‘It means not having to think about any of this, ever’

I recently linked to Jamelle Bouie’s post on “What does it mean to be privileged?

Bouie tells the story of needing to carry a TV set a few blocks to a friends’ apartment, but realizing:

This would be a terrible idea. Not because I would have been carrying a TV at 10 p.m. down a quiet city street — I actually feel pretty safe doing that. But because I would have been a black dude — in a hoodie, no less! — carrying a nice-looking TV down a quiet city street at 10 p.m.

He concludes the story by saying:

What does it mean to be privileged? It means not having to think about any of this, ever.

That’s something that Christians should remember when reading this post from Rabbi Ari Saks, “The Challenge of ‘Amen’: A Young Rabbi’s Reflection on Taking Part in an Interfaith Prayer Service.”

I stepped up to the stage with my prepared words in hand, excited about the opportunity to share some Jewish words of prayer in a public setting. Yet at the same time, I carried some of the nervous anxiety that has been stewing for over 2,000 years. See — before I approached the stage in the YMCA, most of the words offered before me were offered specifically in the name of Jesus Christ.

They began and ended with phrases like “and unto Jesus Christ’s name do we pray.” As such, these prayers were not simply pieces of wisdom from their respective tradition; they were communal prayers. Creating a communal interfaith prayer space meant that there wasn’t a speaker and an audience; it meant that there was a preacher and a congregation. And for this young Jewish rabbi, participating in a Jesus-centered prayer space was an uncomfortable feeling.

Saks also follows up in a graceful and gracious post titled, “Uniting the Transcendent and Immanent: A Jewish Way of Saying ‘Amen’ in an Uncomfortable and Challenging Prayer Space.”

In that second post, Saks provides what I think is a model for interfaith or extrafaith respect. His response — the way he finds to affirm a passionate, but sectarian statement made by a Christian — is lovely. He found a way, because he was forced to find a way, to say “Amen” without having to endorse the sectarian expression of faith he was uncomfortably and unfairly being expected to affirm.

I would guess that many Jewish readers can relate to Saks’ experience in those posts.

I would guess many atheists can as well.

But I’m just guessing, because, for us Christians, it’s not something we ever have to think about.

“What does it mean to be privileged? It means not having to think about any of this, ever.”

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  • Antigone10

    At my and my spouse’s wedding, the DJ asked if we wanted to say a prayer.  We said “no” as neither of us were religious.  

    My new grandmother-in-law took the mic anyway and offered a prayer, which everyone, except me, my spouse, and all of our various not-Christian friends, participated in.  It was very awkward, and it still irks me to think about it.  I was furious at the time, but I knew if I said anything about it it would be me that was seen as unreasonable.

    Privilege isn’t just not having to think about this.  It’s knowing that if anyone makes you think about it, they’re going to look like the unreasonable one in the eyes of most.  

  • Yeah, exactly. I’ve gotten pretty good at “listening in tongues,” and most prayers I can generally get behind in some form or another regardless of the denomination, but the Jesus stuff throws me. It’s a particularly sectarian thing that just ends up feeling alienating to this secular Jew.

  • Exactly.

    My dad took me to an Italian restaurant a couple years ago. The chef/owner likes to come out and grope the female customers. My dad’s girlfriend finds this charming somehow. I just sat there, unmoving, one of those tight smiles on my face, as this old man grabbed me and put his hands all over me. Because if I’d said anything, I would have caused a scene/been called a pain in the ass/made it worse…

    It still makes me sick to think about it. 

  • I often have the “amen” issue with my girlfriend’s Baptist parents. It’s particularly aggravating, because generally I can agree to their whole prayer, *except* the mention of Jesus at the end… but it also seems rude to ask them not to do it (or even to pause for me to say “amen” first).

  • hidden_urchin

    When I was in HS a classmate hit me in front of the rest of the group with no warning. I got angry and told him, quite loudly, that what he did was wrong.

