of the slaves that were imported, the vast majority were imported by Britain before there was an America. The vast majority of the enslavement of black Africans was done by rival black African tribes and then sold to Muslim traders who sold them all around the world along with slaves of all other nations and ethnicities. There were slave runners after the ban was enacted, but the penalty under US law was death for doing so. Was their still slavery until the civil war? Yes, but it had been dying since before the American revolution. During colonial times it was legal to have slaves of any race, including Englishmen or any other European race. Early colonists and indigenous groups took turns enslaving each other in raids and counter raids that were a standard part of all cultures at the time. Part of the “great experiment” that was going on in the American colonies and later the United States was the gradual and voluntary elimination of slavery. All states outlawed enslavement on their own and the northern states gave up slavery voluntarily even though states like Pennsylvania had a higher slave ratio than most southern states. Even in the south, slavery was dying and abolition societies were common … until the invention of the cotton gin created the cotton boom. Slave prices went from a few thousand to millions in a short period of time. But like all booms, the cotton boom was a short lived phenomenon. The cotton boom ended before the civil war did. Even if there had been no civil war, the southern US would have been economically devastated and slaves would have become nearly worthless. Most historians who study that time period believe slavery would have ended anyway about then in the US.

    So what is the point of all this? If you actually study what happened in history rather than pro or anti American propaganda, you will find that all peoples have things that they did to be proud of and things that they should be ashamed of. As far as cultures go, American culture stacks up pretty favorably because we actively try to do the right thing (not that we always succeed). Should we look down on other cultures? Of course not, but this sentiment is not shared by most cultures, both currently and historically. Are there sub-cultures in the United States that do not do as well as the dominant culture? Absolutely. But the dirty little secret of the “bash America” crowd is that there are sub-cultures that actually do better the the dominant culture! (I bet you never heard that before!) Chinese, Japanese and Jewish groups do better than white Americans in just about any category you care to name.

    Our job as Christians is not to sit in judgement of the various sub-cultures and groups. We are instead called to treat all people with the love of God and to realize that we are all fallen sinners and to try to bring the light and freedom of Christ to them. If we simply do this, the need to look at groups and cultures falls away and we naturally treat all people as either family (within the church) or neighbors rather than outsiders or enemies.

    John Mark McDonald

  2. Honestly, I think you help to prove what my point is. When this discussion comes up, as with most sensitive topics of conversation, we often feel the need to defend, explain, or rationalize away what has happened in the past. Whatever the historical particulars are, the fact remains that a large number of people were displaced and used to build a new country for others. That heritage remains. Whatever group we descend from has a heritage with positives and negatives. Let’s acknowledge them and not pretend like they don’t exist. And then let’s do what you suggest in your last paragraph: learn to love one another and treat one another as children of God. Let us learn to celebrate our differences and learn to work and live together.

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