I’ve been reading a lot lately about the idea of “privilege.” It’s not something I heard much about growing up, but it’s a huge factor in discussions of everything from women in church to food security. Sadly, it’s also turning into something of a battleground, where phrases like “white privilege” and “male privilege” shut down conversations rather than open them and exclude certain groups of people as enemies rather than including them as allies. Still, I think it is an important topic to consider, and if you’re not familiar with this discussion, here’s a brief introduction to the topic.
What is privilege?
Privilege usually refers to something systematic in a society or culture that aids, benefits, or promotes a group of people with certain attributes. This can be influenced by many things, including history, culture, and even our understanding of what it means to be human.
In the US, traditionally, white males have held more political and financial power than males or females of other races. Although I would say that only a minority of white males today are actually racist or sexist, this structural bias continues to exist even as cultural norms and individual attitudes towards opportunity and capability change. This kind of privilege is perhaps the most controversial, because individuals today are rarely directly responsible for perpetuating historical structural privilege, but they are often turned into scapegoats by other groups that feel marginalized by the current system.
Systematic privilege can also be a result of culture and marketing. In the US, we have a strong cultural bias towards youth and attractiveness, including attributes like thinness, tan skin, curves, and sleek hair (in females) and strength, height, and deep voices (in males). People who exhibit these traits are likely to receive all kinds of favors from society, from big things like fame and fortune to little things like being able to get out of speeding tickets. Their lives will simply be easier than those who do not exhibit these traits, although in other cultures and times the list of desirable attributes may be different.
Privilege can also occur in ways we don’t even consider. When I lived overseas, I learned that that being a natural citizen in your own country rather than being a foreigner who doesn’t speak the dominant language can become a kind of privilege. Whether it exposes you to scorn from a snooty waiter when you mispronounce a dish on the menu or if it means you have a harder time communicating at the bank or grocery store, it’s something that influences every aspect of everyday life. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s very real. And since I’ve had chronic fatigue for the past couple of years, I’ve learned that basic assumptions like “you should be able to stand up in the line for airport security for at least half an hour without trouble” aren’t always true for me right now, and society hasn’t always provided good alternatives (although people are usually really nice when I explain what’s going on). I’ve had to use a wheelchair to get around even though I appear healthy on the outside. Believe it or not, good health or a lack of food allergies can create a kind of privilege – something I’ll follow up on in a later post.
So privilege isn’t just about things that are somebody’s “fault,” like racism or sexism. Sometimes, systems just emerge in society through no individual fault that affect one group of people more than others or make it hard for one group of people to participate fully. However, I have discovered that because the US has strong accessibility regulations and a culture that seeks to empower people with physical limitations, our society has actually worked to overcome “healthy privilege” and make it easier for people with disabilities or illness function as complete members of society. We’re not perfect, and we could still make progress in a lot of areas, but I have a new appreciation for the strides we have made – and the importance of continuing to improve!
Ironically, some types of privilege are more strongly visible in the church. We see “spiritual privilege” in the way pastors and missionaries and full-time church workers are seen as closer to God than everyone else. Married couples and those with children are often unintentionally elevated above singles and childless couples. Men are often not encouraged or allowed to work with children and prepare for fatherhood unless they already have children of their own. A lot of congregations aren’t very diverse, either in opinion or skin color. Subtle social cues can minimize the contributions and even the humanity of people who don’t seem to measure up or who don’t match the “norm.” At worst, they can result in the exclusion of people who are different, something I’ll also follow up on in a later post.
What’s the problem?
The problem isn’t that we have privilege, because everyone has some kind of privilege. The problem is more about unexamined privilege and the ways it can alienate others, especially people from cultures or subcultures different from our own.
Think of an area where you’ve struggled for a long time, whether it’s related to something like finances, health, or relationships. Have you ever met someone who – even unintentionally – seemed to flaunt their success in the area you were struggling with? Sometimes, even complaining can come across badly, like when a mom of five kids complains about how crazy her life is to a friend who has struggled for years to have a child. Privilege isn’t bad, but it’s important to be considerate with others who may not share a particular privilege. This doesn’t mean we should always be afraid of offending others, but we should learn what kinds of attitudes and phrases are hurtful in different situations if we want to overcome the gaps that social and structural privilege create in our lives.