    Guess who my peers and teacher thought was behaving inappropriately. I later got a nonpology from him.

    The worst part is that I began to doubt my own memory of the event. Everyone was acting so shocked by my response and no one actually stood up for me, or even tried to understand what was going on, so I began to wonder if I actually imagined the hit and responded to something that hadn’t happened.

    It wasn’t until some years later that I learned about gaslighting. Having a name for the experience helped.

    Thinking about it now actually adds a whole new dimension of disturbing. You see, the majority of the kids who were in that group were among my closest friends.

  • smrnda

    The worst I’ve found is that members of majority groups, pointing out that they have said something insensitive, usually just respond with “I didn’t mean to offend!” and then repeat. Discussions on this have been going on for so long that at this point in history, a person who is not acting as if they are conscious of their privileged status is just being willfully ignorant.

  • stardreamer42

    You can get some revenge and help others too (if you like) by posting online reviews pointing this out. I know if I were looking up a restaurant on Yelp or GoodEats and saw something like that, I’d find another option.

  • As a guy, that would really make me uncomfortable for my female friend/sister/girlfriend. Plus I don’t really want to know where the chef’s hands have been in that much detail. 

  • Privilege isn’t just not having to think about this. It’s knowing that if anyone makes you think about it, they’re going to look like the unreasonable one in the eyes of most.

    This is the crux of the matter.  Advocate for equality, and within a few seconds, you’ll see the knowing smirks and hear the old familiar, “I knew atheists were all big jerks who hate everyone and want to steal our faith!”

  • Rowen

    I went to an all boys catholic high school. I was taking this comparative religion course with a young teacher who was VERY into Buddhism and we did a lot of exploring other religions. We were each asked to lead the class in prayer, which happened twice per person. The first time, I used some of Rumi’s poetry. The second time, I used a quote from the end of the movie Gia, which may or may not have been from her own diary. Both times, there was this awkward “What do we do .. .” pause, and then, collectively, the class would all mumble a half hearted “The Word of the Lor…”(everyone mentally paused, realizing this was NOT the right response) “…Amen”

  • Imagine you’re at a campfire and the camp counselors start telling scary stories.  It’s all a part of the fun.  Everybody knows the monsters and ghosts discussed aren’t real.

    But, then comes one story, and it’s obviously meant to be a monster, a mythical creature.  It’s just getting more and more uncomfortable.  Until, one moment, you have to raise your hand and say “Uh, excuse me, I happen to be an abominable snowman.  We’re nothing like that… and we prefer to be called Yeti.”

    Things only get more uncomfortable from there.  People look at you as though the friend that they’ve gotten to know is completely absent.  They seem to believe, as though you haven’t spent weeks to years proving otherwise, that you’re on constant edge of killing and eating them raw.  This is despite having seen your eating habbits personally, eating habbits that do not include humans or raw meat (although some sushi on special occasions).  You are now sitting among them and they still refuse to treat you as though you are you rather than the mythology that they have built around you.

  • DorothyD

    I first read this as “eating hobbits”, which completely contradicted the point you were trying to make. :-)

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m trying to imagine a yeti that can pass as human. It’s not going well. Maybe swap in ‘werewolf’? Heterocis white guy who’s secretly a werewolf has all the advantages of those privileges (except on full moon night). See also cis white guy who’s secretly gay.

    But the metaphor works fine as is for people who are visibly lacking privilege. “Black people are all sucking the welfare tit–oh, I didn’t mean you, you work for a living.” “Girls can’t do computer science–not you, sugar lips, you’re one of the guys.”

  • Antigone10

    Maybe our vision of who is a “Yeti” is completely incorrect.  Maybe they are normal looking people with some slight genetic predilection for white hair and are particularly hairy.  

