What I’m about to write about is hard, for many reasons.
Many people will have varying ideas about what privilege is, what privileges do or do not exist, what I should or should not mention in this article. Some of you will read this and be left unsatisfied, perhaps even angry.
I know that even as an individual who tries to be aware of my own privilege, even as one who was raised by two incredible parents who taught and expected this awareness of me, I will never fully comprehend that which I do not know. Someone else, standing in a different position, might be able to tell me of privileges I am not yet aware of, simply because I have not experienced the narrative of their life. I’m still learning, still trying, but I recognize that there will always be a blind spot only others can help me remove.
Before I talk about what privilege is, I want to start with something so foundational you might be tempted to skip ahead, but I ask you not to. Human dignity. You were created in God’s image and likeness. You are a gift to the world. Through your very existence, you, in some capacity, reveal the reality of God. But this doesn’t just apply to you, this applies to every person. Those you know and love, those who are strangers, those who look and speak and think differently from you, even those you disagree with. God entrusts us with the great responsibility of taking care of human beings, for the very fact that we are made in his image. Moreover, we are called, in a particular way as followers of Jesus, to take care of those who are suffering.
It can be uncomfortable to talk about the inequality of privilege, but discomfort is not always bad, in fact, it can be the catalyst to change.
What is Privilege?
The other day I was in line at the Post Office. When I finally arrived at the front of the line, I was told that I should repackage my item and was sent out of line. I did as instructed, but when I finished, the line was four people long again. To the back of the line I went, somewhat annoyed. The clerk, a middle-aged, Indian woman, called me to the front. I was appreciative. After all, I’d just waited in this line. But as I walked to the front, I was keenly aware that I was the only white person in the room. I passed two young black men, a young Hispanic man, and a young Indian man. Questions raced through my mind: How did this look to them? They hadn’t seen the exchange, they didn’t know I’d already waited. Did it look like I was being favored? Did it look like I was being favored because I was white? Was I being shown preference because of my skin or gender? I’d like to think I wasn’t, I’d like to think that same courtesy would be afforded to anyone without question.
That incident led me to think about the word ‘privilege,’ an advantage that people have due to socioeconomic factors (education, income, employment) or social factors (preference, skin color, citizenship, gender). But more than that, these advantages are things everyone, ultimately, should have.
I’m a big believer in the age-old saying “money can’t buy happiness.” And yet, I recognize there is a certain amount of happiness I have been provided having grown up in a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about a roof over my head, the electricity or water being shut off; I’ve never worried if I would have enough to eat, or a warm coat to wear in the winter or shoes and clothes that fit me properly; I grew up in a safe neighborhood where neither I, nor my parents, feared that I might be shot on my walk to school. My dad’s job guaranteed that I had adequate health insurance which meant that when I needed to see the doctor for strep throat, or when I needed a surgery, or later in life when I needed counseling, I received the necessary treatments and my parents did not agonize over whether or not they could afford it.
These comforts gave me a sense of stability that many people throughout the world, and in our own country, do not have the luxury of having. Countless studies have been done to show how poverty negatively impacts the developing brain, namely because of the more stressful and traumatic events that typically accompany a life of poverty. Acknowledging your own privilege in this area allows you to recognize things you may be taking for granted that are always out of reach for many others. Sacrificing your privilege for others then, the way Jesus sacrificed His in the incarnation, is necessary to living out the Gospel radically, the way Jesus did and calls us to.
Every night before dinner, after saying “Bless Us, O Lord…” my family also goes around and shares an individual prayer. To this day, it is rare that I do not hear the words “thank you for the gift of our education.” These words were first prayed by my mom and dad, both of whom are educators themselves. They raised us with an awareness that it was a gift and privilege to be educated and that with education comes great responsibility. It wasn’t until we were older, and could more fully grasp those concepts, that this prayer also became that of my sister, of my brother, and of myself.
While education can certainly seem like a burden at times, particularly in high school (hours spent in school, hours doing homework), it is important to remember that not everyone in the world has access to an education, let alone the same level of education we receive in the United States. We have access to free education for grades K-12. Moreover, child labor laws prevent us from working in order that we might receive an education. When I was in Uganda, I met students who had to drop out of school because their family could not afford the annual fee of the school. One young woman was forbidden from receiving her high school diploma, preventing her from attending college, because her family had a small outstanding balance. She is not alone, millions around the world are denied an education.
Yet, even within the US, we see discrepancies in the levels of education people receive. Some public schools are located in areas of higher wealth, they receive more tax dollars, and so the resources (books, counselors, quality of educators, extracurricular, etc.) they are able to offer their students look very different from that of a school located in a poor area. That’s just public schools. Some families are able to afford Catholic or private education for their children. Recently, I stumbled upon a Catholic K-12 school in NYC that cost over $53,000/year. I cannot wrap my mind around a school of that cost. No doubt, it (and the lifestyle that accompanies it) comes with many privileges, many opportunities and advantages, that someone otherwise might not have. At the end of the day, as cliche as it sounds, it is important to remember that knowledge is power, a portal to opportunity, a means of providing change and bettering the world.
I would be remiss, as a white, American, woman, to not acknowledge my race as a privilege — a privilege that exists due to long-standing social constructs and enduring historical biases. The country I was born into was founded by people who share my skin color, I’ve never been called a racial slur, I’ve never feared for my life in the presence of a police officer, my citizenship has never been questioned, I can talk about issues of racism without directly talking about my own life, I’ve never been discriminated against when trying to find an apartment, I’ve never been followed or had my bag/receipts checked when shopping. And these examples are just minor benefits of what advantages I’m graced with simply because of my skin color.
Perhaps this is the most uncomfortable privilege to acknowledge, no doubt the most politically charged. I’ll begin with what white privilege isn’t. ‘White privilege’ does not mean that simply because you’re white, your life hasn’t been hard, that you haven’t suffered or struggled, that you didn’t work hard to get to where you are today, that everything you’ve accomplished is unearned. It’s not that you don’t face hardship; it’s that none of those things happen as a direct result of your skin color. With that said, Francis E. Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, explains this term as: “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.”
I don’t need to hate or resent my ethnicity, to wallow in guilt from the wrongs people who share my skin color committed. However, as a member of the Body of Christ, my heart needs to feel wounded when my brothers and sisters are wounded and experience inequality. This woundedness, this empathy, should be a catalyst for me to promote change, to ensure that our country realizes the professed belief “that all men [and women, regardless of race and religion,] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
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