We concluded our last post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 3. ‘White Privilege’,” by stating the importance of recognizing, not only the 400 years long history of racialization in the United States, but also the privilege that white Americans enjoy even today, particularly in relation to black Americans. When one refuses to acknowledge this history and privilege—or simply does not understand it—one tends to propose explanations for current disparities by ahistorical means, illicitly assuming a neutral historical starting point for discussion. Given that the average white person in America does not feel himself to be personally prejudiced, thinks that racism is the sin of a rare few, and believes that all barriers to entry have been removed by Civil Rights legislation, white Americans tend to believe that something must be wrong with the black community itself. If all is thought to be equal (in terms of “access” and privilege), what else is available to explain the vast inequities cited in the previous posts? (Even popular theologians can be found offering explanations such as greater sexual sin in the black community, a persistent “victim mentality,” a tendency to see the world through “the lens of race” rather than “the lens of the gospel,” and a lack of will to work hard and succeed because of welfare.)
Drs. Christian Smith and Michael Emerson offer a parable in their book, Divided by Faith, that captures this anti-privilege, ahistorical, dynamic quite well. They have graciously granted permission to reprint it here in full. I believe attention to this parable will help clarify the danger of ignoring privilege in less controversial terms as we move forward in the series.
Both Maridel and Parker were overweight, to the point of being unhealthy. They decided it was the time to do something drastic. Responding to an ad for a Fat-Away program, they drove to a rural area in their state, where they were taken to separate areas of the woods. For six weeks, they would be locked into these “compounds,” as they were called. In each compound, according to the ad, were the perfect ingredients needed to lose weight. Their goal was to each lose forty pounds. What they did not know is that the less-than-ethical Fat-Away organization was really a research laboratory studying the effects of various diets, exercise programs, and weight-loss expectations on people’s weight change. Without a word to Maridel and Parker, they placed Maridel in a compound designed to help her lose weight, but they placed Parker in a compound designed for Parker to gain weight.
In Maridel’s compound were running trails, a swimming pool, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, a basketball court, and a sauna. In her cabin were magazines on proper nutrition, instructional videos on how to lose weight, an abundance of natural, healthy, low-fat, low-calorie foods, and no sweets. Each day she was greeted early by fit and trim people who asked Maridel to go on a run with them, talked about how much they loved being thin, and encouraged her that she too can be thin—wonderful conditions for losing weight.
In Parker’s compound was only a tiny cabin. No exercise equipment was available whatsoever, but there were plenty of videos and movies that showed high-calorie foods looking sumptuous, more high-calorie goodies than even a sumo wrestler could desire, and just a few fruits and vegetables. The only other people Parker saw were also obese, and though they talked about losing weight, they seemed not to really care about their weight—not good conditions for losing weight.
The program called for each participant to weigh in at the start, and then every two weeks thereafter. At the end of two weeks, with neither aware of what was inside the other’s compound, Maridel and Parker were taken to the weighing room. They each took their turn on the scale. Maridel stepped on the scale first. She had lost nineteen pounds! Parker’s turn produced far less excitement. He actually gained two pounds.
Maridel, who assumed that both she and Parker had the same type of compound, was irritated with Parker. “We paid good money to be here, Parker. How can you waste it? You have to exercise, you have to eat right!” Parker tried to make his case, but it only made Maridel more irritated. Maridel told Parker he needed to try harder. Parker, though he was depressed about his weight gain and the difficulty in exercising adequately and eating right, resolved to do so.
But try as he may, Parker kept eating too many bad foods. And he exercised very little. He became depressed, and his depression only made him eat more and exercise less. After another two weeks, back he and Maridel went to the scales. Maridel, with wonderful weight-loss opportunities, and taking full advantage of them, lost another fifteen pounds. Parker, however, actually gained more weight then he had the first two weeks. Maridel could not believe what Parker was doing to himself. “Don’t you know why we are here? Parker, this place is designed for us to lose weight. If you can’t do it here, where can you?”
“I don’t think this is all that great a place to lose weight,” Parker sniped. “The food here is fatty, and exercising is next to impossible.” Maridel was taken aback. Finally she replied, “It wouldn’t matter if that were true, Parker. When we get home, the food can be fatty and exercise difficult, but you must learn to eat and exercise right, regardless.” Parker, increasingly frustrated by Maridel’s comments, retorted, “No way is it as easy as you’re making it seem. I think that Fat-Away is treating me unfairly. I’m not even sure I want to lose weight.”
With that Maridel was dumbfounded. If Parker was not even going to try, if he was going to blame others, perhaps he deserved to be obese. But she also thought that if only Parker could have a vision of what he could look like, he would take advantage of Fat-Away and lose weight. She encouraged Parker to imagine being thin, toned, and healthy. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Parker? If only you would try.”
Back they went for another two weeks. At the final weigh-in, with the predictable result of Parker not having lost weight, Maridel simply resigned herself to the idea that Parker wanted to be overweight. Why Parker would want this, she was not sure, but of one thing she was sure—until Parker decided he wanted to lose weight, he would not.
Maridel is partially correct in her final assessment. Parker will not lose weight unless he tries. His “attitude” will have to improve. He needs a vision, a goal, and the motivation to get there.
But she misses the vast difference in environments that render the correlation between individual initiative and outcome far less than perfect. Due to structural differences, only a very few with incredible willpower could possibly lose weight in an environment like Parker’s. And likewise, in an environment like Maridel’s, only a very few could possibly gain weight.
(Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [pp. 110-112]. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)
We will continue to discuss and analyze this dynamic in our next post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 5. ‘Color-Blind Theology’.”