  • Hilary

    You mean like Remus Lupin?  One of the most interesting and underutilized characters in Harry Potter, IMO

  • EllieMurasaki

    Exactly like, yes. And I’m quite fond of him too. Except for the not mentioning to Harry he existed and was one of his parents’ (or at least his father’s) close friends until well after they met as teacher and student, even after Hagrid contacted him to get pictures of James and Lily for Harry. I can put some of that down to being mad at James and Lily for thinking Remus was the spy (if they did, and I don’t recall Remus saying that they said that’s what they thought; I think that’s the explanation Remus came up with after the fact), but…

  • I’ve seen some really inventive fanfics that attempt to explore that plot-induced behavior (In retrospect, Rowling has created a rather singularly incurious Harry Potter compared to what one expects a boy who has just been told his real family is way cooler and better than his crappy guardians – but then again being told for ten years not to ask questions does leave a mark, and on top of that Rowling has created some real howlers in terms of plot-induced contortions of normal human behavior, such as the aforementioned drop-Lupin-in-without-a-hi-how-are-you beforehand)

    1. Manipulative Dumbledore – a geas is cast on Lupin which forbids him from contacting Harry until Harry speaks to him and asks about his parents.

    2. Good Dumbledore – The Ministry has Harry’s address in its files, but has, in addition to Dumbledore’s own protections, added on such enchantments as block werewolves from being in the area.

    There are variants of course, as nearly numerous as fics themselves are, but you get the idea. :P

  • The werewolf angle has that issue whereby the werewolves are only really werewolves (as far as the popular imagining thereof goes) for 1-3 nights out of the year.  Unless you step out of the popular mythology (no matter how accurate the mythology you use would be), lycanthropy just is not as everpresent as being a yeti.  And, even though this isn’t visible immediately without being announced, I am an atheist 24/7.

    That said, while I intend the metaphore seriously, there’s a bit of intential silliness to the world within the metaphore. 

  • Every currently-alive adult in the Harry Potter stories, with the possible exception of Minerva McGonagall, was breathtakingly irresponsible to say the least. That’s a necessity for that kind of story. Otherwise the children would not have the freedom to perform heroic feats, nor would they have huge obstacles in the shape of adults with authority to overcome.

  • Oh yeah. It’s a staple of the bildungsroman genre, it seems, that when you’ve got teenagers as doers and world-changers, of necessity the adults need to be incompetent or active hindrances or otherwise not able to do the job.

    It’s a similar story in John Christopher’s Tripods series: the adults are not able to even conceive of the fact that the world they live in is not a natural state of affairs, because their minds are controlled, while young teenagers have not yet been subjected to that control. Enter Will Parker and his quest for a world free of Tripods. :P

  • Rowen

     I have NO clue who any of my dad’s closest friends are. Well, one, but I haven’t heard from them since I was 10 or 11. On my mom’s side, I know the names, but can’t recognize some of the faces, and don’t know the history. And this is with both of my parents living.

    I can imagine a scenerio where Harry’s not that inquisitive/kinda shell shocked/doesn’t know where to start. You then have Lupin, who hasn’t been all that “integrated” (wrong word, can’t think of a better one. Basically, he hasn’t been to all the local meet ups, and watering holes and has been having to live fairly off the grid) who’s not sure what to expect AND when Harry says nothing, decides not to press the issue for a while.

    So, I can see a situation where the people in the know decide to err on the side of caution and end up possibly dropping the ball (which . . there’s a precedent for that in that world), and the people who aren’t in the know just keep missing the mark or never get to that “aha! THAT’S who you are/Why are you here?” moment.

  • By far my favorite books in this genre are by Joan Aiken: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, and particularly Nightbirds on Nantucket. Girls don’t usually get to star in this type of novel, but they do in Aiken’s work.

  • That’s actually one of the things I love about both Rick Riordan’s and Diane Duane’s books.  The most influential grownups in the kids’ lives are not incompetent or active hindrances. 

    They fall, I guess, into the “otherwise not able to do the job” category.  Because they know that the kids in question are the only ones who can fix whatever needs fixing and so they just have to trust that the kids will have the judgment to do the right thing and that they will come back safely.

