“White Privilege” And Indigenous Reparations

Written by on August 16, 2019

By: Akos Balogh

Should Australia give reparations to Indigenous peoples for stealing their land? Historian and author Meredith Lake thinks so.

At a recent dinner put on by the ethics committee of the Presbyterian Church of NSW, Lake was asked how Christians should relate to the wider Indigenous community.

Her answer was thought provoking: since white settlers had stolen the land from Indigenous peoples, the non-Indigenous people who are in a position of ‘privilege’ (i.e. benefitting from the stolen land) should make reparations.

Furthermore, she argued, Christians should be involved in a national conversation on this issue – by first listening to Indigenous voices.

I had never thought about this before – at least not so carefully. And Lake’s argument has weighed on my mind ever since.

It raises a lot of questions about Australia’s relationship to Indigenous peoples, and how we respond to historic injustices. How do we respond to these big issues?

In answering this question, we should first explore the idea of ‘privilege’ – or more specifically (as is often used in racial contexts) ‘white privilege’. Not least, because such a term will influence how we view this issue of land rights and reparations.[1]

White Privilege?

‘White privilege’ is the idea that white people (read: those of European backgrounds) have inbuilt advantages in white-majority societies. These benefits aren’t often obvious to white people. These include subtle things like being given positive bias in job interviews, promotions, and everyday interactions. As commentator Cory Collins explains:

“White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals. And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there.”

He concludes:

“Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.”

Or to put it another way:

“[White privilege] is having greater access to power and resources than people of colour [in the same situation] do.”

The Positives of the Term ‘White Privilege’

Using the above definition, I think the term ‘white privilege’ is onto something. There are subtle advantages to belonging to the majority culture – in Australia’s case, white European culture.

Most people aren’t going to make negative assumptions about you if you’re white, such as they might of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, or a man of middle eastern appearance. All things being equal, a white teenager entering a clothing store is unlikely to arouse the same suspicion from staff as an aboriginal teenager might.

In terms of research on ‘white privilege’, an Australian study that looked at how much compassion you were shown by bus drivers found the following:

“[In the study] people of different racial and ethnic identities tried to board public buses, telling the driver they didn’t have enough money to pay for the ride. Researchers documented more than 1,500 attempts. The results: 72 percent of white people were allowed to stay on the bus. Only 36 percent of black people were extended the same kindness.”

In other words, you’re twice as likely to be shown kindness by transport officials if you’re white than if you’re non-white.

As a person of Eastern-European birth with a non-Anglo name, I can’t recall any instance where I felt I was treated unfairly because of my non-Anglo race.

(Yes, I grew up in the multi-cultural melting pot of western Sydney, where many of us were from non-English speaking backgrounds. But later on I spent a number of years in arguably the most white-Anglo institution in Australia today: the Defence Force. Yet not once did I feel uncomfortable because of my skin colour.)

But I’m sure many aboriginal people could share stories of being treated with undue suspicion, even unfairness, because of their race.

There are some ‘privileges’ to belonging to the majority culture – to being white – and the term ‘white privilege’ picks up on these.

But there’s more to be said:

Why I’m Nervous About Using the Term ‘White Privilege’

And yet, I’m nervous about adopting ‘white privilege’ in discussions around race.

For starters, it’s an ideologically loaded word, based in large part on non-Christian worldviews and beliefs. [2] Using any ideologically loaded word (at least without qualification) runs the risk of smuggling in non-Christian ideological assumptions into our thinking, warping our view of reality.

Moreover, it’s a term that’s often used in the current culture wars, to imply white people in toto are oppressors, and black people in toto are mere victims. As essayist Peggy Mactintosh (a key proponent of the term ‘white privilege’) wrote about herself as a white person:

“[I am] an oppressor…an unfairly advantaged person [and] a participant in a damaged culture.”

In this view, to redress this systemic balance (it is argued) white people shouldn’t have the same rights accorded to those of coloured minorities – like freedom of speech – especially in discussions around racial issues.

Needless to say, such ideology doesn’t arise from a Biblical worldview (which we’ll explore below).

However, not only is the term ‘white privilege’ ideologically loaded, it also tends to overstate and misdiagnose racism, often leading to bad outcomes for racial minorities.

So for example, a number of black American commentators are pointing out that blaming all (or even the majority) of black America’s problems on racism is not only inaccurate, it also risks disempowering the black community from taking actions on things they can and should improve in their lives and communities (such as the fatherlessness of many black children).

A Better Way of Talking About ‘Privilege’

  Discuss ‘Advantages’ and ‘Disadvantages’.

Rather than using loaded words like ‘white privilege’, I think we should talk about the various ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ that people experience (including because of their skin colour). This frees us from unnecessary ideological baggage, and gives us a more Biblical view of the world.

Using this simple framework, we can see that many aboriginal people are genuinely disadvantaged:

Many live in remote communities away from support services. Many come from broken families, where domestic and sexual abuse are rife. The memory of the stolen generations and of genuinely racist policies is not far from the surface. And of course, many suffer from racism today.

On the flip side, using this framework, we can see how white people in Australia do enjoy many advantages. Intact families (at least more so than aboriginal people). A presumption of innocence (including by the wider culture). Feeling comfortable within their skin, seeing as most people around them are the same. A schooling system that is catered to their way of learning.

Furthermore, if we speaking of specific advantages and disadvantages (as opposed to ‘white privilege’) we’ll prevent oversimplifying the benefits (or disadvantages) conferred on people because of their race.

So for example, NSW selective high schools and top tier universities are massively over-represented by the children of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds (especially those of Asian and Sub-Continental background). Since a person’s ‘advantage’ in society is heavily influenced by their educational achievements, terms like ‘white privilege’ have difficulty accounting for such discrepancies.

(And most non-Indigenous rural folk – those that are disadvantaged so far as services such as schools, hospitals, and high-paying jobs are concerned – are overwhelmingly white.)

Thus there are many other factors at play when talking about advantage and disadvantage: factors which a term like ‘white privilege’ tends to understate and ignore.

Toward a Biblical View of Being Advantaged

So how does the Bible view people in advantageous positions in life? While proponents of the term ‘white privilege’ often argue that people with more power than others are inherently oppressive, and thus must give up their power (or be forced to give up their power), the Bible seems to give a different answer.

While it does accept the reality of oppression (e.g. by the wealthy against the poor – e.g James 2:6), it stops short of tarring all people that have some form of advantage in life as inherently oppressive.

Instead, in Luke 12:48, Jesus lays out an important principle:

“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

While the context of the passage is the knowledge of salvation, it seems reasonable that this principle would extend to other areas of life as well. (Jesus makes a similar point in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30), where the servants who are commended are those who bring a greater return on their Master’s investments.)

In other words, if as God’s people we do have various advantages in life, we need not be guilty or ashamed of these advantages (nor should we be proud and arrogant because of them!). Rather, we must use our various advantages to serve others. At times this may well involve our giving up our advantages for the sake of others, as Jesus gave up his supreme advantage as God the Son to die for us, and give us salvation (e.g. Phil 2:4-9).

This will also include using our advantages to speak up for Indigenous peoples – something we’ll explore in the next post as we discuss the issue of land rights.

[1] I should note that Lake didn’t explicitly use the term ‘white privilege’, merely ‘privilege’. However, my point remains: any discussion around racial issues inevitably involves discussion around ‘white’ privilege.

[2] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, taken from https://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/WhitePrivilege.pdf, accessed 30th July 2019.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.


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