Why do we care?
If we all have different kinds of privilege and we’re never going to create a perfectly equal society (especially as cultural trends come and go), why does privilege matter? If it’s not our fault and we’re not hurting anybody, why should we evaluate our own privilege and get to know people who are different from us?
For me, this comes down to two things: justice and connection – and I really do believe the two go together. The justice aspect of the issue is highly relevant in current cultural discussions of privilege. In a strong, healthy, equitable society, structural elements that makes life more difficult for a group of people through no fault of their own should be eliminated or altered to promote equal access. Sometimes, these systems aren’t bad – like stairs. There’s nothing wrong with stairs, but they prevent people who use wheelchairs from having full access to a building without alternatives like elevators or ramps. Sometimes, though, the embedded systems (cultural, historical, or legal) are the problem and need to be changed. I think the benefits of promoting accessibility are pretty obvious to most people, although the specifics of how to do this can get complicated. But if we’re trying to follow the example of Christ, I think it’s clear that we are to look to people like the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner – people whose lives are naturally more difficult – and make a special effort to ensure they are fully integrated into society.
To me, connection is even more important and fundamental. If we never look at the areas of our privilege and evaluate the way society treats us based on those privileges, we will find it very difficult to make deep, meaningful connections with people who are not like us or who have had a very different experience living in our society. It is easy to surround ourselves with people at or near our level of privilege and forget that entire other worlds exist even within the same cities and churches. We limit our understanding of life and the world when we don’t befriend people with different histories and perspectives. We limit our growth when we alienate ourselves from people with different backgrounds. And we miss out on wonderful cultural experiences and expressions of humanity when we just stick with the people we’ve always known.
What can we do about it?
In church growing up, we usually called our privileges “blessings,” and we were taught to be grateful for them and share them with others out of our abundance. But we missed this crucial point of “checking our privilege,” of stopping to recognize where social privileges had become ingrained inside us and where they were separating us from others with fewer or different kinds of privileges.
Even as we tried to bridge the gap with generosity, this way of thinking locked us into an “us vs. them,” “more fortunate vs. less fortunate” way of thinking. When you view people this way, it’s difficult to connect, even if your intentions are good. We first have to recognize that we all have privileges, and we all have needs. None of us are exempt from this cycle of giving and receiving. It’s easy to reinterpret the message “it’s better to give than receive” not as an antidote to selfishness, but as a way to earn our value and worth as human beings through amassing privilege that allows us to give to others. When we get trapped in that way of thinking, we ironically become even more obsessed with privilege because we can’t afford to lose any of our own standing.
One way forward that I see is simply widening our circle of friends and acquaintances. Instead of trying to “share” some of our privilege with those who are less fortunate (i.e. through donating food to other countries), we can become like Christ, abhorring our status in society and getting to know other people as equals, participating both in giving and receiving in community with them. We can listen to and invite their perspective even when it’s an outsider view. We can hear and try to understand their stories as something that can enrich our own knowledge of God and the world instead of as a “sob story” that should move us to a particular action or something so different from us that there can be no communion. We can try to enter their world, humbly, seeking to learn, although I’ve done this twice in different countries and it’s not easy. It takes a real commitment to growth and a willingness to try and fail and try again. Most importantly, we can learn to see others as people and friends, not as categories (a great post on that at “Alise Write” here).
Secondly, we can also go out of our way as individuals to make the lives of other individuals easier. This can range from opening a door for someone pushing a stroller because you have “free hands privilege” to helping someone load their bags on a train because you have “strength privilege” or inviting an outsider to a family gathering and making them feel welcome because you have the privilege of family or community (which are always a privilege!). Yes, some of that’s a little facetious, but it’s not a bad way to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses at any given time. It gives us a way to see what we can offer to others in a healthy way.
This is just a brief overview based on some basic reading I’ve done, so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of nuances and subtleties. But, if thinking about this helps us treat other people as equals and get to know them on their own terms, I don’t think we can go wrong – and we might even be able to make a few things right.