  • Hexep

    One of the most jarring parts about living in China, as a white guy, is that wherever you go, people will try and make a fuss over you. Even in Shanghai – which is, depending on how you answer ‘where are the borders of Shanghai,’ between 12% and 4% foreign – it’s a daily occurance that you’ll just be hanging out, eating lunch or something, and somebody will drop everything, look you right in the eye, and ask you where you’re from. If you answer, they’ll do this little act of clapping for you and saying how good your Chinese is. The first time, it was funny; thousands and thousands of times later, it just gets tedious.

    EDIT: Other possible response, they’ll just nod their heads indulgently and say, ‘oh, yes, of course you are,’ assuming (perhaps rightly, in many cases?) that I’m just giving them that answer to fob them off and don’t feel like talking to them.

    And the worst part is that when I tell them I’m from Hong Kong, they ask me where I’m ‘really from.’ It is inconceivable to them that a whiteface doesn’t consider himself a sovereign subject of his whiteface government; to them, even prodigal son Hong Kong belongs exclusively to the Han race.

    For me, I’ve been to South Africa all of once, and I hated the place, and I don’t have the heart to consider myself English even if I had an English passport. But the idea of someone who looks Anglo being Chinese just doesn’t compute to them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, but you’re not looking for a connection, any connection, to your parents, either. You have them right there.

    (Or that’s the impression I have–if your relationship with them is poor, I’m sorry and I hope it gets better for whatever value you assign to ‘better’ in this scenario.)

  • Antigone10

    I don’t know- Mrs. Weasley always seemed pretty responsible, if a tad overprotective.  

  • I’m not that enthused about a woman who sits her adult son in a chair and starts lopping off his hair without so much as a by-your-leave.

    It’s things like that which make me dimly grok the rabid Weasley-bashers in the fandom.

    On the other hand, she opened her home to Harry without hesitation, and her children love and accept Harry almost as one of their own. :)

  • Also, her treatment of Hermione and her quickness to believe anything nasty said about the girl. 

    I agree–not a Weasley-basher myself, but I kinda get it.

  • I know JKR wanted to paint the Weasleys in a friendly light and she herself is a kind of author avatar in Hermione, but I think she didn’t realize the extent to which having Mrs Weasley believe nasty things about Hermione contributed to the notion among Harry/Hermione shippers that she was pushing hard for Ginny to become Harry’s girlfriend.

    I know that JKR herself was pushing for Harry/Ginny, but there’s a lot of somewhat problematic material (I feel) wrapped up inside the quickness to believe the worst about someone perceived as Not-Ginny romantically involved with Harry.

    And then add in the fact that JKR had Mrs Weasley casually toss off a one-liner about using love potions back in the day and it’s no surprise the Harry/Hermione shippers took Weasley-bashing to some pretty bizarre heights.

    Anyway, going srsly off topic so I’ll stop there :P

  • Tricksterson

    Yes, please, for the love of all that’s unholy let’s NOT go anywhere NEAR the Potter shipping wars.


    I’m not that enthused about a woman who sits her adult son in a chair
    and starts lopping off his hair without so much as a by-your-leave.

    If you’re going to dismiss a work because it invokes the idea “It’s okay to trample on someone else’s personal choices about how to live their life if you do it because you love them and really do know what’s best for them,” there isn’t going to be a lot of mainstream fiction left.

  • Hexep

    There’s the right of it, sad but true.

  • Antigone10

    Since we are already so far off the topic as to be in the next classroom in the next building, I have a question.

    I’m going to say every work of fiction I’ve read has something along this line- half the time this drives the plot.  “I won’t tell you for your own safety”  “I am the great all-knowing wizard, just do what I say despite your objections” et cetera et cetera.   Sometimes it is frustrating- part of me screams at the book “JUST TELL THEM FOR FUCK’S SAKE!”  Jim Butcher is probably the worst (best?) at making me do this.

