One Tribe — May 21

Repentance, Racial Healing & Reconciliation, Radical Love

One Tribe is a weekly forum dedicated to open discussion of racial healing. It appears each Monday.  Contributors represent many walks of life, but have in common these foundational beliefs: (1) racism is sin; (2) only the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit can break racism’s grip and heal people and relationships; and (3) as Christians, racial healing and reconciliation are part of God’s call upon our lives.  The good news of the gospel is that all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). May it be so!

White Privilege…The Iocane Powder of Racism

By Angie Mabry-Nauta

The Princess Bride (one of my all time favorite movies) features a battle of wits between Vizzini, a mercenary, and the Dread Pirate Roberts (aka Westley, the hero).  The scene is set in a field.  A bolder big enough to set a picnic of wine and fruit happened to be available.  On one side is Vizzini and Buttercup, the Princess Bride, whom Vizzini has kidnapped.  On the other side is Roberts.  The dialogue proceeds thus…

Roberts (extending a tubular container):  Inhale, but do not touch.

Vizzini:  I smell nothing.

Roberts:  What you do not smell is called iocane powder.  It is odorless, tastless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the deadlier poisons known to man.

Vizzini:  Hmm…

Roberts grabs the two wine glasses and turns his back to Vizzini.  He turns around and puts the goblets in front of Vizzini and himself.

Roberts:  All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.

A maddening and funny dialog ensues, and (SPOILER ALERT) just when Vizzini believes himself to have fooled Roberts and begins laughing as a result, he drops over dead.

Buttercup:  “And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned!”

Roberts:  “They were both poisoned. I’ve spent the last few years of my life building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

Last week I traveled to New York City to participate in the inaugural meeting of one of the White Privilege Task Forces of the Reformed Church in America (RCA’s), the denomination in which I am an ordained minister.  We have an excellent group of open-hearted and minded people who are committed to the denomination’s vision of a “multiracial future freed from racism”.  Considering the RCA’s primarily caucasian population, our group has a relatively diverse make up.

Both White Privilege task forces were formed under specific guidelines set by our highest assembly, General Synod, per the recommendation of the denomination’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity.  Each is charged with studying and critiquing the effect of white privilege: one on discipleship throughout the denomination, and the other in the “processes and operations used and decisions made” by General Synod and its Council.

Got that?

One of our first orders of business was to define white privilege.  (Without looking it up, are you able to do that?)  All of us knew what it was and had even seen it in action.  We seemed to have some difficulty at first (at least from my vantage point) stringing a definition together.  I suppose if we would have dug in, we could have come up with something accurate.  That’s when I came up with a brilliant comparison.

“White privilege is like the iocane powder of racism,” I said.  Here is where my brilliance stopped, unfortunately, because my Princess Bride knowledge wasn’t flowing very well.  Later I thought of what I wanted to say.  If I could have gone back and said it again, my erudition would have sounded something like this…

White privilege is like the iocane powder of racism.  We can’t see it; we can’t taste it; it’s easily soluble; and it’s deadly.  White privilege is the way things are, so it’s in our water and air without us even knowing it.  What’s worse is that we can build up an immunity to it over time.  Iocane powder might not kill the person who is used to it.  But white privilege slowly anesthetizes everyone to its power, deadening one’s awareness and killing the soul of each and every person whom racism effects. (And that, by the way, is every person on the planet.)

What is white privilege, exactly?  As you might imagine, books and scholarly journal articles have been written about it.  Therefore, most definitions are as complex as white privilege itself.  For simplicity’s sake, we grabbed this definition to begin with:

White privilege is a set of rights, advantages or immunities granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others.

A supporting definition that I found helpful is that white privilege consolidates traditional power, prevents challenges to the status quo, and either assimilates or excludes minority cultures and voices.

All of this might seem like vapor to those who have neither heard the term white privilege nor considered it as a sociological force.  (If you are new to the concept of white privilege click here to read a great article by Peggy McIntosh.  Specifically, her 50 daily effects of white privilege are a good place to start.)  Based on experiences of traveling, dining and rooming with my best friend over the past 11 years, I can tell you that it exists.

She and I would be in a cafeteria together, preparing to order our lunch.  More often than not she would be ready to order before me and would start speaking.  Invariably, the person behind the counter would look at me and ask me what I would like.  Whenever we were on the campus of our seminary, she was always the only black person in the room and often the only person of color. (We did have two hispanic classmates.)  Inevitably, the lectures and assignments were geared to one particular learning and educational style — that of the white male dominant culture.  Hardly ever were our textbooks penned by non-white authors, most often by white men.  I could go on.  She could probably go on even longer.

If humanity is to face the sin of racism with integrity and work to reconcile, each race and ethnicity must look within and amongst themselves to understand how they can contribute to the solution.  For Caucasians, our first step is to begin grasping the truth that unbeknownst to us, we “are taught to think of our lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us'” (Elizabeth Minnich, quoted by Peggy McIntosh).

This would be the first step, a huge step actually, in shaking that iocane powder habit.

All who hold to the above defined beliefs about racism are invited to write for One Tribe.  Please email Angie at to express interest in contributing and for additional information.

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