Pondering Privilege

August 5, 2019

Nobody wants to talk about privilege; nobody wants to hear about it. But the issue of privilege – white privilege; and more often in America, white male privilege – appears to be front and center in the issues of the day, whether we want to think about it or not.

A film from the 1980s, Free Indeed, was a low-budget teaching tool about what privilege is and how we are partakers of it, we who are white. A little woman gathered a group of teenagers asking them questions like: How is it you have what you have while so many people of color do not? The answers were typical. “We must work harder. We must be smarter.”

In a 30-minute lesson, non-critical, not-guilt producing, not accusatory, a teacher explained the invisibles of privilege, the unaccounted-for advantages of being a white majority that so many of us remain blind to, even as the world browns around us. The tensions rise as privilege is defended. We see it play out in today’s politics and cultural events. 

In America, for a lot of our history, to be born white and male gave advantage to people that they did not work for or earn. In America, white women had advantage via their white male husbands to create a layer of privilege that even without voice or vote, gave them a certain status that was unearned, but enjoyed by many. (Witness: The Help).

As women and people of color found voice there began a push back against systems that protected old status and ingrained privilege, what had been hidden was being revealed, and a new light was shining.

It does not take much to see how privilege works. We are privileged in the court systems. We are advantaged in school choices. Our children will go to the best schools, even if we cheat to get them into those schools. (I will miss Lori Loughlon on Hallmark.)

I have been pondering privilege for years. In eighth grade I read a book, Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin, an "American race activist." It was a seminal book for me. I am not in black skin; I am not a person of color. I was not poor. I was in a good school. The Black Experience is not my experience, yet reading this book about a man who somehow darkened his skin to live the experience of Black people, shaped my early thinking about how much of my own life was not earned, deserved, or chosen. I was born into this.

Privilege cuts across many lines. Race, surely is at the top. But there are also gender, socio-economic, education, and geographical differences that somehow separate us.

I have an example of this. Several years ago, I had a conversation with a white high school friend about the dances we used to have at the Ayden Recreation Center. I told my friend how much I used to enjoy dancing with him and asked him – boldly, 50 years after the fact – “why did you never ask me out on a date?” His response shocked me, “You lived on Terrace Drive. I lived on the other side of the tracks. I could not cross that.” Even where I lived, which I had nothing to do with, had a privilege that separated me from one of the best dancing partners I ever had. How much does privilege continue to separate us one from another?

The conflict that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had on the debate stage the other night frames the contemporary struggle. I am not going to re-litigate that, but I think what I will say is that it is incumbent for us/ me to recognize the privilege that is mine – as an American, as a white woman, as an educated person, as a person who can afford health care and child care and dental care and groceries and a nice home. This is not all because of my particular goodness or my hard work, or my intellect. This is because I just happened to be born as me. Of course my hard work and good choices enhanced and amplified this, but others work as hard as I and still struggle.

Recognizing how privilege plays into my life, and listening to the pain of those who have little privilege is a step in the right direction. It may be too little too late, but hearing Jesus tell those of privilege, “ those to whom much is given, much is expected,” is a clarion call to action. My life cannot be the free ride of privilege. I am called to right the world that begins at my front door. I pray forgiveness and reconciliation for all people. I pray in hope that one day we all will share God’s abundance as one people.

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