    But, when I start trying to apply this to real life, I wonder where to draw the line.  I mean, I’ve had friends who hate, for whatever reason, to wear their seat-belts.  And despite the fact that they are grown-ass adults, I override their personal choice every time they get in my car and tell them they are going to wear their seatbelts, or they are not going to ride in my car.  I also apply social pressure when they are driving their own vehicles (the few that have them and also don’t like wearing their seatbelt ) and tell them they should wear their seatbelts. This does not feel unethical to me in the least- it is actually safer to wear your seatbelt than not to.
    Come to think of it, there are plenty of times I trample on people’s personal choices.  I don’t let people say sexist, racist things without comment (most of the time).  My friend who tried to commit suicide I called the ambulance on so she couldn’t.  A good majority of my job is making small children do things that they personally would not choose to do because I think I know better, or I am acting as the parent’s surrogate and they think they know better.Yet, I would say actions like, oh, making someone pray a prayer they were uncomfortable with at an interfaith event (like above) is unethical to say the least.  It is trampling on another person’s personal choices on how to live their life, and even meant with the very best of intentions (in the case of some evangelicals who are just trying to save your soul) or at worst, completely not thinking about it* it is still wrong.  So, where is the line between “I actually do know better than you on this one, and I don’t care what you think about the subject” and “I disagree with you, but you have the right to make your own decisions for yourself?”  *I’m going to assume that if you are participating in a voluntary interfaith event, you’re not actively a bigoted asshole.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I don’t think I could succinctly describe such a line that would cover all eventualities–except to note that I don’t think primacy of personal choice is the holy grail at the centre of all ethical decisions, so I’m not bothered about the existence of a line somewhere in the middle.

    Your seatbelt example is easy for me. As a driver, I am legally responsible for ensuring that all my passengers wear their seat belts so if you want to whinge about wearing one, get the hell out of my car. And if I’m in someone else’s car and the driver whinges about seatbelts, I’m getting the hell out of their car because I don’t want to ride with someone who I don’t trust to give due regard to safety. (We have very strict seatbelt laws)

  • I’m going to say every work of fiction I’ve read has something along this line- half the time this drives the plot. “I won’t tell you for your own safety” “I am the great all-knowing wizard, just do what I say despite your objections” et cetera et cetera. Sometimes it is frustrating- part of me screams at the book “JUST TELL THEM FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” Jim Butcher is probably the worst (best?) at making me do this.

    The reason for this, of course, is so that the recipient will not trust them and go against what they say, unleashing disasterous consequences, and teaching the moral lesson that when someone withholds information for your own good, just roll with it and trust them (Even if Harry Potter somehow manages not to learn this lesson in seven frakking books).

    (Incidentally, I choose to interpret ‘Saw’ as a lampooning of the concept of “Mysterious wizard gives you cryptic advice for your own good, and you fuck yourself by failing to trust him and do what he says.” Because Saw is always giving people cryptic advice that if they just stayed calm and did as he said, would get themn out of the trap with only minimal pain, and it sure seems like every movie has this big karmic reveal that if they’d only done what the serial killer said, all would have been well. Except that there’s a two in five chance that the trap was actually set by one of Jigsaw’s untrustworthy accomplices and would actually just kill you no matter what.)

  • Dude.


    I’ve read all seven frakkin’ books. I’ve read tons of fanfic.


    I was citing one example of behavior that didn’t totally endear me to a character, but I’m not throwing out the baby with the bathwater for fuck’s sake.

  • You might like Garth Nix’s “Old Kingdom Trilogy” of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen; Sabriel and Lirael are both terrific female protagonists who remain the prime movers in their stories even after they each ally with a male sidekick (and, in Sabriel’s case, love interest).  The adults in those books are not so much obstacles as simply ineffectual, able to act only in supporting roles because they lack the magical powers the protagonists carry due to their bloodlines.

