A couple years ago, my wife Carla and I hosted a guest from out of town on behalf of the church. We went out for a drink to get to know each other a little better and the conversation went to, “where did you go to college?” I shared that I went to Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Her response was, “that place is expensive!” I didn’t want to come across as a rich kid who was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I explained, “well, I won a scholarship there that paid for most of my expenses, so I couldn’t refuse.” Her response was, “Oh, white privilege at its best.” To put it mildly, that upset me. I remember thinking, “I worked hard throughout high school… I earned that scholarship!” She dropped it, but God has kept that accusation tucked tightly into the back of my head.
This spring and summer has seen race troubles from Baltimore to Madison and Milwaukee and finally to Charleston last month when nine African Methodist Episcopal brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down by a misguided ELCA-confirmed 21 year old white supremacist, Dylann Roof. As our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton said in a letter, “this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.” Two of the victims attended Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. One, state senator Clem Pinckney, was a classmate of mine in my Summer Greek class. Living in a predominantly homogeneous white culture myself, this was the first time in a long time I have thought deeply about my place as one who enjoys any kind of privilege based on my skin color.
And then at our Annual Synod Assembly, Carla went to a workshop on privilege, which affected her significantly. “Take a step forward if you have ever heard cat-calls on the street.” Some women stepped forward. Ten or so of these questions were asked. At the end, the presenter invited everyone to look around at who regularly experiences hardship or something like persecution. And to no one’s surprise, the white men in the group were looking at people’s backs.
I’m slow enough that God usually has to make things REALLY clear for me. So, finally after these stories and experiences, I was out for a walk one morning listening to a podcast of “To the Best of Our Knowledge”. It was an episode on “How to Love Your Body”. One woman was talking about the humiliation she experiences as a ‘fat’ person from the guy sitting next to her on the airplane who asks to be moved, to the thin women around her who inadvertently talk about their own weight, diet and fear of looking ‘fat’ despite their thinness. At one point she spoke of ‘thin privilege’. Her claim is that thin people don’t have to worry about whether they will fit into a seat, whether someone will hate them before getting to know them based on their size or worry that they are inherently unlovable.
This whole series of experiences and events has led me to think a lot about privilege. How am I enjoying, “special rights or immunities”? And the more I think about it, the list gets longer and longer. I enjoy white privilege (just ask a minority in a posh neighborhood), thin privilege (just ask the self-described ‘fat’ woman from the podcast), male privilege (ask women who make a fraction of what men do as they do the same work), American privilege (our politicians even claim ‘exceptionalism’), language privilege (when I travel abroad, I don’t have to learn their language… I expect them to speak mine), food privilege, plentiful water, cheap energy, clean air, bountiful land privilege… the list can go on and on.
In the last two years, I have gone from feeling offended at the suggestion that I enjoy privilege to recognizing that, although I do not consciously seek a leg up on other races, genders, etc., the truth is I do enjoy immunity from almost all kinds of persecution or derision. So, I have three options, it seems. 1) Feel guilty about it and do nothing. I could meekly apologize every chance I can get to those who don’t enjoy the privileges I do, but do nothing to change things. 2) Actively seek ways to ensure my privileged status continues. That the whole world is basically set up for me to succeed is great… for me. The world would say I should work very hard to keep it that way. 3) Use my privileged status to speak out for those who aren’t automatically trusted, respected and given opportunities.
That I am privileged is not my doing. But what I do with that privilege is. God has moved me from a state of denial to a state of active response. “To those whom much is given, much is expected” has always been a favorite Scripture verse for me. But it means something a little different than it has for some time. I feel moved to be more generous with my money, more active in my politics and more compassionate of those who are struggling.
Are you privileged? How so? How can you use your privileged status to serve others?
Image by Stephen Dann on Flickr