  • That’s not at all how I read Order of the Phoenix, the book in which Dumbledore withholding information from Harry is most significant to the plot.  That, for me, was the book that put the “dumb” in “Dumbledore,” because Harry needed the information Dumbledore was withholding.  At the climax of the book, he made the best decision possible with the limited information he had, and ended up getting Sirius killed because of it.  Sirius screwed the pooch pretty badly, too, though, by giving Harry the Two-Way Mirror without explaining what it was and what it did; if Harry had used that to contact Sirius, instead of sneaking into Umbridge’s office to use the Floo network (which only got him in touch with Kreacher, who lied about Sirius’s whereabouts), he’d have known Voldemort was sending him a false vision.  It’s especially egregious because Harry used the Floo to try to reach Sirius twice; the first time he did it, Sirius should have asked him why he hadn’t just used the mirror instead.

    Anyway, the moral I took away from HPatOotP was that it’s stupid to withhold information from someone “for their own good,” because people will always act on the information that they do have, and may act wrongly for lack of the information you conceal.  Ignorance is neither bliss, nor virtue, nor in any other way good or beneficial, and keeping people in ignorance is never a good or friendly way to treat them.

  • The way the novel was constructed, in retrospect, really feels like the whole thing is an Idiot Ball plot because of the contrivances necessary to end up with a happybad ending:

    Yes, Harry et al fought Death Eaters to a draw and managed to get proof that Voldemort was back, but in doing so unwittingly aided Sirius in risking himself and dying as a result.

  • Yes, exactly — and Dumbledore dropped the Idiot Ball in Harry’s backpack.

  • Ari Saks

    Fred – Thanks for sharing my articles in this forum, and Antigone10 – thank you for your insightful comments and responses. 
    I’ve never really thought about how challenging or standing up to privilege can often make you seem like the unreasonable one. As I started to think about it, the more I realized just how often I don’t say something because I want to “preserve the relationship” or “don’t want to start something,” or “try to be bigger than the other person.” It’s so easy to rationalize away why it’s better/easier/safer/to stand up to privilege, and it seems by the examples shared in the comments that often you do get burned for standing up to privilege. This leads me to my comment on your last comment about the difference between standing up against behavior that is wrong/bad (i.e. not putting on your seatbelt) vs. creating enough space for different and valid beliefs and opinions. After reading my second article (the one on “uniting the immanent and transcendent”), someone asked me what happened when I explained to the priest the new way I had of saying “Amen.” That is to say, she was wondering what happened when I publicly stood up to this moment of privilege; how did I explain myself and what was the reaction to my “challenge?” In response, I explained that contrary to what she thought I said in my article, I did not explain my new way of saying “amen” to my guests. In fact, I’m not sure if they even heard it because I said it softly to myself. Looking back on that moment, I think I did not respond more assertively because I wanted to uphold the line you aptly describe of “I disagree with you, but you have the right to make your own decisions for yourself.” It did not matter to me whether or not they heard me because my new way of saying “amen” was not to convince the priest to change his prayer. Indeed, it was a beautiful prayer. Rather saying “amen” in a new way was for me to know that I could agree and disagree on my own terms. Perhaps that means that at certain times when privilege is being applied against our will, what’s most important is not changing what’s happening to us, but deciding how we react to it for ourselves.   

  • Antigone10

    So, I guess no one has a good place on where to put that line of “This is harmful, I won’t let you” and “You have a right to make different decisions than I?”  That’s disappointing.  I mean, I realize freedom vs. security is sort of an age-old debate, but I was really hoping that a comment thread would clear it up :).

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     “We prefer the term ‘SubGenius’ these days, but ‘Yetinsyny’ is also fine.”

  • Rakka

    Well, what is security in the first place? Getting most basic physical and safety needs fulfilled, or more than that? If “security” for you means someone else’s security is infringed on by the ones keeping you secure, how can you trust them not to turn on you when/if you become an outlier? Freedom to walk away has to be part of security, or it’s the security of someone else’s whim.